Rick Morton: “Gay, working class, vulnerable: my very existence is political”

Rick Morton, whose third book "My Year of Living Vulnerably" was released in March, is a star attraction at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo: Perry Duffin/supplied.

Blocked by his own dad on Facebook, going on his first date at 33 and love-bombing his friends: Rick Morton’s year of living vulnerably. By Gary Nunn.

One of Rick Morton’s most oft-used phrases is: “I hate that word.” 

The wordsmith’s passion for clarity and creativity – the benchmarks of his unique style that have made his books bestsellers – is the cause of said hatred. 

He tells me that he hates, respectively, the words ‘introvert’, ‘microaggressions’, ‘awakening’ and ‘memoir’ – all, coincidentally, fundamental things that have made him the journalistic and literary titan who sits before me today, intermittently listening attentively and talking at pace.

It’s a lexical self-flagellation; he says he hates them immediately after using them, as if his formidable diction and eloquence are sufficient for everyone but him. 

In addition to being senior reporter at The Saturday Paper and, before that, social affairs writer at The Australian, Morton, 34, is an acclaimed non-fiction author. His debut, One Hundred Years of Dirt (Melbourne University Publishing, 2018) was featured on both awards shortlists and bestseller lists. It led to his extended essay, On Money (Hachette, 2020) and then his current “part memoir”. But he hates that word. 

The limits of language are the limits of love

Sometimes, the English language itself is insufficient to convey our own multitudes – a point he makes elegantly in his latest book, My Year of Living Vulnerably (4th Estate, 2021). 

For example, says Morton, the Finnish have a word (one he loves) for ‘bouncy cushion satisfaction’ – Hyppytyynytyydytys – to detail the distinct pleasure of sitting down for the first time in a comfortable chair.

The hate for the limits of his own vast vocabulary is pretty much the only hate in his life right now; everything else is love-bombing.

“Where we limit the language of love and all its forms, we squander the chance to experience those same sensations,” he writes. “Having opened the door just a crack, I began to let the light wash in.”

He has started telling everyone he loves them, rectifying the “extreme lack of love” from his father in his childhood.

Rick has learnt to say “I love you” so often, it’s as it were “an animal’s name and calling it again and again would stop it walking over the threshold of a door and out of my life for good”.

The cover of Rick Morton’s latest book, My Year of Living Vulnerably (4th Estate). Image: supplied.

Originality by reinvention

Such inventive analogies are a hallmark of Morton’s narrative non-fiction writing: not just original but also beautiful.

His generosity of spirit has afforded him largesse: as we sit in a Surry Hills coffee shop, he’s only just caught his breath from non-stop Sydney Writers’ Festival events where he’s the star turn, including in how-to workshops, where he offers some of the secrets to his innovative writing style. 

Not that he can believe it; in a recent creative writing workshop, he was bemused by the fact other professional writers were in attendance. “That’s so unnerving!” he says. “I just think: ‘What am I actually teaching you?’”

So how does one devise such original metaphors? In one exercise he invited attendees to read out random nouns, adjectives and verbs. Morton will match “totally unrelated” ideas with each other to create unique imagery and associations that aren’t immediately obvious. “We’re re-imagining clichés,” he says.

Two years ago, this exercise coined the phrase “electric yearning” – a pairing Morton vowed to use in his book – and did. “Slow fear” was another winning neologism. “See I love that,” he says, his blue eyes bright with semantic possibility. “It’s like the fear of childhood – a slow fear. Almost oxymoronic. It’s magical,” he says. 

Despite his introversion, he loves the performance element of speaking events: “I get to show off. I enjoy being on stage and making people laugh. It isn’t all tragedy and trauma!” he says, a nod to recently being diagnosed with complex PTSD.

His writing doesn’t just contain originality in its analogies; it’s also distinct in its approach to the playful detour. In Vulnerably, on evolution, Morton writes: “Any system that takes … millions of years to form the wing can only be truly appreciated through the prism of love.” The next, he counterbalances by asking the reader to also “confront the fact that evolution gave female spotted hyenas completely fused-shut vaginas”.

It was why finding his ‘voice’–- often touted as the hardest part of writing – was easy for Morton, even though he “feels silly” saying it aloud. He reeks of humility. “I’ve got a mind that goes off in all directions all the time,” he says, “and I write exactly how I speak.”

A unique lovechild

Morton is conceivably a lovechild of Caitlin Moran and Shannon Molloy, two other acclaimed journalists turned authors. 

Like Moran, Morton’s foray into journalism came from humble, working class beginnings and landed at one of Murdoch’s most august mastheads (The Times for Moran; The Australian for Morton). Like her, he uses the feeling of being out of place, side by side with stuffier Oxbridge types, as a gift of sardonic observation to puncture the superciliousness, and an opportunity to bring the uniquely working class perspective to a key audience. And like her, he’s funny.

“I was besotted with the idea I was moving in this world even though I had no right,” he says of his sharp rise from “sheltered” country boy to urbane social affairs expert. So were others, it seems. He recalls at university – which he dropped out of “because I lost my mind” – those from more privileged families treated him like “a museum exhibit”. Like Moran, he’s learnt to make that perceived lack of polish his charm.

Like Shannon Molloy, he brings the growing-up-gay-in-rural-Queensland perspective – a brutal time and place to do so, as Mollloy details in his harrowing and essential book, Fourteen. 

And like Molloy, acting news editor at news.com.au, both have faced off flak for being “Murdoch hacks”. Both have responded elegantly by noting the influence they have over a key audience; they’re not preaching to the converted.

Rick Morton has faced off flak for working for the Murdoch press. Photo: Perry Duffin/supplied.

“Working at The Australian was bad for my mental health”

He points out that sometimes the same “tribal” people who attacked him for working for The Australian are celebrating his Saturday Paper columns. The irony isn’t lost. “My journalism there is exactly the same – it hasn’t changed!” he insists. “It’s dangerous to get anyone thinking you’re like one of them. I’ll disappoint you one day when I write – hopefully truthfully – about a policy issue you might disagree with.”

Despite reaching a key audience and being told by those in the disability sector that he’d changed their lives, Morton says working at The Australian was “really bad for my mental health”.

First, he “copped it” from some in his own LGBTQI community: “Like every minority – suddenly you’re expected to solve everything. If you aren’t seen to be doing enough then you’re the bad guy whilst actual privileged people skate through – their personal life isn’t a political statement,” he says.

The unfairness of it still grates him. “These were middle class people saying ‘you should leave’ to me, a working class bloke, trying to financially support my mum. I was thinking: ‘What sacrifices have you ever made? … I don’t have the options and connections to fall back on that you do.’”

Then there was one moment when he realised his own class – something he says is “often hidden” in Australia, where accent differentiation is less of an obvious marker than in the UK – makes his “very existence” political. 

It was when the proposed (later scrapped) $7 GP co-payment became a media topic in 2014-15. “Editors were saying, ‘What does it matter?’ It’s fucking everything,” he says, continuing the theme of the realities of growing up poor, which he explores in the blisteringly raw On Money.

But the hardest moments came when issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage and the Safe Schools program to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools were discussed at news conferences. “I did what I learnt to do growing up,” he says. “I shrank. I made myself small. Then I made myself physically invisible – I’d leave the office so their gay writer couldn’t be made to do it.”

He’s still proud of his own social affairs reporting there – especially on issues such as the NDIS, aged care and welfare.

He takes aim at the cancel culture that drove the flak: “Purity is the easiest thing in the world – just don’t work for anyone ever and do your own thing,” he says. “If that helps you sleep at night and makes you look good on social media, great, but what have you ever risked to change something?”

“Nothing is ever truly objective”

The ‘old guard’ of journalism had as its guiding principles objectivity and impartiality to root out all bias.

But there’s a new guard coming through, with Morton in its ranks, who reject steadfast objectivity in favour of something braver: empathy. They show us that it needn’t negate balance, but it does re-write some ‘golden rules’ imparted to journalists through their training.

“We still need factual accounts – the wire, public journalism,” he says. But when I ask if there’s room for empathy in features reporting, he’s definitive. “It’s not a case of can we,” he says. “We must.”

He continues: “The old guard belted into you that you’re not the voice. That’s fine till you realise your life is political. … You don’t get a choice. You turn up to work being political every day.

“I couldn’t divorce myself from the same-sex marriage debate,” he says, by way of example.

To the people who labelled him biased in his welfare reporting because he grew up poor, he responds: “That makes me a subject matter expert. People don’t accuse you of being biased if you grew up rich!”

In non-fiction, he thinks it’s useful for a writer to insert themselves judiciously into a narrative to provide context and clarity. “Nothing is ever truly objective,” he says. “Interpreting feels like a service to the reader. And I like that.”

In reporting, it all comes back to who his journalism is for, he says. “Not NDIS or aged care service providers. Not for MPs. Not even for taxpayers. It’s for the people for whom these systems are meant to operate.”

“Nothing is ever truly objective,” says Rick Morton. Photo: Perry Duffin/supplied.

33 and never been on a date  

As part of his year of living vulnerably, Morton speaks frankly about his parents, his sexual orientation and himself.

We get to know Deb, his beloved mum, as if she’s a character – one who has now featured in all three of his books. It has bestowed upon Deb a status she never expected – but one that alleviates her biggest fear of perception: “I think my success is a reflection of her parenting,” he says. “It quells her worry of looking like a bad mum.”

Deb is now more broadly beloved. At Morton’s first book launch, she was approached by fans to sign his book. “She was so befuddled she didn’t know what to do!” he says, laughing. “So she just wrote a series of facts: ‘Rick is my number two son in the order of birth.’”

Meanwhile, his dad blocked him on Facebook after his first book came out. “It’s a very 21st century phenomenon,” he says. “I hadn’t had a relationship with my dad and now we’re no longer friends!”

It’s ironic because, he says, the book humanised his dad by contextualising his neglect through the hurt in his own life. “He’s buried everything so deep, he just doesn’t want to go there,” he says. It reminds me of a wry line from the new book: “Remember, if you’re a bloke and you talk, then you are probably a woman.”

In the book, he goes on his first ever date, then aged 33, with a man. “I just couldn’t conceive anyone would find me interesting or attractive,” he says.

“My straight peers learnt how things should and shouldn’t work as teenagers. That just wasn’t that option for young gay men in my generation, from my far west Queensland town,” he says.

“There are all these dating rituals and symbols straight people just get to know as they go into their 20s. I still don’t understand them..”

What’s next

After three what he calls “hybrid memoirs”, Morton – who wants to “keep writing books till I die” – wants to change direction.

“I want to take a person, idea, event or court case and investigate the fuck out of it,” he says. 

Eventually, he wants to move into fiction. “I keep a notes folder in my phone of funny dialogue or snippets just so I can study how people speak,” he says. 

“I’ve been paying attention.”

For Rick Morton, it’s the habit of a lifetime.

My Year of Living Vulnerably (RRP $34.99) is available now.

Rick Morton is a guest at multiple 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival events. For details, visit www.swf.org.au/writers/rick-morton/.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.