Whilst chatting about Melbourne's innate coolness and the all the clever kids running brilliant creative businesses here, a wise friend recently confided - 'but you know, Barrie Barton owns this town'. Quite likely true, but if the enigmatic BB (has anyone actually ever met him, really?) owns this town, then Penny Modra must be something like Melbourne's wise and revered godmother. Whilst Barrie's busy running the show, trend forecasting, having meetings in Sydney, doing big picture stuff... PM is cooking our dinners, washing our glad rags and making sure all the kids in town know which gig / exhibition / opening they need to be at each weekend. It's a helluva job, but Penny sure makes it look easy (and fun!).
If you didn't know (unlikely), Penny Modra is, amongst other things, editor of ThreeThousand, a unique email newsletter which reaches the inboxes of 20,000 super cool young Melburnians every week. ThreeThousand (and it's interstate incarnations TwoThousand, FourThousand etc) are put out by Right Angle Studio , which is also responsible for pretty much every clever marketing idea you have ever seen in the CBD. IE - the Lost and Found newsletter and hotel room, Hot Spots city guides, The Rooftop Cinema and the list goes on! If you spot any piece of promotional material within 5 km of Melbourne's CBD which is well written, genuinely entertaining AND well designed, you are most likely looking at something created by Right Angle. *Sigh*
As you might expect, Penny is a brilliantly witty writer. She is actually also a brilliantly witty person all round. She's one of those people who sends you a two-line email which is so hilariously funny you'll be chuckling about it all day. Even though it was only two lines. You can just TELL by her responses below how smart and funny she is. I have only really met Penny 'properly' quite recently but I feel it is also relevant to say she is an extremely nice and approachable and generous person too. I have taken to emailing her occasionally when I get weird media requests - ie 'HEY PM what do you reckon I should do about this (insert strange request from unknown PR agency here)" and I always get a very wise and entertaining response. Thankyou Penny!
So if you're a fledgling writer or editor, or simply a local creative who hopes that ThreeThousand might plug your event / exhibition / bar / shop one day, you really need to read this interview. There are so many golden nuggets of good advice and optimistic encouragement in here... all wrapped up in Penny's signature sardonic writing style. I promise you will LOL at least 4 times if you read this interview all the way through! Guaranteed or your money back. :)
HUGE thanks to Penny for her time, and BIG congrats to the whole ThreeThousand team whose just posted their 300th issue last week! Brilliant.
Tell me a little about your background - what path led you initially to writing and publishing?
Haha! Lucy, can I just say it feels weird to be interviewed. Being a writing/editing person, I view myself as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ type. (This is why I don’t buy ‘outfits’.) Although, having said that, I like it. Okay, question one.
I really always loved writing. Loved and hated it. As in, I would dread doing essays at school and university – to the point where I would rather eat a whole packet of Iced Vo-Vos, make myself sick, walk around the block then play all the levels of Super Mario 1 instead of start writing. Which is actually a lot of effort to go to just to avoid doing something. But most writers (or, rather, the writers I like) say the same thing: “I hate writing, but I like ‘having written something’.” And that’s what sucked me in – having written something.
It was the usual story: I got pretty good marks at high school, got into Commerce Arts at Melbourne Uni, realised that – though refreshingly straight-forward about the failings of humanity – economics is pretty boring. Transferred to Creative Arts, which was then a hybrid VCA / Melbourne Uni degree. It really was ridiculous – they had Arthur Cantrill teaching film studies. Arthur Cantrill! Amazing. Scraped through that, then started waitressing full time. When you are a waitress, you meet everyone in the world. All people who want to be writers should be waitresses. Luckily, about three years later I realised I’d better get a plan so I enrolled in Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, which is just the best course for anyone who fancies themselves a ‘writer’. Mainly because they actually teach you editing, which no-one knows they should do until they do it.
At around the same time, I started the Is Not Magazine project with four of my friends – and that was my real introduction to the challenges of publishing something. Given that I then had my name to a project other than making very good flat whites, Barrie Barton at Right Angle Studio hired me as a contributor to some of the custom titles they were working on. Then I also started working for him as the editor of ThreeThousand.
Where might we have seen your words ?
Probably mainly ThreeThousand. I’ve also written for The Age since around 2007. Michelle Griffin first hired me to write art reviews that didn’t “use the word ‘interrogate’”. My knowing little to nothing about art history (or art present) was the angle – it was supposed to be a straight-talking outsider’s point of view. Some people in the art world got this, and liked it. Others got persnicketty, you know who you are. Being an anxious person, this weighed heavily on my mind and I started obsessing about Jerry Saltz and reading confusing books like Air Guitar by Dave Hickey.
Now I love contemporary art so much I have debts at several galleries but still no ability to define relational aesthetics. At the moment I am writing a comically short art review every week in the Sunday Age, as well as the weekly art news column on Wednesdays. I’ve also written the North West Tasmania Vistors’ Guide (cheese! antiques! cave-hiking!), copy for various property developers (recycled materials! exposed brick! lifestyle!) and research reports for London’s Future Laboratory.
Do you have any favourite special projects / collaborations you have been involved in in recent years?
The Future Lab work has been very interesting and challenging – especially the research aspects of it. I find it weirdly exciting to delve into specific questions about, for instance, how many Australians actually make their own dinner (statistics such as the quarter-to-quarter sales of slow-cookers at David Jones are hard to get, though) and see how Martyn and Chris extrapolate this nitty gritty out into larger social trends.
But ThreeThousand has been my main challenge for the past four to five years. I know it seems like a long time, but it really never gets easier. (In this way, it is like the perfect video game.) And my approach to ThreeThousand has been that it’s actually a city-wide collaboration. The people who read it should also be the people who write for it, within reason. And the people who make and do the things we write about should also write about things. Since Max Olijnyk has been working on ThreeThousand with me it’s become much more of a shared editing effort – and very good for my writing, as well as my view of the world.
Your job seems pretty frantic! What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Get up at 6.30am. Freak out due to a nameless dread. Get coffee and start work at 7.30am. Even though I’m not full time at Right Angle I work from there most days. The thing is, when you’re editing a weekly publication you need to answer emails all week – bah. I fit my Age work around that and make the most of Right Angle’s internets in the process.
Anyway, there’s a secret part of the day called “7.30am to 9am” when you can get most of your work done! It’s radical. I write in 25 minute bursts using the timer app on my phone, which ticks every second and reminds me not to check my email. I think the secret to getting things done is taking at least two long breaks from email – and from the people around you – during the day and actually, you know, doing some work. The problem is, the email saps your mojo. Sucks it right out through your fingertips. So I replace my mojo with the counterfeit highs of nicotine and caffeine.
Go home at 6.30pm, stagger and wheeze around Princes Park. Return to the home office (outdoor table) where Stuart is drinking whiskey and ruminating upon why we should watch “just one episode of The Wire”. Ignore the siren call of McNulty and do more work. Go to bed at 10.30pm and read The Onion on my iPhone until I pass out.
What advice would you have for budding Australian writers / editors hoping to get employed or get published?
It is very trendy to talk about how hard it is to make money from writing. This is total bullshit. All the editors I know – from Gina at The Age to Jo at Frankie and Royce at Vice – are sitting at their desks right now literally gagging for pitches. No joke! Gagging. Now, the first problem is, most pitches you get are terrible. Like, people pitch reviews when you don’t even run reviews. Or they’ll pitch something you would never cover, like the new iPad release and how that relates to the global dominance of the USB port as a file transfer method, or some shit. Or they’ll pitch ‘Birkenstocks! The Comfortable Path to Style’, vomit. Or they’ll pitch something you just ran! Like, that day!
The second problem is more complicated – when people send you an amazing pitch, but you don’t know anything about their writing and you’re scared to commission the piece because your editorial budget couldn’t pay a coffee bill at Starbucks on cheap Tuesday. I hate this scenario because I always want to find new writers, and I don’t feel it’s fair to commission work from people on spec just to test them out, but I can’t afford the risk. So here’s where it’s important to attach previous examples of your work. Not just anything, but work that demonstrates you can write at a length and in a tone comparable to the writing an editor tends to publish. Okay, and I hate to say it, but it would help in many cases if you volunteered to write just the first one on spec. As in, if the editor can’t use it, they don’t have to buy it.
The third problem (and this is probably not something that applies to The Age or other general-audience / straight-forward-reporting titles) is tone. To be a good culture writer, you need to write like yourself. It’s very difficult, because most magazines you read will have a discernable tone – Vice is a good example of this – and it’s tempting to emulate that in order to try to fit in. But ‘try’ is the key word here. Don’t be a try-hard. Being a try-hard myself, I struggle with this every day (and I know we don’t always get it right on ThreeThousand either), but good writing boils down to one thing: telling the truth. Even in fiction. Good fiction is good because it reads like the truth. I cannot believe I am about to quote Roger Ailes right now (a. because he’s the president of Fox News and b. because he’s a fat, rich old white bastard) but, “It’s always more interesting watching people be who they are than it is watching people try to be who they are not.” Write it like you’d say it to a friend. Don’t write it from a stage, because the moment you put yourself on a stage you’re volunteering to do a stand-up comedy routine or a dramatic monologue – and most people are pretty bad at both of those things. Besides which, you’re turning your readers into potential hecklers. It introduces a weird, unnecessary barrier. Also, two things: don’t use food metaphors in anything other than food writing, and don’t use the word ‘Tweeps’.
What advice would you have for anyone wanting to get their event / music / art / shop / café covered by Three Thousand!?
Send us the information! We read everything! We are: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not ask us “how much it costs” to get a write-up in ThreeThousand. If we charged for write-ups in ThreeThousand Max would have a much nicer bike and I would not be typing this wrapped in a blanket, drinking room-temperature Pasito. Also, we are a weekly publication with very few staff – so please send us the info about your event more than a day before the issue deadline. We are also chained to the scoop in some ways. With a limited commissioning budget we have to prioritise new shops / venues / products because people view the newsletter as a way of finding out ‘the latest goings-on’. There are some things we can’t cover (for instance, unfortunately, dance, theatre, comedy and venues too far outside the city) because in covering these properly we couldn’t cope with the additional work volume. And there are some things we can’t cover because they suck (for instance, deep house, Target’s new designer collaboration and venues described as ‘funky’).
Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, any particular local or international press, books or websites etc?
I am a huge fan of New York magazine because it knows exactly what it’s about. It’s the best magazine about a city, full stop. Also, Jerry Saltz writes for them and he is the best, full stop. I love Big Brother magazine even though I can’t skate and it doesn’t exist anymore and I only have scans that I have downloaded from the internet. Reverend Jen is my idol – in particular check out her book Really Cool Neighborhood. What Penny Martin is doing at The Gentlewoman blows my mind very hard and I can’t read it without cigarette breaks. Locally, I love Sticky, the zine shop in the Degraves Street Subway. These writers are not tweet-bragging every five minutes about their various zany intellectual escapades, they’re making awesome zines! It’s so generous, smart and honest.
Which other creative people do you admire?
One of the writers I like best is Jason Crombie of Wooooo magazine. I wish all interviewers would retire from interviewing until they’d read the first six issues of Wooooo. I admire Max Olijnyk very much because he can write, draw, make jeans from scratch and he is a bullshit detector. My favourite artist right now is Anastasia Klose (check her out!) and I very much admire what Mel Loughnan is doing at Utopian Slumps. My Sunday night taco night friend is Jeremy Wortsman and I am just amazed by what he has achieved with Lamington Drive and the Jacky Winter Group. His ideas always go beyond what people think is achievable, and he has a hovercraft that he controls using his iPhone.
What is the best thing about your job?
Being a part of this city.
What would be your dream creative project?
I think we’re working on it right now – the new Thousands sites.
What are you looking forward to?
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Collingwood! I have lived here for six years and it is the best suburb there is. We have coffee, we have Tony the Tailor and we have Chopper Read. I recommend moving to the area known locally as NoJo (north of Johnson), because that’s where it is all happening. Up here we have the Hotham Street Ladies, the factory outlets, The Compound Interest, PBS and no ‘single origin bean’ tourists.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Which favourite shops do you frequent in Melbourne?
Sticky for zines. It is a shameful fact but I don’t really buy clothes – I just have a set of seven t-shirts and two pairs of jeans. Although for t-shirts I tell you what, Bassike have done the research. They are stocked at FAT. Do you know what is the best shop for presents? Cuisine World on Elizabeth Street. If you have to get something expensive you can buy the Sorrentina stovetop espresso machine, and if you have to get something small they have those awesome blue and white butcher aprons and gadgets that will squeeze a lemon for you, right into the glass!
Where would be find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Cibi! Although to be honest that potato sandwich has always freaked me out.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Monday morning. I think we are really good at Monday mornings in this town. First of all, that’s what we all seem to dress for, regardless of where we’re going. Second of all, the Sunday shoppers have finished with their craziness and gone home, there are no ‘street parades’, and everyone’s secretly relieved to be back at work because they can get some commercial grade espresso on the way. Plus the staff at their favourite cafés are doing what they do best instead of picking choc chips out of muffins for screaming three-year-olds.