Answers to Common Questions
Have your books won any awards?
Yes. Please click Awards for a list of the major ones.
Did you read a lot when you were young?
No. I read as much as I can now but until I was about sixteen, I read very little. My mother tried to encourage me but I have never been a fast reader, so getting through a novel was difficult. I preferred information books, histories, accounts of actual events - that sort of thing. The only novels I did read were those set for school. However, in upper secondary school, I liked these books. Studying them let me see the artistry of the writer and I became interested in both reading and writing at that point.
The books that really got me going were a few that my parents took with us on holidays. Bored and away from my usual haunts, I took up reading - and loved it!
When did you start writing?
I tried writing detective thrillers like the James Bond books in my twenties but never got past the first chapter. After many years as a Teacher Librarian for upper primary children, I thought I would have a go for this age group, but again I never finished anything. Finally, in 1984, when I was 30 years old, I completed a novel titled "A Family Secret" but it was rejected by five publishers. I must have learned something from the process, though, because in 1989 I wrote "Crossfire" and it was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, eventually released in 992.
What were the important experiences in your life?
For my writing, the most important experience has been living in Cunnamulla, in outback Queensland in 1977 and 78. It was here that I would go pig shooting with my friends but after initially enjoying the experience, I became sickened and stopped going. This experience gave me the basis for an unpublished book written in 1984 as well as Crossfire. Here also, I observed Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians interacting and gained insights which allowed me to write Dougy and Gracey.
Where do you get your ideas?
Ideas come from life experiences mixed with books and newspapers I read and television I watch, particularly documentaries. I think deeply about what I see around me and I am always solving the problems of the world in my head. My first three books, came from experiences in Cunnamulla in the late 1970s. Swashbuckler arose from a variety of sources - newspaper articles about the effects of gambling, memories of my own childhood when I made a suit of armour out of cardboard, also the movie, "The Fisher King" where Jeff Bridges was made to perform a rather ridiculously heroic act in order to redeem the sanity of his friend. For The House on River Terrace, the starting point was a newspaper article by Donald Horne about Australian identity. A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove began when I saw a lonely looking overweight boy on the sand at Rainbow Beach. This book also owes a lot to some other novels, notably Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.
How do you go about writing?
Once the vague ideas have started to form, I try to formalise them into an overall plan, which describes the bones of the story. This comes from brainstorming at the computer, typing whatever crazy ideas come to mind as one idea leads on to another until I begin to get a direction even if the detail will change as I work out the first draft. And there is always lots of change and additions, deletions etc. I usually do only two real drafts before I start showing what I have written to others, the first to get the general feel for the story, the second to refine the characters and themes that I am keen for my readers to relate to. However, some sections of a story may be rewritten five or six times. I work directly onto a word processor and use hand writing only for notes. My hand writing is now far too slow to be of any use. At speed, it is almost illegible.
Why do you like writing?
It is my preferred form of self expression. It gives me an avenue to say what I think about human beings and the world. Seeing my work published gives me enormous satisfaction. It has to, because writing is mostly hard work. Writing the first draft of a long novel is harder work than digging roads.
What is your personal favourite amongst your own titles?
A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove and Dougy probably, because I really like the two main characters I created, Carl and Dougy. For younger readers, it is Swashbuckler. These days I have to say that The Love That I Have is a favourite too. I really hit the mark with that book.
What is your favourite book by someone else?
Years ago I would answer East of Eden by John Steinbeck, but that was before I read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. However, the answer to this question changes from time to time as my tastes change. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was my favourite for a while until Ian McEwan released Atonement, but these days the answer is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
What are your favourite books for young people?
I like Robin Klein's work especially Hating Alison Ashley for primary school level. Goodnight Mr Tom is a favourite for any age from about ten to fourteen. My most loved picture books are by Tommi Ungerer, especially The Hat and The Beast of Mr Racine. Amongst young adult books I like Tim Winton's Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo for a good laugh, Holes by Louis Sachar for more serious ideas, Victor Kelleher's Taronga , as well as Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta and Before I Die by Jenny Downham for romance and emotion. For the highest literary qualities, Gary Crew’s Strange Objects is the best I have come across, even though it is a rather cold book. I should mention John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, too. Some people dismiss it is lightweight and romantic, but I think there's a lot of hard hitting reality in it too.
How do you go about getting a book published?
It is very difficult to break into the field. Only one in eighty or a hundred manuscripts received by publishers ever gets published so you have to be lucky to begin with. Sometimes, a book will appeal to publishers because of what it is about, something topical, and that book just happens to turn up at the right moment. The reverse can happen. A good book arrives just after the publishers have chosen another similar book for their list. It will be rejected simply because they don’t want to double up.
Still, if you are keen, you just have to keep having a go and if a manuscript is rejected by one publisher, send it on to the next. Once you have one book accepted, the publisher will actually ask you for another one and help you along the way. Lists of publishers are available from Writers' Centres in most capital cities. (Unfortunately, publishers rarely accept material by writers under twenty years old so don’t tell them your age. I don’t)
I have had a few books and stories rejected, like most authors, but I do not feel hard done by. It was probably because the writing was not good enough.
How did you come to write about Aboriginal characters such as Dougy and Gracey?
When I was a young man, 22 years old, I went to live and teach in a small town in Western Queensland. Many of the people who lived there and many of the students in my class were aborigines or Indigenous Australians as were tend to call them now. As an outsider, I began to notice the undercurrent of racism in the town in a way that many of the townspeople did not recognise. For much of the time it was hidden but once white people began to speak about aborigines, telling stories about them and sharing jokes, the racist viewpoint came to the surface.
I could see what it was doing to the young boys and girls in my class, too. The black children were already taking on the view of themselves that white people had, that they were useless, lazy, given everything for free.
At the same time, I could not ignore the problems that alcohol caused for many of the aborigines in the town either. All of this set me worrying and thinking and twelve years after I left that town, I decided to write about it. The result was Dougy and later, Gracey.
Most of the incidents in the story are made up, but some are loosely based on actual events I saw or heard about.
Do you ever model any of your characters on family or friends?
No. It would be unfair and besides, they might recognise themselves and get upset.
However, I often combine the behaviour and characteristics of a number of people I know into one character in a book. A lot of writers do this, I think. It is very difficult to create new and fresh and interesting people out of your head. Writers watch and listen to people all the time. Dougy is a combination of a number of aboriginal children whom I knew. Aunt Beryl in A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove is also a combination of a number of women I have come across and to tell you the truth, not liked very much.
Do writers make a lot of money?
Some of them do. People who write best sellers, such as Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and so on are wealthy and of course JK Rowling is one of the richest women in the world, thanks to Harry Potter. In Australia, there are a couple of children's and Young Adult writers who have made a lot of money out of their books. You can probably guess who they are.
Then there are people like me, who can make a modest living out of writing and speaking in schools and at festivals. After that, there are thousands of writers who make a little money from writing but have to have another job as well to pay the bills.
It comes down to how many books you sell.
Writers are paid a royalty for each book sold. Generally, this royalty is 10% of what you pay in a bookshop. The other 90% goes to the bookseller, the publisher and the distributor. That means we have to sell a lot of books to become wealthy.
Believe it or not, most writers don't want to be very wealthy. They would be happy to make a modest living so they can keep on doing what they love – writing.
Do You Have Any Advice for Young Writers?
Answers 1 - For when your teacher sets a creative writing assignment and you don't want to do it.
Commiserations! To get it over and done with and still get a good mark, be prepared to write the story TWICE. First time, don't worry about length and don't count words. Think and start writing. Ask what can happen in this story. Who are the characters - Best to keep the number down to two or three, maybe even just one. What is the main character's problem, what does he/she want eg. To escape from danger, win someone's heart, finish first in a race, get the better of a bully. If you can answer that question already, you are half way there because you have a direction for the story - a climax. Use your own experience, including what you have seen on TV, movies or read in books to keep asking what happens next, or what are the characters feeling now, how would they respond to … Because you don't know exactly where your story is going, you should be asking over and over, what if? What if this happened, what if they went there, what if she said that? This will give you a whole mess of ideas and you have to work out where the story can go with those ideas. The most important thing is to end up with an ending so start thinking about this after a while. Once you have an ending, you can build the rest of the story towards it.
The second time you write the story is to strip away what you don't want, find the good stuff that is there and add what isn't there yet. This is when you think about Beginning, Middle, End. Don't make your whole story Beginning or there will be no room for Middle and End. Plan it out, structure it. Good luck!
Answer 2 - For those who love writing and would like to be a writer one day.
Go see the world. Start planning today. Out there are all the people you will base your characters on, all the places you will set your stories in and all the events that will form the plots of your stories. You don't have to go overseas necessarily (though I recommend it). A bus or car trip around Australia with some friends will be just as useful. The idea is to experience as much as you can. Life experience is like gold to the writer. And of course, observe, remember and think about what you experience. Keep a notebook or diary if you are that kind of person. Store it up.
On the technical side, don't worry about style. Think about your audience, who you want to write for and just imagine you are telling them a story. Your own style of writing and story telling will emerge and grow. You will learn most about the technical side of writing by reading as many books as possible. While you are reading, ask yourself, why am I enjoying this story, why are these characters interesting? Is the story or the setting interesting, why? Writing is a skill you can learn from others so take a good look at how others do it.
Then, have a go and keep at it for as long as you love it. Be prepared for knock backs and disappointments. It is all part of being a writer.