Ep 293 Book Week costume ideas. And we chat to Tony Park, bestselling author of ‘Ghosts of the Past’.

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In Episode 293 of So You Want To Be A Writer: We chat to Tony Park, bestselling author of Ghosts of the Past. We also share Book Week costume ideas. AWC presenter Patti Miller’s book launch for The Joy of High Places was a great success. Plus there are three copies Fake by Stephanie Wood to give away.

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

AWC presenter Patti Miller’s book launch: ‘The Joy of High Places’.

How to be Quinn from the Mapmaker Chronicles for Book Week

How to be Gabe and more from the Ateban Cipher for Book Week

Book Week 2019: Reading is my secret power

‘Your Kid’s Next Read’ Live Event (and Meet-up!)

Writers in Residence

Tony Park

Tony Park is the author of 16 novels set in Africa and six non-fiction biographies. Tony has worked as a reporter, a press secretary, a PR consultant and a freelance writer. He also served 34 years in the Australian Army Reserve including six months in Afghanistan in 2002. Tony and his wife divide their time between Sydney and southern Africa where they own a home on the border of the Kruger National Park.

Tony’s 17th novel, Ghosts of the Past, was released worldwide in August 2019.

Tony is a keen supporter of several charities concerned with wildlife and people in Africa.

Follow Tony on Twitter

Follow Pan Macmillan Australia on Twitter

(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN ‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Tony.

Tony

My pleasure. Great to be on the program.

Valerie

Now, congratulations on your latest book, Ghosts of the Past. For readers who haven’t picked it up yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Tony

Yeah, it’s a thriller. Like my previous 16 books, it’s set in southern Africa. It’s a little bit different in this one, it switches between two time zones. The past, hence the name, and the present. It’s based around a real life story of a young Australian who went to fight in the Boer War in South Africa in1900 that stayed on and got dragged into a conflict in the neighbouring country of German Southwest Africa, where the local indigenous people had risen up against what was a pretty oppressive Germany colonial regime.

The future part of the story is the descendants of the fictitious version of that real life character trying to find out what happened to him, the woman he loved, and the missing treasure of gold.

Valerie

Awesome. Now, how did the idea for this book form? Did the true story aspect of it, did you discover that and that inspired the rest of the story? Or did it come about some other way?

Tony

It’s a really good question. It’s interesting how ideas for novels come up and where we get them from. I was actually writing one of my previous books, a book called Empty Coast, which is set in Namibia, in modern day Namibia. And to tell you the truth, I don’t do a lot of book research. I more like to immerse myself in the countries and the places that I’m writing about when I’m travelling around Africa.

But because there were some historical elements to that book, I read a book called The History of Namibia. And in that book was a one line mention, literally a one line mention, about the fact that there was an Australian guy by the name of Edward Presgrave who had joined the Nama people of Southern Namibia and fought alongside them, alongside a charismatic leader called Jakob Morengo, during the Nama wars of 1904 to 1907. That was it.

And of course, being an Australian who spends a lot of time in Africa I thought, there has to be a book in that. And then I forgot about it for a couple of years. I finished that book that I was working on. And then I generally don’t know what I’m going to write for my next novel until I’m just about finished the one before.

And I was actually planning a trip to Southern Namibia and I thought, I should have a look and see if I can find out about that guy. It took me a bit of searching. I couldn’t even remember his name. So I googled it. I don’t use the internet a lot for research either. But I did google and found out that in the intervening couple of years an academic from Sydney’s Macquarie University, Dr Peter Curzon, had read the same book that I had while he was actually teaching at the University of Cape Town and decided he would research this guy, Edward Lionel Presgrave. But he went off and wrote a book, not a big book, but a book that he self-published about the life of this guy, Edward Presgrave. And the fascinating times that he was involved in.

But to cut a long story short, I tracked Peter down, met him, had lunch with him. He said, you should write a novel about this guy, to which I said, I hoped that’s what you would say. So here we are!

Valerie

Fantastic. So the thing is, you’ve written 16 other books set in Africa. You’re obviously very prolific. But you’re obviously fascinated with Africa. You spend so much time there. Where did this come from? Way back when it first started?

Tony

From my wife, actually. She’s not from South Africa or Zimbabwe or any of the countries that I write about. But we had travelled quite a bit when we were younger around Asia and Europe. And in 1995, my wife Nicola said to me, we’re going to Africa for a holiday. To which I said, great, sure. Fantastic.

And I’d never had any great desire to visit the continent. I was quite excited, quite happy. And we set off on what was supposed to be a once in a lifetime safari holiday around South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. But it turned out to be anything but. Something happened on that first trip, and I’m still hard pressed to work out what it was, whether it was the people or the wildlife or the scenery or the cultures or the history or something. But we got hooked. We got grabbed by this continent, and it kind of lured us. And we decided probably before the end of the first week of that holiday that we would have to come back. This would not be a once in a lifetime trip.

And so we did. We went back the year after, and the year after. We went back every year for the last 24 years. Except for a year when I went to Afghanistan with the army, but that’s another story.

And yeah, so we got hooked on the continent. And it didn’t happen straight away, but around about that time, a couple of years later, I was starting to get really serious about trying to write, which was something I’d always wanted to do. And eventually the two coincided where I got the inspiration for the first book I wrote that was published, which was set in Africa.

And my publisher at Pan MacMillan said, well, you can write the Africa books if you like. And so here I am, 17 books later.

Valerie

Wow. So just… I mean, obviously you’re a veteran author now and extremely experienced. But can you just take us back, just a very quick potted history of your career. But also take us back to that first book, on what you were doing at the time, and how you got that first book written and published.

Tony

Yeah. I mean, since I was a little kid, the only thing I wanted to do was write a novel. Particularly to write fiction. It’s not easy, as you know, to wake up one day and say, all right, I’m going to write a novel. So I think your life experiences help and we get there eventually. I worked as a journalist and I’ve worked in public relations.

And as I was approaching 40 I think I discovered what – and I guess this has happened to a lot of people – there’s a couple of big obstacles to writing a novel. And you need time, time to write it of course. And a place. Not just a place to write, but a place that you want to write about. And I’d been lacking both those things.

So I quit work to give myself time, with the help of my wife, who basically gave me six months. And I wrote a manuscript. But that manuscript never went anyway. It failed. And I think the reason it failed is because I probably made every mistake that a novice writer could possibly make.

I wrote a book set in the outback in Australia. I had never been to the outback. So I didn’t write about what I knew. I wrote a book set in the outback because I thought people overseas might want to buy it. Another great mistake. And I read a couple of textbooks about writing and they both said, you have to plot. And you have to know your characters in advance, you have to have your plot all worked out in advance, and your chapter breakdowns. So I wrote like that.

And I found that – I’d been writing for 20 odd years as a journalist and in PR – I found this the hardest, most frustrating, most agonising six months of my life and career. Because it was also counter-intuitive to me. That book I wrote, it failed. Justifiably so.

It was an interesting learning experience because, as I said, we started travelling to Africa. And our third trip to Africa, I’d gone back to work, as a fulltime part timer. I was quite despondent, having failed. Because not only did I… I knew that manuscript was no good. And so when we went on our third trip to Africa, we were on a long trip, about four months. And my wife’s a great planner when it comes to holidays, but on this trip she was quite happy, like I was, to say, let’s not have a plan. Let’s go wherever we want to.

And I started writing another book on that trip. And I didn’t have a plot. And I didn’t know who the characters were. And I thought, why would I want to write a book whose middle and ending I already knew? I would no sooner want to do that then I’d want to read a book whose middle and ending I knew.

So I thought, why can’t I just make it up as I go along? And make up the characters. So that first book that got published, it’s a book called Far Horizon. It’s set on a fictitious tour around Southern Africa with a bunch of tourists.

If you read that book, you would pretty well trace exactly the path of that four months trip that we took around Africa. And so I made the story up every day. And just as I didn’t know where we would be camping or staying the next day, so too did I not know what the character was going to do the next day.

And I just, with no formal training, I’d never studied creative writing or anything like that, I became what’s known as a pantser, someone who writes by the seat of the pants. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I didn’t know you could do that.

But I found writing that way was… It seemed intuitive. It was fun more than anything else. I really enjoyed just making the story up one day at a time, one page at a time. And it must have shown in the final product because I was happier with it. And my wife read it. And I got published by the first publisher I sent it to.

Valerie

And have you continued in that fashion? Have you continued pantsing to the same level?

Tony

Exactly. I have.

Valerie

Really?

Tony

And I probably learn more along the way that, you know, I can’t even review the previous day’s work let alone a previous chapter. So I don’t review anything as I write. I just start with a premise and I just go from there from the premise. And I make up the people, the plot, characters, everything as I go along.

And I just have to trust myself that it’s going to work each time. And touch wood. And I’m prey to the normal concerns and worries and self-doubt that people sometimes go through along the way, I never think I’m going to have enough to finish, I never think it’s going to be good enough. I quite often can’t think of the endings.

I think as writers we go along with what works for all of us. I think it’s good to have a bit of structure and a bit of inspiration and to learn from others. But only you will know what’s going to work best for you. So I write every book exactly the same.

When it also comes to things like the research and that, same as that first book, I write on locations. On my first draft. I really have to be wherever I’m writing. Because I still find, and this is possibly one of the few things that helps having worked as a journalist, is that they teach you to observe. You’re a trained observer as a journalist.

So if I am in the place that I am writing about, I’m able to capture the scenery, but also the current affairs, the people, the way people speak, the way they look, the way they act. And I just found that formula that I stumbled upon still works 17 books later.

Valerie

So you don’t review anything that you’ve written the day before. Are you ever tempted? Because you’d want to remind yourself, oh did he walk through that door or that door? Or whatever.

Tony

Yeah, that’s a very good question. So I will say now that no, I do not ever, and I have to stop myself from looking. Because, the main reason is that I know that if I did I would never move forward. I would just become so… I would agonise over it, and I’d be… Spend time trying to rewrite. So I know that I can’t do it.

The way I avoid having to, it’s a simple trick that I picked up, I think, from that great book On Writing by Stephen King. Is that I never end my day’s quota at the end of a chapter. And I try as far as possible to stop mid-paragraph, mid-sentence.

Valerie

Wow!

Tony

So it’s just an easy trick. An easy trick. An easy hack, if you like. You wake up the next day and you’re just, oh, there’s that sentence. I don’t have to read back more than two or three words.

Now, of course, the risk and the problem – it’s not a risk, it’s actual reality – of writing this way is that when you get to the end of your first draft, it’s very ropey. Characters that started off with blonde hair and blue eyes named Jane end up with brown hair and black eyes called John.

I’m editing one at the moment and I think, who is this person? I don’t know who they are. They’ve kind of slipped in somewhere and I forgot about them. So continuity is a big issue. First draft needs a lot of ironing out. But it’s probably more about my psyche, the way I write, is that if I started going backwards I would never go forwards again. I trust myself. So a little bit is about trusting yourself and what works for you.

Valerie

And so you just said that sometimes you sit there and you just don’t know what the ending is going to be. So have you ever been in a situation where you’re really stuck and you really don’t know what to do next? Because you know that you’re towards the end of your manuscript and you need a proper ending, but you’ve got no idea because you’ve either written yourself into a corner or whatever. What do you do to make yourself push through?

Tony

Yeah. That’s also an excellent question. and it certainly does happen for sure. So when I say I don’t do anything until I get to the end of the first draft, sometimes, like with the book I’m writing now for next year, I’m about ten pages short. I am probably ten pages from the ending and I allow myself to stop at that point. Now, I’m doing my first edit of the manuscript, but only literally with the last ten minutes unknown. Because I’m not exactly sure who the baddie is. But I will hopefully know that by this stage.

The other thing is my wife often writes, she’s one of these people who, you know, it drives me crazy, she reads a book, she’ll pick up a book, she’ll read the first chapter and then she’ll go to the end. And I’m like, what? Why are you doing that? You’re not allowed. And she says, I know how this book’s going to end. And I say, well, why do you read the end? She says, just to prove I’m right. And I say, well, were you right? And she says, I’m always right. And she is.

So what I try to do when I’m writing is try and fool her along the way.

Valerie

Yes!

Tony

One of my great motivators. Because she’s my first reader. And what has happened, I’ll tell you a great example of this, is I wrote a book a few years ago, and even if people do find it or are interested, it’s not rocket science, I won’t give too much of a spoiler.  It’s a book with a female lead and there’s two males and the males are twin brothers, right? Okay. You do not have to be a genius to work out that one of those brothers is going to end up with the girl and the other one is not.

Valerie

Sure.

Tony

And so I’m going through this book and I think, I quite like both of these guys. They’re very different. One’s very sensitive and caring and one’s a rough guy. And she likes both of them. And I went to the end, it’s a big book, it’s about 160,000 words and I probably got to 158,000 and I couldn’t make up my mind. I couldn’t decide which brother she was going to end up with.

And time was ticking away. I was actually on deadline. So I said, I’ve got to go through this. And I did my first edit and I gave it to my wife to read, to Nicola to read, and I thought, by the time she gets there, I’ll have thought of the ending. Well, pretty soon into the book, probably after the second chapter she says, I know which brother is going to get the girl. This brother. And I said, you can’t know that because I haven’t decided. She said, yes, but I know you. And I know which one you’re going to pick.

And so right then and there I had my ending. I made it the other brother.

I told that story and someone said, do you think she was using reverse psychology? Damn! Maybe she was!

Valerie

Oh my god! Okay, so after writing a billion books like you have, you must have some kind of system. So can you take me through typically like a timeline or a timeframe that you might do your first draft, and then your edits. And also, obviously while you’re in the actual writing of the manuscript, what kind of routine you might have. Whether that’s a word count goal or whether that’s a way you structure your day, or whatever. Can you go through those?

Tony

Yeah. Great questions. So I have picked up a bit over the years. Because if you want to write a book a year, not everybody does, but I have to, I worked out I’ve got to have that first draft written in six months. Okay. So I’ve got to have my first draft done in six months. Ideally to a stage where I can show it to a couple of other people, because no one reads my stuff apart from my wife reads it once I’ve finished or nearly finished the first draft. So six months to write the first draft.

I found, and again I think the way we write probably reflects more about us as people, I’m a great procrastinator. I know I am. I know from having worked as a journo that I work best to deadlines. And I know that I work well when I’m in a routine. I don’t work well in fits and starts. So my routine is, and if I’m in Africa this works around our day quite nicely, I try to work in the morning as far as possible, when I’m a bit fresher. I do a little bit of Facebook-ing, a bit of social media to get me awake. You know, you need to procrastinate just a little bit.

But my routine is I have a word/page count. So I have to write four pages a day, which depending on what program I’m using tends to work out at around about 1600 words a day. So I’ve got to do 1600 words a day. And I can’t do less. And most importantly, I don’t do more. Because what I’ve found over the years is some days you think, I’m on fire. This is gold. And I can just write all day. And I’ve done that, and I’ve gone and done my first read through and said, you know what? This is rubbish. And so you don’t always know. And there’s other days where I’m struggling to do that four pages, that 1600 words. It’s like pulling teeth. And then sometimes I think, you know what, I’m just writing to do my quota so I can knock off today. And then I go back and reread some of that stuff and I think it’s not that bad, you know.

So I think we have to trust ourselves. We can’t trust ourselves too much. I think a bit of discipline is good in this process. And I find that if I can do that, this is an ideal, if I can do that six days a week – it’s not always possible with travelling and other commitments, give yourself a day off. But do that six days a week… And that 1600 words, my record for completing that is 45 minutes at one end of the spectrum.

Valerie

Oh! Are you serious?

Tony

Yep. 45 minutes. I swear. But at the other end of the spectrum it’s about nine or ten hours. Okay. But however long it takes, I’ve got to do that. Then stop, mid-chapter, mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, never at the end of a chapter. If I finish at the end of a chapter, I write the first line of the next chapter, just so that I’m not confronted with that blank page.

And then I find that if I can get a good workable version of that manuscript, ideally get it to the publisher within that six month deadline, but that’s probably talking about another month on top of that. That allows time for their production and all their processes.

So I think whether or now you have to meet a deadline, I do think a routine, certainly a routine helps me. And of course, that’s not always possible to do six days a week. But that 1600 words or four pages at a time, I do stick to that. And I know myself, at least I think I know, that the closer I am to being in that routine, not necessarily the better it will be but the easier it will be for me to work.

I don’t find writing difficult. I love it too much to find it difficult. But you have good days at work and bad days at work.

Valerie

When you write it in 45 minutes, do you knock off for the rest of the day?

Tony

Sure do! Sure do!. Sometimes I’m working to my own little deadlines about going to a barbie or going to… One of the nice parts of being in Africa, we quite often get up early in the morning and we live in a house on the edge of the Kruger National Park in South Africa in a game reserve. And we can go for a drive in the national park, go looking at animals, and we go see lions and elephants and leopards and things like that.

And so that’s a good thing to do first I find before work. So if you can do something first thing in the morning, like for example, I run sometimes. Just to…

Valerie

In the game reserve?

Tony

No, not in the game reserve! Not allowed to run there. If I’m running in Australia, or even anywhere, I tend to go for a run in the morning. Because if you can empty your head before you start is good.

I don’t think, sometimes, like if you’re running or swimming or going for a drive in a game reserve, whatever you do, or doing the housework, I’ll do the housework when I’m at home in Australia, I think, I’m not necessarily thinking about what I’m going to write that day, but I’m kind of clearing the slate, if you know what I mean.

Valerie

Yeah.

Tony

Like getting the brain kind of just ready to sort of start getting into the mood and start thinking… I’ve never thought about this, but this is a good question, so I’m thinking about it. I think that’s a good idea, yeah.

Valerie

So Ghosts of the Past does have two timelines. One set in the past and one set in the present, obviously. So in terms of the characters in each of those timelines, how did you… Because you said you don’t even know what’s happening. Did you write one timeline first and then the other timeline. Did you write them at the same time? How did you arrange it?

Tony

It’s… Yeah. It’s tricky. It is tricky, particularly for someone that does make it up as they go along like I do. I mean, this was a book which would have been much easier to write if it had been plotted.

I find what I was doing is I was writing large chunks in the one time zone. And then later on when I did my first edit, I was then moving those chapters around.

I only just got on to the program Scrivener a couple of years ago. I’d never used it before and I thought, I don’t need to. I’ll just work in Word. But I did find that was very handy for a book like this where the editing is quite structural, where you have to break up chapters and move them around. So the kind of, if you know, the corkboard element of Scrivener where you can move your chapters around visually, that was handy.

To tell you the truth, this is a deep dark secret, I started writing this book not in its current form, but I started writing this book when I was in Afghanistan in 2002 with the army. And my nights and my odd hours off, I didn’t get a lot of time off. Because I had already submitted my first manuscript to a publisher and they were considering it. And it was taking quite a while. But they were making some positive noises.

So I started writing a second book set in the Boer War about an Australian in the Boer War. And I got my publisher when I was in the army in Afghanistan, my publisher sent me an email saying, open this, it’s good news. She didn’t even know I was in Afghanistan. And she said, it’s great news, we’re going to give you a deal, and we’re going to give you a two book deal. And I went back to her and said, fantastic. I’m 10,000 words into a book set in the Boer War. And she said, stop. I don’t want it.

Valerie

Oh!

Tony

We’ve just done a book set in the Boer War so write something else. So I did. I wrote something else and I shelved this book. And it lived on an old computer for, like, what is that, 17, 15 years, or 20 years or however long 2000 is. Seventeen years.

And I finally found it because when I decided to write this book based on the life of Edward Presgrave, I thought there’s going to be a Boer War component in this book. So I managed to find on this ancient Commodore 64 type computer.

Valerie

Oh my god.

Tony

So the whole like buried treasure thing. I took it to the computer guy, the backyard computer guy near where I live, and he ripped the entire contents of that hard drive off and put them on to a 2GB memory stick or something like that. And on there was this 10,000 words that I’d written. And look, it wasn’t usable by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a start. And it had given me some characters that I had put a bit of time and effort and thought into. It was very ropey.

So I had a chunk there and then I broke that chunk up and started writing the modern bit. And then I’d go back to the old bit and then the modern bit. But yeah, writing this way, I did find that I tended to get really into one time period and write a lot of the story there. And then I’d switch to the modern day and then I’d go back. And then I did use a bit of software magic to break up those chapters and realign them. So yeah, that’s the true story behind this book.

Valerie

Wow. Now you’ve been a journo, a reporter, and also in public relations. I think you did some public affairs when you were in Afghanistan. So you’ve been a journo, you’ve been in PR. And so had the character in this book, Nick, he’s a journalist and then he’s moved into PR. In fact, in an office in Milson’s Point, which is where my office is.

Tony

I know!

Valerie

Overlooking the harbour. And I thought, oh my goodness, he’s describing my office.

Tony

I ran past your office and I thought, oh I’ve been here in my books.

Valerie

That’s right! So how much is Nick based on you?

Tony

Oh, look, you know… I think with all my characters, pretty well all the characters in my books, they’re not based on people, but their experiences and their back story and their personal history and sometimes their motivations are very similar to real people’s. Yeah. Definitely.

I enjoyed my time working in public relations. Nick’s a bit sick of his time in public relations.

Valerie

Yes.

Tony

I had a really good job in public relations which I left to go and write a book. So that probably says something, I think, as well.

But no, I think that’s a good adage, write about what you know. And I think if you can draw on personal experiences, places you’ve worked, people you know, things you’ve felt. You know, like the older I get I’m more interested in not what people do but more how people think and what motivates them. And the issues we face, the problems we all face in our lives. And I like to write more of that side of things into my stories as well.

So yeah. I mean, I know I’m not talking about any particular job, but I know what it’s like to be in a job where you wish you were doing something else, or thinking that you missed out on something. And sometimes we feel a bit of longing. And I know that’s not a particular healthy thing sometimes, but I think it’s part of the human condition.

So yeah, I think I draw a little bit on my military experience. I wasn’t in the front line, I was in public affairs, but I saw a lot of people who were on the front line. And some of those are suffering, and so I’ve covered those sorts of issues in recent books I’ve done about characters having post-traumatic stress disorder.

So it doesn’t necessarily need to be things that you have experienced yourself or suffered yourself, but I think as we get older and we learn, we can draw on things. I think it’s a good thing for people wanting to write to find that inner journo and to look around themselves and look at the world around them. Not just the world around them, but the people around them and what makes them do the things that they do. It’s all good stuff for writing.

Valerie

Now you have also written and cowritten a series – well, not a series – but a number of nonfiction books. What makes you decide… Because when you write fiction, it’s totally yours and you really enjoy it and it’s something that you obviously find really interesting and exciting now that you’ve discovered pantsing and gotten rid of the idea that you have to plot everything.

But when you write a nonfiction book, it’s a big commitment, obviously. I mean, writing any book’s a big commitment. But what has to be in that story to engage you enough for you to make that commitment?

Tony

Yeah, I think it’s probably where… I don’t think having worked as a journalist helps that much in writing fiction. I think it’s good to observe and I think you develop a bit of an ear for dialogue. That’s my take on that as a journo. But I think when it comes to the nonfiction books, it’s good to have an eye for a story.

And I’ve got, I’ve done six biographies, five here and one in South Africa. And it’s like, when you see or hear of that particular person and subsequently it becomes a subject of a biography, you know straight away. This is a book. Oh, I got one of them off Australian Story. You know, that fantastic ABC documentary series. There’s probably a book every week in that. But I looked at this episode and I thought, wow, I want to write this person’s book. And I pursued that person. And he had had some other people after him as well.

So I think you know. It’s like all the hairs on the back of your neck stick up. I get a little tingling in the fingertips. I used to get it as a journo when I thought I had a good story. I wasn’t a great reporter. I was no foot in the door person or investigative journalist. But I reckon I knew a good yarn when I came across it. And it’s something that’s hard to quantify. But you just know this person’s extraordinary.

I did a book about an Aussie guy who was working as a dog handler in Afghanistan, way back in the early days of the war, a book called War Dogs. And he was a very… When I say ordinary, I mean very down to earth guy. Very unpretentious. And he was a friend of a friend of mine. And I found out that he was an ex-Australian army and NSW Police dog handler. He was working with the United States Army special forces, the Green Berets, in Afghanistan as a dog handler. Because at the time they didn’t have enough dog handlers.

And here’s this guy from Dapto in the south coast of NSW living this extraordinary life out in the wilds, far more action than any Aussies were at that time. Things have subsequently changed. And I got in touch with him via email and I put it to him. I said, I’ve heard about you through a mate of mine so I’d be really interested in chatting to you, maybe writing a book about you. He said, why would you want to write a book about me? I’m just doing my job.

And when he said that, I said, this is the man whose book I want to write.

Valerie

Wow.

Tony

Not some gung ho Rambo saying, yeah, look at me, I’m a killer. Just a normal Aussie bloke doing his job in extraordinary circumstances. And that’s a great premise for a novel. That’s a great premise for any story.

Valerie

So with something like that, so that’s War Dogs, and his name’s Shane Bryant.

Tony

That’s right, yeah.

Valerie

What is the process then? Once you’ve agreed, yes, we’re going to write the book, do you just have hours and hours and hours of interview? Or do you just hang out? What’s your actual process of getting all of the information?

Tony

Yeah, I’ve learned a fair bit about writing biographies over the years as well. So I did it completely different to the novels. So if I write by the seat of the pants and make it up for novels, I plot out a biography as meticulously as I am capable of doing it.

So what I’ll do is I’ll sit down with the subject and I’ll say right, what I want you to do is make a list for me of the top 12 to 15 things that have happened in your life. The most exciting, the saddest, the happiest, the most momentous moments of your life. And they write down the list and pretty well that becomes the chapter breakdown. And the most exciting of those becomes the first chapter.

For me, it’s similar to journalism. It’s like writing a feature story. It’s the same sort of thing you do writing a feature story. It’s just a bit longer. About 80,000 words.

Valerie

Yes.

Tony

And what I’ve found over the years is there’s a very good book if anyone’s interested called Ghostwriting by a guy called Andrew Crofts who’s a British guy who has done lots of ghostwriting gigs. And he sets out a very useful point by point breakdown on what to do. A lot of his information, I’ve followed. He has a formula and it’s a good formula. He says about 30 hours of face to face conversation or Skype or phone with your subject will give you probably enough for about 80,000 words. And you know what, it’s pretty well spot on.

And what I tend to do is I tried taping people, recording them with a digital voice recorder and then transcribing and then going over that. I find that’s a bit laborious. So what I tend to do is as – I’m a pretty fast typist because it’s all I’ve done over the last 30 years of my life – but I sit down with my laptop and as I’m talking to the person I type. And I’m typing very roughly. But I’m kind of editing as I go. I’m picking what I think could be good bits and leaving out the not so good bits.

And then I find the subject tends to, unlike me, they tend to slow down their pace of speaking. They become a little bit more deliberate and thoughtful about what they’re saying because they think you’re having to catch up typing. I’m taking everything down, but I think self-editing at the time. So a couple of little tips there if anyone is interested in perhaps chronicling someone else’s story.

And I think you can capture someone’s voice maybe a little bit better if you’re face to face with them rather than transcribing or working off a transcript. You know, the way they modulate, their turn of phrase.

But it’s fascinating. It’s very different to writing novels. I mean, I like to say that if writing novels is my passion and my dream, because it is, it was the only thing I wanted to do in life, then for me writing biographies is like the best day job in the world. So I’m working on another one right now.

Valerie

You’re working on another biography right now?

Tony

Yeah, while trying to finish a novel.

Valerie

Yeah, so if you’re doing that, how does that work? Do you dedicate different days to each? And is the target also 1600 words for the biography? Or do you kind of go, oh, the morning, I’ll do this and the afternoon I’ll do this?

Tony

Yeah. Good questions. What I’m doing is I’ve timed it so that I’m working on the biography while I’m doing my edit, my first edit for my novel. So I’ve got myself to the stage where I’ve finished the, if you like, the main creative process or creative period of time for the novel. So I’ve got that first draft finished. And as I do the edit, which I can do, you know, I’m promoting another book now, so I’m getting on planes and travelling around or whatever, now I can devote a little bit more thought time to the biography.

As to the word count, no, I write as much as I possibly can whenever I can on the biography. I’ve done 8000 words in a day on the biography. I’ve had a couple of… I’m lucky, you know, the good thing with publishing is while it’s a tough business to crack into. But once you’re in there, it does open up a lot of doors. So a couple of the biographies I’ve done, I’ve actually been commissioned by publishers to write them. So I’ve been paid a fee to write the other person’s biography.

And I had to do one, I won’t say which one, but I had to do one which was a rush job. And I was able to do it in six weeks. That was hard. That was day and night. So there’s no 1600 words a day when you’re on a six week deadline.

Valerie

Yes! Oh my goodness. All right, so let’s circle back to Ghosts of the Past. Tell me then, what was the most challenging thing about writing this novel? But also, the most rewarding thing?

Tony

These are great questions. I’ll tell you the most challenging thing about it is I’ve never… Okay, I have written books, novels in the past that were based on real things that had happened to friends of mine. Quite traumatic things, particularly I wrote a book set in Zimbabwe and a lot of that’s about people losing their farms, about people losing loved ones. And these are based on people’s real life experiences.

When you’re dealing with real life material, and Ghosts of the Past is a true story, and it’s a pretty horrendous story. What happened to this young guy, Edward Presgrave, who went off to fight this war on the side of this noble cause of freedom fighters. And in real life, he was lured into a trap, he was set up, the Germans had put a price on his head, and he was killed in a very brutal fashion.

And so I think, I’m dealing with history. And I’m dealing with real life. And as it turned out, after writing the book, me and Peter Curson, the guy who wrote the nonfiction book have come across one of the descendants of this guy. So there’s a feeling of enormous responsibility. That’s the challenge, to treat the story with respect. Because I have written what is hopefully an enjoyable, it’s certainly not light hearted, but enjoyable kind of thriller type read that’s based on a real life story.

And some really momentous things have happened to this guy and of course his family had to deal with afterwards. So the challenging thing is do that in a way I think that’s sensible and respectful without being too out there, too crazy.

I think it’s also the most rewarding thing, the most enjoyable thing, to take a real life story. Because I hope this young guy now becomes more than a one line reference in the history of Namibia. Because he is of the same vintage as Breaker Morant, who is kind of lionised and idolised in this country. Okay, now he got a rough trot. But this story that I’ve written, Ghosts of the Past, is based on a real life Aussie who gave his life for what truly was a noble cause. And history has shown. And yet we know nothing about, virtually nothing about him in Australia. Very few people would know his name.

So I think that’s one of the most rewarding things. Challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Valerie

Maybe you’ll be asked to write the miniseries.

Tony

I hope so.

Valerie

The screenplay for the miniseries. All right, so let’s finish up with your top three writing tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day. Get to travel the world, a billion books under their belt, a combination of fiction and nonfiction. Not bad. Living in a game reserve, if they want to.

Tony

I think, top three, probably some things I’ve learned along the way from the mistakes I made with that first book, just write what you want to write. Not what you think is going to sell, what you think publishers are going to like, or what other people will like. That’s the worst thing you can do. Just be true to yourself and write what you want to write.

Trust yourself. You’ll know what works for you, how you’re going to work best, whether it’s in great blocks at a time or a routine over six days or whatever. Or whether you plot or whether you make it up. Just trust yourself, you know?

And number three, you’ve got to love it. I have always said, and I maintain this, if I’d never been published I would still be writing. I was always tinkering and I enjoyed writing. It’s like, for me, I’m not a sporty person, but it’s like running or swimming. I’m never going to win any gold medals or win any races or anything, but I like running, I like swimming, because I enjoy it. If you don’t love this, if it’s not fun, then go do something else.

Valerie

Wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Tony.

Tony

Thank you so much, Valerie. It’s been a pleasure.

 


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