In conversation with Tim Grey

On a weekend day trip to north-western country Victoria, MELANIE BASTA speaks to writer, editor and professional photographer, Tim Grey. Tim has contributed widely to renowned publications such as Broadsheet and The Age, and in 2017, he was the author of Broadsheet Melbourne Food: What to Eat and Where to Get It. As a professional photographer, Tim specialises in food, lifestyle, people, and place.


If you’ve ever lived in Melbourne, had brunch at Top Paddock, or read an article on Broadsheet, chances are you’ve read Tim’s writing or seen his photographs. While his work was familiar to me, it was this article that compelled me to contact him.

“I really try to reach out to people when I’ve read something and it’s pushed my buttons,” he says. “And every time I meet them, it’s beautiful. It’s the best excuse to go and have a conversation with people.”

We meet in a Viennese cafe where I order a Turkish coffee (go figure) and Tim orders a cold drip. He removes an iPad and stylus from his backpack and shows me how he takes notes during interviews. “Try it,” he offers. I take the stylus and scribble out the word ‘scribble’ in cursive and hand the iPad back. He pinches the text with his fingers, then drags it across the screen.

“People really dig storytelling,” he says, reflecting on the Kisume article. “I hate that phrase, but it works.”

There’s something voyeuristic about asking a skilled storyteller what literature means to them. And as curious as I usually am, I want to know what influenced Tim’s ability to write so beautifully about chefs hauling fish from a Melbourne market before sunrise.

“I think literature, to me, is something that questions the form while it’s performing. Literature is something that troubles the medium in which it’s delivered. I don’t think literature is just literature because somebody is writing it and saying it is literature. I think we can see it after the fact. Literature makes things difficult. It adds layers of complexity,” he says.

“Not a huge amount of journalism is literature, but some of it is. Teju Cole is writing literature; a beautiful writer. I think David Marr writes literature. Gideon Haigh. Joan Didion writes literature. And as a 15-year-old boy, Hunter S. Thompson is completely irresistible.”

It seems however that poetry is Tim’s underlying passion. He runs through a list of poets he grew up reading – from T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Keats in his teens, to the French poets Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Valéry in his twenties. I’m a little embarrassed and admit that I have always struggled to understand and appreciate poetry as an art form.

“But it’s designed to be a struggle,” he says. “You know the secret? This is going to sound totally zen, but there is no secret. There’s no key to poetry. I think a lot of people think it’s for this ‘higher intelligence’ or there’s a key to unlocking its meaning. If it looks like nonsense to you, then just allow it to be nonsense. You have permission to get in there and play with it and construct meaning in whatever way you want to. It’s designed to be more work. If that appeals to you, then that appeals to you.”

Helen Garner is a writer who has appealed to me since I first read Joe Cinque’s Consolation when I was 19. Garner, a renowned Australian journalist and novelist, is known for her biting social commentary and astute observation of the world around her. When people ask me who Helen Garner is, I tell them she’s a former teacher who was sacked in the 1970s for giving her English class an impromptu sex education lesson. Why did she do it? The students were curious, she said.

“I wish I read Garner when I was younger,” says Tim. “A lot of my early reading was so patriarchally focussed. I am ashamed of myself. Why didn’t I read more female authors? Why didn’t I read Austen as a teenager? I think it’s so sad that I didn’t read that stuff ‘til I was in my thirties.”

There’s that guilt again, I think. The guilt that seems to be permeating too many nooks and crannies in our lives today. I say that we can’t force ourselves to read things we don’t want to read. And at any point in our lives, we read the things we’re drawn towards.

“Sure, I agree with that,” he says. “But I also think it’s worth examining that blind spot. One of the most painful things in this moment is that we’re somehow implicated by the biases that are all over society. I didn’t have any interest in reading Garner or Austen as a teenager, and that is a purely socially constructed bias. I didn’t make a decision myself. I acted on a gendering that wasn’t my choice. Realising that is kind of painful. It is useful in trying to map a way forward though.”

He’s right – moving forward, we can be more aware of our blind spots. But I disagree with the self-flagellation, and the strength of the idea that the structure of society dictates a person’s reading choices. Among many others today, myself included, I find he is perhaps being too hard on the person he used to be.

“It’s now my goal to have a more personal voice in my work, like I did with the Kisume piece. The new journalism style still appeals to me – writers like Andrew O’Hagan. I love seeing the ‘I’ pop up in a work, but not dominating it. I love writers who have a voice – like Garner is a perfect example. And Ta Nehisi-Coates is fantastic. Roberto Bolaño I go back to. And Andrew O’Hagan, I go back to all the time. I really love his work.”

As we step outside into the sunlight we pause for a moment to chat. He tells me to check out a huge bric-a-brac market nearby and as we part ways, he sends me a text, telling me to visit a bakery down the road for apple pies. I can see the various pine trees by the lake. Birds carry on chirping. The air really does smell better out here.

Tim Grey on…

…interviewing:

“My favourite part of the job – you get to honestly speak to someone. You’re allowed to ask the questions you can’t ask generally. Then there’s another layer, where there’s the game of making the interview work, and there’s subtle manipulation… I love watching really hard-hitting interviewers like Leigh Sales or Tony Jones push somebody into place… but if you have time to let it unspool, then that’s beautiful too.”

…working on an industry magazine:

“It’s really useful to make yourself stupid. Often you don’t need to have a personality in an interview.”

…cold calling:

“One of the good things about picking up the phone 20 times a month is that you stop worrying about whether or not someone will like you. I know people will think I’m weird. I am weird. It’s fine.”

…on Mad Men’s Don Draper:

“You can still love a character and not like them. Loving someone is not a reflection of your values.”

…on J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace:

“I like how that book implicates you in the question. It’s a classic unreliable narrator. You’re forced to feel uncomfortable. The first time I read it I was kind of on David’s side. After subsequent readings, I realised he’s awful. But that’s what fiction does best – it allows those two things to coexist.”

…on ageing:

“Being old is great. Everybody tells you otherwise.”

…on moving to the country:

“We evolved on the savannah… we’re meant to be in places where we evolved. And maybe that was a stupid reason to move to the country, but I’m so much more relaxed up here.”

This was originally published on Filtered Journal

Image by Kristoffer Paulsen

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