‘I’ve gotten some great stories in Australia’: No encounter is safe from David Sedaris

Posted January 14, 2018 05:44:40

Ahead of his Australian tour, author David Sedaris chats to ABC News about diary-keeping, how a Trump presidency has been worse than he anticipated, and why the world is getting better for LGBT people.

David Sedaris has bought a pillow.

“It seemed like nothing much happened yesterday,” the writer confides in the opening moments of our interview, the West Sussex phone connection he’s speaking into faint.

“But I bought a pillow. It was made by a prisoner.”

Intrigued — am I about to hear a famous David Sedaris bit? — I lean closer into the receiver, as the best-selling author, humourist, noted garbage collector (actually), keen human observer, and mundane memory collector, continues.

“I was at a decorative art and antiques fair, and I saw this pillow and it said, ‘Handmade in prison’,” Sedaris says softly.

“It’s a scheme to rehabilitate prisoners by getting them to embroider pillows, right?”

“Right,” I parrot.

“Anyway,” he explains, “I got the pillow and it wasn’t cheap, you know — it was GBP 120. And the woman selling them explained to me that most of the money goes to the prisoner, and she said there’s a tag on the pillow with his name.

“She said, ‘I think you should write him a thank you letter,’ because it really improves their self-esteem.

“And I thought, ‘You know, if a prisoner gave me a pillow that he made, yeah, I’d write him a thank you letter. But if I paid 120 pounds, actually I think he should write me a thank you letter.’ And I’m the king of thank you letters, OK?

“Like, no one comes close to me when it comes to thank you letters.”

‘It is important for me to be widely adored’

Whether or not this anecdote — typical of the sort of thing Sedaris finds amusing and noteworthy — makes it into one of his future short stories or essays is yet to be seen.

But, he tells me, he spent a lot of time writing about it in his diary this morning, a daily habit he’s had for the last 40 or so years, and the basis of his latest book Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002), a 500-page tome released last year.

Back in Australia this month for the fourth time in his career, Sedaris plans on using his national tour, An Evening with David Sedaris, to read aloud from old and new diary entries, as well as test and refine fresh material for a forthcoming book.

It will be a glimpse into a writer’s mind in real time, as Sedaris — who says he often writes 20 or more drafts of each story — will reshape and rephrase elements of a piece depending on the audience’s reaction.

Asked if it is important to him that he is widely read, Sedaris responds, deadpan, “It is important for me to be widely adored.”

Even if you haven’t read his books — titles such as Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) that offer engaging reflections on his offbeat family, youthful misadventures and adult misgivings — his name probably rings a bell, not least because he comes so highly recommended (and gifted on birthdays).

A non-reader friend, for instance, has Me Talk Pretty One Day on his bedside; he says the short essays are easy to read and make him appear more literary than he actually is.

Another friend listens to Sedaris’s audio books while she works in her art studio, his unique voice adding an extra layer of nuance and delight to his writing.

Avid fans (there are 850,000 of them on Facebook alone) follow the American writer’s new releases closely, and click eagerly on his latest online essays in the hope of “catching up” with the 60-year-old between books.

Trump: ‘It’s worse than I even thought it was going to be’

In a piece published in The Paris Review last June, titled A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately, fans gained a glimpse into Sedaris’s psyche as he recounted 10 moments in time from the lead-up to, election and inauguration of Donald Trump.

Each snapshot — no doubt mirroring a sentiment shared by many readers — is an escalating scream of disbelief and despair at what Sedaris views as the unfolding “doom” of a Trump presidency.

It includes conversations with a racist hire car driver, a conspiracy theorist, a friend who can’t take a joke, and a screaming match with his Republican father who yells, “[Donald Trump] is the best thing that’s happened to this country in years!”

Near the end of the essay, after falling off a ladder and hurting himself badly but not critically, Sedaris writes, “It’s remarkably similar to how I felt after the election, as if I’d been slammed against a wall or hit by a car.

“Both pains persist, show no signs, in fact, of ever going away.”

Sedaris says to me now, a year into President Trump’s term: “Yes, well … it’s worse than I even thought it was going to be.

“He has an eight-word vocabulary and uses words like ‘bigly’. I mean …”

He has resolved, though, to stop bickering with his dad about politics, which he takes as one small positive in otherwise disheartening times.

“I expected him to be dead the other day,” he says of his 95-year-old father.

“I don’t want our last moments to be spent slinging arrows, you know?”

These days, Sedaris says, life at home in the UK — with his partner of 26 years, Hugh Hamrick — is a quiet decrescendo.

“A couple of days ago we [he and Mr Hamrick] had a really great day,” he says.

“We didn’t do anything special, just had a couple of meals together.

“But it was one of those times where I thought, ‘God, how wonderful to be 26 years into something and still like the person you’re with and be so happy to have him in your life.”

‘The world is a lot better than it once was’ for LGBT people

Surprised at the furore surrounding Australia’s recent debate on same-sex marriage, Sedaris (who is engaged to Hamrick but doesn’t plan on marrying him) argues same-sex marriage legalisation around the world will help the LGBT community feel less alone.

“I feel like the more time you spend hiding [your homosexuality], it just deforms you, you know?” he says.

“You don’t have to live that way anymore. Well, there are places in America where you probably have to live that way, but I mean, generally speaking, the world is a lot better than it once was in that regard.”

Long gone are the drug-fuelled, unemployed days of Sedaris’s youth spent in Chicago and New York; when he’s not writing or touring, he’s spending up to nine hours a day picking up roadside rubbish in the English countryside.

He has collected so much rubbish his local council named a garbage truck after him — “Pig Pen Sedaris” — and he has even been honoured for his dirty work at Buckingham Palace (along with many other “do-gooders“, Sedaris was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party).

And then, of course, there’s his constant observation of others.

His notebook readily available, no encounter is safe from Sedaris’s curious eyes and mind — especially not on the other side of the world.

“I’ve gotten some great stories in Australia,” Sedaris says.

“I think it has to do with how talkative people are, especially, I think, compared to England.”

Don’t say he didn’t warn you.

David Sedaris is currently on a national tour of Australia, reading his diary entries and new essays.

Topics: books-literature, performance-art, popular-culture, gays-and-lesbians, people, donald-trump, australia

Ex-Biggest Loser contestant finds strength to lift herself out of depression

Posted January 11, 2018 11:52:40

Lydia Hantke knows what it means to push her body to the limit and then keep going.

But she also knows what it feels like to come undone.

The Tasmanian changed her life forever (for the first time) in 2012 when she competed in the reality TV program The Biggest Loser.

“I discovered that I was really good at something and I discovered that I really enjoyed training,” she told Helen Shield on ABC Radio.

“And that training for me was something I was going to need to do for the rest of my life, as much psychologically as physically.”

When Ms Hantke returned to regular life after the television show she started working as a personal trainer.

It is a job she still loves.

“I’ve been a personal trainer since 2012 … I have never ever struggled to have work,” she said.

Then, a decision to have a baby two years ago changed Ms Hantke’s life once again.

She kept training and working hard while pregnant; she even competed in strongman competitions.

“When I was 17 weeks pregnant I took part in my first strongman competition.

“The second one that I won I was maybe 32 weeks pregnant. I had to get a medical clearance to compete.”

But despite her desire to keep active and strong pre and post baby, the reality of having a tiny human enter her world hit Ms Hantke harder than she expected.

“I wasn’t prepared for the loss of independence.

“I wasn’t prepared for how much my life changed for having a child and that’s where the wheels fell off a bit.

“I became very housebound, I didn’t want to leave the house.

“I was so self-conscious of the fact that as time went on I wasn’t losing the [baby] weight. I felt like a failure.”

Ms Hantke said she experienced feelings of anxiety and depression

“It’s very easy to find excuses, it’s very hard to keep going.”

Needing something to aim for, Ms Hantke began training again in the hope of one day competing in weightlifting.

“I wanted to be a really strong and a really fit individual.

“I like being really strong. I’m really addicted to it.

“The biggest bit of advice I can give to people is when you train, whether it’s for physical or psychological reasons or both, you’ve got to have goals.”

Lifting for competition involves three key moves — squats, bench press and deadlift.

Ms Hantke said at the beginning it was very hard.

“There were days I just wanted to cry.

“I’ve got severe osteoarthritis in my knees. We really pushed my knees.”

Then last month she entered the powerlifting competition at the Festival of Strength, and she surprised herself by winning her first deadlift competition.

“I hadn’t really thought about winning … I just wanted to lift all the heavy things.”

Ms Hantke pulled a whopping 170 kilograms in her third lift to take out the competition.

She said her fitness, both physically and mentally, was now firmly back on track.

“I felt like the strongest person in the room.

“I wasn’t, but I felt like it.”

Topics: exercise-and-fitness, mental-health, human-interest, person, television, people, hobart-7000

Life as a Hollywood location scout

Updated January 01, 2018 10:46:32

He is not a super hero, but film location scout Duncan Jones has the power to shut down city streets so Hollywood superstars can shoot their blockbuster movies.

In 2016, the Gold Coast-based location manager orchestrated the closure of part of Brisbane’s CBD while Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth filmed Thor: Ragnarok — the third instalment of the franchise.

Queensland’s film industry has been booming with 12 international movies shot in the state in the past five years.

Mr Jones said the Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, and the large number of variable film locations makes South East Queensland a desirable location for movie makers.

“Within an hour you can either go to beautiful tropical reef, we’ve got all of these beautiful beaches here in the Gold Coast and then just up the road we’ve got the rainforest,” he said.

But the 44-year-old started as a dolphin trainer before moving into the film industry as a location scout 16 years ago.

“I used to work at Sea World and worked on Flipper for many years when they were filming that at Sea World, and through that I got to know locations managers and thought that was the way to go,” he added.

His job is to help facilitate film makers and deal with councils, property owners and community groups.

“Whoever it is that wants to make a film comes to me with a script,” he said.

“We then break it down from a locations prospective and then it’s a matter of going out and finding options that will fit that script’s needs.”

Mr Jones said he had developed strong working relationships with councils, but there were a few tense moments during filming of the $160 million Aquaman move in June this year.

The filmmakers were granted approval to construct a temporary lighthouse on Hastings Point in far northern New South Wales, but some locals felt they were not properly consulted.

The Tweed Shire Council held an emergency meeting and the situation was resolved and filming went ahead.

“All good and well to bring Hollywood to the coast or to a city, but unless you can leave on a positive footing there’s no point in going there, because all we’ll end up doing is eroding our locations if we keep knocking them about,” he said.

No more international films in the pipeline

With the filming of Aquaman now finished, which stars Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa, there are no overseas film projects in the pipeline.

The president of Village Roadshow Studios, Lynne Benzie, said work was being done behind the scenes to secure more big-budget films, but would not discuss them.

Mr Jones was also remaining tight-lipped about any projects he was working on.

“I am pretty optimistic that they are hoping to be a lot more big films coming to Queensland,” he said.

The Gold Coast studios will not be available to filmmakers until late April 2018, with the Commonwealth Games taking over the entire site as a training and competition venue for badminton.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, film-movies, people, human-interest, southport-4215, brisbane-4000

First posted January 01, 2018 10:41:03

Pharmacist finds perfect fit in clothing alteration business

Posted December 14, 2017 12:32:44

Clare Sheng was determined to stay out of her family’s clothing alteration business.

She can still recall every detail about the chores she endured inside the busy Rose Arcade workshop throughout her school years.

On a good day she would get to help her mum deliver mended clothes to some of Brisbane’s finest retailers.

On other days she’d find herself elbow deep in dirty dish water, scrubbing tea, coffee and noodles off mugs and bowls piled high in the shop’s only sink.

Almost 20 years later — and after vowing to never find work there — the young pharmacist is taking her mother’s alteration business to new heights.

Ms Sheng is the director of The Fitting Room, Queensland’s largest independent clothing alteration business.

Since joining her mother’s business in 2011, she has doubled its revenue, changed its name, relocated the workshop, and attracted an impressive list of high-end clients.

This year she also took home awards recognising her business acumen, multiculturalism and contribution to the fashion industry.

“Every garment that you’re fixing is like a problem you’re solving for someone, and every solution is different,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“When people leave in their perfectly fitting garments they feel really good about themselves and they’re very grateful to you.”

Ms Cheng looks at ease inside the latest incarnation of the shop, darting between the front-of-house styling rooms and a white-walled workshop in the back; a cordless phone is glued to one ear.

But this isn’t where she envisioned she would be after finishing her studies at the University of Queensland.

“As a Chinese girl everyone says, ‘Go do pharmacy. It’s a good job, it’s stable, you can go have a baby and come back, you’ll always have a job’.

“But when I started working I found I didn’t actually enjoy it.

“You were either a pharmacist or a pharmacy owner and that’s it — there’s nowhere else to go.”

Despite promising to never return, she found herself back at the family business after putting her pharmacy career on hold to start a family.

“As soon as I left pharmacy I knew I was never going back,” Ms Sheng said.

“There was a eureka moment when I thought, ‘Actually, I really like this and I can turn this business into something quite big’, and that’s when I started to take on the business role fully.”

‘They would close the door in my mum’s face’

Ms Sheng said the clothing alteration industry had a better reputation now than it did when her mother arrived in Australia in 1999.

Wei Ping Yu grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and migrated to Australia with her 11-year-old daughter in search of a better life.

Despite having limited English and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, Ms Yu made a name for herself in the clothing alteration industry and started Brisbane City Clothing Alterations in 2008.

“Back then not everyone was used to having non-English speakers around,” Ms Sheng said.

“There were a lot of difficult situations at school, in public and especially for my mum at work … especially being in the clothing alterations trade which is quite low on the social ladder.”

While Ms Sheng said she struggled with bullying at school, her mother faced it in the workplace.

“I have seen with my own eyes people treating her really badly,” she said.

“We worked with a lot of high-end retailers and they would close the door in my mum’s face while opening the door for a rich customer.”

When Ms Sheng took a more active role in the business she realised her mother’s attention to detail and relationships with clients were the qualities destined to turn its image around.

“She was the best at what she does but she devalued herself because clients have always treated her badly.

“She would only tell people, ‘I can do this cheaper, I can do this faster’, which is putting herself down when she can provide the best service and the best quality work.”

Now she is committed to giving other marginalised workers an opportunity to join the industry.

“A lot of the staff we hire are from overseas; we have refugees and women who are coming back after staying at home for a number of years.

“There is no class system and there is no need to think someone is better than someone else.”

New business model caters to fashion-savvy men

Ms Sheng will release a book in 2018 advising men how to wear, style and care for suits.

She also launched a men’s styling service this month to show clients how to improve their clothing and business etiquette.

Creating these new ventures was a matter of necessity.

Ms Sheng said she was forced to look for other income streams when fashion retail sales started to suffer three years ago.

“A lot of our clients were closing down, they were selling a lot less clothing, and that directly affected our business,” she said.

“That’s when I started to take more proactive action to try and get more clients by teaching them the value of dressing well.”

The business’s founder, Ms Yu, has stepped back from day-to-day alteration work and is now a part-time consultant who, conveniently, lives around the corner from her daughter.

And, bucking the trend of second-generation succession etiquette, Ms Sheng said her advice was always welcome.

“If I’m ever scared of trying something new she would say, ‘Well I started the business with no money, no English and no education. If I can do it, you can do it’.”

Topics: small-business, retail, fashion, family, careers, people, brisbane-4000

Reporting war from the frontlines of history

Posted November 26, 2017 12:59:17

Over his 50-year career, journalist Derek Maitland survived conflict zones, witnessed the aftermath of bombings and negotiated with armed militants.

Now he is in the toughest battle of his life fighting cancer.

In the midst of writing his memoirs, he spared a moment to share some of his adventurous experiences from the comparative tranquillity of his home in Canowindra, NSW.

“It’s been a very enjoyable time, both good and bad,” Mr Maitland said.

His career-defining moment was during the 1960s while reporting on the Vietnam War for an American news service.

Working alongside other young, brash journalists, he placed himself in an environment where danger could arise at any moment.

“The view going into the war was that it was the wrong conflict and it was wrong to do that to the Vietnamese people,” Mr Maitland said.

“But then of course was the excitement of actually being in a place of war where it was going on all around you.

“There wasn’t a front somewhere. It could happen in the shop right next to you.

“Our life became go out on operation, stay alive, get the best pictures you possibly can.”

An early passion for reporting

Mr Maitland’s interest in global affairs began as a young boy selling newspapers on a street corner in Perth in the mid-1950s.

“As I learnt more about what journalists do, I always wanted to be a journalist around the world covering major events,” he said.

A decade earlier his parents had survived the war in Europe and decided to emigrate from the UK to Australia.

During his youth, he did stints of unpaid newspaper work and a television news cadetship, but by his early twenties he was eager to see the world.

So he boarded a ship to Hong Kong with just 25 pounds in his pocket.

“My life really began the day I saw Kowloon docks in 1966,” Mr Maitland said.

He found work with a local newspaper and soon saved enough money for a ticket to Vietnam.

In doing so, he broke a promise to his mother, who had begged him not to go near the conflict zone.

“It was hard on her because she told me years later that she said ‘My hair started going white when I knew you were there and going out with the troops’,” he said.

Battle of Dak To

During his two years covering the war in Vietnam, one of the most harrowing scenes he witnessed was after an American combat brigade suffered heavy casualties in the country’s central highland region.

“It was just a big pile of bodies, in all incredible states and profiles, states and distortions,” Mr Maitland said.

“Many of them on top of others where obviously the men right at the bottom of the heap had died last using the already dead bodies as cover.

“It was just a mass of green, bodies, blood and total annihilation.”

When US helicopters arrived to retrieve the dead and wounded, Mr Maitland was caught in the thick of a battle when North Vietnamese forces ambushed from the hills.

“I suddenly went into this thing where I lost my mind, it was all too much. All I could say was ‘God get me out of this’.”

His experiences in Vietnam traumatised him for years to come, but he persisted in reporting on conflicts around the globe, and wrote several books in between.

As a television news producer for the BBC during the 1970s, Mr Maitland reported on the sectarian troubles brewing in Northern Ireland.

Through the contacts of his cameraman, who was a Catholic, he arranged an interview with an Irish Republican Army (IRA) Belfast Brigade leader.

Unfortunately, the report he brought back never made it to air.

Mr Maitland attributed its censorship to the political pressures on the broadcaster at the time.

Breaking big stories

In 1984, Mr Maitland’s camera crew was the first on the scene to film the aftermath of an IRA bomb blast at a Brighton hotel, aimed at the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was attending a Conservative Party conference at the venue.

“We heard that for the first time in history the BBC was opening its morning news an hour early because we knew we were the only people who had the [footage],” he said.

On another assignment in Lebanon, he met with Palestinian Liberation Front militants when he accompanied the daughter of a missing British journalist who was believed to be held hostage by Hezbollah, to search for evidence of his captivity.

On that same trip, Mr Maitland was injured when a young militant inadvertently fired a rocket launcher while posing for the camera crew.

He took the full force of the back-blast.

“It was the biggest boom that you had heard in your life. It ripped my eardrums out,” Mr Maitland said.

“I’m lying there thinking ‘I’m dead, I’ve got a hole right through me’.”

Personal battle with cancer

Despite his experience facing stressful and dangerous situations, nothing could prepare Mr Maitland for the mental and physical strains of receiving a cancer diagnosis last year.

“I just broke down and bawled when I first heard it,” he said.

A year after an operation to remove his kidney, he was then told another tumour had developed in his liver.

All hope seemed lost until an oncologist from Sydney agreed to perform a surgery that could potentially save Mr Maitland’s life.

“It’s really just incredible. One minute you’re looking at death and you’ve convinced yourself, next minute you’re being told you can live.”

Mr Maitland feels optimistic that the imminent operation will bring him relief from what he described as one of the toughest battles yet.

“That’s going to be so exciting,” he said.

“Once I get through this operation my life begins again. The day after that will be the first day of my new life.”

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, photography, people, canowindra-2804, vietnam

Doing the smelly, gross work that’s invaluable for science

Posted November 21, 2017 09:00:00

It’s often messy, smelly and a little bit gross, but the work of a vertebrates collections manager is vital for science.

Belinda Bauer is responsible for maintaining the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s collections of animal specimens, both on display and in storage.

She also has the job of preparing specimens in the wet lab at TMAG’s collections facility in Rosny.

“A lot of skinning goes on down here,” she said.

“Just yesterday I washed out a few skeleton macerations, so that’s the smell, it’s the smell of the bones drying.”

To prepare an animal specimen as a disarticulated skeleton, Ms Bauer uses the water maceration method.

Basically, she skins the animal, takes off as much flesh as she can and then puts the remains in a bucket of water.

It is left there until the remaining flesh has rotted off the bones.

The bones are then washed with a diluted ammonia solution and dried.

On the day the ABC visited, Ms Bauer was taking feather samples from penguins for a study by the Lund University in Sweden.

She was also preparing the bodies to be skeleton specimens.

“I’ll pluck part of them and send some feathers off and take some detailed photographs of the skin patches for those researchers,” she said.

“I’ll prepare both specimens as skeletons, disarticulated loose skeletons, that will be available for researchers and will become part of our reference collection.”

Before macerating the specimen, Ms Bauer takes a lot of detailed measurements and other notes and the information is kept in a database.

“Without that information it can be of little use for research,” she said.

“It’s more than just skinning and stuffing; it’s more about maintaining a collection that represents Tasmanian biodiversity and making sure that is accessible for researchers around the world.”

Ms Bauer also works with the curators at TMAG creating public displays of animal specimens, working out the best way to display them in a way that best tells their stories.

“We’re not here to make beautiful things, I’m not a taxidermist,” she said.

“By preserving physical evidence of Tasmanian biodiversity, it means that researchers can access it now, and if we do a good job of our preparation, they will be able to do so for the next 150, 200 years.”

And it is not just animal bodies that need to be prepared for display and recording.

Ms Bauer also prepared a number of specimens of Tasmanian devil poo for an upcoming exhibition to show what wild devils eat.

“You could have a photograph or an observation of an animal and that’s useful, but having a specimen means that it’s verifiable,” she said.

Topics: zoology, library-museum-and-gallery, research, research-organisations, human-interest, people, careers, rosny-7018

Love of crafting neon signs still burns bright for Hobart tradesman

Posted November 08, 2017 08:00:00

Neon signs are designed to catch your eye with their bright, flashy colours, but the craftsmanship that goes into making them largely goes unnoticed.

While some processes have been computerised, most of them remain hands-on.

Glenn Campbell has been working with neon signs since the early 1990s.

“I applied for a job and didn’t get it, but the guy they put on fell through and I was next in line,” he said.

“There were two old blokes there that were doing it and they taught me. They’re well and truly retired now.”

Mr Campbell said he spent a lot of time practicing bending, joining and cutting the glass tubes before he was allowed to follow a pattern to make a sign.

“Back in the old days it [the design] was done by hand and maybe an overhead projector,” he said.

“Now you generally just print it out, and copy it out onto the fibreglass so it doesn’t burn when you put the glass on it.”

The glass tubes are coated on the inside with a fluorescent powder, which adds to the colour.

“Any neon signs that you see that are red is just neon gas,” Mr Campbell explained.

“Most of the other colours have got argon in them. Argon is blue.”

Mercury is sometimes added to blues and greens to make the colours glow even brighter.

“I’ve made things the wrong colour once or twice,” Mr Campbell said.

“Then you put it in the bin.”

Mr Campbell said while LED signs had taken over much of the traditional neon sign market, there was still a need for hand-crafted glass designs.

“When I was at Claude Neon [his first sign-making job], we’d be doing it all day, every day,” he said.

“Now it just comes and goes a bit. Might not do any for a month or two or three, and then you’ll get weeks and weeks of it.”

A busy week is a good week for Mr Campbell.

“Straights are a bit boring, so you don’t want to do too much of those,” he said.

“Bending it is the best part.”

Topics: craft, human-interest, people, careers, derwent-park-7009, hobart-7000