There is a great crowd in for this session. Andrew Rule is a senior writer for The Age. He is also, I am now aware, a true story teller. I walk into the session two minutes late, and he was already in the middle of a narrative, one that took in much of his life and many of his investigative cases. At one point he detailed having his car windscreen shattered, a vague ‘message’ from someone… And this, it turns out, was the point. Rule was preempting a question not yet asked, ‘Do you get scared, doing what you do?’ I think if I had to paraphrase his answer it would be ‘sometimes, but not enough to make me stop.’

(Since starting on a country newspaper in 1975, Andrew Rule has worked for three metropolitan newspapers and in radio and television production. Previously a feature writer with The Age’s Good Weekend magazine, he has variously co-written, edited and/or published several books, including the best-selling Underbelly true crime series, and Sex, Death and Betrayal. As a senior writer for The Age and The Sunday Age, Andrew has won a Gold Walkley, the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of The Year award (twice) and the Melbourne Press Club’s Gold Quill Award (twice). He specialises in investigative stories but has won awards for stories in sport and other areas. Andrew is one our most accomplished writers. – from The Age.)

The key line is the one emboldened above. Rule is here to talk about his role as a writer, and particularly his role as a writer of investigative journalist. When asked about his collaborative role in the Underbelly books, Rule somewhat cryptically tells us ‘well even blind musicians need a labrador…’ But it is more reasonable that the collaboration has happened organically, Rule and John Sylvester combining separate skills. Maybe one is more proficient with the writing, one more adept at the investigative groundwork? Rule does give us a clue, telling us ‘I can do grammar and punctuation and all that sort of stuff.’

I am interested in what Andrew Rule does as a writer, in what particular skills he needs to employ in his line of work, but he doesn’t talk about these things a great deal. What I surmise after a while is that part of his skill is the force of his personality. He is the guy that can spin a yarn, can create that ‘narrative arc’ that was mentioned a few times in the Sustaining News Stories panel session. Late in the session Rule tells a story he says we should ‘never ever talk about, outside this room’ (maybe he wasn’t told there was a festival blogger?) and also demonstrates how the personality can elicit information. There is a certain skill involved in negotiating with an ex-hit-man, a skill that allows you to tell the story that will get you what you need as well as not get yourself into trouble. Maybe this skill is something you either have or don’t? Rule says at one point ‘You can’t put in what God left out…’ implying that writers and investigators are born that way. But of course he also qualifies, saying that ‘you can learn the tricks’.

The troubling stories are the ones Rule is famous for. (We are told his next book will be Underbelly: The Golden Casket.) An interesting question arising from the themes of Rule’s work had to do with violence. Why is this the news, but more importantly, has Underbelly glamourised violence and criminal activity? Rule is unconvinced (though he does make it clear the television series is not anything of his doing), because he claims crime has been glamourised for thousands of years. It’s intriguing, and people will be interested. It is true. Sex and death will capture an audience’s attention. What I like then is his quoting of The Highwayman, and, especially, the putting out there of this image: ‘the moon was a ghostly galleon…’ (An English teacher tried to teach me about metaphor in highschool, using this image. It is now burned into my synapses.) I’m not sure where the discussion of violence could then go. It is a topic for a thousand sessions itself.

But unfortunately the stories have to come to an end, and it is quite a disappointment (despite my blog-tiredness) because you could listen to Andrew Rule talk about his exploits for hours. He has to catch a plane though, and ends it all in a straightforward manner: ‘No more stories!’