Writer Lee Zachariah found his personal life crumbling around him and decided to focus on someone else’s turmoil: the government’s. Putting his life (and sleep) on hold to join the campaign trail for the 2016 Australian Federal Election, Lee spent months travelling around Australia, meeting politicians, volunteers and voters and trying to make sense of both the impending election and his own relationship breakdown. The result is Double Dissolution, a witty and wistful book that is part memoir, part politics, part road trip.
We spoke to Lee about his time on the trail, how writing about his personal life helped him face it, the upcoming US election, and why we should all travel around Australia more (especially that one bit near Tamworth).
BR: Congrats on the release of Double Dissolution! Other than a more comprehensive knowledge of the voting preference system, what would you like readers to take away from this book?
LZ: Wait wait wait, who says I want readers to get a more comprehensive knowledge of the voting preference system? I may want to run for office one day, and the only chance I will possibly have is people remaining ignorant about how our system actually works. I’ve got to think about my future here.
The book is a personal journey of self-disovery, it’s a chronicle of a federal election, it’s a road trip, and it’s a bunch of jokes. So what I’m hoping people take away from it “breakups are difficult”, “politics is weird”, “I should see more of Australia”, and “easy on the Sydney jokes, buddy”.
BR: You originally planned for the book to be a collection of purely political articles – when did you realise it needed to have your personal story in it too? Was it challenging to write the private stuff, knowing friends and family would read it?
I realised it should be personal right after I pitched the impersonal version. I was struck almost immediately by the parallels: I was married right before the 2013 election, we moved to London for a fresh start just as Turnbull took over, and we broke up right before parliament was dissolved. The moment those similarities clicked into place, the clouds opened and I realised this was the story I had to tell. Not the story of the marriage itself, or even the breakup, but of me post-breakup on a quest for answers. That’s what an election is, in many ways. Everyone looking for answers.
A year ago, I would never have written anything personal. I could never understand why people would ever want to do that, and I never imagined I would ever consider it. But then my friend Rochelle Siemienowicz wrote an incredible semi-fictionionalised memoir called Fallen, which was one of the most revealing and honest things I’d ever read, and seeing her continue with her life as normal made me realise I could probably write about my own life without having to go into hiding afterwards.
But also, this year I was feeling so raw and battered that risking public embarrassment seemed completely insignificant next to, well, everything else. And writing is how I deal with things, so I figured if I was ever going to get through the breakup, writing a book was probably the way to do it. Amazingly, it worked.
BR: While on the trail, you ended up traversing quite a lot of Australia. Is there any town (or electorate) you’d be keen to go back and revisit?
Seriously, all of it. I have a very deep and intense love of this country, which I try not to talk about because it’s achingly corny and I have this cool exterior I’m trying unsuccessfully to cultivate. But there are few things I love more than the south coast of New South Wales, or the southwest of Victoria, or the roads that takes you over the border into Queensland. Driving these long stretches was profoundly cathartic, and my favourite parts of the book are when the parts where it’s a road trip. I try to convey what this land is like, because a few years ago I learned that many Australians don’t actually see other parts of Australia all that much. And I think they’re missing out.
In the book, I get a decent bit of material about the dullest part of the trip, which was taking the Sturt Highway from Canberra to Adelaide. It’s a pretty scenery-devoid drive, long and flat and uninteresting, and yet I still miss that day like crazy. I did the 1200 kms in 14 hours nonstop, and I can’t think about it without wishing I was back there on that long, horizontal stretch.
Oh, the countryside just south of Tamworth at sunset is one of the most annoyingly beautiful things you’ll ever see in your life. Okay, I’ll stop now.
BR: At one point in the book you say that ‘politics is perception.’ How do you think public perception of our various leaders has affected the current political landscape?
It’s affected it completely and thoroughly. We’re not actually being swamped by Asians or Muslims or Romulans or whatever the hell Pauline Hanson is frightened of this week. Our way of life wasn’t under threat because some people tried to come over here by boat, and we’re not safer because the government has stopped telling us about boat arrivals, and we’re not compassionate because we’ve retroactively claimed that we’re actually motivated by a desire for people not to die at sea. But this narrative that doesn’t resemble reality has now taken hold, and far too many people believe it, and elections are being fought on a faulty perception. Which is all well and theoretical until you remember that there are actual children being kept behind wire fences. And hey, isn’t it great that we now have a political landscape where objecting to children being locked up is considered a controversial political statement? There’s a bit in the book where a teenage protestor tries to find common ground with a man who disagrees with him. “Free the children, right?” the kid asks. The man’s response to him makes me laugh and weep in about equal measure.
BR: How are you really feeling about the upcoming US election? Has it become harder or easier to find humour in?
I’ve never believed Trump was going to win. It’s not that I have any particular insight, I just read a lot of people who do, and once you get past the false-equivalency horserace that fuels 24 hour news networks, the numbers pretty much spell it out.
At first it was easy to find humour in it, because the 2016 election is the most insane, inept thing I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Every day there are about seventeen new things that you can’t quite believe have happened. It’s a full time job just keeping up with them, and for a long time I felt you have to find the funny in it because otherwise it’s just too depressing. This gets harder when you have a candidate inciting race riots, abusing women, etc. I think I’ve actually passed the point where I no longer want to laugh at him. I just want him left on the trash heap of history. That he will be a cautionary tale, his name mud forever more, is the closest thing I can get to consolation.
I’m still worried though, because Trump has brought white supremacy back into the mainstream. Self-identified Nazis – not pejorative “oh, that person is such a Nazi”, but actual card-carrying Nazis – are talking about how excited they are to vote for him. Trump is telling his supporters to be vigilant on election day and keep a close eye on polling stations in case there’s corruption, although he doesn’t specify how to identify that corruption or what they should do if they think they see it. And he’s ramping up his suggestion that if he loses, it’ll be because the system is rigged. So I’m not worried about him winning, I’m worried about his toddler ego being unable to graciously accept defeat, and whipping his supporters into a frenzy of anger and frustration. I’m not worried about November 8. I’m worried about November 9.
It would have to be the very pleasant Liberal party volunteer who, unprompted, started telling me all of her opinions on eugenics and which races are smarter than which other races and who has the lowest IQs. I could barely write fast enough to keep up with her. That whole afternoon at the Parramatta pre-poll was extraordinary. I couldn’t even fit all of it into the article that did the rounds after it happened, but it’s all in the book.
BR: The book covers events from earlier this year right up until July, so you’ve clearly had a hectic 2016. What was the first thing you did when you got a break? What’s up next for you?
My way of taking a break is to find something else to work on. I spent a solid chunk of time rebuilding the website for my TV show The Bazura Project (a comedy show about film that started on community TV and then went to the ABC in 2011). We didn’t have a proper archive of the show anywhere, and so we found and re-uploaded every single clip and put it together in an easy-to-navigate website. The show was a lot of work to make, and we’re pretty proud of it, so it’s very satisfying to have it all together again.
I’m working on ideas for my next book, and I think I’ve figured out what it’s going to be. I’ll also be heading the USA next year because a script I wrote is being made into a feature film, amazingly enough. It hasn’t been announced yet so I can’t say too much, but they appear to have secured the funding so I’m confident enough to acknowledge its existence. Then, when all that’s over, maybe some sleep.
Click here to learn more or purchase a copy of Double Dissolution!