Over a decade ago, Sue-Ellen Doherty connected with Queensland-based journalist, reviewer and business-writing teacher Sandra Hogan to assist her in publishing the story of her youth.
The product of their collaboration is With My Little Eye, a non-fiction novel that recalls the true story of the Doherty children—three kids who were recruited into the ASIO by their parents in the 1950s.
A huge congratulations on the publication of With My Little Eye! It truly is an exceptional novel. What motivated you to begin writing this hilarious tale of spies in the suburbs?
It came to me. I’d love to claim great journalistic insight, but actually the story was presented to me on a plate. Sue-Ellen came to me, we knew each other just a little, and she came and asked if I would write her story about being a child spy. When she first told me, I didn’t believe it; I was sceptical—it seemed unlikely! But at the same time it was such a great story, the kind you wait a whole career for. After a little while, I did believe her—she had that authentic detail and, eventually, we got that confirmation from the ASIO. And at that point I knew I could write a book about it.
What was it like to research the novel and how long did it take? How did acquiring the information for this book differ from your previous projects?
Well, it’s a very difficult topic to research. It’s very rare for spies or even ex-spies to talk about what they’ve done! Because of that rarity, I couldn’t do a lot of research. The ASIO doesn’t give out information—they collect it; they don’t distribute it—so I wasn’t able to get anything directly from them. The research, in effect, was mainly talking to the family and that took a long time. I had to wait for them to be willing—it took me over seven years!
What has stuck with you the most from this experience? Was there something you learnt or felt that has remained with you throughout the process of writing and publishing?
I learnt a lot. One of the first things that comes to mind is that I learnt about memory. I guess I had an idea that memories are correct, that you can’t argue with them, that it’s information that’s filed away in a filing cabinet and it’s right! I guess I discovered that you can actually file away misinformation. People can remember things inaccurately, we all can and we probably all do! That was fairly terrifying, especially because I was writing a book that was built on memory. When the family agreed to speak to me however, because they were all talking at the same time, they were able to check and confirm facts as we went, so they were able to work out which memories were accurate and which weren’t. I found that really fascinating and quite extraordinary!
As a journalist, you learn and share the stories of others. How has writing this book influenced your current and future work?
Well, you know I think that I probably recognised a fascination within myself with family secrets. I think that’s probably likely to appear in future works.
We always ask our interviewees for their book recommendations! What have you enjoyed recently and why?
The last book I read is by Susan Johnson and it’s called From Where I Fell. It’s going to be out in March—I was lucky enough to read an advance copy! It’s a very gripping novel with two voices in it. It really is a rollercoaster of a read and I loved it!