The dedication in my book We’ll Show the World: Expo 88 reads, ‘To the people who conceived, planned, and executed World Expo 88, the people who objected to it, and the people who loved it. You were all right’. While I may appear to be indulging in Olympic-level fence-sitting here, I submit to you that the more correct term (as coined by me in defence of myself) is ‘side-straddling’—a concept that also imbued the transformation of my thesis on Expo 88 into a popular history book.
This is the story of how I side-straddled my way from PhD to published author without accidentally doing the splits.
My book launched on 30 April 2018—thirty years after the commencement of Expo 88—at the Ship Inn, which is part of the former Expo site on the South Bank Parklands in Brisbane. It was great—you should have been there. It booked out in two days and there were more VIPs than you could shake a Commonwealth Games closing ceremony at. While this may appear to be bragging, I submit to you that the more correct term is ‘bragging adjacent’. I didn’t generate this response; the ongoing popularity of Expo did. So—behold! Step one to publication: write something that people will want to read. For bonus points, where feasible (i.e., not when you’re covering Maralinga), have your launch in an area significant to your book’s subject and on a major anniversary in relation to that subject.
At the launch, I was asked two questions that are relevant to this piece. The first was ‘Why a book?’ The short answer is ‘because there wasn’t one already’. Of course, many Expo-related publications were produced at the time, but these invariably have an ‘eau de souvenir’ whiff about them, and the celebratory Expo anniversary specials produced every five years or so border on hagiographic. Conversely, there has been excellent critical analysis of select aspects of Expo by journalists and academics—but these pieces seldom engage with the event’s extraordinary popularity. I attended and adored Expo, but I’m aware of the many warrantable controversies surrounding it and its instigating government.
The book that didn’t exist—but that does now, because I wrote it—examines the good, the bad, and the eighties to properly interrogate the significance of this event to Brisbane.
The other pertinent question I was asked was ‘Why a PhD?’ The short answer is ‘in a bid to get people to call me Doctor Expo’. An even shorter—though undoubtedly more relevant—answer is ‘fear’. Expo is taken very seriously in these parts.
YOU DO NOT WANT TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT EXPO AND GET IT WRONG.
As a form of protective intellectual clothing, I wanted to be supervised and examined by experts (shout out to Professor Peter Spearritt and Doctor Geoff Ginn at The University of Queensland); I wanted access to UQ’s extraordinary collections and beyond; and I wanted the imprimatur that comes with being a UQ PhD candidate when I was seeking interviews with those who conceived, planned, executed, and protested Expo 88.
Many of the prerequisites to commencing a PhD were already in place for me, as I had majored in modern history as an undergrad at UQ; my honours thesis was also in history (on Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution and possessor of a grossly inferior PR instinct to Charles Darwin). An Australian Postgraduate Awards Scholarship was the ‘how I can eat’ piece in this thesis puzzle.
Fast forward to the end of my PhD journey (gee—that didn’t hurt a bit!) and the foundations were laid for a reasonably seamless conversion (under two years) from thesis to book.
It certainly helped that my supervisors had allowed me to write the thesis in a relatively accessible style. It also helped that I had a book in mind from the outset and knew to obtain concurrent thesis and publication permissions from my interview subjects. Other expeditious factors included my ‘side-straddling’ of academia and creative writing interests, which gave me a handy pre-existence in the literary sphere as both an artist and an arts administrator, important by-products of which include building industry networks, collecting some awards, and gaining an agent (shout out to Alex Adsett!).
The most important part of this whole process was, of course, the publisher. I wouldn’t have this book without one, and I doubt I’d have this kind of book without UQP. Their Non-Fiction Publisher (shout out to Alexandra Payne!) didn’t just have faith in me, she had faith in the public’s appetite for a scholarly book on Expo 88 (albeit with some judicious ‘de-academicising’). Working with the UQP team has been such a dream that I can only muster one regret: as they were already in possession of the relevant facts, nobody had cause to ask me the Publishing 101 question, ‘Why are you the best person to write this book?’—so I never got to ease back into my chair, tilt up my chin, and say ‘Call me Doctor Expo’.
I suppose I do have one question to answer: why have I used so many sporting metaphors in this piece about a cultural phenomenon? More pertinent terminology includes ‘methodology’, ‘theoretical approach’, and ‘hybrid’. But I submit to you that the process of objectively weighing the disparate views of Expo protesters, politicians, producers, and attendees, and then hosting many of them inside a 150-year-old wooden building at the book launch … that’s Olympic.