Luke Williams’ most memorable journalistic triumphs seem to revolve around him making very bad decisions and living to write about them.
He rapidly rose to journalistic fame in April 2014 through a jaw-dropping piece in the Saturday Paper about how he got addicted to crystal meth while researching a story. His initial euphoria, which turned into psychosis, as well as the tragic toll the drug took on those around him, is vividly detailed in the stunning piece, which earned him a Walkley nomination and a book contract.
Shortly afterward, Williams moved into notorious Melbourne boarding house The Gatwick, which he chronicled in a piece for Fairfax’s Good Weekend. About two weeks through his month-long stay, he once again started taking crystal meth. Within hours of the first hit, his bank account had been emptied. But the story was not all about drugs. His unflinching portrayals of his interactions, both good and bad, with the residents gave Fairfax’s urbane readership a glimpse into the world of Australia’s underclass, one little covered and less understood.
His work has come been published in News Corp too — a recent piece on news.com.au recounts his visit to Pattaya in Thailand, described as an “open-air brothel”. William had conversations with the Western men who visit the capital of sleaze — and partook of the activities himself, going into a bar and striking up a conversation with a Thai man, ultimately inviting him back to his hotel room. Williams says he was unaware the man was a prostitute — before leaving the man asked Williams for payment, and Williams handed him $12. Williams uses his own experience to illustrate the sex-soaked loneliness of the place:
“It’s my final day in Pattaya, thank Buddha for that. I’m not just near-broke — every mirror in town seems to show nothing but my wrinkles and receding hairline. Paying for sex makes me feel less sleazy, than desperate, unattractive and in decay. Local Thai agencies are reporting a high number of homeless western men in Pattaya seeking charity help after their love affairs go wrong. I am not surprised. If I was not wearing 70-cent thongs, honestly, I would sell my shoes just so somebody would touch me again.”
Williams has a long freelance career behind him. But his rise to mainstream recognition after his 2014 Saturday Paper piece has been rapid. Interest in Williams’ style of journalism from overseas has been even greater than it is here, especially now that he’s relocated to south-east Asia to make his pay cheques from Western media companies stretch further.
He was recently in Melbourne on the latest stop on a tour of Australian writers’ festivals to promote his crystal meth book, The Ice Age. His journalism poses huge risks, especially given he’s a freelancer. And many ethical issues arise when one is so enmeshed in a story. At an empty coffeehouse in Melbourne Williams tells Crikey his stories usually have no editorial oversight. At least, not at the start. He says that generally, he does a story off his own bat, then pitches the finished product to a publisher.
“They’d say no if I was to pitch them these ideas,” he says by way of explanation. “Like, when I moved into The Gatwick, I’d already moved into that. Then [Good Weekend editor] Ben [Naparstek] got a lot of flak — he was accused of telling a former drug addict to go and live in a drug den. But he didn’t actually commission it. I discussed it with him when I was already in there.
“I didn’t realise it was a drug den, either. Ben, bless his socks, didn’t even really know what a boarding house was. You know, he’s not from that ilk. And then when he left and there was a new editor starting there, I said that I wanted to go and live in a refugee camp on the Turkish border. I got told no, told I’d probably get hung for being gay or whatever. It was too dangerous. But if I had just gone and done it, I’m sure they would have published it.”
Isn’t Williams concerned for his own health and safety?
“Of course I am,” he says. But the 36-year-old says he’s at peace with his accomplishments in life so far. “I feel I’ve done everything I need to do. I’m getting out of drug addiction too. It helps me to add excitement and edge to my life that’s not drug related.”
Most journalists never really get into the mindset of those they’re writing about. Immersive journalism may pose more risks, but Williams says it’s worth it.
“I love that regardless of your predispositions or your political position, it’ll always be challenged if you immerse yourself in a story. Reality is always more complicated. That’s why it’s hard sometimes to try to tie in the story to some political model. But it’s never that simple. When you spend times with people, it’s clear so many things happened, and it’s just complicated.”
“If you look at Good Weekend, they’re all stock standard, formulaic features. A bit of colour at the start, then, ‘this person isn’t the only one’, then you have for and against, this is the issue, blah blah blah, then back to the original scene at the end. I think people get tired of that.”
There’s a commercial consideration, too. People just love reading about psychosis, Williams says. While he didn’t intend to relapse, that kind of thing has been a way for him to stand out as a freelancer.
“I need to sell my soul, reveal all this horrible stuff about myself, because people are interested in it. And it helps a story sell. And once I’ve established myself … and I’m able to make a full-time living, then I can do more serious investigative stuff once I’m financially stable.
“I always thought that was my edge as a journalist,” he adds. “I came from a different lifestyle to other journalists, and I didn’t feel like I was as smart or as organised as them, but I had these interesting life experiences I could draw upon.”
Not that he’s always operated alone. Williams honed his craft at Triple J, where he pitched immersive, gonzo stories about things most people have little experience with. After several years, the station turned down his pitch of a dedicated show.
This was a blow. “I felt like I’d fucked up my entire life,” Williams says. “I was aged 27 and had spent my life geared towards one goal. So obviously I went back to drugs.”
Rehab followed, as did a law degree. In the meantime, he still wrote, mostly on labour law issues. He wanted to be a labour lawyer. “Then when I worked as a lawyer, I realised it was far worse than being a journalist. You’re stuck in an office all day. And I realised what I missed about the media was not being a celebrity, which is what I was trying to do and failed at … But I actually enjoyed going out and reporting. And it never felt like a job. You’re out and about, living life and being a witness to it. I wanted to find a way to make a living out of it. I went back and thought of all the stuff I did for Triple J, I thought of a way to adapt that and always came back to the fact that I’ve always hung out with petty criminals and all these dodgy people. I realised that’s obviously my edge, and obviously my way in.”
Williams now lives in Asia, where he’s working on a book about Westerners with weird experiences there. His next stop is Manila, where he wants to report on the killings of drug dealers and users unleashed by the election of populist president Rodrigo Duterte.
“There will be social value in me telling that story,” Williams says. “And I won’t take drugs, or I might end up dead.”