Ep 121 What other writers can teach you about writing, and meet James Phelps, author of “Australia’s Toughest Prisons: Inmates”.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 121 of So you want to be a writer:  What other writers can teach you about writing, why no writing is wasted, Michelle Field’s plagiarism scandal, and the lost art of letter writing. Impress your friends and readers by using “inchoate” correctly. Meet James Phelps, author of Australia’s Toughest Prisons: Inmates. Plus, our latest platform building tip and much more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Review of the Week
From sumi341 from Australia:

I started listening to it recently and have downloaded almost all the podcasts that interest me and listen to it almost exclusively while walking. Gives me some inspiration and amazing tips on writing especially since I’m a procrastinator and also trying to find a way to tap into my creativity. Keep up the good work.

Thanks sumi341!

Show Notes
The writer’s epiphany: I can pinpoint precise lessons from other authors and their work

Your Writing Is Never Wasted

Michelle Fields of the Huffington Post Caught in Plagiarism Scandal

Writer in Residence

James Phelps
james phelpsJames Phelps is an award-winning senior reporter for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney.

He began as on overnight police rounds reporter before moving into sport, where he became one of Australia’s best news-breaking rugby league reporters.

Following the bestselling Dick Johnson: The Autobiography of a True-Blue Aussie Sporting Legend, James returned to his roots to delve into the criminal underworld with a series of crime books: Australia’s Hardest Prison: Inside the Walls of Long Bay Jail; Australia’s Most Murderous Prison; and Australia’s Toughest Prisons: Inmates. James is a twice V8 Supercar media award winner and a former News Awards ‘Young Journalist of the Year’ and ‘Sport Reporter of the Year’.

Follow James on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

Esme’s Wish – Being published in 2017!

Competition

WIN 16 books in our crime and thriller short story competition

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, James.

 

James

Yeah, thank you.

 

Valerie

Now I picked up your book thinking, “I’ll get a little bit of reading in before…” I needed to go do whatever my next task was. And hours and hours later I was still sitting on the sofa because I couldn’t put it down.

 

Just for readers who haven’t read your book yet, tell us what it’s about.

 

James

Well, I actually saw a bit of an Instagram from you, and apparently you don’t read that sort of thing. So, you actually got back to me, and I’m very impressed that you got through it, and in one night.

 

But, it’s a book on prison, so it’s actually my third book that I’ve written. But, for this one I’ve gone a little bit different. The other two have been sort of more research-y pieces where I was speaking to guards and going through court records and things like this. But, this one is straight from the inmates’ mouth.

 

So, I’ve gone out and sort of gathered up murders and serial killers and all of the people that you can think of and written their stories about what life is like for them in jail, or was like for them in jail.

 

It’s a little bit different in terms that it’s direct from them, but, yeah, it’s absolutely gripping some of the stuff that these guys go through and it’s not necessarily the people that we all know and fear. There are some people out there that you haven’t heard of that just have these horrendous jail stories and their lives in jail.

 

Valerie

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Now you have mentioned that you have written two other books about prisons, and clearly there’s a theme here. There’s Australia’s Hardest Prison, which was about Long Bay Jail, and Australia’s Most Murderous Prison, which is about Goulburn. And now you’ve got Australia’s Toughest Prisons, it’s about inmates, as you’ve said.

 

James

I’m running out of titles, aren’t I?

 

 

Valerie

Yeah. This franchise could go on forever, potentially.

 

When did you start thinking, “I might start writing about prisons…”?

 

James

Yeah, I’m actually a sports journalist by trade, I worked for the Sunday Telegraph and I cover rugby league and motorsport. And, my first book was on Chad Reed, he’s an Australian motorcycle rider. He actually races over in the US. And, that one actually never got published. So, it’s still on the shelf. We wrote it and then he had some doubts about it and he wanted the book coming out after he retired, because it was too controversial.

 

So I moved on from that and did a V8 Supercar book with a guy called Dick Johnson and that was a little bit of an experience. But, the book went to number one, which I was lucky enough to have the top biography that year. And, the publisher came up to me and said, “What’s next? Jamie Whincup, or a rugby league player?” And I said, “No, I can’t do. I’ve got to do this…” after doing sports for ten months a year I wanted to write about something that I’d read about on my holidays to make it a bit more interesting.

 

And I bumped into a prison guard at a party. And he was telling me these stories, and I’m thinking, “This can’t be right. That’s not true.” We had obviously had a few beers. I contacted him the next day when he was sober and fair enough it all checked out. And I thought, “Well, I’ll do a little bit more on this, if I can find a few guys with a few more stories I’ve got a book here,” and that’s how it all started.

 

Valerie

Wow. And so when you first started thinking, “I might write about prisons…” did you think, “This could be a bit dangerous because of the people that I need to interview or come in contact with.”?

 

James

No, that thought never really crossed my mind, to be honest. I mean being a journalist you kind of go head first into things without really thinking about the consequences, but, yeah, believe me there’s been a few scares along the way. But, really at the end of the day as long as your writing is true and you stand by it, I mean you can’t be fearful of what’s going to happen.

 

Valerie

Alright, so you said there were some scary moments, what were some of the scary moments?

 

 

 

 

James

Yeah, I actually had a $100,000 bounty placed on my head midway through last year. It was by a pretty infamous criminal that I wrote about in one of the books. Yeah, I got a call from ASIO, believe it or not, and it was taken pretty seriously.

 

Valerie

Oh my god, that’s more than just a bit scary.

 

James

Yeah, no, it was pretty scary. It was funny, I didn’t really think about it at first, I sort of dismissed it. But, then a couple of weeks later you start to see some dodgy characters driving down your street. I ended up with quite a collection of baseball bats.

 

Valerie

Oh my god!

 

Alright, so as you were saying you write about many sport and not so much prisons. Just take me back, when did you kind of think, “I might want to be a writer.”

 

James

Gosh, do you want to go all the way back?

 

Valerie

Yeah, why not?

 

James

Well, I was probably eight years old I remember I was sick at some point. My dad was always a big reader. And for whatever reason I had an interest in horror. And I ended up with a Stephen King book called Salem’s Lot when I was eight. And, I managed to get through the whole thing and it started a bit of an obsession with me reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz. And from eight until twelve I probably got through everything they had. And, yeah, I started writing big books as well, even younger than that. I sent Roald Dahl a book that I had drew up and he actually sent me a letter back from England, which was pretty cool.

 

Valerie

Oh my god, that’s fantastic.

 

James

Yeah, and my mum actually brought out all of these little books that I wrote when I was four or five that I didn’t even know that I did. So, obviously it was always there.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

James

But, when I was sort of 15 or 16 I wasn’t very good at English in school, I was out playing rugby league. And, I think I got 15 and under in my trial HSC believe it or not, for English. And I did about a week’s study and ended up getting over 80, but I gave up on writing, I just didn’t think that I had it.

 

And, full circle, I ended up getting a job in a print centre with News Limited when I was about 20, part time, I was studying commerce. And, yeah, I was thrust into the world of journalism and I decided that I wanted to do it and went for it and ended up being a journalist and a writer, so…

 

Valerie

Wow. So, you said that you started reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz, have you ever felt, “You know, I might try writing a book like that.”? Like, fiction?

 

James

Yeah, I’m actually in the process of doing one. Yeah, I’ve been having a go at it here and there for a while. It’s a little bit different, I guess, but I keep on putting it off, writing the non-fiction. Obviously they’ve been very successful and it’s a proven income there. So, every time I go to get stuck into it I get offered a new contract for a new book. So, I have to sort of put it on the back burner. But, certainly that is my ultimate ambition.

 

Valerie

Fantastic. So, with this book, the one that I couldn’t put down, you obviously had to go to prisons and visit inmates. What was that like, when was the first time you visited a prison?

 

James

It was probably when a former inmate took me out to Long Bay, we actually didn’t go in, but we scaled the perimeter and he was telling me various stories from outside and I was sort of looking in. Then a prison officer took me, not long after that, inside unofficially. And, yeah, since then I’ve been going sort in and out visiting obviously inmates and also doing tours and things like that. So…

 

Valerie

You’ve spoken also to many prison guards, and apart from the ones you meet at parties, do you — how does one go about finding guards to speak to?

 

James

That’s funny, once you get the ball rolling with one, you end up getting many. So, you gain the trust of one, he’ll recommend you to his mates, and from there they’ll recommend you to more mates. But, with the Goulburn book, actually, that was quite a difference experience, because it’s such isolated jail and they all seem to work around that area. They’re all in families, it’s a little bit incestual, actually. But I had to go knocking on doors down in Goulburn to meet these prison guards. They wouldn’t have a bar of me, but eventually once I knocked on their doors and go to know them, then the flood waters opened, I would say.

 

Valerie

Did you actually knock on doors?

 

James

I knocked on doors, yeah. Absolutely.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

James

Yep, Journalism 101. I got names off the electoral role and found addresses. It actually took me probably three or four hours and they moved and moved and I got one, got two, got three, and away I went.

 

Valerie
Oh my god, that’s committed.

 

James

Yeah, flowers always does the job. If it’s a woman you take flowers, if it’s a man you take beer.

 

Valerie

Great.

 

So, with this book about inmates, obviously you had to research different inmates and different kinds of inmates. How did you determine the ones that you were going to go with?

 

James

I guess it was a process of who I found. And, sort of — it was different, like I mean you don’t really have a criminal network to call on. But, you put things out on Facebook and obviously friends will contact you and say, “Oh, I know someone that’s in jail or has been in jail.” You listen to their story, find out if it’s interesting enough that it would make the book. And some of the other kind of high profile guys, they pick themselves. Guys like Ivan Milat and the old mate down in Risdon, Martin Bryant.

 

And I didn’t get to speak to those guys. And, I don’t think I’d want to, but obviously I spoke to a lot of people that had dealt with them and got the inside story on their lives that way.

 

Valerie

Did you try to speak to either of them?

 

James

Yeah, absolutely. I was shot down by corrections. So, I don’t think they even had a choice in it.

 

Valerie

No.

 

When you decide, “OK, I’m going to talk to this prisoner, John Smith,” what do you do? What did you do? What’s your process? Do you just ring up the prison and say, “Hey…”

 

James

Well, the family is the best bet. So, Craig Field an ex-footballer is featured in the book.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

James

He’s doing ten years for manslaughter up at Cessnock in maximum security.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

James

So, I tracked down his wife and got to know her over a period of weeks. And, eventually gained her trust. And, she organized with Craig who gave permission for me to go and visit him.

 

But, basically all you do is you have to find out their MIN number, which is basically their inmate number, and you ring up the jail and they tell you what day their visits are. They’re usually Saturday and Sunday between 9:00 and 1:00, and then you basically just book yourself in. So, you tell them your name and they give you a time and then they’ll go and tell the prisoner that they’ve got a visit. He’s the person, “Do you want to go or not.” So, you can actually go to the visit centre and wait and they might come out, or they don’t want to visit, but they’ve got the option to do it.

 

It’s a pretty daunting process in itself, walking up to a prison. You have to get your eyeballs scanned and your finger prints taken. You get searched, you can get cavity searched if you look suspicious as well, through x-ray machines. So, it’s quite daunting.

 

Valerie

Yeah, right. Wow. Which was the scariest or most daunting visit?

 

James

I think Goulburn jail is the most daunting and scariest prison you could go to. It’s just… it has a reputation… it’s a very old jail, you can see the history in the walls, there’s a big lion out in the front and there’s a bit of a legend there. Apparently if you leave and look back at the lion that means that you’re going to be coming back.

 

Valerie

Oh my gosh.

 

James

So when inmates are released they don’t dare turn around. But, a few of them have a sneaky peak, it’s one of those things that sort of plays on your mind. But, yeah, definitely that jail, and that’s where all the worst sort of inmates are. And, it’s just got a smell about it as well, it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of like a mixture of sort of blood and sweat and domestos and also you can smell the history.

 

Valerie
Yeah, right.

 

You seem to call some of these criminals your friends, because obviously you have gotten to know some of them over time.

 

James

Yep.

 

Valerie

Is that weird kind of reconciling what they’ve done, which sometimes is quite terrible, and the fact that presumably now you think they’re good blokes, they’re actually good blokes?

 

James

I try not to judge people generally in life. Obviously with their crimes, yeah, it’s a bit difficult. Like, on face value you don’t to do anything to do with a person that’s done that sort of thing, but when you hear their stories and how it happened and put it all into perspective, a lot of these guys have terrible upbringings and drugs are a factor as well. You can sort of see how these things would happen. I mean you can never condone it.

 

But, yeah, you’ve got to take that person on how they are to you and how you find them. There are two that I would say that I would consider mates and I’m happy to go and have a beer with them and we have formed a friendship.

 

Valerie

Now that I have read your book, because my office is in Milsons Point and I now look everywhere at Milsons Point to see whether I can see John Killick at the cafes.

 

James

Yeah, you might see him too — he might actually walk up and pick you up. He’s a charming old man and goes alright with the ladies, apparently. Yeah, he’s one of those sort of old school crims that has become a bit of a legend on his notoriety. I mean he never really committed a heinous crime, so he didn’t murder anyone. Yeah, he did assault people, he was a violent criminal. But, he’s become one of those characters, I guess, those knock-abouts that people are fascinated with. And he’s an absolute gentleman, like he really is now. I mean he’s 70. These crimes when he actually assaulted people, robbed banks were when he was a young fellow in his ’20s, so he’s had a lifetime in prison to sit there and reflect. But, absolute gentleman, he really is.

 

Valerie

I’ll keep my eye out.

 

When you decided — you went to that party, you saw the guard and you thought, “I’m going to write that first book,” how did you juggle that with your job? Because you had a full time job, and in that first book what time period did that take. Like, what was the gestation period in terms of research and writing? If you can give us some timelines.

 

James

Yeah, sure. So, I do it now. I work full time at the Sunday Telegraph and also do a TV show on Fox once a week. So I’m pretty busy most of the year. But, being in sport it’s very seasonal, so I get a good two months at the end of each year over summer. So, basically every book I get a year. So, for the ten months while I’m working I’ll be also interviewing, researching at night, during the day as well, if I can, if I’ve got a break from my normal job. And hopefully get all of my research and interviews out of the way in that ten months. Then I’ll take the two months off and I’ll go and write, and it’s pretty hardcore, what I do.

 

My first three books I wrote them in tents.

 

Valerie

In tents?

 

James

Yeah, I went down the coast and got a campsite for the whole two months and sat in a tent, nothing more than a fridge, a tent, my laptop, no internet, and would write for up to 18 hours a day.

 

Valerie

You sat in a tent?!

 

James

Yep. In the middle of summer, it was up to 50 degrees in that tent some days. But, yeah, when you’ve got nothing to do except write, like there wasn’t a distraction in the world…

 

 

Valerie

Did you write it by hand or by laptop?

 

James

I had a laptop, so I had a powered site, I actually had a fridge and a coffee machine. Yeah, my little barbeque. And basically my only breaks each day were cooking or cleaning. It’s funny how clean you can make your campsite when you’re writing a book, you can distract yourself with anything.

 

Valerie

Did you do this with all three books?

 

James

Yep, all three books. Except I went soft on my last book, I actually rented a cabin in a caravan park, so I had air conditioning this time.

 

Valerie

Alright. So, take me to the tent or cabin, with the air conditioning, for two months then describe your typical day. Like, what time would you wake up. Did you have to start with a coffee made over a fire or something? How did it work? Did you aim to achieve a certain number of words per day? Or what was the structure?

 

James

I don’t think I really had an aim with words, but I certainly had a daily routine. Half the beauty of being in a tent, for me, is that being a writer and a journalist I tend to have odd hours and stay up quite late when I’m at my most creative and I’ll sleep in a lot. So, in a tent the sun would kind of get you up at 7:00 AM, so you’d be up and going. Get up, have breakfast, clean, have a shower, and then I’d jump straight into it. And what I’d do is look at the work I’d done the night before, again I was most creative at night, so I’d just tighten up what I’d done, have a look. That would take probably two to three hours. And, then I’d get out my research, work out what my next chapter was, or what I needed to do and at times in the day I would have to make actual phone calls and plug into the internet and fact-check and get everything ready to go.

 

I wouldn’t really write, I guess, until 4:00 or 5:00, but I’d have everything prepared. Then I would have some dinner and then sit down at night, when everything was quiet and then that’s when I would actually get into my proper thinking and writing, and write up to 5,000 or 6,000 words.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

James

And as I say, I would just let it go and flow, and a lot of it wouldn’t be that tight and I would have to go over it again, but that’s what the next morning would be for.

 

Valerie

Yeah, right.

 

That’s disciplined. I certainly can’t imagine living in a tent for two months.

 

Do you feel now that with your next book you will still have to go back to the tent now that you’ve got that routine going?

 

James

Not always. No, I just love. It’s my favorite time of the year. I’m on my own for that whole time, living out there in nature with my laptop, it’s part of the writing process for me. No distractions. I’ve got three young boys who can be ratbags, so even if I wasn’t home, I mean I lock the door and they’ll be knocking on the door wanting me to play football or coming in with a homework query or something. So, getting out of the house is really the only way I can do it.

 

Valerie

They don’t come and try to go camping with Dad?

 

James

No, they actually do come down on the weekends. So, I’ll keep that free, I’ll go and pick them up maybe on a Friday afternoon and they’ll come down for the weekends. I get to do a bit of work while they’re there as well, because they’ll be off skateboarding or doing whatever they do in the caravan park.

 

But, certainly those weekdays when no one is around in the caravan parks, except for a couple of grey ghosts who might wonder over and look at the weird guy sitting out on a computer desk in a caravan park. They can be quite funny.

 

I’ve actually met some contacts too.

 

Valerie

Oh, really?

 

James

Like, a prison guard ended up staying down at a caravan park that worked at the jail that I was writing about.

 

Valerie

Oh my god.

 

James

He pulled up a chair a couple of nights, had some beers, and I got some of my best stuff out of him.

 

 

Valerie

That’s great.

 

So, you’re in a tent, now practically speaking, do you have a lot of research? How does that…

 

James

Yeah, I do. I’ve probably got — how would you say this? What does paper come in? A4 sort of —

 

Valerie

Reams.

 

James

Reams, yeah. So, one of those, they weigh about — what? A kilo, you’d say? I’ve probably got about 20 of them, but in folders. So, they’re all sort of… they’re manilla folders, but they’re sectioned off into files. And I’ve got them all divided up into jails, inmates, crimes… they’re pretty well ordered and that’s what I will be doing when I said after I sort of polish up my writing from the night before. I’ll go through those files during the day, work out what I’m going to write about that night, pull it all out, get it in order, work out what files I have to do.

 

And, I’ve also got all of my interviews transcribed, and before I go away I’ve got those interviews sort of tucked away, the information that I think I’m going to use it with. So, there’s a bit of an order before I even get to that part, but I would say three to four hours to just put everything in front me for that night of writing.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

With the latest book, the way it’s structured is that there is actually a thread through the entire book, and yet it’s also divided up effectively by inmate, so to speak. How did you determine the best order in which to deliver that information to the reader so that they read it, you know, in a way that was going to — well, like, me I couldn’t put it down.

 

James

Yeah, that was my biggest dilemma, because it is so…

 

Valerie

What was your thought process, yeah.

 

James

… unrelated and they’re all people’s stories.

 

I guess I toyed around with the idea of putting my favorite stuff first and then getting weaker, but obviously you don’t want to lose the reader’s interest. So, yeah, I started with a bang, obviously with the introduction. I think that was probably my strongest stuff, about Martin Bryant. If you read the first page it’s not for the faint-hearted.

 

Valerie

No.

 

James

If you can get past the first paragraph you’re quite brave and doing well, it’s quite explicit. So…

 

Valerie

It’s explicit, but it’s not gory or horrifying, because I just can’t deal with that sort of stuff. So, it’s explicit and yet you still read on.

 

James

Well, yeah, a guy is sucking something.

 

Valerie

Yeah, OK.

 

James

Straight up, so…

 

Yeah, from then… I think it was… I tried to take you through the process. I started off with a bit of chronological order. So, you’ve got a guy in a juvenile centre, which kind of gives you the overview of how someone could find themselves in a position where they’re committing crime, an introduction to the corrective system.

 

And then we went from there in to a main gaol with a young boy that was probably 17 or 18. And then from there we went through the process, through some harder crimes and then finished the book off with terrorism, which is probably one of the newer issues in jails and how we’re dealing with those sorts of inmates.

 

So, yeah, I think I got there. I can’t say I absolutely meticulously planned it, but it was more I just shuffled it around and thought, “That might work,” and it did. There was a bit of luck in it.

 

Valerie

Obviously this theme, writing about prisons, has been successful for you. When you wrote that first one, did you think it was going to be as popular as it was?

 

 

 

 

James

I had suspected it would be, but, no, I didn’t think it was going to be an Australian bestseller and hit number one. I also thought it was the last book I would ever write on prisons.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

James

Yeah, I was going to go write about sharks, or the porn industry, or something that field. I don’t want to stay on one thing. Because of the success, I guess it sort of pigeonholed me into it. Yeah, it turned into a second, then a third, and each one has been my last. I was adamant that this would be my last, but I’ve just signed up to do another one.

 

Valerie

Really? What’s the theme of this one?

 

James

The next one will be women only. So… your Australian Wentworth if you well, girls only.

 

Valerie

Really? So have you been research that? Have you been going to visit women in prisons?

 

James

Yeah, I’ve started the process, so I haven’t been in prisons yet with them, but I’ve met a lot of girls outside that have been in them, and also dealing with a couple of officers. And as I’ve said, these are all new contacts, so I’m in the process of gaining their trust and obviously doing it a bit covertly with the corrective services department. Yeah, so in a couple of months hopefully they’ll be taking me into jails and showing me around and opening up a little bit more.

 

But, yeah, it’s not full time at the moment, but I’m certainly every week meeting these people having coffees and hearing stories and getting a little framework in my mind and working out what I need to do.

 

Valerie

You mentioned that an important part of this process is to gain their trust, which is obvious because that’s the only way you’re going to get in. So, how do you go about doing that?

 

James

It’s just contact, talking, you know? It’s like when you meet a friend, the first time you meet them you don’t really know them I guess. And, yeah, you’ve just got to keep at it and eventually you’ll find something in common, you become friends and they’ll learn to trust you.

 

I don’t know, it’s just the way, I guess. Being a journalist you do it every day, but yeah you can’t be afraid to talk and meet people and be outgoing, I suppose.

 

Valerie

Yeah, sure.

 

What’s the scariest person you’ve met?

 

James

With a doubt Goldie. He’s featured in a chapter of the book. Goldie is 6’6″. His name is ‘Goldie’ because he has a complete front row of gold teeth, he’s covered in tattoos, and he’s an alleged hit man. So, he founded one of Sydney’s worst and most notorious gangs, which is called Brothers for life. He was in motorcycle gangs. Yeah, when he was arrested for one of his bigger crimes the police found a backpack in his house, in it he had a police uniform, and address, a picture of his target, a gun with a silencer, another gun, some explosives — yeah, so…

 

Valerie

Oh my god. He’s an MMA fighter as well?

 

James

Yeah, he was trying to be an MMA fighter. But, he actually contacted me after my second book and he wasn’t happy about some of the things that were written. He was telling me I was wrong and he wanted to meet me.

 

Valerie

Oh my god.

 

James

I thought, “This guy might want to kill me.” I mean I had to get some people’s advice and everyone I spoke to said, “Don’t go near him, he’s a manic. He probably does want to kill you.” Eventually I got the courage to go and meet him. And, yeah, as you can see his chapter is riveting.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

James

And well worth it. So, to bring you that story I went through a lot, I suppose.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

James
And a few sleepless nights, but that’s all part of the process.

 

Valerie
At any point then in the last three books, especially when there was a bounty on your head, did you think, “I’m not going to finish this book.”?

 

James

No, no. Definitely not.

 

Valerie

Really? It never crossed your mind?

 

James
Well, once you’ve already spent your advance there’s little you can do.

 

Valerie

OK, well, there’s that issue.

 

James

Yeah, I wasn’t going to be able to pay it back.

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

You said each one was meant to be your last, because you want to go off and write these other things, but now you’re doing this women’s prison one, have you thought, “OK, when it really is my last, I’m going to write about ‘x’…” whatever ‘x’ is?

 

James

Yeah, I want to write fiction. As I’ve said, I’ve already began writing it, it’s a horror fiction, something that I’m very passionate about. And, it’s got a lot of non-fiction in it too, which is… I guess I get to use skills that I’ve learned doing these other books. But, I think if you look at my style of already there’s a lot of narrative and sort of fictional writing. It’s not all straight up and down ‘he said…’ ‘she said…’ I try to be as descriptive as possible when…

 

Valerie

It’s a bit like new journalism.

 

James

Yeah, it is. You know, you don’t just write what they say, you imagine where they were and try to paint the picture for them.

 

A lot of questions go into it. You feel a bit silly going, “What color was the brick?” “How sharp was the wall?” “Can you tell me the texture of the floor?” If you get all of that you can really write about the situation and put the reader in that cell with them.

 

Valerie

What was the hardest thing, or what was one of the hardest things about writing these books?

 

James

I don’t know how to answer that really.

 

Valerie

The most challenging thing?

 

James

Yeah, I don’t know. I think I enjoy challenges, and any challenge I had was something I probably looked forward to. Obviously, the flak afterwards, the corrective services were very difficult to deal with and they tried to make my life a living hell.

 

Valerie

In what sense?

 

James

They went to my employer and tried to insinuate that everything I was writing was untrue. They had meetings, basically the point was they were trying to get me sacked. And luckily my editor is a fantastic man and one of my mentors, and he stuck by me. And as it’s turned out what I’ve written has proven to be true in courts and places like that. And, it’s actually turned the tide on the old corrective services department and they’ve had a little bit of pressure put on them for some of the things that they’ve done.

 

But, yeah, that was probably the biggest challenge.

 

Valerie

Yeah, I mean it certainly shines a light on quite a lot of things. When people read this book, I know a lot of people who will read this book and read the bit, I won’t spoil it, in case they haven’t discovered this yet, but read the bit about what happened with Martin Bryant in 2006. It’s like astounding — astounding.

 

James

Yeah.

 

Valerie

Absolutely — there are no words. But, anyway, I won’t spoil it for people.

 

Where there any points where your publisher went, “For legal reasons,” or whatever reasons, for bounty on my head reasons, “We don’t want to publish those bits.”

 

James

No, I mean that’s why I’ve written four books with Random House Penguin, is because they’ve never questioned anything, never not backed anything, and have been absolutely supportive.

 

So, I mean I’ve written things at times and thought, “That’s too much,” and then I’ve spoken to my editor and then he or she has just gone, “No, it’s great, it’s brilliant. You’ve written it for a reason, let’s go with it.”

 

Valerie

What’s been the most exciting thing about this whole process of these books?

 

James

I don’t know, I guess getting the book in your hand for the first time is probably the most exciting thing. You sort of finish it, in my case in February and you go through the editing process and all of that sort of stuff, and then you forget about it. And then one day they’ll be a knock on your door, there’s a box and you pick up the book and hold it in your hand and at the end of the day I’m a book lover, that’s why I do this. And to hold your own book in your hand and look at it, it’s a pretty proud moment. So, that’s definitely the best, getting it and smelling the print and looking at it.

 

Valerie

Where there any moments, because you are going into jails and dealing with inmates and dealing with violent criminals, in some cases, in many cases, where there any moments where your adrenalin was like really going for it?

 

James

Absolutely, every time you walk into one of those places your adrenalin is going for it, I mean especially meeting one of these guys for the first time. Just sitting in a visitors” room with — you don’t know who’s around you. You’re in an open room, there’s guards there, but they’re in a box sort of thing, looking over you. But, you could have a serial killer on the next table, he’s not restrained, he can jump across and kill you. You don’t know.

 

Valerie

Yeah, right.

 

James

Yeah, you’re always on edge and the adrenalin is certainly going.

 

Valerie

Well, the book is fantastic. As I said, I’m honest about it, this is not the usual thing I would pick up and read, but I actually couldn’t put it down. So, yeah, good luck with it.

 

Thanks so much for your time today.

 

James

Yeah, thanks so much. I hope you enjoyed it, maybe we can get you reading some more. And maybe come for a visit to one of these prisons with me one day. You might get your adrenalin going as well.

 

Valerie

Awesome.

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