Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Writers' Festival: The Road to Bennelong

Margot Saville acknowledged the danger of being too close to the book’s subject when trying to objectively pen a political biography. “In the end it was my book, my reputation and the book had to stand on its merits and not to be seen as propaganda,” Saville told a Sydney Writer’s Festival audience at the Walsh Bay precinct.

Speaking about her book The Battle for Bennelong – The Adventures of Maxine McKew aged 50something, Saville conceded it was not her idea, likened the experience to childbirth and said she would do it again.

On knowing Maxine well, she said, “that’s kind of good and bad, I copped quite a lot of criticism for that and I think rightly justified in that it’s very hard to write objectively about someone who is a friend, and that was a constant balancing act for the book.”

To compensate, she was sometimes harsher on McKew than she needed to be to validate its contents.

The friendship didn’t hinder the substance of the material. Saville had no background as a political reporter, yet the publisher approached her because they didn’t want a standard political book.

Following Labor’s star candidate on her quest to unseat the Prime Minister, facilitator Deborah Cameron dwells on the importance of consulting both camps of the political spectrum: to which Saville says, “I did greet him warmly at Paddy McGuinness’s funeral. I greeted Mr Howard like an old pal but it was not reciprocated.”

But what was the difference between the candidates? “Mr Howard would only turn up [to local events] if there were media there. That was the difference.”

With odds at $4.50 at the start of the campaign, Saville calls herself an idiot for failing to bet. Then she “kept thinking that I wanted her to win because then I’d sell more copies of the book.”

When McKew won however, people started looking for explanations, and thought maybe her husband was responsible.

“Lot’s of people like to think that strong women are always directed by a man. It’s commonly held and people are always saying to me, Hogg’s behind it isn’t he.” She says, “I honestly think that’s not the case.”

With a Maxine the movie in the works, an audience member queries whether Bennelong has changed her. As a public figure, McKew’s become more cautious. Margot recalls a moment during the campaign when Maxine was standing in a queue to buy underwear and an onlooker commented ‘are you going to wear that on election night?’ She says Maxine can’t go out and do what she used to, because “there’s always someone with a mobile phone and a camera.”

Saville spoke of her transformation into ‘wallpaper’, mastering the art of becoming invisible. She was in and out of the office so often and present at all the events that everyone assumed she was there to work: “you get the best moments, when people don’t realise you’re actually observing them.”

A key setback was that she filed the book before Howard’s concession of Bennelong, which the audience noted happened after an extensive period.

Referring to the candidates as chalk and cheese, Saville says Howard clearly lost touch with key factions of the seat, enabling McKew to tap into the electorate.

“John Howard actually during the campaign never referred once to Maxine by name. We were always waiting for it. He always referred to her as ‘the Labor candidate’,” Saville says.

Photo: Taken by Bonita Silva


Kester said...

Woot what an inspirational had BEN-NE-LONG shot but she managed to beat him without the help of a man!

Stephanie Kok said...

I think it's really interesting to see how people write about people they know.

It's true that you end up being more judgemental in order to seem objective. But, you also get much more insight into the subject, because the writer knows them on a personal level.

Annette Lin said...

I think it's interesting that Kester is such a pun-machine, hahaha.

But nice article :)