For author and AWC graduate Chris Muir, writing the fictional adventure thriller A Savage Garden, set in Africa, was a natural progression for the life-long passion he’s had for the country. But when you read this book, you realise that Chris’ experiences in Africa are anything but ordinary. And on more than one occasion, he’s lucky that he’s lived to share the story.
Chris, 58, lives in Sydney and when he’s not writing, he owns and manages advertising agency Smoke Signals. Chris’ two young boys Luca, 14, and Liam, 11, have their very own Indiana Jones to tell them stories of adventure. But it’s even cooler to have a Dad who’s lived them.
Arriving in Africa
In 1990, Chris first arrived in Africa, in search of gorillas in Rwanda, having been captivated by the work of Dianne Fossey, as depicted in the movie Gorillas in the Mist. Turning up at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, an informal trading post for guides and travellers, Chris met his guide Joseph, a Masai warrior. Together they drove off into Africa. As they travelled for three months through Tanzania and Kenya they developed a shared passion for adventure, formed a close friendship and are still in regular contact even now.
Travelling to Rwanda, Chris finally reached his gorillas and lay down amongs 16 mountain gorillas for hours. “There was an extraordinary amount of calm,” remembers Chris. “It was a life-changing moment.” On his way down from the mountain, he met with volunteers at Diane Fossey’s research station Karisoke and offered his help. So he stayed on for an extra month working among the gorillas on a daily basis. Chris has been back six more times.
Chris’ travels and experiences through Africa were the inspiration for his book A Savage Garden. “I wanted to write about it because I felt it,” says Chris. “And I wanted to be provocative as well as entertaining – and to challenge the readers. I particularly wanted to raise awareness of the situation in Central Africa where, as a result of conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Congo, an estimated 5.4 million people have lost their lives since 1998, yet few know what’s happening and why.”
Dealing with danger
Central Africa is where Chris returns to, but he’s realistic about the dangers there, in fact he’s experienced many of them first hand. These tales have been woven cleverly and explicitly into his book, creating richness in the imagery and a realism that only comes from personal experience. ”Everything in the book, I’ve seen,” says Chris matter-of-factly. He never travels without an armed guard, particularly after venturing across the border into Mogadishu on his own, unarmed during the middle of a civil war. “I should have known better by then,” says Chris. “I think they didn’t kill me because they thought I was insane.”
Researching the book meant a huge amount of time in Africa where Chris would sit down with local politicians, with mercenaries in bars, United Nations representatives, and even the local militia, resulting in a fictional story that’s borderline non-fiction.
Yet from his first draft to the book that now sits on bookshelves, the process has been an exercise in determination, self-belief and perseverance. “I wrote the first draft 10 years ago,” remembers Chris. “And since then there have been 21 drafts. At draft number three; a publisher wanted the manuscript conditional upon a review by ‘book doctor’ and author John Harmon. They said, ‘If he thinks it’s crap, we’re not doing it’, and he did think it was crap,” remembers Chris. “And let me tell you, the draft that he saw, was crap. But his rejection was done in such an elegant and constructive way, that I kept in touch and, over the years, John has become a mentor for me.”
Understanding the publishing process
The Australian Writers’ Centre has featured in his book writing experience with Chris completing the courses, How to Get Your Book Published in 2010 and Magazine and Newspaper Writing course in 2011. Chris says both courses were useful and provided invaluable insights and techniques for both promoting his book, as well as moving through the book publishing process.
“Understanding the process made me even surer that I wanted the right agent first,” remembers Chris. “And I also learnt a great deal of what I shouldn’t do. Like tell an agent that ‘the book just fell out of me like someone else was writing it’ which is a line I’d used,” laughs Chris. “There were lots of really handy tips.”
Chris worked hard on getting an agent and was successful in securing Jenny Darling from Jenny Darling Associates as his agent in October 2012. Another couple of rewrites later, and the publishing deal that Chris had been trying to land for a decade, was made a reality by Jenny in three weeks. This was with Random House. The phone call came in January 2013 and, for Chris, after so many years and so many rewrites, the sense of relief was overwhelming.
Chris’ advice for working with an agent: “Be nice and listen, be polite, don’t pretend like it’s the end of the world if someone wants to change a few words. You’re in a non-negotiable position.”
“I really enjoyed the Magazine and Newspaper Writing course as well,” remembers Chris. ”I primarily did it so that when I got a book deal, I could write my own articles, and this has happened already.” Using the skills learnt through the course Chris has already prepared stories about his experiences to pitch, leveraging his visibility resulting from the book launch.
Did Chris ever give up hope that his book would be published? “I gave up so many times, but John Harman gave me some gentle advice. He said, ‘It will be ok, you have a talent, you’re good at this, you’re just not good enough yet’,” remembers Chris. “He said ‘you just have to get good enough.’”
Finding his real voice
“The mistake I’d made for years was that I only wrote what I thought people would want to read,” says Chris. “Just write what you’re feeling and what you want to say. Don’t just write what you think you should. I remember the day that I found my own voice like it was yesterday. It was in 2012 and I’d just received a ‘yeah, this is pretty good, but no thanks’ email from HarperCollins in the US. We had been through about three reviews of the manuscript. They were interested but wanted changes, which I made. But then they started debating their own changes and ultimately rejected the manuscript. ‘To thine own self be true’ sprang to mind. I did one more completed rewrite, this time the version of the story that I wanted, that had evolved, and that I could finally tell unshackled. That version ultimately became the book you see today.”
Many writers have inspired Chris. “Sometimes it’s what’s left unsaid that is the most powerful,” says Chris. “American author Carl Hiaasen is a master of what you don’t say. Through reading his books, I’ve learned what to leave unsaid. Sometimes you have to let the reader imagine what comes next. If you’ve given them enough ammunition up to this point, their imagination will say much more than you could.”
Chris’ father, who died 20 years ago, has also inspired him. “My dad was a great storyteller and wrote voraciously,” remembers Chris. “He’d sit and tell us stories every night, and give us a new word to learn each day. I’ve dedicated my book to Dad: ‘To the greatest storyteller that the world never knew’.”
And Chris’ advice to other writers: “If you’re about to give up, take a deep breath and don’t do it, because if it’s in you, it’s in you.”
With his second book complete, Random House has told Chris: “We’ll do one a year, every year, until you run out of ideas”. And, as he has a file thick of ideas, we expect to see Chris Muir’s name in bookstores for many years to come.
This was written by Australian Writers’ Centre graduate Lisa Schofield.