Tom Doig aims for new heights in Canada

Monash PhD candidate and author Tom Doig.

Monash University PhD candidate and author Tom Doig has been offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study with renowned scholar Naomi Klein at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s writing residency in Canada.

Tom, who has already published a book during his PhD candidature, shares some insight into his marathon post-graduate journey.

What inspired you to study the Hazelwood mine fire as a PhD topic?

When I started my Journalism PhD in 2013, my initial topic was very broad: people’s lived experiences of climate change in Australia. As I refined the scope of my project, I decided that focusing on climate-change-related disasters would help me contain my PhD.

Disasters are good “case studies” in that they are tangible, they are of immediate public interest, and they usually unfold as dramatic, emotionally engaging narratives. The Hazelwood Mine caught fire on 9 February 2014, and I first visited the “disaster zone” two weeks into the six-week fire.

The more I found out about the mine fire, and the Latrobe Valley in general, the more I realised that this one disaster contained more than enough complex material for a single PhD.

How many people did you interview through that process?

I have interviewed 80 people over the past three years. These interviews were anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours long. The conversations were intimate, detailed and affecting – I tried to record as many sensory and emotional details as possible, along with precise facts and recollections, to “bring to life” people’s experiences for the reader. 

After my initial interviews, I wrote a draft of the book and sent relevant sections of the draft to the people involved, so that they could fact-check my work, and add further details.

In many cases I did follow-up interviews, sometimes up to half a dozen follow-up interviews, to gather the material necessary to tell the mine fire story through the eyes of its victims and its community heroes. It was very much a consensual, collaborative work in that respect.

What do you hope to achieve through your work with Naomi Klein in Canada?

Naomi Klein, as well as being one of my writerly heroes, is guest faculty at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s writing residency, “Frontline: Environmental Reportage“. This is an intensive two-week program that combines masterclasses, discussions and one-on-one editorial feedback.

I feel like my strength as a writer is telling personal, visceral stories – capturing the “lived experience” of disaster and bringing it to life on the page. I am less confident with my ability to relate this specific disaster event – the mine fire – to the range of important issues it touches on: from the threats of climate change, to the uncertain future of the fossil fuel industry, to the unregulated and unaccountable nature of multinational corporate capitalism (which contributed strongly to the extent of the disaster).

These subjects are “boring but important”, and much harder to write about in a compelling way – for me at least. I hope Naomi Klein, author of the amazing book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), will help me write about these issues in a clear, persuasive and powerful way.

How many books have you published?

I have published two books so far: Moron to Moron: Two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure (Allen & Unwin, 2013), and The Coal Face (Penguin, 2015), which was a preliminary research outcome of my PhD. The book I am working on now, Hazelwood, is an expansion of and sequel to The Coal Face

What inspired you to become an author and researcher?

Good question! Well, when I was at high school, my best friend’s mother, Vicky Feltham (who is a very talented writer), lent me a classic work of 1960s New Journalism – first Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

This led me to Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, then Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem … these books blew me away, and showed how writing could be about real life, and very much nonfictional, but still written with style and flair. After that, no other occupation seemed as worthwhile as being a writer.

And in terms of research, well – I just don’t seem to be able to stay away from uni for more than a couple of years at a time! I really enjoy the research process, and am rampantly interdisciplinary, so I love reading about cognitive linguistics, and social psychology, and media ethics, and disaster sociology, and … so on.

What has been the timeline of your project?

I started my PhD in March 2013; after much scoping and refining of my project’s scope and methodologies, and a couple of preliminary trips to the Latrobe Valley, I began fieldwork in earnest in September 2014, through till December 2014.

I wrote and published The Coal Face by March 2015, then conducted follow-up research throughout 2015, while also working on my exegesis. My final fieldwork excursion was in late March 2017, to witness the closure of Hazelwood Power Station – a historic moment for the Latrobe Valley community, and for Victoria.

What has been the most challenging aspect of completing a PhD?

The most challenging aspect of completing a PhD is stopping the research process!

There are always more people to talk to, more leads to chase up, more books to read, more angles to explore … and this always-something-else phenomenon is even more pronounced when doing journalism research, when the object of study – Hazelwood, the Latrobe Valley – keeps changing on a monthly and even weekly basis.

You can always find out more; the trick is, convincing yourself that you know enough already!