Derek Rielly – The Wordsmith
Bondi wordsmith and surf fanatic Derek Rielly has enjoyed a successful publishing career. After co-founding Stab magazine with his friend Sam McIntosh, Derek went on to establish surf website BeachGrit.com with his buddy Chas Smith, before a move into biographical writing saw him release his hugely popular biography of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Wednesdays with Bob. The Beast caught up with the best-selling author and multi-faceted storyteller as he prepared for the launch of his biography of Australian icon David Gulpilil…
How are you this morning Derek? I’m great thanks Hutto. It’s 24 degrees in the middle of winter. I can tan quickly. What takes people hours to do, I can tan in half an hour.
You grew up in Perth? Yeah, that’s right.
What were some of your fondest memories of your childhood? The fondest memory of my childhood was leaving Perth when I was 19. It was a surfing thing. The waves there sucked. Otherwise, I had one of those idyllic suburban childhoods of football and cricket, as well as a lovely big brother. I was a horrible, horrible younger brother, though. He was kind, patient, would always buy me presents and we’d kick footies together all day. My response was to throw darts at him, goad him into fights and destroy the gifts he gave me. And then when I was 13 I discovered surfing, but I lived half an hour from the beach so I either had to get a ride from my dad or ride my bike the thirty kilometres.
What was the closest break? Leighton and Cottlesloe.
You surfed at Cottlesloe? Yeah, Cottlesloe was fun. There was another place called Cables, a joint with a semi-reef setup.
And your old man was a pro-wrestler apparently, is that true? No, it’s all bullshit.
Is it actually? It’s from when Matt Warshaw was doing the Encyclopedia of Surfing and he was working on my entry. I thought I’d colour it up a little bit.
I was trying to work out if he was one of those ones that dresses up or not… My dad actually worked in education his whole life. First he was a teacher, then he taught teachers to be teachers and then he worked in the education department. An academic.
And your mum wasn’t a diplomat? No, but she was diplomatic, very diplomatic. I got a lot of my mum’s characteristics. My mum used to love to sing, is outrageously positive, exercised every day and worked hard and did so many wonderful things. My dad gifted me some sort of academic heft, I guess. He would sit me down at the kitchen table and explain to me – and this is when I was eight years old – the different forms of voting, like first past the post versus preferential voting. And he’d always do things in a non-partisan way because he said all of them were a pack of c*nts. He had no political allegiances. If anything I guess he swayed left. Mum might’ve swayed right a little bit, although old-school right, not Fox News right. I’m lucky to have them.
Do you call yourself a journalist or a writer, or something else? Lately, I’ve started calling myself a journalist. I guess I have felt like a journalist after I did the Hawke book because I was putting my busted old iPhone in front of Gareth Evans, Kim Beazley, John Howard, Bob Hawke and so on. But I always considered myself as someone who was just trying to make enough money so I could go surfing and take my kids on cool holidays and hit the snow occasionally.
Were you interested in journalism from a young age? No, my brother was a really good writer and my dad had published a textbook about politics. I had no interest really, only to surf and tan, pretty much. Then I lucked into a job at Surfing Life magazine on the Gold Coast. I had submitted a story that my brother had written to get the job and then I realised I had to learn how to write really quickly. The surf writer, Nick Carroll, had done this mini-interview in some mag and he had listed all of his favourite novelists and writers so I read them all, each for different reasons. Hemingway for economy of writing, Steinbeck for storytelling, Evelyn Waugh for satire and Tom Wolfe for its New Journalism. I read all their books and that was my writing education.
Are you still a prolific reader as well as a writer? Yeah, I feel like the day isn’t long enough to read enough. I need to read all the time. Before bed, in the morning, mid-morning, afternoons. I try to have multiple books going at the same time.
I don’t know how people do that… I just read Bret Easton Ellis’s book of essays about social media, called White, which I loved. Now I’m reading Sapiens and before that I was reading Blanche d’Alpuget’s book, The Lions’ Torment. It’s like Game of Thrones.
Blanche is a writer? Yeah, oh my God, she was a writer before she was Hawke’s wife.
I thought she was just some famous socialite? No, hell no. That’s the great misconception about Blanche, that she was some gorgeous air-head that Hawke had taken a fancy to. But she’d written this seminal book about Sir Richard Kirby, a judge on the Arbitration Commission, called Mediator. That’s how she got to know Hawke. She interviewed him when he was an advocate for the ACTU before the Arbitration Commission. She knew more about the Arbitration Commission than probably anyone else in Australia besides Bob Hawke. And then she wrote R.J. Hawke, which is the book that convinced the Labor Party that he had the intellectual muscle to lead the party. The great thing about Bob was that he didn’t come from a faction, either left or right.
You wouldn’t have called Bob Hawke ‘left’, even though he was the Secretary of the ACTU? No, no. Bob was one of a kind. He slanted right in his economic policies and left in his social policies. He had that right wing economic foundation for society but then he’d swing left on human issues. People who might struggle or people who are unfairly treated, minorities, whatever, he cared deeply about that. He lost his prime ministership because he was defending Aboriginals’ right to veto, or try and veto, mining at Coronation Hill.
So he was an economic conservative and social progressive, would you say? Conservative would suggest he was scared of change, like Fraser who controlled both houses but did nothing. Hawke and Keating made radical reforms to the Australian economy. They wanted to reduce the economy’s reliance on government subsidies and to loosen the shackles on banks and to enable more credit. More of a free market view. Hawke got these radical changes through because of the sheer weight of his personality.
When you went to the Gold Coast, was that when you were 19, straight from Perth? Yeah. So me and a buddy of mine, we’d seen photos in surf mags and wanted a taste of warm-water points. Initially the idea was to get a bus to Sydney and then to buy a car at the auctions. You know, we’re 19, we had no clue, no money either, really. So we got the bus, two-and-a-half days to Sydney. We’re from Perth where everyone’s front lawn is manicured, the buses are spotless and everyone’s white Anglo-Saxon. We woke up, looked out the window and it was raining, and because we were in Parramatta the beat-up buses were full of people with dark kinky hair and brown skin. The little Perth boys were…freaked. We didn’t know what the hell we had gotten ourselves into, so we went to Central Station and we went, “F*ck this,” and got a bus straight to Burleigh Heads.
We had two hours before the bus to the Gold Coast and because we’d sat next to each other for two-and-a-half days we split up to have a look around Sydney. Departure time loomed. No pal. Just as I was thinking I was going to head north solo he came running into the bus. He’d been scooped up by Scientologists and came back with L. Ron Hubbard’s book, Dianetics, convinced about the righteousness of Scientology and twenty bucks lighter. So we got on the bus and went to Burleigh Heads. It was sunny and the surf was probably one foot, the water was crystal clear and we thought they were the greatest waves we’d ever seen. We rented ourselves a caravan back then, thirty years ago, for $250 a week, which is like paying $3,000 now, in the Burleigh Heads caravan park. We pawned a few things and eventually got on the dole and had a marvellous start to our new lives.
Those days are long gone now though? I remember at the time I was getting $80 a week plus $10 rent assistance and the rent on our little joint in Coolangatta was $56 and it was a one-bedder with a couch one of us could sleep on. It even had a swimming pool. We used to live near D-bah. Food was severely rationed so it’d be four Weet-Bix in the morning, two eggs for lunch and lentils, rice and potatoes for dinner. My pal’s mum visited one day, flew over from WA, took a photo and we look like emaciated inmates fresh out of Changi prison in 1944. But with beautiful tans.
Were you were working full time at Australia’s Surfing Life? No, it was before then, before ASL I was on the dole for a bit. I’d just lay by the pool and sun tan. We had tan accelerator, we’d rub oil all over ourselves. It was called Ebony and cost thirty dollars for a bottle. We didn’t eat for two days each, but the sudden deepness of our tans convinced us it was worth it. Then I got the job at Surfing Life and then I worked as a croupier for a little bit.
A blackjack dealer? A blackjack dealer, yeah, and two-up dealer. I had no ambition, all I wanted to do was surf and that’s why I’d moved to the Gold Coast. I wanted a job I could work at night. Back then in the mid to late ’80s, and unlike now when people actually stick signs in windows looking for staff, there were no jobs. You had to do internships as a waiter. A week of shifts for free in the hope you might get a paid gig. I remember working for free for weeks and weeks at restaurants for nothing. I eventually got a job as a croupier and that was great. Then, while I was on my break as a croupier, I saw an advertisement for an editorial assistant at Surfing Life, so I went for it, got the job and that changed my life.
How old were you when you moved to the Eastern Suburbs? I think I was 30, so about 20 years ago.
You’ve always been in Bondi? Always been in Bondi, yeah.
Are you still loving it here? It’s certainly a place in a constant state of flux, and it’s interesting to see how much has changed since when I moved here in 2000, when it was still pretty old school. There were no fancy restaurants, Icebergs wasn’t here yet and even though it had this vibe supposedly as the Venice Beach of Australia or whatever, it wasn’t really, but it wasn’t rough either, like in the ’80s.
Kiwis bashing people out the front of the Royal and stuff like that? So I’ve heard. When I got here it was just starting to become gentrified. And then it was, the classic thing, gentrified by so-called creatives, photographers and writers and whatever. And all my friends moved here from the Gold Coast and Northern Beaches. Everyone moved here, it became this real hub. Every designer in Sydney, every photographer, pro-surfers were moving here, which was hard to believe then. It was the place to be. And then about six or seven years ago it suddenly changed. The prices of everything went through the roof, the creatives left and the pro-surfers who moved here realised the waves, while fun, aren’t exactly world class.
You can surf most days though… Yeah, you can always surf. But then it just changed. It went from being gentrified with the creatives to being wolfified by the bankers. We had a Wolf of Wall Street kind of thing, which is fine too, but it’s changed dramatically. Rather than guys cruising around in felt hats and girls in hippie dresses, it’s mums in stretchy pants and dads in suits, which ain’t a bad thing, just different.
Is a similar thing taking place now in Byron? I think so, yeah. It’s definitely happening there. But when people move to Byron, the wealthy kind of bankers try to mimic that lifestyle so you have these beautiful Hamptons houses and these women in diaphanous maxi dresses and men, instead of being in suits, they’re in $300 Oliver Brown shorts and terry towelling polo shirts.
Will you stay here forever now? No, I mean, it’s hard to know, you can never say never. I’ll always have a place here, but I’d like to spend more time in Hossegor in the south-west of France.
Can you speak French? A little bit. I speak memorised song lyrics mostly. Both my kids go to a French school in Maroubra. Their entire schooling is in French, history, maths, the whole thing.
Why did you send them there? I want my kids to have two languages because I felt, well, firstly that someone has to go and take over the United Nations and jazz it up a little, so one of them could do that, and driving super yachts in the Med would be pretty sick so the other kid can do that. They’ve got two choices really, head the UN and streamline its murderous bureaucracy or drive a super yacht in the Med. It doesn’t matter who does what, as long as they live my dream.
Do you have any favourite local haunts around here that you’d like to mention? Pretty much anywhere Andy Ruwald is – The Bucket List, Public Bar – because he always shows you a good time. God, what a legend he is.
I had a meeting with him the other day and there was a Bloody Mary in front of me within two seconds of sitting down… The good thing about Andy is that anywhere he is involved with is going to be a success. The Bucket List could’ve been such a failure, just another bar on the beach, but because it was him, because he was there, always, you’d go in and he’d make you feel like the king of the world. He loves kids, too. A rare thing.
He’s a one-man party… He is a one-man party. I lived with him for a year and it was such a good time I still get cramps from laughing thinking about it. He’s one of the great Bondi characters.
What gets your goat about the area? I know you’re not negative but you’ve got to complain about parking like everyone does… It used to be the parking cops but my view of parking has shifted so much since I lived here. I used to get the shits when I saw parking cops walking around, but if they didn’t do it people would be getting parked in, you’d never get a park. It’s not that hard, you see the sign that says two hours, you park for two hours, you pay your money, otherwise you can’t cry when you get a ticket.
What if you want to have a three-hour surf? Go down to Maroubra, parking is free.
You studied at Deakin Uni; did you study journalism? Yeah, I actually did. It was an arts degree, I did it by correspondence when I was working at Surfing Life. I did a double major in literature and journalism. Once I’d finished the journalism major and the literature major I had to do these periphery subjects to complete the units needed to finish the degree and I just couldn’t be f*cked.
So you didn’t finish it? No, but I completed the actual stuff that I thought I needed, which was journalism and literature.
You did a stint at Fairfax? Yeah, I had a weekly column at Fairfax.
Was that the Top Ten one? No, it was called the Tiger of Happiness. They gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted. One week I could write about Tony Abbott, the next could be about abortion, the next could be whatever, and they liked polemics, you know, everyone in the internet biz likes a polemic.
What’s a polemic? When you polarize people, when you write a very black and white opinion and there’s no shades of grey. Someone on the left could be a polemicist, someone on the right could be a polemicist. It’s hard to be a centrist but I wanted to be a centrist, I wanted to say things that were common sense but were polemic at the same time. Like the NBN. This was when the NBN was starting and it felt like we were creating something that would be obsolete by the time it was finished. It felt like we were in the early 20th Century with someone saying, “These cars will never take off, let’s build blacksmith shops all around Australia, we’ll build 40,000 of them.” My suggestion was, instead of spending $40 billion on having these guys come round to every house, digging up the lawn to put the cables in and whatever, we spend that money gathering the finest software designers in the world and working together to create a game-changing file compression software. Because the reason that you need all this power, all this bandwidth, is to get these f*cking 10gb files through that everyone’s trying to send. Imagine if you could turn 10gb into 200kb, it’d just go through whatever line you had, any sort of shitty copper line.
Can you do that though? No, because we didn’t spend the money on a file compression software, we spent it on the NBN.
But is that possible, to do that though? Anything is possible. We should’ve given the money to Elon Musk and said, “Son, give us a file compression software.” Imagine, a supercharged version of JPEG. The whole world would go nuts for it.
How old were you when you went from Fairfax to Stab magazine? I was doing Fairfax while I was at Stab. After the Gold Coast I got a job in France and I started a surfing magazine there called Surf Europe. It was pan-European and written in four languages. I lived in Hossegor for two years but I couldn’t get a visa to live there permanently, which is what I wanted to do. This is before the great migration started happening, of course. It was very, very serious to emigrate to France back then and I just couldn’t work out how to jump through the various French bureaucratic hoops. I came back and edited Surf Europe remotely, then ACP rang me up and asked me if I wanted a dazzling salary to edit one of their men’s interest titles. My job was to make it ‘cool’.
Which magazine? It was the biggest selling men’s magazine in the country, selling 500,000 copies a month and it had a budget of $30,000 dollars a week just for contributors.
FHM? It was The Picture, The Australian Picture Truckies’ Magazine!
Yeah, I read it every week… Back then it was the biggest selling mag in the country that no one admitted to reading and they wanted someone to make it cool. The circulation was declining because it had a bit of a whiff about it, because it was the truckies’ mag, so they wanted to sort of help usher it into the new, cooler world. The editors rang me up and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” It was amazing, I had my own office and my own car park at ACP, which was unheard of. They tried to buy it back from me at one stage for an extra ten grand a year and I told them to beat it. I had two assistants and seventeen staff but I hated it, I hated the magazine. It’s not fair to say I hated the magazine, it wasn’t that…
You just hated the people who read it? No, I just didn’t like the approach to sexuality, I thought it was pretty gross, and I didn’t like being in the city. It was in one of those high-rises where you can’t open the windows. I gave the window cleaner $20 to open it for me. It was the only window in Castlereagh Street that could actually open. It just didn’t work out, I didn’t want to be there and they knew I didn’t want to be there.
I left Picture and then my buddy Sam McIntosh said, “Why don’t you come and work at Waves?” It was a really cool time, I was still getting money from Surf Europe and money in itself wasn’t an issue – my wife and I didn’t have kids or anything and she worked full time – so I just thought, “Yeah, I’ll just go and hang out with my buddy and write about surfing again,” which I loved to do more than anything. We had a really good time at Waves for a year or so and then we decided to start our own men’s mag.
Like Picture? No, definitely not like Picture. It was funny, we eventually decided not to do the men’s mag. The market had started to get crowded, FHM, Loaded, Ralph. We just thought, “Fuck it, we’ll do something we know,” which was surfing. A friend of ours had an idea that we should sell Billabong a 30th anniversary book, so we sent this proposal to Billabong and they said yes, because they were awash with riches at the time. We walked out of that particular deal with a quarter of a million dollars, which we squandered starting Stab. We had no business plan or anything, it was only because we had this massive amount of cash that we could just f*ck up, f*ck up, f*ck up until we started to make some money.
During that time, ACP asked if we would give them a framework to start a young man’s magazine, which we did. We called it Beef. For some reason they didn’t like it and told us they weren’t going to pay. We said, “F*ck it, we own the property, we’re going to start our own magazine called Beef now,” and they ended up giving us the cash and that was good, so that was a handy little injection too.
That was once Stab had started? Yeah it was, once Stab had started. And they said Stab wouldn’t last, “You’ll only do three issues,” that was all the stuff we were hearing. And it wouldn’t have lasted if we didn’t have this quarter of a million dollars that we almost whittled away. We probably wasted $150,000 dollars of it, money we could’ve had in our pockets if we hadn’t done stupid things like printing thousands of extra copies.
It never really cut through saleswise though. We had a really good reputation and the advertisers loved us, and in the end they were subsidising this magazine more than they probably knew.
Did you sell Stab to Sam or did you guys sell it to SurfStitch? What happened was my circumstances changed and I had kids and Sam didn’t, so we were all just going in different directions personally in what we wanted out of the company. I wanted security and I wanted to build up a nest egg and Sam was single living in Bondi. He didn’t want to act like a couple of frumpy conservatives and so I thought, “Well, before we spend all the money, I might as well get out and get some cash.” He bought some and another guy from the Gold Coast, Harry Truscott, bought another piece of it. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I worked for a bit and then I thought, “F*ck it, I’m going to leave now, I’ve had enough.”
I was going to do a magazine for Ksubi Sydney called Sex and Fashion but that fell through because Ksubi were having their own issues, then Sam asked if I would come back and keep doing the mag as an employee. That worked for me because I was relieved of the pressure of ownership while getting a relatively secure income. I stayed there until 2014 when I left to do BeachGrit. It felt time to stake out my own piece of real estate in the online space. So I started BeachGrit, contacted my best pal, Charlie Smith in San Diego and asked if I could get all these old stories that he’d done for Stab and everyone else and put them in the back end. When we launched we had a couple of hundred stories in there. Then I got my friend Jeremy Hancock to do branding – he did a great job – and then I got some guys in Poland to build the site. It’s clean, it’s classic, I think there’s about five or six thousand stories on there.
How did you meet Chas? Chas remembers it more than me but I think the way it goes is I saw a story of his in Vice about surfing in Somalia and I just contacted him. We just started back-and-forthing and then I got him to write for us, then he became pretty much my only writer. He used to write probably half or two-thirds of the magazine.
Why do you think your relationship with Chas has been so enduring and successful? I think it’s because we both have a similar world view. I don’t think we see people as colours or religions or whatever, I think we see everyone as brothers and sisters and I think we both realise the absurdity of life and that, of all the sad and tragic things that can happen, if life’s going good it’s a beautiful thing and you have to soak up every second. We’re both absurdists, realists, and we both love our time on Earth while we’re healthy. And that affects the way we write and see things.
Every day I wake up and I read a story and I can’t believe the way he can write. He can just sit down and just riff thousands of words whereas I can’t, I’m more of a reporter where I have to interview someone and observe someone and then I’ll write about it. But I’ll wake up in the morning, read his stories and it makes me smile, it makes me laugh and makes me thankful for Chas Smith. And I think surfing, for all the times he takes the piss out of it, is a better place for him.
You’re quite critical of professional surfing and the WSL; is that a strategy to increase clicks or do you really feel that way about the professional side of the sport? Yeah, I think criticism is a good thing. As the saying goes, you should always seek criticism, not praise. Pro surfing existed long before the WSL.
So the critique is more of the actual organisation rather than professionals? It wouldn’t have mattered if it was the WSL or the ASP I suppose, but the ASP did feel like it was run by surfers, the WSL feels like it’s run by classic VALS (Vulnerable Adult Learner Surfer). I love watching the surf contests and the broadcast is great but it’s still an ’80s formula where you have people go to a contest place for two weeks, even if there’s no swell on the horizon, they’ll fly all these people there, all this infrastructure. They’ll have women’s contests and men’s contests and they have to have five days of waves to run these events. It’s only after day three or something, when you are down to the last sixteen surfers, that it starts to get really good and you think, “Yeah, this is what I love.”
My thing has always been – and we’ve always agitated with the WSL – to make it sixteen surfers, run it over two days, don’t have these contest venues locked in, have permits at multiple sites and there’s a squad coming from Hossegor or Sydney, you’ve got this private jet, all the surfers jump on the private jet… The rest of the people, like the commentators, can do it from a studio. The surfers jump on this private jet, they land at Tavarua, they surf ten foot Tavarua over two days and it would be the most wonderful and extraordinary thing ever in sports. Adventure, thrills, money, indulgence.
That’s a sick idea. Wouldn’t you need to pre-organise shit with foreign governments though? Yeah, but you just have permits. So many places are happy to have this moneyed organisation throw a million bucks or something just to use their beach. They could have Bali, Tavarua, anywhere. We’ve always spoken about it. For me it’s always been about sixteen guys and a two-day competition with private jets. And you could make it like the Rolling Stones jet, you know, the big mouth. Put the massive WSL logo on it and have this super cool f*cking private jet. Even if they looked like they weren’t going to get a private jet, they could film them climbing up the stairs of a G650 and then they can get on a commercial flight. It would be like the Premier League, you’d have the WQS and the Premier League.
Just how big a part of your life is surfing? It’s so corny but there is something about surfing, and I always hang shit on the metaphysical aspects of surfing, but it is a mood accelerant.
When you say ‘metaphysical’, do you mean like the spiritual thing and stuff like that? Yeah, the spiritual. There’s something about it and it’s something that, say, skating, which is the closest thing to surfing, doesn’t have. Skating has its constant proximity to death and brain damage, whereas surfing, and it’s cheesy as hell to say it, that first duck dive and that moment you paddle into a wave and your tail lifts and you’re looking down the line at this green face, well, I haven’t found too much else that gives me that sort of thrill.
As a bloke who grew up in Leeton and took up surfing in his thirties, the only time I really appreciate nature in Sydney is when I’m in the ocean – the tides, the wind, the swell direction and all that kind of stuff, even the sunsets. If I didn’t surf I wouldn’t notice any of that… It’s funny because I’ve been investigating the indigenous world for my Gulpilil book. I think that could be it, it gives us a connection to the environment that you don’t have otherwise. The fact that you’re at the whims of swells, tides… you notice things. You notice when you feel the wind turn south-west or if it has suddenly gone onshore a little bit. You see it luffing, you see the direction the clouds move, you see wind lines on the horizon, you know that the sun is going to move according to the seasons. You see the movement of the rips, the cross-currents, you develop a relationship with the ocean that most people don’t have.
If you had to choose between never having sex or never surfing again, which would you choose? Oh, never having sex.
And you’re a horny bugger as well, aren’t you? Oh God no, I’m terribly ordered in that part of my life. Rather like a Southern belle. It’s funny, someone in the water asked me the other day whether I’d rather have 100 perfect sessions but never be able to surf again after that, or keep surfing Bondi until I die. I’d choose 100 perfect sessions. We discussed it at length.
Where’s your favourite spot to surf in the Eastern suburbs? I’ve started to warm a little to Tamarama, purely because of my buddy Richard Freeman who’s been talking it up for the last twenty years, and sometimes Bronte, when it’s biggish and it wedges on the take-off.
Favourite spot to surf in the world? I reckon it’s got to be the BSR wave park in Texas. I love wave pools so much. I’ve been to the one in the Canaries, the one in Malaysia and in Kelly’s pool and they’re so much fun. I like the idea of repeating moves over and over.
You’ve been described as someone who’s been shaping some of the more unique ways we view surf culture since the late ‘90s; do you think you play a role in shaping surf culture? It was never my intention to shape surf culture, and if I did, which I doubt, it was accidental and only because of an intention to show that surfing didn’t have to be serious or overtly metaphysical, despite what I said earlier. I think the way I write, and my biz partner Charlie writes, is a reflection of the way we see the world. I’ve never really had a self-censor button whereas writers always pull back a lot. I work with people who are incredible writers, better writers than me, and yet there’s stuff that I read on the page, it just doesn’t sing because they’ve censored themselves at so many points.
I remember interviewing Brock Little once, the great Brock Little, and he said to me, “I like what you’re doing in Surfing Life because you don’t take it seriously.” The whole thing was for surfers to laugh at it, the absurdity of it, because it’s so awesomely absurd and so awesomely fun and challenging at the same time. You have so many different emotions when you surf and when you think about surfing and the whole experience, and it really just gets its hooks into you, it’s something that’s very hard to let go.
Frustration is probably my most felt emotion when I’m surfing… Oh me too, I have nightmares about my stance.
You published your first book, Wednesdays with Bob, back in 2017 after a series of Wednesday meetings with ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke; what gave you that idea and how did you make that happen? So this literary agent who had bought Chas Smith’s Welcome to Paradise for Australia thought I could do something similar here. She said, “Let’s have a drink and you can give me some ideas for a book,” and I kind of went there and my wife had said, “Why don’t you offer them something like Barbarian Days or Breath?” So I sort of came in with this half-arsed thing that it’d be like Barbarian Days meets Breath and the agent sort of went, “Hmmm, anything I can sell to a publisher?”
I thought that I’d really love to meet Bob Hawke and it felt like, at that time, there hadn’t been anything on Bob for years and years, it really felt like his star had started to dim. So I said, “I’d really love to do a book on Bob Hawke,” and she goes, “Give me a prop and I’ll put it to the publisher”. The publisher loved it. Then she said, “I’ll put it under Blanche’s nose and come to lunch with us”. So I’m going, “Oh my God, Blanche d’Alpuget!” I had read some of her books. Before I met her I’d read nearly everything she’d written so I was just under her spell when I went to this meeting. She liked the idea and said, “I’ll have to get it past Bob’s office manager and it’ll probably be very difficult to get it past her,” and then she said, “Bob loved it, no need to put it past the office manager, come by next Wednesday. If you need to come more than once a week let me know.”
Within a week I was out the front of Bob’s house in Northbridge with my three tape recorders and I felt like I’d pulled off this ultimate deception. I was still just this kid from Perth who wasn’t really a serious journalist and I was about to interview Australia’s greatest living politician. I went down there and the moment I saw him, it was like looking at an old mate. I’d seen him so much on TV as a kid. He’d occupied so much of my cultural life. The moment I saw him, it was like seeing your favourite uncle or something.
How many sessions did you guys have together? I’d say about a dozen. The way it worked was I’d go and buy a cigar, it was always Wednesday arvos, I’d go and buy a cigar from this joint in Double Bay or somewhere before I went. I was amazed at how the prices of cigars could vary so much, it’d be the same cigar from multiple outlets and it seems to vary from $20 to $40, sometimes from the same guy. So, I’d go there with my cigar and Bob would be sitting out in the terrace doing his Sudokus, one of these dementia busting Sudokus and crosswords, and he’d say, “G’day mate, where’s the cigar?” and I’d set up all of my stuff and we’d have a bit of small talk, but I always made sure I had my voice recorder on the second I was walking through the door because you didn’t know what was going to happen. Even when we had publisher meetings I had it on, just because I knew he’d tell jokes and he’d be a bit looser. He told these wonderfully bawdy jokes that he wouldn’t have told in the formal setting of an interview. I’d set up, we’d have a chat and then I’d always have an assigned topic, which could be about finding love through infidelity or it could be about fatherhood or it could be about China. It could be about Paul Keating, about death, all those things. I saved the two juiciest ones for last, Paul Keating and death. It was such a fitting coda because he did die only a couple of years afterwards. He never thought about death, he told me. He said his life was perfect and that he’d done everything he wanted to do and that he was living with the woman he’d loved for the last 30 years.
How many copies of Wednesdays with Bob have you sold so far? I think it’s around 26,000, and I believe 10,000 is a best-seller, so I did alright. But honestly, you write books for the love, I would’ve made more picking up glasses at The Bucket List.
You’re currently putting the final touches on a biography of one of the most iconic Aussies of all time, David Gulpilil; can you tell us about that? After I finished Wednesdays with Bob, Pan Macmillan wanted me to do another book, and in a similar vein, I guess. The guy who was my contact and internal publisher at Pan Macmillan was a guy called Angus Fontaine and he came up with a bunch of names. He said “What about Jack Thompson, Paul Hogan, David Gulpilil?” and I was like, “David Gulpilil, it has to be David Gulpilil.” It was a similar feeling I had when I did Hawke, because nothing had been done about Gulpilil for years. I felt like the aboriginal questions had gone off the agenda. We’d been beating ourselves up about so many things – immigration, the economy, etc. – whereas our indigenous brothers and sisters were just being totally left behind, and they were people who had been here for, depending on what archeological dig you’re at, between 40,000 and 60,000 years.
David Gulpilil is a living connection to 60,000 years of continuous culture, who sees the world conceptually in ways that we can never even imagine. And he’s one of our greatest actors. I think Jack Thompson, in the book, talks about how he’s as significant as Donald Bradman, Ned Kelly and all these people, probably more so. And Phillip Noyce, the director, said there’s no one like him in the world. I thought, “F*ck it, we’ve got to get David Gulpilil.”
It was one of those great cosmic coincidences, we were trying to find him and I had a meeting with John Mundine, the aboriginal artist, curator and activist, and he said, “I’ll try and find him for you, I think he’s up north.” Then we just came down to the beach and Dan Wyllie was down here and he goes, “Who you doing next after Bobby?” and I said “I’m trying to find David Gulpilil.” He looks at me and says, ”Mate, you’d better hurry, he’s got lung cancer.” Then he explained that he was in Charlie’s Country with him and knew Rolf de Heer, and that Rolf would call me. Rolf did call me and within a few weeks I was down at Murray Bridge in South Australia where David lived and where he is unfortunately dying from lung cancer. I just walked into this tiny townhouse up this battleaxe driveway and I’d walked straight into the face of Australia.
Mate, f*ck, that would’ve been a great moment… It was even more extreme than Hawke. The first time I saw Hawke, it was through a stair void – I saw him in the distance – but I was probably just 10cms away from Gulpilil, and it was… Gulpilil… you know.
My parents were reading me David Gulpilil Dreamtime stories when I was a little kid, about an injured wonga pigeon that landed on a waratah and turned them all red… We sat there and we talked, and English is his sixth language so he doesn’t talk a lot. He has this wonderful carer living with him, Mary Hood, this retired nurse, and she sort of drove the conversation. Then she goes, “Okay David, what do you think of Derek, do you want him to write your book?” Then David, in his beautiful accent he has, goes, “Write a book? I want him to write a book, yeah, write the book!” So we made plans that I would come back, and I probably came back six times, usually for two days. Often he didn’t have much to say so I’d just observe him, just hang out with him. In one of our last meetings, I knew that I couldn’t get any more quotes from him, especially after Rolf had warned me that I’d be lucky to get more than a dozen out of him, so I put his favourite movie on, The Tracker, and we just sat watching the movie together. After being with someone for six months and asking them very intrusive questions and sitting around together, you really fast track the relationship process.
If anything, I hope the book serves as a legacy to his career and his life. It asks many important questions that we need to ask ourselves about our treatment of Indigenous Australians and our past. It’s extraordinary that when we went to school we were taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia, we didn’t get taught any aboriginal words, we get taught nothing.
Brooke Boney spoke about truth telling as a foundation for reconciliation, that you have to start by acknowledging what actually happened… The important thing to remember when you start swinging your righteous axe is you can’t do it by attacking people. I think the problem at the moment is everyone does it in attack mode and that doesn’t seem to serve anyone’s purpose going forward. We have to recognise that we’re all brothers and sisters. But obviously you have to change Australia Day. It’s such a f*cking no-brainer, but because it’s done in such a militant sense, the average person who hasn’t really investigated it just thinks, “Jesus, I’m not a bad guy, I’m not racist, why are they doing this to me?” But it’s obvious that January 26, 1788, the day the prison hulks came and spat out the convicts on the beach, it’s hardly a moment to celebrate for us either.
When David appeared in Walkabout in 1971, there was a consciousness awakening with our relationship with Aboriginal people, because suddenly you had this gorgeous full-blooded Aboriginal appearing as a sexual being – a sexual being with a white woman – and people saw it and they loved him, and he was feted around the world. I thought that Gulpilil was going to elevate Indigenous issues in such a way that there’d be this mass consciousness raising. But I think it got stuck in bureaucracies and all these well-intentioned policies with terrible results.
I think we need to have Aboriginal history in primary schools, high schools and in universities. Maybe we should be renaming pretty much everything with an Aboriginal name. During the whole thing, I became ashamed at my lack of knowledge. Even though I might have felt sympathetic to Indigenous issues previously, now I feel an embarrassment at my ignorance.
First Australians should be compulsory reading for all school kids in Australia… And so should Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, so should Dark Emu, Sapiens, everything.
When’s the book due for release? Can we pre-order? In October. You can pre-order on the website. It’s PanMacmillan.com.au/gulpilil. And if anyone wants their book signed I’ll be happy to sign it for them.
Will you do a book signing in Bondi, at Gertrude & Alice perhaps? Yeah, I’ll do a book signing. I love Gertrude & Alice. Gertrude & Alice is a Bondi institution, a hold-out against the wolves.
What advice do you have for young writers and journalists keen to follow in your footsteps? To read well and to write often and to never be stuck on your first line. Just write whatever comes into your head. Just write, write, write, write, because you can always edit something on the page.
In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Derek Rielly? A job in a wave pool, a swinging apartment in Bondi, a little joint in Hossegor, acres of love and the continued health and wellbeing of my three kids, Jones, Gard and Shawnee ●