Where do you get your story ideas from? Are they drawn from life experiences? Or do you have a team helping you out with research?
(laughs) I wish I did. I’m the team. Basically I’ve always had a love for history and I always thought that Australian history was a little bit understated, particularly as you know from experience reading the books that we have aspects of our history that don’t often get publicised. Frontier, for example, our frontier here in Qld and the same that they had in Western Australia and Northern Territory. Most of the stories were always centred around convicts or paddle steamers on the Murray River and I thought to myself there’s another history to Australia as well. Of course that’s the inspiration for the Curlew series. As a result of that I picked up a very huge German readership, because German’s have always seen us as being frontier people. When they started reading my books I sort of took off in the top ten.
Is that why with Papua you put in a German character?
Yes, as a matter of fact, it’s not only the Germans. The books are published by the Dutch, Czechs, Italians, Bulgarians, I’ve lost track of all the people publishing them. I often get emails from these people overseas saying “We’re thinking of visiting Australia because we’ve read your books”.
That’s great isn’t it?
Yeah and I always joke, “I’ll never win a literary award but I might get the tourist Bureau award”.
How long would it take to go from your initial concept to putting a book on the stands out there?
It’s basically a year. My publishers contact me to do a book a year. The cycle is roughly one year from the idea to the actual book appearing on the bookstands.
You focus on historical stories and as you said before it wasn’t well covered, was it? You certainly opened my eyes up to our history, good and bad history.
I’m glad you asked that Dean because the thing I like to do is highlight the lesser known parts of our history. You know the forgotten people, for example in Eden, we’ve all heard of the Kokoda track but there would have been no Kokoda track if it hadn’t been for the Papua New Guinea volunteer rifles holding the Japanese at bay in lei. They got forgotten. The men on the Kokoda track deserve everything and more that was said about their efforts. But a bunch of old blokes who over 40 and shouldn’t have been carrying weapons held the Japanese at bay until we could even get troops on the Kokoda track.
So were you aware of that before you started researching for this novel or was that something that came up with as part of your research?
Well in this case I had served two years in Papua New Guinea with the police force up there. I heard stories from the old timers saying, “Fair enough you hear about the Kokoda track but we’ll tell you a story about the men who saved Australia but got forgotten”. And so I was then inspired to do for example Eden using my character of Jack Kelly who was the epitomy of the type of man that fought World War II battles. I was lucky because the President of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles rang me up after the book came out and he thanked me. He said, “You know nobody knows what we did until your book came out”. There’ve been historical books on the subject but people don’t read historical books. I always say, “What Wilbur Smith has done for Africa I’d like to do for Australia”. For example the next book that comes out, The Stone Dragon, is set against China in 1900 in the ????? rebellion and a lot of Australian’s wouldn’t realise but New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia sent Naval Brigades to fight there. So we were at war with China in 1900. The next one, of course, is set about the Australian’s who fought in Russia in 1919. A lot of war memorials of Australia have inscribed on it 1914-1919 and I’ve actually had people say to me, “They got that wrong, the war ended in 1918”. I say, “No, not for Australians because we were still fighting a year later in the snows of Russia”.
It must be a great feeling for you to be sharing this history with so many readers out there whom as you say if they weren’t reading books such as yours they wouldn’t be finding out this history because not many of us pick up a factual history book and read it page to page.
It was like the 3,000 Aussies that fought in New Zealand against the Maoris, we were so crook about the Kiwis coming to Australia but that’s our revenge for us going there in 1864. I was over there last year and I ran into people who said their Great Grand Father was an Aussie but we’re all Kiwis now because of the Aussies getting on the boats and going over to New Zealand to fight the Maoris. I was able to highlight that in The Silent Frontier.
What book would you say you are most proud of?
I think Eden in a way because I was able to give a group of men who had been forgotten some sort of voice in history, that particularly came in light of the phone call from their President. Yet it’s been the one that’s sold the least. It’s funny, my other books sold reasonably well but Eden is still sort of lagging behind.
When it leads on from Papua you would think it would just be a natural transition for the readers to pick that up where that left off.
It’s a case of telling a little bit more of the story, even the Kokoda track for that matter or what happened before it.
Who can fathom why your readers will pick up one book and not the next?
I’ve been accused by a few female readers of not being enough sex in the book lately. Some of them are over 80.
That’s one of things that is interesting and my father is a classic, as soon as any of that starts happening he’ll put a book down because he labels them as ‘women’s books’ straight away.
I love your Dad! When I started writing I thought I was writing for blokes and I found out 80% of my emails were from women. I couldn’t figure out why women would read these books. They said because they’re about family. So anything to do about family, and as you know the Curlew series is about the Mackintosh’s and Duffy’s, women will read them because they’re family. My publicist underestimated female readers, they said they’re not interested in history. But a lot of women are interested in history. I get in trouble at home because I like to watch the history channel and my wife would rather watch Jerry Springer or something.
What advice would you offer upcoming writers or people who are thinking about writing but haven’t taken it up? I read somewhere you got a lot of encouragement from family.
I’m going to quote Bryce Courtenay here, I read an article that he wrote. He’s first bit is being honest about the subject. As Bryce pointed out, a lot of these authors say you write from the heart. That’s fine but it won’t sell and it won’t get published. You write what people want to read, and if you do it well you’ll get published. So it’s not writing from the heart. People who write from the heart will possible create a literary novel, it’ll sell maybe a thousand copies and win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. But if you’re in the same category that I’m in which is ‘airport novel’ as they call them or ‘mass market novel’ you have to write what people want to read. In my case I took the obscure parts of our history rather than take the normal angle of Gallipoli or Ned Kelly and because I did this obscure part of history a lot of people found it interesting, because this was stuff they didn’t know before.
Do you have a structure you use for each novel?
Well I’ll tell you in this case I’m a little bit like a painter, I take a big canvass and the canvass might be a certain aspect of history. For example, the 3,000 Aussies who went to New Zealand and I thought this is interesting, how many Australians know about that? I looked up that part of the war, the 1864-66 campaign then went looking for my characters. It’s almost like cooking as well. To be a writer is a bit like being a cook and an artist, you have a canvass and at the same time you cook up a recipe. Of course, the recipe has to have the usual things of a bad guy, good guy, love, hate, revenge and so on. Shakespeare was doing all this stuff long before we were. And you put it all together, and if you do it in a reasonably credible way you’ve got a story.
It sounds so simple, but I know from Year 12 English it’s not as simple as you make it sound.
I always say when I meet cooks, we’re in the same business. We appeal to a sense and I admire great cooks. They don’t have to be professional chefs either.
That’s one of your passions isn’t it, you enjoy cooking and good wine.
I haven’t got a clue about wine but I put that in the blurb just to make me look intelligent.
You do have an agent, has that been the same agent all along? Or have you changed from Cry of the Curlew?
No. What happened, I originally had a man called Tony Williams and he was extremely well known in Australia and overseas and was one of the most knowledgeable men about the industry. He died from throat cancer and his off-sider took over, a man called Geoffrey Radford. Geoffrey is sort of handling things for me at the moment. It’s very important to have an agent because you’ve got all these strange publishers in places like Bulgaria who don’t want to pay you. So you need your agent to go over like a pit bull terrier and say, “Listen you owe him money.”
That’s an interesting aspect as well. Pan MacMillan publish your books, is that for all your books?
No. Pan MacMillan only publishes books for Australia and New Zealand. For example, the competitors in England, Transworld, publish my books and in Germany it’s some other publisher. So my publishers are all in competition. For example, in Australia Wilbur Smith and I both write for Pan MacMillan. I’ve met Wilbur and he’s probably the greatest gentleman in the business. A wonderful man and an inspiration to me. In England my books have on the front, “As good as Wilbur Smith or your money back”. It’s a bit like State of Origin, I always compare it to that. We’re on the same team over here but in England we’re in different camps. He’s publishing for one company and I’m publishing for another and of course they’ve got to try to beat each other at book sales. So it’s State of Origin!
Does it get frustrating for you always being compared to Wilbur Smith?
It’s not something I bring up, it’s something the media must see. We have a similar style in one way, that we have good guys and bad guys and historical events and so on. Wilbur was an inspiration, when I set out to write I looked around and I thought what formula is selling and it was Wilbur Smith. I thought what he’s done for Africa I want to do for Australia. At the same time it helps me a little bit, nobody has heard of me but they’ve all heard of Wilbur Smith. So if they see sort of thing about Wilbur Smith they think, “I’ll give him a try.” So I like it that way. But we do have a different style, every writer does have a different style. At the same time because Wilbur is such a wonderful man I’m pleased to be put in the same bracket. I remember when I first started they compared me to Bryce Courtenay and I had nothing in common with Bryce. His style is totally different. Bryce might spend a page describing a whaleboat and I’ll do that in one sentence. Whereas the Bryce Courtenay comparison soon dropped after a couple of books, people realised this is nothing like Bryce this is more like Wilbur.
Do you read a lot of other novels?
Oh yeah. Whenever I get the chance I’ve always got my head in a book. I tend to read what I write. Growing up as a kid I read everything, John Steinbeck, James O’Micher and Leon Uris, Al Robbins. Lately it’s been Bernard Cornwell or Nelson de Mille, very much more the action/adventure book. I’ve read a fair bit of literature too, but it doesn’t impress me. People talk about it at cocktail parties, “Did you read the latest Peter Carey or something?” But for me they’re boring, they’re very beautifully written, they deserve all the credit they get. I’d rather get into a book that’s got good guys and bad guys and you don’t know what’s going to happen when you turn the page over.
Have you had a chance to read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River yet?
No, I’ve read a fair bit about it though. Sounds like she’s done a very good job.
I’ve just read it and there’s been a lot of talk about The Secret River but to me she hasn’t told the story as you would. It’s interesting, I don’t know how the hype is built up so much about what she’s done when there’s nothing she’s telling that you haven’t told in your novels.
The thing in the business there’s a big, big gulf between literary writers and mass-market writers. I’m a mass-market writer and we’re supposed to bow our heads in shame. Whereas the media only publicise literary writers. A literary writer is somebody like Kate Grenville or Peter Carey. Even poor old Bryce has been fighting for years to be recognised as a literary figure but the media won’t accept him as that. He should be proud of the fact that he’s a good mass-market writer. Mass market writers are also called Pulp Fiction writers, Airport Sellers but I like to think I’m at least entertaining people when they’re stuck on a plane for a couple of hours. I remember with Cry of the Curlew I a lot of emails from Canada, readers there; they said they picked up my book in London because it was thick enough to get them across the Atlantic. So they became hooked on them. If I’m entertaining people and teaching them a little bit about history that’s good enough for me.
To me a mass-market novel is all these romance novels that you see around the place, they’re absolute trash. I’d hate to think you and Bryce and Wilbur Smith would be labelled the same as that.
We are though.
Does that worry you at all?
It used to. All writers have this aspiration of becoming famous and maybe winning a nobel prize for literature. I’ve longed forgotten about those aspirations. I just think to myself I’ve got a year to turn out another novel and hopefully people will love it enough to want the next one after it. I at least have a good readership overseas in different countries where people will contact me from there saying they’d love to visit Australia because they’ve read my books. It’s a case of accepting what you like doing. A couple of times I’ve actually had pulpitations and thought I better write something serious and get a literary award.
How did you get your first story published and what was your biggest challenge with that?
Interesting. I first set out to write to a formula similar to Wilbur Smith knowing that that was commercial. I submitted the manuscript and thinking naively that it would be recognised for its brilliance. It was rejected. And it was rejected because I’d made the mistake of many first time writers. If I was writing about the native mounty police for example, I’d write two pages about their history thinking I’d have to explain everything to the reader. The publisher who eventually accepted it from Pan MacMillan said, “If you dropped all that stuff and got on with the story, we’ve got something to publish.” So I listened to their comments and did what they said and then they accepted the story after that, Cry of the Curlew. And the rest is history as they say. Again you don’t write from the heart you write for the market. That describes us in mass-market. If you’re a literature person who wants to do one of these novels and maybe sell a thousand copies mostly to friends and relatives you write from the heart. And it’s usually about flowery gardens, walking through gardens for about ten chapters and something happens at the end of ten chapters. But it is a very fast moving world, the readership is actually getting younger which is good to see.
Do you have a demographic?
Mine is probably 35 + both male and female. I’m lucky that I get both male and female in equal amounts. But I have struck many young people 17 and 18, who’ve read the books and loved them. So the publisher said to me that we’re finding a lot of younger people are reading books rather than watching TV or going to video games. I think it’s a case of getting bored with one and discovering the joys of the book. A book is something you shove in your back pocket and take to the beach.
And a good one you don’t want to put down either.
Exactly. If you finish a good book, whether it be mass-market or literature, you feel that you’ve fed your brain rather than sort of being a passive observer.
Is there a potential for your books to make it into a school curriculum?
I’m an old fashioned dinosaur, I usually say 16 and above to read my books because of the violence in them. Yet my old mate John Marsden leaves me for dead, he’s publishing to kids. So I wonder whether my standard is a bit high. The University of NSW had them on their recommended reading list for their history students. I asked about that, and they said it was because the facts were right and it was a good way to get people interested in Australian history. It was nice because they didn’t select anyone else’s books, it was mine.
What’s happening in the future? Is the next book going to follow on from The Silent Frontier?
It’s done and pretty well put to bed. The Stone Dragon, where I’ve selected a part of our history where we sent naval brigades in 1900 to fight in China against the Chinese. I’ve brought the character of John Wong and his family into. So I tend to borrow a character from my other books, I know my readers like to identify with somebody they’ve met before. The next book in October is a one off novel, but it does bring in the character of John Wong from Australia who used to be with Michael Duffy. Again it’s so close to fact it almost scared me because I thought I’m losing the story as this is mostly all fact. So what you read in The Stone Dragon, just about every scene actually happened.
The skill from your point of view is putting into a story we all want to read.
Yes. That’s it. It’s a case of putting a human face on history.