Ep 111 What really goes on in an author’s day. And meet Steve Lewis, co-author of “Secret City”.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 111 of So you want to be a writer: Find out which authors took more than five years to write their books, why Judy Blume opened a book shop at age 78, and what really goes on in an author’s day. Plus: learn the meaning of “bucolic”, meet Steve Lewis, co-author of Secret City, and discover how to use Thunderclap for your next book launch. More advice on using unobtrusive speech tags and why being a good literary citizen will help you sell more books.

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Show Notes

5 Authors Who Took 5 Years—Or More!—To Write Their Books

‘People are hungry for real bookstores': Judy Blume on why US indie booksellers are thriving

Above the waterline

Writer in Residence

Steve Lewis
steve lewisSteve is the co-author, with Chris Uhlmann, of the best-selling Marmalade Files and its sequel, the Mandarin Code, which have now been made into a thriller series on Foxtel, Secret City. He also wrote Stand & Deliver, a history of the NPC. He was instrumental in establishing the annual Press Gallery Midwinter Ball, which has raised more than $2.5 million for charity.

Follow Steve on Twitter

Working Writer's Tip

Using “said” as a speech tag.

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Using Thunderclap for your book launch

Building Your Author Platform Tip

Why helping other writers ultimately benefits you.



Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

Connect with us on twitter



Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript


Steve, thanks so much for joining us today.



Absolute pleasure. Thanks, Valerie.



Now, just for readers who haven't read the book yet, Secret City, it's being packaged to time with the release of the Foxtel series, just tell us what it's about.



Well, Secret City is essentially a tie into the mini-series on Foxtel, it actually really compromises two books, being The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code, which I co-wrote with Chris Uhlmann, who's very well-known to people who watch the ABC or who listen to the ABC. He's a political editor for the ABC. So, Chris and I have actually — we've written or co-authored these two books, which have been released by Harper Collins as a tie in with the Foxtel mini-series. So, that's the backdrop to Secret City.



And tell us a little bit about what the story is about.


Well, look, the story is a political drama, it's set in Canberra. It's set against the backdrop of our two biggest partners, I guess, China and America, jostling for supremacy.


So, with our first book, The Marmalade Files that was probably more a satirical thriller. The Mandarin Code, the second book, is probably more of a thriller than a satire. And we have a third book coming out, Shadow Game, in several months' time, which will complete the trilogy, if you like. And that will be even more of a thriller again. So, they're political thrillers, set in Canberra, very contemporary.


They deal with the big global themes of America and China, they deal with a lot of contemporary issues, such as cyber espionage, such as the demise of mainstream media. And they really explore the power of relationships that occur in Canberra involving politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, lobbyists — that whole sort of political media. And we sort of try to really explore who really welds the power behind the scenes.



And it's a fascinating insight into that world, but tell me when you were thinking about writing this book, how did this come about? Did you and Chris have a beer one day and thought, “Hey, let's write a book together…”? Or, how did this happen?



Well, it was actually quite serendipitous. We were friends, Chris and I have known each other for a long time. I dragged him onto the board of the National Press Club in 2008 or 2009. But, it was several years later in 2011, about April 2011, so the weather was starting to get cooler in Canberra, and we used to occasionally meet at this café in Canberra. It was in the south, a place called Café Delish.


And I would sort of go out for a run with a mate of mine, Maurice Reilly, and we would sort of go to the café, have a coffee about 7:30 and Chris would be there, dressed in his suit with his iPad and his Bircher muesli, waiting to go into the ABC office in Parliament House. And Morris and I would sort of turn up looking sort of disheveled.


Anyway, one morning over a cup of coffee Chris starts telling me of this idea that he's got swirling around in his head for a TV script. And it was basically the beginning of what became The Marmalade Files. And, I'd always wanted to write a political thriller based in Canberra. I moved to Canberra in late '92, and I always had this vision of writing a political thriller, a body being dragged out of Lake Burley Griffin one morning with the mist and the fog. I just thought, “It's a great location to put a political thriller,” and we had never done it. We've never done that really in Australia, either as a novel, a political novel, or in terms of TV or film.


Now, when I say we've never done it, we have done it. Of course the ABC had The Code a couple of years ago, which large parts of it were set in Canberra, and there has been various books — Frank Moorhouse and the third book in his trilogy, it was based in Canberra, but we don't have the same sort of history or franchise in terms of political drama that America and Britain and Scandinavia has.


So, Chris and I basically said, “Yep, let's see what we can do.” And a couple of days later we started with a blank sheet of paper and we started to map out what became our first book.



So, you both decided after that cup of coffee, “Hey, let's write a book together.” Just like that?



It was pretty much like that. Well, what we decided was to see whether we could write a book, because neither of us had ever written a novel before. I had written a bunch of non-fiction books. I had written all of these sorts of books, but I knew how hard it was to write a book, as you know it's a lot of work.


But, neither of us had written a novel. So, there was a bit of a novelty factor. So, we said, “Let's see what we can do.” So, we literally started with a blank sheet of paper, like a sheet of butcher's paper, and we started mapping out our respective ideas. We had these two narratives, like a dual narrative running down this sheet of paper.


So, “OK, what's your first chapter?” Bang, bang, bang. Chris had his part. And we thought, “Well, this looks like a bit of fun,” so we just started writing. We set up a shared document using a Google Shared Document, and we started writing individually, but we could see what each other was writing. And we thought, “Wow, this looks like a bit of fun.”


And a month or so later thought, “Well, let's explore what the options are for publishing.” So, I rang up one of the best in the business, Shona Martyn, at Harper Collins. And Shona tells the story of… because I worked at News Limited, and of course Harper Collins is owned by News Limited. So, of course I rang her up and called in the old News Limited favor. “Oh, mate, you know, I've got this idea, I'm working on this book with this guy, Chris Uhlmann…”


And Harper Collins were immediately interested in the idea of two political journalists co-writing a novel. They thought it was just a really, dare I say it, a novel idea. And, they were intrigued to see what we had come up with.


So, Shona said, “Look, why don't you send us a précis of the book, a synopsis, and some draft chapters and let's have a look at it.” And so we did.


Wow, so how in the world did you on a practical level did you do that? Did you go, “Oh, you write one chapter, then I'll write the other chapter?” Or did you do it some other way?



What we did was we started mapping out the book. So, we had these ideas that just came out as we were writing on the butcher's paper, because I guess we had both worked in Canberra for a long time. I had been in the press gallery for nearly 20 years. Chris had worked on and off in the Canberra press gallery for that time, so we both had a lot of stories and vignettes and anecdotes that we couldn't use in our day jobs, but we thought, “They could make good material…”


So, we just started writing these ideas down. So we said, “Let's imagine it's the morning after the press gallery mid-winter ball,” which it's the middle of winter, it's freezing cold. Canberra is minus three or four degrees, and our fictitious journalist gets a phone call by someone he doesn't know to meet down by the lake and he does that, and let's see where that takes us.


So, we just started basically writing from that basis, and we wrote these chapters individually, but they started coming together, and we thought after maybe a week or two that we had the bare bones of what might become a novel.



I'm really interested, because there's two of you and you're writing different chapters, but there is a very strong narrative voice throughout. There's no jarring bits. It really feels like there's one author writing this.






How did you achieve that?



That's really, really interesting, because Chris and I have different writing styles. We're in the process of getting our third novel edited, and we do have different writing styles. I mean I'm a print journalist, Chris is more used to television and they're very, very different media, as you know.


But, what we did is we worked very well together. We work very well together. And while we might have individually written particular chapters, by the time we had our first draft we would sit down, we would take a week off work and we would just sit down and start from the first word and go right through the book right to the last word. And we would read that aloud, we would share chapters, and if something didn't quite feel right, if one of us wasn't happy with a particular part, we would try and smooth it out.


And then of course we handed the book in, the draft into HarperCollins, and we've been very, very fortunate. We've had a wonderful editor, Amanda O'Connell, who's worked with us on all of our books. And Amanda is quite brutal, but also very, very good at picking up any jarring parts and smoothing them out and getting rid of bits that don't work and that. So, smoothing the rough edges.


I guess through the process we've sort of learnt that we can compromise, we can work together. If there's something that Chris doesn't like that I've written, you know, I'll try and work with him to fix it up, and vice-versa.


It's just something where we've really sort of enjoyed the process, and we've got to know each other's sort of foibles and, you know… also it's a matter of being willing to compromise and to accept that Chris will have different ideas to myself. The main thing is we always work on the basis that the two voices, the two of us, I should say, will write a better novel than the individual could.


You have to work on that basis.



So I'm curious to know, you've written three books together now, and when you're doing the ‘you write one chapter,' ‘I write one chapter' kind of thing, have you first plotted out the entire story —





— or do you — oh, so you already have your plan on your big butcher's paper or whatever?






And then you just basically write to that plan?


Yeah, look, it's been different with all three books. The first book, The Marmalade Files, was very much… it all just came rushing out, because as I've said, we had all of this material stored up in our heads.


We had the final chapter or the final page of The Marmalade Files worked out and almost written right from the get-go. But, what we had to do was fill in a big part in the middle.


The second book, The Mandarin Code, we had to really think about what it was going to say, it followed on from the first book, but also we were working, we were writing the second book very much in mind… with a mindset that Foxtel and Matchbox Pictures were wanting to develop the two books into a television mini-series. So, our second book I guess was more… was constructed with that in mind. So it meant that we had to really think about what it was thereafter and to sort of really ratchet up the drama and the thriller aspect to it.


And the third book, The Shadow Game, is much the same as our second book, where we nutted out what the actual outline would look like, we sort of did a synopsis. And then we started writing it, and we sort of broadly knew where we wanted to take it. But, I mean it's a case with all books that you'll finish them and then you'll hand them into an editor and she might find that there are missing bits here, or that there are some chapters that are unnecessary. So, you know, you're always tweaking.


I mean we're tweaking our third book right at the minute, so there's a hell of a lot of writing, rewriting, and editing that goes into the process.



So when you were writing the first book, at that point did you know it was going to be part of a trilogy?




No, no, we were signed by Harper Collins for a two-book deal. And, to be honest we weren't… we probably didn't discuss that too much with each other, because I think particularly Chris felt, “Let's get a novel out there and then get back to our day jobs.” In his case political editor for the ABC, it's a very busy gig.


But, yeah, we were contracted by Harper Collins to write two books. So, the second book was much harder, it was much tougher to write. And also we, as I said before, Matchbox Pictures were very keen to get a second book that they could then develop or adapt for a TV mini-series. So, we sort of wrote the second book very much with that in mind.


The third book, well, we went back to Harper Collins and said, “Look, we've written two, we think we've got another one in us and we would like to round out the trilogy and write a third book.” And it will be out in late August, we're pretty happy with where it's at.


It's pretty exciting that it's being made into this mini-series on Foxtel.





And some great stars in there — Jackie Weaver, Anna Torv. How did this come about? Can you tell listeners when you found out and how did it actually happen?



Yeah. Well, right from the get-go, as I mentioned, when Chris and I first started talking about writing our first book, we always had in mind that we would like to see whether we could develop a novel or novels into some sort of film or TV drama.


So, very much from the get-go we were thinking that this had to have visual aspect to it, and we wanted to draw out the wonderful visual aspects that is Canberra.


So, very early on, I think probably in early 2012, we started… so before The Marmalade Files were published, it was published in August of 2012, so before it was published, it was about April of that year, we started ringing around and talking to people to say, “Look, we've got this idea for a novel that we'd like to try and see if we could turn it into something for television, who do we talk to?”


And in the process of talking to a number of people, Penny Chapman's name was mentioned. Penny Chapman is one of the principals at Matchbox Pictures, and is one of the greats in Australian television, responsible for some of the best dramas that we've seen on TV out of the past several decades.


So we reached out to Penny, I think I emailed her or rang up her and said, “Hey, I'm working with this guy Chris Uhlmann, we’re writing a novel for Harper Collins. It's set in Canberra, it's sort of a political drama, we'd like to have a chat to you about whether you would be interested in discussing whether we could turn it into a TV series.”


And unbeknownst to us, Penny actually studied at the Australian National University in Canberra, and she had always wanted to do a Canberra-based political drama. She was looking for the raw material.


So, it was again serendipity. It was just that weekend, knocking on her door at the right time. We started talking to her about what our plans were, we sent her an early copy of the book, I think even before it was published she had a copy of The Marmalade Files. And she said, “Yep, I like it. But, it's not enough to sustain a six-part or an eight-part mini-series for TV.” And we said, “Well, we're planning to write a second book.”


So, it was sort of — like we started talking to Penny, we started working with her and started doing some workshops about how we might actually develop a drama for TV.



So, of course, in the mini-series the character of Harry Dunkley is being played by a woman.





How did that happen?


Well, that was early on. Penny rang us up, rang Chris and myself up and she said, “Hey, I've got something fairly substantial to raise with you.” She said…


You think?



We're thinking, “I wonder what this is?” She said, “How would you feel if your protagonist, Harry Dunkley…” who was a sort of, you know, a bloke mid-fifties, hard-boiled journo who worked for the Australian newspaper, “…how would you feel if we turned Harry into a mid-thirties female journalist?” And we thought, “Let us sleep on that,” because, look, it was quite a big deal for us, obviously.


But, look we thought it about it, we talked about — Chris and I talked to each other, but also we were persuaded by Penny that it would make for a more compelling character, a more interesting character. And I've got to say, of course, it's turned out to be right because Anna Torv plays Harriet absolutely brilliantly. She, I think, has really nailed that role and is a very authentic, compelling character, as a journo who chases the big stories, gets in a real, real bind, and is like all political journalists, finds themselves being compromised and facing big ethical and moral dilemmas. So, it's a great character. Ann Torv's done absolutely brilliantly in her portrayal.



Obviously you've seen the mini-series, how did it feel? Just watching all of this unfold on the screen, when this was a mere idea at one point?



It feels very good. So, just to clarify, we haven't seen all of it. I've seen the first three episodes. I haven't seen episodes four, five, six. I've got a pretty good idea as to what happens, because of course, we're involved in terms of helping with the… providing feedback on the scripts.


But, I mean we sold the rights to our books to Matchbox, so they are under no obligation to deal with us in terms of the ongoing relationship. Of course, they did, because Chris and I, we've worked in Parliament and we wanted to make sure that everything was as authentic and as close to the bone as possible.


Look, it was pretty extraordinary, even when the filming in Canberra took place. It was about a month, we had about four days where we got access to Parliament House. That was just unbelievable. I mean Chris and I had been working for the past… the previous 12 or 15, 18 months with various officials and presiding officers and seeing Parliamentarians and the Prime Minister's office to try and get access to places in Parliament that have never been filmed before.


So, for instance, we got access to the Prime Minister's courtyard, and that was with Tony Abbot. I mean it was literally just days before Tony Abbot lost the Prime Ministership to Malcolm Turnbull. So, it was a pretty extraordinary time.


Watching it now play out on the screen is fantastic. The reception has been almost universally very strong, very positive. People love the fact that Canberra is a very powerful and compelling character in the mini-series, and you've got probably, probably the best line up of television talent ever assembled from Australian drama. You've got people like Jackie Weaver and Alan Dale, and Mekhi Phifer, and Eugenia Yuan, Anna Torv, Dan Wyllie, et cetera, et cetera. It's just an extraordinary cast.


And I think they have really… the way that they have dramatized what takes place in Canberra, the competition between journalists and politicians, between journalists and other journalists, I think they've done a great job. I think the story is very compelling. I think people are going to really love it when it hits the screen.



Of course you've mentioned the great cast, and Jackie Weaver plays one of the very compelling characters, which is Catriona Bailey, who's the foreign minister in the story. And a very powerful character, quite a charismatic character. And I was at the café the other day and I was telling someone my theories on who Catriona Bailey is based on, so I have to ask you.





Where did you get your inspiration from?


Ah, well, you will see, Valerie, if you look at the front of our books there's a very, very prominent disclaimer where we say that these are works of fiction, all of the characters are fictitious, anybody who thinks any of these characters might resemble real life politicians — look, the truth is that there are some characters that are more recognizable than others. But in all honesty, Chris and I, and the lawyers at Harper Collins went to some lengths to make sure that our characters are fictitious.


They are blends of people. They are aspects of characters that somebody says, “That's just what ‘x' would do.” And you think, “Yeah, that's actually right.” But, it's probably more subconscious than anything else. I mean we have… when you hang around politics for as long as we have, and if you deal with politicians as closely as we have done, I mean Chris is married to a federal MP, so he's more intimately involved with politics than I am. I mean you just get to know how politicians work and live.


Canberra is just sort of a strange, surreal, fishbowl existence. Journalists and politicians, they go out at night, have a drink and something to eat, then the next day you're bashing up that politician in the pages of the newspaper or on the ABC 7:00 PM news. So, it can be a very, very bruising co-existence. And I think that's one of the aspects that we tried to get through, both in terms of the books, but also in terms of the actual mini-series, that while we all work in the one building in Federal Parliament, it is a very bruising co-existence.



And of course because both of you have had so many years in that existence, as you say your head would have been full of so many stories. So, did you have to kill a whole lot of darlings, do you know what I mean? In that first book, did you have so many stories that you had to chuck many of them out?



We left it to our wonderful editor, Amanda, to kill our darlings. She does a wonderful job. She's killed off a few.


No, look, not really. Not really. We did have lot, we had a lot of thoughts, a lot of anecdotes, a lot of stories, and some of the stories — I won't mention which parts, but some of the plot in particularly the first book was actually based on some real life work that we had done that we weren't able to use for legal reasons. So, what better way to get it out there in the public domain than to put it into a fictitious novel?


So, it is the case that we've sort of put all of these bits and pieces together and you sort of write it and you blend it and then you edit it, and it hopefully comes out as a readable novel.


So, it is really interesting.


But, I don't know that we've killed off too many darlings. I mean we… in the third book we're killing off a few, because we're trying to sort of finish off the trilogy. But, it's been… it's very liberating writing novels as well when you're used to writing just for a daily newspaper or for a 7:00 PM broadcast and you're restricted to a couple of hundred words. If you can write a long, long chapter with a few thousand words, put lots of color and movement in it, it can be quite a liberating experience.



Oh, yes. Now when you are writing, the novels that is, and in the thick of it, so you're actually needing to write down thousands of words, what is your typical day like? Do you have some kind of process or routine? Because you do a bunch of other things as well.





So do you have to switch hats, or what do you do to get it on paper?



Yeah. Well, in my case I sort of… I don't have sort of a set time where I say, “I'm going to get up at 4:00 AM and do three hours of writing.” I don't work like that. I basically… I mean Chris and I are both pretty disciplined. So we set ourselves a task of I guess each week writing a certain amount, and we give ourselves plenty of time.


And in the case of the second book, in particular, I had just left News LTD, so I was basically I guess on a sabbatical. So, we spent probably several months, Chris took leave from the ABC, so we spent a lot of time just writing the book.


But, we unfortunately ended up our summer holidays, basically, we might be on holidays with our families on the South Coast, and ended up spending our mornings sort of trying to finish off the writing, because we haven't met deadlines.


So, look, it just depends a little bit.


I find it very easy, actually, to sort of switch off from what I'm doing and to sit down and just to try and write a chapter or a half-chapter, when I'm sort of — I've got to get into sort of ‘writing the novel' sort of mode.


I don't find it too difficult, at all. Often we'll draft something, we'll write something out, the other person will come and have a look at it, change it a bit, tweak it, rewrite it, and we'll keep going over it. So, it's just a… it's a never-ending process of writing and editing and making sure you get the words right, because at the end of the day that's what really matters, it's the words that people read that dictate whether it's a good story or not.



Of course, from the get-go you started pitching this idea production companies, so has that made you want to write screenplay scripts?



It's made me very conscious of the fact that script writing for TV or for film is a very different dynamic to writing for newspapers or indeed writing novels. But, what it has done is it's made me keen to continue to try and develop Canberra-based political dramas. So, I am working on some other projects. And, you know, with other journalists, or with other people. I'm working with another script writer on a particular project, which I'm hoping might be turned into a film.


So, it's very different to what I've done with Chris Uhlmann, but, what I would like to see is a franchise for Canberra-based political drama. And anybody who has been following the rash — the great drama that comes out of Scandinavia, most recently the — I follow the Money, which is a fantastic series playing on SBS at the present. You've had Borgen, you've had The Bridge, you've had all of these great Scandinavian dramas. I want to see if we can do something similar with Australian political drama. I don't see why we can't.


And I think there's great talent in Australia, and there's great stories. We're in an unique position, that's the thing that — that's the thing about this mini-series, The Secret City, it really delves into that relationship between China and America, and the tug of war, the tousle for supremacy, which is playing out as we speak. And that really hasn't been explored that much. It hasn't been explored by American film or TV, and it hasn't been explored by Chinese TV or film either. So, there's a great opportunity for us to do drama out of Australia that actually explores these issues that hopefully are going to have universal appeal and will be able to be sold around the world, but actually are based in Canberra.


So, I'm very keen to pursue that. I think there's great opportunities, there's great stories. There's just so many great stories out of Canberra, and it's just a case of having the time and I guess the determination and the drive to want to try and take those stories and develop them for film, for TV, or as novels.




What was the hardest thing about writing these books?


Avoiding divorce? No… the first book was really, really easy, to be brutally frank. The first book… because we didn't know what we were doing, we stumbled into it and we really enjoyed it and for the most part it was really enjoyable and very quick. We wrote it, The Marmalade Files, in a hurry. The second book was much, much harder. And, Chris —






Well, because the first book was moderately successful we set ourselves a benchmark of saying, “Well, we have to improve on that.”





“We have to improve on that.” So, you know, and while we didn't quite know what we were doing with the first book, the second book you go, “OK, right, we've got to write a better book than the first.” And so we set ourselves a benchmark and it was — I think it was just harder to motivate ourselves. Chris has said this publicly, so he won't mind me saying it, I think Chris found it harder for himself to be motivated to write the second book. I mean it's a lot of work. It's a hell of a lot of work. And when you're trying to combine a day working as the ABC political editor, and then you're trying to write a novel on the side, I mean it really, really does become a bit of an intrusion I guess.


I didn't see it that way, I saw it as a great privilege to be able to write and to be able to try and do something and develop this idea and actually turn these creative ideas into writing that would eventually be published as a book. So, I didn't sort of see it that much.


But, I guess the hardest part was for the two of us to really get into the swing of things for Mandarin Code.


With the third book, Shadow Game, we were sort of really keen to get started on it.


Some of the hard parts are obviously coming up with the narrative, coming up with the storyline, and then making sure that it holds together and that you can write, hopefully, fast-paced political drama that's fictitious, that's close to the bone, and that hopefully is absorbing. I mean the worst thing you want is for someone to pick up and read the first page and just put it down. So, you want to try and really entice people to read the whole book. And it's a classic where you want a page-turners. That's the hard part.


The hard part is coming up with a storyline from the first page to the last page that really, really holds together. And that takes a great skill.


Well, I think you've successfully done that because it is a page-turner. It's certainly un-put-down-able. So, I can't wait for the third book now.


But, on that note, thank you so much for your time today.


Thank you very much, Valerie. I'm really pleased to have chatted to you. And, we'll talk again.





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