The Interview Series // 02

If Penny Modra were to have a Wikipedia entry it would read, “Melbourne’s Godmother of Culture”. A founding member of the whirlwind poster publication Is Not Magazine (http://isnotmagazine NULL.org/), the current editor of ThreeThousand.com.au (http://www NULL.threethousand NULL.com NULL.au), a regular columnist for The Age’s M Magazine, and until recently, an impoverished waitress; Penny is an editor slash freelance writer who knows how to make the best of her time. She may be mad as a brush, but she’s also as sharp as a tack. Any young creative that comes into contact with Penny invariably ends up being the best at whatever they choose to do. So listen up kids, you’re lesson in how to be very, goddamn good begins now.

JUNIOR: Yo Penny. Let’s do this interview. First things first: you’ve been working in publishing how long now?

PENNY: OK, well, if you don’t count the newsletter I typed out on my babysitter’s electric job, then I guess four years. I started off doing Is Not Magazine (http://isnotmagazine NULL.org/) in 2005 with four of my friends. (Magazine on a poster, two metres wide, 12 issues over three years, all that.) Is Not was a total money pit, as are all independent publishing projects, at least in the beginning. We funded it by putting on parties. Anyway it went incredibly well, publicity-wise, from the start. We were on kottke.org (http://www NULL.kottke NULL.org/), style.com (http://www NULL.style NULL.com/), gridskipper.com (http://www NULL.gridskipper NULL.com) – all those US based big time design blogs and we started getting lots of online orders. I think these people liked it because we were using Underware (http://www NULL.underware NULL.nl) fonts. Anyway, all of a sudden I get this call from Barrie Barton, who’s now my employer. He rings up and leaves a message on my phone as though we’re old buddies. “Oh hi, it’s Barrie. I’m at fashion festival right now. Don’t worry, I’m drinking peach vodka for free.” And I started working on Right Angle Publishing (http://www NULL.rightanglepublishing NULL.com)‘s custom titles – writing up venues etc. I became gradually inculcated over time – doing contract work and earning actual money from waitressing. Now I’m editing ThreeThousand.com.au (http://www NULL.threethousand NULL.com NULL.au) for BB. Which is great. People send me sneakers.

Jr: People send you sneakers? Where was I when there were sneakers?

P: Hehe. You already have sneakers. I, however, have the feet of a gorilla. Anyway, these people sent me a sneaker last week and it was awesome. It is a Pop Art Converse with Lichtenstein dots. Anyway, I have to attend the ‘VIP’ launch if I want to get the other sneaker. True story. But you’ve got to get tricksier than that to lure me south of Brunton Ave (http://maps NULL.google NULL.com NULL.au/maps?q=brunton%20ave%2C%20melbourne&ie=UTF-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org NULL.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&sa=N&tab=wl).

Jr: What a bunch of douchebags. If I wanted to get Penny Modra southside I’d have sent a megaphone and a glass of shandy. Think about it. Ok, so tell me why young writers fail at getting your attention. Are they that bad or is it you?

P: They don’t always fail at it. Usually I find people are just way too narrow in their thinking. They have this idea that they want to get published, but they’ll send me really long creative writing pieces, for instance. Which doesn’t tell me anything about whether they could write for ThreeThousand. OR they’ve been beaten down by one too many journalism lecturers and end up using the word ‘aplenty’ in everything they write. OK, here’s me being a bitter old editor: If you want to make money from writing, you’ve got to understand what copywriting is, and you’ve got to seriously love it (rather than view it as some kind of inglorious detour on your route to literary fame). You also have to actually read the publications you pitch to.

Jr: Undoubtedly so. The amount of young creatives who just don’t put the effort into learning about the job they’re applying for is astounding. But when it comes to young writers specifically, getting a job is confusing. Most believe they either have to write a novel or be a journalist to earn a living from writing. WTF?

P: Not true! Both of those things suck. I mean, look, novels don’t suck, but they won’t make you money and it’s no way to start out. Journalism doesn’t suck either, but there are two ways to do it. Do you really want an internship at The Age (http://www NULL.theage NULL.com NULL.au/) where they’ll pay you nothing and cycle you through business, sports, travel and whatever else for basically no pay? Or would you like to have a column one day that someone has given you because you’ve built up your own identity as a writer more broadly? Better to take on the real world from the start I think. OK. Making money… Copywriting just means being a flexible writer. I charge upwards of $80 an hour for anything from press releases to company profiles. ThreeThousand doesn’t pay so well, but we’re always looking for people who can turn 150 words on a t-shirt into a really good piece of reading. Or a bar write-up into the highlight of someone’s day. And this is a rare and valuable skill.

Jr: Oh indeed! Learning to make 150 words really kick is invaluable. I’m still figuring it out. You’re an editor though, not just a writer. And from what I know, the difference between the job description for a writer and one for an editor couldn’t be further apart. What makes a good editor?

P: Yes! Editors don’t just choose content and stand about looking brunette and frowning at the layout pin-up boards of art directors like you see on the television. You know, it’s a real problem in Australia. People don’t know what editors do. That means they don’t know how to hire them or what to pay them. Editors UNITE! Here’s some stuff we can do: structural editing for long texts (novels, theses, etc); copy editing (fixing grammar and punctuation); and proof reading (including mark-up on printed texts). Editors are also good at anality. Looking at every detail of a document and not ever assuming that something has already been checked. And editors must love the finance department as much as they love their writers because editors are the gourmet filling in that particular sandwich.

Jr: So an editor edits and a writer writes. But I’ve never met a writer who thought they could actually write. How much does an education in writing make a difference in the real world?

P: Eeeee! It can make a big difference. But only if you’ve really studied writing. I mean punctuation, grammar and tone – and writing for different purposes. If you have studied journalism you may well be bitter and pessimistic already – thinking to yourself that life holds no more for you than an internship at the Shepparton Tribune. All the joy and honesty has been sapped from you, leaving behind a husk of a person, capable only of starting paragraphs with the words “Such and such an event at Revolver this weekend promises thrills aplenty.” So try to remember your English language skills and forget everything else. People who are honest, and have genuine curiosity and a real interest in the world are good writers.

Jr: Ok, so say you’re some hip twenty-something itching to start writing for some of Australia’s best publications – be they magazines or newspapers. Should they start camping out the front of RUSSH (http://www NULL.russhaustralia NULL.com/) with a notebook and John Lennon’s old sunglasses or is there a better way?

P: Well, I would recommend starting online. That’s what a lot of really great young columnists have done over the past five years. Marieke Hardy (http://reasonsyouwillhateme NULL.com/), Ben Law (http://www NULL.benjamin-law NULL.com/), Mia Timpano (http://miatimpano NULL.wordpress NULL.com/), Clem Bastow (http://reasonsyouwillhateme NULL.com/guest-poster-4---clem-bastow). Either get your own blog or pitch to an online title like ThreeThousand. (Editors note: There are five more online titles I can think of off the top of my head other than ThreeThousand in Melbourne alone. Do your research, there’s some great ones (http://www NULL.breakfastout NULL.com NULL.au/) out (http://www NULL.lovebento NULL.com NULL.au/) there (http://www NULL.pagesonline NULL.it/).) This is an easy way to prove yourself and to start a network. When you’re pitching to other people, you can send them links to your work. Or you can just meet them by saying “Oh herro, I linked to you in my blog because I think you are rad.” (People do this all the time, apparently. Look, I know it sounds lame, but it’s NOT.) Make sure every piece of work you do is solid gold, no matter what it’s for. Also, approach magazines through other networks. I have hired people who just write really good press releases for bands. You can pitch to people whom you’ve never met, but make sure you know exactly how your suggested piece fits into their magazine and send them the first paragraph so they can see you’re very, goddamn good. Or start your own magazine. That worked for us with Is Not. Just make sure your magazine is distributed in the right places and that it’s not crap.

Jr: I said it in the last interview and I’ll say it again: Networking – a stupid fucking buzzword. You’ve made a living out of having a broad network. What’s your advice for youngsters looking to add a few pages to their address book?

P: Don’t be a douchebag. Remember that every single person you meet might be very interesting. Old, young, ugly, rich, poor – the lot. If they turn out to be an idiot or worse, they will be useful to you later either as a rich vein of comedy, or as a quote in an article. But usually they’ll turn out to be interesting and one day you’ll be glad you know them. So, how to meet them? Work at a cafe. Be in the city. Do not go home to Hawthorn or Essendon. Get away from your university, I mean ASAP. Get away from school and university networks and clubs and join real world clubs. Such as people who sit at bars and bitch about life. Or people who help out at radio stations. Or people who start magazines. Or run arts festivals. And when you are in conversations with people, listen to what they’re saying. Don’t be all shy, just actually listen to them and then you’ll relax and think of things to say back.

Jr: You’ve just spent a week escorting Patti Smith (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Patti_Smith) around Melbourne as part of the International Arts Festival. Did you manage to keep a lock of her hair?

P: Haha! No. But I got a guitar pick from Tony Shanahan and some advice on writing from Patti and Lenny Kaye. Which went something like, “What are you writing for a weekend newspaper lift-out for? What is this sh*t?” Patti Smith is the perfect hero for freelancers, I think. She works hard on everything she does and she has never stopped critiquing her own work. She moved to New York in 1967 with nothing but the intention to “kick poetry in the ass”, and look what she did! It was just a dream that she forced to come true. I mean she couldn’t even play the guitar for most of the ’70s, but she does now. Also, she’s funny and has top-quality friends, which is always a very good sign. One good lesson I learned: Patti hates the phrase ‘Godmother of punk’. She said, watch out because every photo caption and article about me over the next week will use that phrase because it’s in the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry. And it was true! So don’t treat Wikipedia as your personal reference library because you will get sprung! And rock icons will grow to hate you.

Jr: Ahh Patti Smith. Swoon. Tell us a little about your new project, The Good Copy. I hear only good things.

P: Well, it’s starting out as an agency for editors and copy writers. I called it The Good Copy because of my aforementioned respect for the skill of copy writing and my hatred of the godawful literary hierarchy that plagues Australia’s writing scene. But I hope, hope, hope it can grow into a group that will present great events and publish excellent things online. And that also, one day, will establish an editors’ dojo, where we will all sit on couches reading Style Manuals and no longer feel like freelancers adrift upon a lonely ocean. That’s it.

*Notes from Penny: NEVER use food metaphors in music write-ups. God. Just don’t do it. Watch out for dangling modifiers (having run to the station, the train was 20 minutes late); the subject of a sentence needs to follow a modifying phrase. And remember: If you say, “This festival will have acts like Lykke Li and Leonard Cohen”, that means Lykke Li and Leonard Cohen won’t be there, but acts similar to them will be playing. Which kind of sucks.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 05/11/2008