Taking a gamble: Michaela McGuire on ‘Last Bets’
When Michaela McGuire came across the death of Crown Casino patron Anthony Dunning in the news, she began to follow the court case and was eventually inspired to write Last Bets (MUP, June), a ‘grown-up book’ about the gambling industry. She spoke to Portia Lindsay. Read Lindsay’s review here.
Last Bets is about gambling, but also thoroughly demonstrates how a trial works. Were you drawn to this story as a court case as well as a gambling issue?
Absolutely. Working in law firms has been paying my bills for years, but I’d never been involved in a criminal trial, much less inside a courtroom. I spent a total of nine weeks observing this matter make its way through the courts, and became completely obsessed. I think I drove all of my friends a bit mad, actually. At parties I’d just drag somebody into a corner, tell them my theories then demand their opinions. It was fascinating, watching lawyers and witnesses grapple with different versions of the same story until a verdict was eventually reached. Being present in court while the defence quite regularly argued for certain details to be struck from witness statements, and the newspapers, was an eye-opener for me, as well as all the careful closed-door discussions that took place once the jury had been excused.
You certainly interviewed some interesting people and dedicated a lot of time to the trial of the bouncers. What was the most challenging part of writing this book for you?
As well as the boring stuff like figuring out how I was going to afford to live while I sat in court then wrote this book, I found it difficult to balance my account. I spend a lot of time probing the gap between ethics and the law, but wanted to do so without getting too bogged down in the legalities, politics or the moral high ground. It took me a while to find my feet and to feel comfortable writing, well, a grown-up book I guess. The toughest part was probably landing interviews. I was never able to speak formally with Crown Casino or the Victoria Police, and had to rely on a lot off-the-record conversations. I spent two hours chasing David Walsh around Hobart, essentially being interviewed for an interview, and he definitely put me through my paces.
How did writing this book change the way you view gambling?
I had a very negative perception of gambling going in, which was actually what sparked the idea for writing this book. I’d worked in a casino when I was 20 and loathed every moment of being there, then instinctively transferred that hatred to all elements of gambling. It was when I realised that I couldn’t articulate what it was that I found so off-putting that I decided to investigate the issue more fully. I have a more nuanced understanding of gambling now, and a better idea of the peculiar effect it can have on individuals as well as institutions.
Do you already have plans for a new book or are you waiting for another issue to grab you?
I’ve spent the last six years working on back-to-back books, so I’m going to attempt to take it easy on myself for a little while. I’ve got the first glimmers of an idea, but want to take a bit of time and make sure it’s the right story for me to take on.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I was reading a lot of nonfiction while I wrote Last Bets so the first thing I did when I handed the manuscript in was open a big, fat novel. I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little, Brown) and just loved it so much. For the three days it took me to read it, I woke up every morning feeling so excited that I’d get to read such a compelling, intelligent, fun book that day.