Interview with
Sally Neighbour

Is this the first piece you've done for the Griffith REVIEW?

Yes, I've been principally writing for newspapers for the last three years, but increasingly I've been writing magazine-length articles. I've been doing a lot of writing for The Monthly. I'm really much more interested, as essentially an investigative current affairs reporter, in doing long-form, in-depth investigative pieces. That's what interested me in writing for the Griffith REVIEW. Writing for a journal like this allows you to do the same sort of work for print as I've done in the past [for television], for example for Four Corners.

Having worked in television, how do you approach researching a print piece?

The research for a piece like this is exactly the same as if you're doing it for a program like Four Corners, or at least that's the way I'd approach it. You'd have to do several weeks of research, you have to read everything that's been published on the subject. In this case, I had to read all of the eyewitness, survivor and expert testimony that I could get my hands on. It's a big project in the sense that you have to get across all of the available information.

Where did you source the quotes included in the piece?

Principally, from submissions and oral testimony to the [coronial] inquest, and also from submissions and oral testimony to the parliamentary committee inquiry [which both examined the Christmas Island boat tragedy]. Those were the two principal sources, but the material was voluminous. There were hundreds and hundreds of pages of it. Material like that provides an extraordinary resource when it comes to putting together a story like this.

They offer very evocative witness accounts.

That's the amazing thing about eyewitness testimony – when there's been a terrible tragedy like this, people remember it and the way it happened. That's part of the tragedy, is that people are so traumatised they continue to relive an event like this. That really comes through when they're recounting it, because they're telling it as though they were there, as though it was happening again before their eyes. It's incredibly powerful, but also very disturbing.

How did you fit all the information together?

There are lots of ways to tell a story, but chronologically is always the easiest and the simplest. It's also the most logical because that's the way it happened. To me, telling it chronologically was the most straightforward way of getting across exactly what happened and trying to get underneath why it happened.

There's a strong human element to your piece.

Because I come from a television background, that's the way I'm used to telling stories – by having people tell their own stories. It's infinitely more powerful when a story is told that way. You're getting the real story, not a second or third hand story. You're getting the story from the people who were there when it happened and to whom it happened.

The geography of the island was important to explaining the sequence of events. Did you visit Christmas Island to write this piece?

I've been to Christmas Island before for a Four Corners story, so I felt familiar with it. That helped, actually, because if you don't know what a place looks and feels like then it can be really hard to write about it. In this instance, because I had been there, I knew what it looked and felt like, so it made it easier. It was fortunate that I had that familiarity with it.

What was it about this event that inspired you to write about it?

What appealed to me about this story is that I didn't feel that anyone had told the whole story, had written a definitive account of what happened to that boat. You've got to make it a story and a narrative so people can follow it, and so it's accessible and understandable. You want people to want to read it, you want people to be affected by it. It's not a dry, dull story about flaws in maritime policy; it's a terrible tragedy in which all those people died. It's really important that you tell the story in a way that makes people care about it.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review