Writer Luke Carman talks about the SBS Podcast series True Stories, his episode “Liverpool Boys” and UWS’ Sweatshop collective

True Stories is a weekly 7-part podcast series of stories written and read by Australia’s best emerging and early-career writers that is currently available through SBS. The first season, ‘High School’ celebrates the good, the bad and the ugly of those complicated years and is inspired by the new crime-drama series, The Principal, which premieres tonight on SBS.

We caught up with one the seven writers involved in the Podcast series – Sydney’s Luke Carman – to learn a little more about it, and his episode “Liverpool Boys”, which kicked off the series…

This podcast series is an interesting one, no doubt it’s an interesting one to be a part of as well. Can you tell us a bit about your initial involvement in the project and how the process has treated you?

Last year SBS reached out to myself and other writers from SWEATSHOP to submit work to their Walkley Award-winning website documentary on the Cronulla Riots. SBS prides itself on providing culturally diverse stories for all Australians, and the SWEATSHOP collective is a diverse group of writers and artists from marginalised communities across Western Sydney, so it was a match made in heaven. This year, to augment their new drama series ‘The Principal’, Kylie Boltin (Executive Producer, Documentary and Drama Online) contacted SWEATSHOP in search of writers with an inside track on the high school experience in Sydney’s western suburbia. As always, we were only too happy to oblige – particularly since the idiosyncratic nature of the education system is a subject close to heart for many of the SWEATSHOP writers, myself included.

It also features some amazing writers including Ellen Van Neervan and Omar Musa; to be included amongst some of the country’s best and engaging writers and indeed, voices, in this way is such a cool opportunity. What does it say to you that your own individual voice and words are going to be reaching more people around the country through this series?

SWEATSHOP’s director, Michael Mohammed Ahmad – whose story Punchbowl Boys is part of the series too – and I have had the privilege to meet with Ellen, Omar and Maxine on a number of occasions. I can tell you that they’re wonderful people as well as tremendous artists. In fact, Mohammed, Omar, Maxine and Ellen were all recipients of this year’s SMH Young Novelist of the Year, which emphasises not only the connection between SWEATSHOP the other writers involved in the project, but also the depth of talent that this collaboration brings to the table. On a personal level, it’s a thrill to be part of such a stellar line up of up-and-coming literary heavyweights. An old friend of mine contacted me the other day to say he’d seen Omar Musa mention me on Twitter, which, to be honest, made me feel pretty happy with myself.

The whole theme of HIGH SCHOOL offers up a huge range of narrative plots to pull from and create – with only five minutes to deliver the piece, how much of a challenge was this to create something that was engaging, poignant and still true to any original ideas you had going into the process?

If you survive the high school experience, you’ve got enough material for a lifetime. Two lifetimes if you went to a school like mine. One of these days, I might get over the myriad horrors of the schoolyard days, but it won’t be any time soon, so for now, I’m happy to revisit them again and again in writing – which is a fine way of dealing with all kinds of trauma. Since it’s something that I tend to return to in my own work, I didn’t find it difficult to distil the experience. I like my stories short and sweet. I have a short attention span. In a way it was a relief to be asked to keep it clipped, I don’t think anybody would put up with my voice for much longer than five minutes. I don’t exactly have the sonorous, soothing tone of voice that Omar and Ellen possess.

 Can you tell us a bit about the process of working with UWS’ ‘Sweatshop’?

Being an insider in the SWEATSHOP circle has been, since day one, a gruelling, abrasive, and painful experience – and none of us would have it any other way. The collective is made up of artists from marginalised communities across Western Sydney, and we’ve found that the only way to develop in the face of a colossal indifference toward the sort of stories we want to tell is to be critically armed at all times. Nothing that we do is ever done lightly, and no one in the group is beyond criticism. That said, the overwhelming majority of our energy as a collective goes on working with the outside world, with our local communities, particularly in local schools and universities. Our movement is all about creating a sustained creative and critical culture for the region, and I think that anyone paying attention to the literary scene in western Sydney will have noticed that we’ve had a measurable impact there.

Was there a particular highlight of being involved in this series that you can share? An element of the experience you maybe weren’t necessarily expecting to really vibe on or one you really latched on to and would like to explore further?

Besides working with Ellen, Omar and Maxine, it has also been a great pleasure to hear Tamar Chnorhokian’s story get the SBS treatment. Tamar is a founding SWEATSHOP member and is the heart of the collective in many ways – without her, we have no reason for being. Tamar’s debut novel, The Diet Starts Monday, came out last year and it’s a wonderful young adult novel about an Armenian-Australian girl who tries to lose weight to win the boy of her dreams. Hearing her story in this new form has been a highlight for me. I should also say that one of the unexpected joys of working with SBS this time around has been having other artists applying their own practice to our writing. Stellar Leuna’s evocative illustrations, the surprising music design by James Cecil, the fulsome photography of Noel McLaughlin, and Kylie Boltin’s considered, energetic directing has come together to make for an extraordinarily unique totality.

What advice do you have for young writers seeking out opportunities like this one as a way to gain entry into the industry?

The only good reason to become a writer is being unable to help it. Every other reason is bad. Don’t do it for love, don’t do it for money – absolutely do not do it because you want to make the world a better place, or some nonsense like that. Writing never did anyone any good, and anybody who tries to convince you otherwise is a snake. So, keeping that in mind, my advice to young writers seeking out opportunities to gain entry into the industry is twofold: one, stop calling it an ‘industry’, and two, stop looking for opportunities – they are few and far between and you’ve still got a lot to learn about your talents. As Goethe once said, ‘Talent is formed in stillness, character in the stream of life.’ Embrace the stillness while you can – get better at what you do; then you can worry about making it in the big, bad world.

Do you remember there being a specific moment for you when you realised this was not only a passion, but one you wanted to turn into a career?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted nothing but to write. For some people, there’s simply no choice – they must write. I am one of those unhappy people. That it is possible to turn such a condition into a career is a fortunate one, because I’d be up shit creek if there was no money to be made in book-making. Whether or not I’ll be able to sustain this so-called career is a total unknown. Every book is as strange and unlikely an occasion as the last. That’s fine with me, I’ll keep writing so long as I’m living – which is a strange consolation against the anxieties that go along with the cruel and unusual publishing game.

Can you tell us what projects you have coming up next and what’s exciting you about the New Year in terms of your own writing and projects you’re focusing on?

At the moment I am trying to finish a doctorate at Western Sydney University. It has been a long time in the making – an embarrassingly long time. Once that’s done, I’ll start work on the next book. It should be a good one. I plan to make lots of money, win many awards, and fade, gracefully, into my own parade. Admittedly, the odds are against me. Check back with me in a year or so, and we’ll see how it all turned out. Until then, thanks for your time, and farewell.

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To listen to Luke’s True Stories podcast, “Liverpool Boys”, head to the True Stories page on the SBS Official Website. All seven episodes are available now.

Photo of Luke Carman by Noel Mclaughlin.