Passionate journalist Megan Norris has a career’s worth of fascinating and inspiring stories to share about her life of crime reporting, as Julia Maurus discovered.
A minute into my interview with Megan Norris, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was the one being interviewed. First she asks about the magazine [The Australian Writer], then she says, ‘So, tell me about you!’
It seems journalists just can’t help asking questions and feeding their instinctive curiosity. And it seems a true journalist never really retires from it, either, for although Norris tells me that she’s recently retired and down-sized and is caring for a three-year-old grandson every day, she also has at least two new book projects underway and keeps mentioning new stories she’s come across.
It’s strange, Norris says, to be the one being interviewed, when she’s used to being the one with the notepad and pen, scribbling shorthand at 120 words a minute to record every word that her interview subject says. Norris trained as a crime reporter in the UK where, aside from writing general news stories, she was flung into the fast-paced world of circuit courts once a quarter, in which journalists jostle for a seat in the media box.
Fast shorthand was indispensable. ‘They used to have shorthand writers employed to record court proceedings. I was as fast as them. I don’t use tapes.’ Barristers in magistrates’ court cases, where there were no shorthand writers, regularly asked Norris to transcribe her notes, knowing she got every word down.
She completed the four-year apprenticeship with the National Council for the Training of Journalists in just two and a half years, fighting to be professionally acknowledged while the male cadets were given all the breaks. ‘In those days,’ she recalls, ‘they didn’t like taking girls. I was one of two that year.’
After shadowing a journalist in the Crown Court, she covered police rounds and inquests, finally coming to specialise in courts and crime writing. In Australia she did a stint writing cover stories for The Truth, a sleezy rag which is now defunct. ‘They said to me, “Nothing’s too filthy, put it all in.” I started writing about curious crimes, like kleptomania. They make great cover lines like “He stole my heart, I stole his furniture!” Readers love them.
‘Then I discovered that magazines paid ten times as much for stories. So why keep writing for newspapers?’
After emigrating to Australia with her husband and two sons in 1990, she established a court reporting agency, supplying major news stories and features to national print and TV outlets.
Norris has always been fascinated and horrified by violent crime. ‘My parents would go out once a week and leave me at home. I’d pull out the Sunday People and read the crime reports with a Collins dictionary, looking up words I didn’t understand, like “torso” and “dismember”.’
Pursuing her passion, Norris went on to co-author the best-selling book Perfect Victim, the true story of the murder of Melbourne teenager Rachel Barber, a case she covered extensively. Her second true crime book, True True Blood: The Sickening Truth Behind Our Most Grisly Vampire Slayings, was published this year . Her next is due to be released early next year .
‘My long-suffering husband Stephen struggles to share my enthusiasm for the grisly subject matter I unearthed from the dark side to write True True Blood. He thinks I’m sick. I think it’s fascinating.’
Norris has given herself nightmares working on her crime books, but writing fiction does not appeal to her. ‘I can’t do fiction—I have enough real stuff.’ Fittingly, her new home is an old police station (she is converting the cell into her new office).
Norris’ latest book, Running Pink (currently topping the bestseller list at The Five Mile Press), did not spring from the underworld of violent crime. It came about after she interviewed Deborah De Williams, a breast cancer survivor and ultra-marathon runner who, on her second attempt, set a world record by running 18,026 km around Australia in 408 days.
‘I interviewed Deborah for New Idea. A double-page spread just didn’t do her amazing story justice—850 words didn’t skim the surface. People kept telling Deborah she should do a book and she said she’s a runner not a writer.’
Norris wrote Running Pink ‘in a mad flurry’ (to use De Williams’ words). When De Williams decided to go ahead with the project, Christmas wasn’t far off and Norris was busy court reporting (for some reason the juiciest court stories appear between September and December). At the time, Norris was already working on True, True Blood.
In November, she discussed with her publisher the possibility of a Mother’s Day release for Running Pink. Norris was told they already needed the manuscript, in November, if they were to meet the deadline.
Not one to back away from a challenge, Norris spent the next five weeks running back-to-back interviews with De Williams. She worked feverishly to finalise the manuscript while on a trip back to England, where she was staying in a small town and the staff of the local printing shop considered it a novelty printing off drafts of Running Pink on demand.
In the book’s credits, Norris thanks close friends for making her take time out to walk the dogs so that she could return with fresh eyes to more long hours of typing, and for the late-night brainstorming and personal encouragement which helped her believe she could meet this incredibly tight deadline.
Norris has been a freelance reporter as long as she’s been in Australia. Over the years she has had to rely on the police to give her a whiff of the best cases around. She has had coffee with cops to wrangle potential news fodder out of them and hidden behind barristers in court elevators so that other journalists would not see which court had caught her attention.
‘Twenty years ago, the Herald Sun had four court reporters covering about 20 metropolitan courts. Everyone was trying to work out where the good stories were. They would try to latch on to me to find out which cases I was following.’
As a cadet Norris was nicknamed the ‘Angel of Death’ because she was dispatched to chase the most tragic cases and wheedled information out of people by being nice. Later in her career, she caught a break by being in the right place at the right time: she happened to be interviewing Roberta Williams when she received the news that Carl Williams had been killed.
She recounts the story of a man whose wife was murdered on the shoulder of a British motorway while her toddler was strapped in the back of her car. The man, arriving at court, was harangued by British tabloid media salivating for the story. He sat down purposefully next to Norris and she wondered why.
‘I want to give you my story,’ he told Norris, as the other reporters eyed her enviously. ‘Do you want to know why I chose you? I saw your husband drop you off outside. I saw the baby seat in the back of the car. I know you’ll understand.’ He also told Norris that he chose her because she was the only one who hadn’t offered him money, or even approached him for the story…yet.
Is Norris concerned about invading people’s lives to get their stories? Very much so, she says. When she is working with vulnerable ‘talent’, she makes an effort to protect her subject’s interest. She ensures that in the contract the talent has picture approval, final copy approval, even headline approval and, in some cases, final page approval. (But never front cover approval: ‘We never allow anyone to check the cover lines that sell the story.’)
Norris has a special interest in women and children who are victims of violent crime and is a former magazine winner of the Eliminating Violence Against Women awards.
It’s clear from Norris’ unrelenting enthusiasm and apparently bottomless cache of anecdotes about crime reporting that, while her own life story is inspiring, the stories she’s explored and the people she’s met have truly inspired her. Her favourite stories are those of triumph over tragedy, miracle escapes and survival over adversity by the victims of crises. Norris has a strong sense of justice and likes to see bad guys go to jail.
‘The purpose of crime writing is to present the truth. We must be fair, accurate and balanced. I think sometimes reporting the detail behind these perverted, dark, dark stories is not a good thing—it gives sickos out there ideas. In the States they report everything. As the media we have a responsibility to walk the fine line between responsible news and gratuitous writing.’
Crime reporting is important, Norris says, because justice has to be seen to be done. Monitoring the process of justice keeps everyone honest and (as the judges say) serves a deterrent purpose by reminding the community that no crime goes unpunished.
For Norris, one of the biggest challenges of being a freelance journalist is protecting the copyright in her work and the first-to-market advantage of a ‘scoop’ she’s trying to sell. She provides various examples of specific publications demanding her notes but refusing to pay for a transcript of her shorthand, of lazy journalists calling ‘requiring’ her to provide contact details of her source, and of magazines fishing for enough details to identify the subject of a story and write the story up themselves without any credit to Norris’ research and investigative work.
‘To be a good journalist, you have to be able to write well and go out and nail a story, rather than waiting for people to call. My stories are anonymous until there’s a deal on the table. Only give a detailed brief once you have a deal. The publication has to undertake that the information I give is for the negotiation stage only and if you do not use my work you cannot steal it and it’s mine to take elsewhere if a deal can’t be reached.’
Even these precautions are no protection against blatant thievery. ‘I wrote a story for Woman’s Day and another Australian freelancer nicked it and sold it on to National Enquirer.’ Sometimes people will ring her and say they’ve spotted a front-cover story, still bearing her byline (buried in tiny print in the gutter), lifted from one of her stories published in Australian magazines. These issues have been present throughout Norris’ career, and sometimes she has had to threaten legal action.
Norris has plenty to say about the double standards of the media industry. ‘People call talent and offer them money for their stories, then when someone else gets the story they turn around and point the finger and make out that it’s horrendous that someone would be paid $250,000 for their story, which is a nonsense figure anyway. It’s just a game.’
With increasing cross-ownership in the media, it has become more difficult to maximise her income by syndicating her work. For a while she was on an exclusive retainer to work only for one side. Sometimes she would put a lot of effort into chasing and setting up a story, only to find, after it was secured, that someone else was handed it, and she was never paid.
Norris is nothing if not versatile. She writes stories for magazines and television, and has negotiated set-ups for both Channel Nine and Channel Seven’s current affairs shows. ‘I’ve written speeches for a Minister for Small Business, jingles for Telstra, and mobile phone slogans. Once I was engaged to reduce an engineer’s brief to a 200-word market pitch. I wrote web copy for a search engine I couldn’t even use, but now I’m working solely for magazines and telly.’
And writing books, of course, but there’s no money in books. ‘Unless you’re Stephanie Laurens. I interviewed her for Grazia. She writes historical romance novels and has had 20 books in the New York Times top 10. You should see her massive house! And you know what she used to do? She was a scientist who loved to read Mills & Boon.’
The jump from journalism to book-writing was eye-opening for Norris. ‘It’s absolutely indulgent to write 100,000 words for a book!’ she remarks. ‘All that room! The thought of writing a book scared me. How will I find the words? Normally I have 850 words, 1,200 at best. As a journalist I’m used to writing so tight. It’s luxurious writing a book!’
Norris initially thought that to write a book she needed to change her style to match the more expansive format, only to find after drafting the first chapter of her first book that this ‘artsy’ style didn’t feel right. She started again at her natural pace, short and sharp, and continued from there.
The experience was similar with Running Pink.
‘I typed the heading on the page and thought, “Well, what do I do now?” So I asked myself, “What was the single most powerful, life-changing thing that happened to her [De Williams] that she told me about?” I don’t have a plan. I have an intro in my head and an ending, like in news, and I fill in the meat by asking questions. If you had three minutes to tell a story, how would you tell it?’
Her advice to others looking to follow the path she’s taken?
‘The climb is hard. If you really want to do it you will. Never listen to anyone who says why you shouldn’t do it. Find your passion. My first passion was writing. You have to be outgoing, driven, determined, energetic—and a step ahead of the pack. And grow a thick skin because the secret to longevity is being able to dust yourself off after rejection and push ahead to sell the story elsewhere. Good freelancers will work when everyone else can’t be bothered, so be prepared to put in the hard yards when the staff are on holidays.
‘And,’ she adds, ‘always be honest. Never shaft anybody. I would never dream of nicking somebody else’s idea—I’ve had it done to me. Take care of the people who trust you enough to share their stories with you in the first place.’
Norris says timing is everything. ‘Make contacts, sound people out, find out what their deadlines are, and come up with something original. People love fun and quirky stories. I once wrote a story for that’s life! about a “light-fingered bride” who supplied her wedding with stolen goods—everything was stolen except for the cake. She kept reminding me that she had paid for that cake.’
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Megan Norris’ in The Australian Writer issue 378 (December 2012–February 2013).