Ep 313 Meet Tony Jones, former Q&A host, journalist and author of ‘In Darkness Visible’.

In Episode 313 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Happy 2020! Meet Tony Jones, Q&A host, journalist and author of In Darkness Visible. Plus, there are three copies of 488 Rules for Life by Kitty Flanagan to give away.

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Tony Jones

After a cadetship with ABC Radio, Tony Jones joined Four Corners as a reporter in 1985, winning a Walkley award for his expose of the Waterhouse racing dynasty. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he became an ABC Europe correspondent and covered the civil wars in Yugoslavia, the collapse of communism in Russia, the fall of Kabul to the Mujahideen, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the first US-led invasion of Iraq. After a brief stint back in Australia, he went to Washington as a correspondent and finally returned to become presenter of Lateline, winning three Walkleys for broadcast interviewing.

The Twentieth Man, his bestselling first thriller, was published in 2017 to acclaim.

In Darkness Visible is his second novel.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thank you so much for joining us today, Tony.

Tony

It’s a pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie

Congratulations on In Darkness Visible. For those readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Tony

Sure. Well, I sometimes describe it like this. It’s a sort of Romeo and Juliet tale that’s also a thriller. But imagine that Romeo and Juliet didn’t die at the end of the story but actually had a terrible separation that kept them apart for 30 years. And then 30 years later they come back together to sort out their differences in a very dangerous environment, and at least partly in a war crimes prison.

So I know that’s not an exact description of what it’s about. But there is a sense in here that we’ve got a very dangerous romance happening at a time of war and conflict. And two people who’ve known each other when they were in their 20s get separated and meet up again 30 years later.

So if you’d like I can describe how the story begins, which might help us.

Valerie

Yeah, that’d be great, thank you.

Tony

The story begins in the Croatian seaside town, the Adriatic Sea, of Rovinj. Rovinj, by the way, is almost directly opposite Venice. You can actually travel on a ferry from Venice to Rovinj in summer. And Rovinj indeed was a Venetian city. It was built as part of the Venetian trading empire. So it’s very beautiful. It rises out of the water. The stone surrounds it, it rises out of the water. A little bit like Venice does. It sits on a beautiful boat harbour surrounded by shining limestone. The boat harbour has a fishing fleet and beyond that an island.

And of course there’s a flourishing tourist industry. And one of those people plying the tourist trade in an old Venetian speedboat is a guy called Marin Katich, who we’ve met from my previous novel. He’s now much older. He’s in his 50s. He’s a Croatian Australian. He’s living in Rovinj under an assumed name. His first passengers of the day are kind of mysterious and weird and start questioning him in ways that make him a little bit upset.

And then later in the day, in the evening, as he walks back to his apartment, he starts to think something’s up. Something is disturbing him. He goes to his apartment which overlooks the beautiful boat harbour and he sits there and has a cigarette, goes to bed. And in the middle of the night, a group of masked men, heavily armed masked men, break into his apartment. They beat him up. They inject him with a sedative. And they take him away shackled and hooded to an aircraft which flies to the Hague where he’s then put in the war crimes prison about to face a war crimes trial.

The Hague in Holland has this war crimes prison in a place called Scheveningen which is a little coastal section of the Hague, the capital city of Holland. And it has an international law, it has a specialty in international law, and there’s this war crimes prison there.

Sometime later, his old girlfriend, now also in her 50s, she hasn’t seen him for 30 years, gets some emails from a mutual friend that indicate this fellow who’s in an orange suit with a hood over his head, and then later unhooded and shown in a hospital room rather bruised. She thinks she knows who it is. She’s pretty sure it’s the guy she knew 30 years ago. And she can see that he’s been put in jail for war crimes. And she goes to investigate. And in doing so, she puts her own life at risk, but she finally meets up again with the man she knew at university 30 years earlier.

Valerie

And of course it also spans, I mean, the novel spans different timelines, different points of view. And it’s a fascinating plot. What came to you first? Like, what sparked the idea for the story?

Tony

Yeah, there’s a bit of a history to it. There’s a kind of origin story for the two books, actually. Because In Darkness Visible is the sequel to The Twentieth Man, which is the first novel that I wrote. And indeed has the same two characters in one stage of their strange romance, their Romeo and Juliet romance, Marin Katich and Anna Rosen.

I thought about this story back in 1986.

Valerie

Really?

Tony

When I went to the former Yugoslavia to do a story, to do a Four Corners program on Nazi war criminals or fascists with war crimes in their history who’d actually managed to come to Australia.

A little bit of background there, it’s quite well known these days that after the Second World War, Western intelligence agencies recruited a lot of Nazis who had senior positions, because they knew that these guys had connections behind the Iron Curtain and could create for them networks. And in return for their work helping the Americans, largely, but also MI6 and the West generally, with infiltrating behind the Iron Curtain, they had their pasts and especially their war crimes cleansed from their records. And many of them made their way to third countries to start new lives with these cleansed false records.

A number of them came to Australia. They also went to Canada, to the United States, to Britain and other places. But in Australia, we got a lot of such people. And an old friend of mine working at the ABC called Mark Aarons, who was a radio documentary maker, back in the mid-1980s did a tremendous ground-breaking five part series called “Nazis in Australia” in which he delved into the detail and case studies of individuals. It so shocked the government, the Hawke government at the time, that they set up a special investigations unit to investigate whether there were indeed war criminals residing in Australia from the Second World War.

And it led to – they changed, by the way, the legislation to enable this to happen – and it led to the first war crimes trial in Australian history on Australian soil.

So with that in mind, I started thinking, well, imagine a family in which the father was a war criminal who’d come to Australia, had children, and then those children grow up adopting or inheriting some of his beliefs. That was the basis of the first book and indeed it’s the underpinning essence of the second book.

And on the other side of the coin, Anna Rosen, who is a little bit like the, if I may say this, the left brain of my old friend the journalist Mark Aarons, whose father was the head of the Australian Communist Party, Laurie Aarons. Laurie Aarons. Anna Rosen also has a father who’s a senior figure in the Australian Communist Party, she works in a documentary unit at the ABC. And she’s a sort of, I suppose, ground-breaking in her time feminist figure on the university campus where she resides. And she’s also an editor of the university magazine, The Tribe, as I call it. So she has a long history that’s a bit similar to Mark Aarons. And of course, Marin Katich has a history similar to the sons of some of the people who came to Australia.

So it’s kind of buried, in a sense, buried history. We know very little about these events. But they played a huge part in the 1960s and 70s in Australia when indeed groups of young men, particularly young Croatian men, were trained in Australia, given military weapons and arms and sent back into then-communist Yugoslavia to try and start little rebellions against Tito. And so this connection between Australia and the conflict in Yugoslavia is what triggered my thoughts about writing both of these books.

Valerie

So you let this idea brew for obviously a very long time.

Tony

Yep.

Valerie

And you have a primary life as a fairly high profile journalist. And you’re also on television. You’re no doubt very busy. What was the trigger that finally prompted you or pushed you to write the story? As a fictional novel?

Tony

Well, it probably had a few false starts, to be honest with you. So having told you that story about going to Yugoslavia in the 1980s, it turns out that I went as a foreign correspondent to Europe just after the Berlin Wall fell and so was a witness to the end of communism in Eastern Europe and ultimately to the end of communism where it began in Russia and in Moscow. And I reported on all of those things.

The downside of that was the terrible internal irruptions that happened in some countries and in particular in Yugoslavia which literally fell apart with the collapse of communism into a series of warring ethnic groups and states. And I ended up as a foreign correspondent covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia. But Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, Kosovo later.

So I covered those wars. And while I did it, because I’d had the earlier idea of writing a novel based around these events, I took copious notes alongside my normal reporting. So I would go to a restaurant and record what we ate for dinner and speak to the waiter about the local wines and record that and keep the menus, in fact.

And everywhere I went I would write little descriptions of the scenes around me which I kept in notepads. And ultimately came back to use that extensive research, really. It’s very lucky. I’m glad I did it, because it actually enabled me to go back into time and to write up scenes that happened during the war as I remembered them, as I wrote about them at the time, and put my fictional characters into these environments.

So the false start was probably in the mid-1990s when I took six months off working as an ABC journalist and actually went to live in the town of Rovinj that we talked about earlier. And I lived in an apartment very similar to the one that Marin Katich, fictional Marin Katich lives in, above the sports bar with a beautiful set of shutters that opened out on to this boat harbour and looked out to the island. It was a gorgeous place. I use that place as the residence of my fictional character.

So I picked up lots of information about the town, I got very interested in the history of the town of Rovinj when I was living there. I realised in fact it was divided – everyone who goes there would realise this very quickly – divided between Croatians and Italians. Many of the street signs were in both Croatian and Italian. The Italians called the place Rovigno. And so this little town itself had built-in ethnic tensions that burst out particularly after the Second World War, and led to an awful lot of Italians being expelled from the town and many of them being murdered by Tito’s forces after the war, because they were associated with the fascist Italian state.

So this little town itself had a dark history. Marin, who obviously comes from a family with a very dark history lives in a town with its own dark history.

So I started writing the book when I was living in Rovinj with my wife and my baby son Cosmo. But put it aside after a time because I did get very busy with my other work when I came back to Australia. So I put it aside for a few years and picked it up maybe four or five years ago and began writing seriously, carving out time from my life as a journalist to actually complete this project. Which is now, I think, you could say completed.

Valerie

So let’s talk about carving out that time. Because you have a busy primary career. And when you decided, I’m going to take this seriously now, I’m going to back to it, what on a practical level did you do to fit it in? Did you carve out specific times?

Tony

I did.

Valerie

Did you write in snatched times? Tell us how much time, proportionately, per week and how you did it on a practical level.

Tony

So the very first thing I did was to give up one of my jobs. So I was working five days a week pretty much, mostly at night, doing both the Lateline program, which I presented, and the Q&A program which I’ve been doing for the past twelve years. So I gave up the Lateline program, which left a lot of time in the week to actually work on the book. So I didn’t have to carve out specific times then, I just had to make sure I was disciplined enough to work between Tuesday to the following Monday.

And so for quite a long time over the past few years I’ve been able to do that. And much of my writing, actually, I’ve done at a house down the south coast of NSW because I find it’s really a good idea to get out of the city and get away from the normal distractions of city life. So you know, we bought a house some time ago way down on the south coast of NSW and try to spend as much time of the week there, even in a normal week now, as humanly possible. Because it’s a) it’s breathtakingly beautiful being down there. And b) it’s a wonderful place to write. There are very few distractions apart from the ocean and the bush. Which of course is one way to distract yourself when you need a break from writing.

Valerie

So I want to talk about the time commitment for the second book. Because usually what happens, and I assume this is the case, but correct me if I’m wrong, but usually with first novels it takes however long it takes. But then the second novel, they give you this deadline and you’ve got to deliver the second novel in a much shorter time than it took to write the first novel. So in this second novel, when you’re down the south coast, or wherever it is that you want to write, what does your writing day look like, when you are in the depths of writing, of course? So are you disciplined to start a particular time? Do you have a wordcount target? Is it quite strict or you kind of just write til you feel like you don’t want to write anymore?

Tony

Yeah, it’s probably the last of those really.

Valerie

Really?

Tony

Like, some days I can write for many, many hours and some days only for a few hours. So I didn’t, and I didn’t have a disciplined target for a number of words except when I realised I was falling a little bit behind my deadline in the second book. And then I probably wrote, you know, up to 2000 words a day over a period of time.

Of course, you write and then you refine. So those initial 2000 words maybe come down to a thousand words in the end, once you’ve done the rewriting process and got rid of all the extraneous rubbish that you’ve accidentally written.

So yeah, I find the process of editing my own work very important. And then of course the process of working with editors that have been assigned to look at the manuscript. Equally important, if not more important. And I really trusted the fabulous people at Allen & Unwin, those who read the book and gave me suggestions for elements of the plot or character elements, I listened to them very carefully, I trusted them. And it turned out that pretty much every piece of advice I got from those wonderful editors was correct.

I guess I’m not one of those authors who’s so precious about what he’s put on paper that he thinks, well, you know that’s perfect! I’m not gonna change that! Don’t be crazy! I really do trust these guys and their judgement. Of course, I’m a relatively new novelist as well, so I’m kind of learning as I go along how to do this.

And I think probably I learned a hell of a lot from writing the first novel. I think I felt more able to cope with it, particularly complex plotting and character issues in the second novel. I also reduced the number of characters in the second novel so that you could concentrate on the main characters and learn more about what they were thinking, their psychology, what motivates them. Those things were very important to me. You know, more important in a sense than the plot, though the plot clearly drives the story pretty clearly.

Valerie

So you mentioned that you kind of have to get rid of extraneous stuff, as we all do, we have to kill our darlings. As a journalist, did you have any kind of tendency to fill it with all these useful facts that you thought that people should know? Like, what kind of extraneous stuff did you do have to cut out? And was some of it that kind of thing? Because that’s what I imagine.

Tony

Yeah, that’s a very good point. I mean, journalists are pretty research-reliant. And look, there’s no question there’s a lot of history and research that’s gone into both of these novels, actually. I think the trick is to try and make that seamless so that you are reading a story without being lectured to. So that you don’t think, oh here’s the part where he explains the history of this place. And it’s like something that could have been carved out and put in the back of the book with a little, you know, if you check out the back cover, or check out the section in the back and you’ll find out more about the history.

I tried to make that as seamless as possible. The editors helped a lot in that regard because they came to it fresh. If it seemed I was being too wordy or putting too many researched facts in, they would say, oh, at this point maybe it looks like you’re telling us too much. Show don’t tell. Let the story tell the history.

So I think that with the refinements that happened in the editing process, we probably got rid of a lot of that stuff. Who knows what you might find as a reader, but in the end I was pretty happy with the way the research and the characters melded together.

Valerie

Oh yeah. I think it’s seamless. Yeah. You obviously worked well together because nothing is jarring on that front at all.

So with the story, there are, as I mentioned, multiple points of view. There are multiple timelines. You’re in the 70s, you’re in the 90s, you’re in the 2000s. From a practical level when you’re writing, how did you map that out? Were you the sort of writer who kind of just, oh, it’s in your head and it’s just going to spew out somehow? Or did you have to have index cards or multiple timelines, you know, in a linear fashion on a whiteboard or something? How did you map that out on a practical level?

Tony

Look, most of it I didn’t. I probably wrote down the structure, chapter by chapter and shuffled it around from time to time. I didn’t put cards up or anything like that. I try to do a lot of that in my head. I would sometimes write sections out of order.

Valerie

Yeah.

Tony

I find myself, you know, kind of inspired one morning to write about the battle of Vukovar, which was always going to be part of the story, because Marin Katich ends up in this besieged town. It’s kind of like a modern day Stalingrad where Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, has sent a massive tank force into this town which he’s slowly crushing with artillery and aerial bombardments and rockets. Then tries to crush the resistance with tanks.

The town, that is to say the people of the town, the Croatians, have risen up and said, we don’t want to be part of Yugoslavia anymore. We want our own independent state. And a small number of incredibly brave people fought against a very large armed force and held them off for nearly five months while the city around them was reduced to rubble. I’m not kidding when I say it was like a modern day Stalingrad. The city was a beautiful ancient, not ancient, but beautiful mostly 19th century city was destroyed building by building in an extraordinary act of vengeance by Slobodan Milosevic and his army.

So you know, I would be writing one day about, let’s say, events in the 1970s but I’d then get inspired to stop, write the section on Vukovar, and then sort of reconstruct it, put it back into the story where it’s meant to be later. So I had a whole bunch of chapters and sections which I then shuffled around.

And somehow or other, I won’t say it was a scientific process, or even a particularly writerly process, but it was just, it’s what really struck me if I managed to get excited by something or had an idea, maybe, or woke up in the morning having dreamed a solution to a plot problem and thought, oh, I need to do that today. So it was a more random process than you might imagine.

Valerie

As someone who has worked in television a lot, as I was reading this I could kind of see it all happen, like as a telemovie or a miniseries or something. Did any of that play into your writing? Because of that visual medium that you’re so used to?

Tony

Oh very much so. In actual fact, I also… I suppose I visualise things as if I were watching them on a screen to some degree. I had also worked for a little while in a writers’ room, I must say. A TV producer bought the rights to the first book and to the second one. And we did sort of sessions plotting out, you know, what 16 hours of television would look like using these characters and the history. So that was sort of in the middle of me writing the second book, I might add. So it was interesting to get the chance to bounce ideas off different people. Not only the editors, who worked on the final manuscript, but people who were thinking about how this would actually look as a televisual 16-part series.

So that was a fascinating process. It opened up my mind a good deal to some issues of character, and they ended up being absorbed, somehow. That process was very useful for the writing of the book.

But I’d started, this is not the case obviously when I wrote the first book, which is also, I think, quite visual. It’s just the way I think about things. I think like most people who’ve grown up with these long form television series, you kind of imagine in a way the book that you’re writing could easily be transformed into something like that.

Valerie

And so now that your second novel is out, are you writing your third?

Tony

Yes. Yes, I am.

Valerie

Is it going…

Tony

Well, you may know that I’m about to go and give up the Q&A program.

Valerie

Yes.

Tony

As the fulltime presenter. Maybe do a few programs next year. But yeah, so I’m going to live in China with my wife, Sarah Ferguson, who is going to become the bureau chief in Beijing. And this to me is a massive opportunity for an adventure.

Valerie

Yes.

Tony

Also a massive opportunity for a prolonged research trip in the sense that I wrote notes all the way through that period of time when I was witnessing history back in the early 1990s. I’ll certainly be looking at the rise of China and what they are now calling the Chinese Century. This incredible story, I’ll be looking at it with that in mind for being able to come back to all of that in the future sometime.

But while I’m in China, I won’t be reporting, I won’t have a visa to be a reporter. I’ll merely be an observer to history. Whereas in the early 1990s, I was a reporter on this massive historical change.

Valerie

So does that mean you already know what your third novel is about? And is it set in China?

Tony

Yes, I do. I do. I mean, I do. The central, one of the central characters of the two books, Anna Rosen, will be a key protagonist in the third book, which will be mostly set in Australia. And much of it in fact will be set in the university environment where some terrible things happened.

And again, I guess I’m drawing to a large degree on some personal experiences that I had. I will obviously just use them as inspirations. But when I was living in St Pauls college in the late 1970s, some truly appalling things happened, that even in more recent times similar things have happened.

But particularly in relation to what now in the era of the #metoo movement we would describe as horrific sexual assaults on women. There was a murder of a woman on the side of the college oval, a police investigation of that murder focused on the college. No one in the college was charged. But obviously, you know, when a woman is murdered on the side of the oval of a university college, the men in that college are going to be subject to a serious investigation.

And I lived through that horror. I lived through the further horror of what they called the animal act of the year award when some lunatic gave a prize to someone else in the college who had brought along his girlfriend to a party with a small group of men and they all ended up having sex and she claimed, and I suspect she’s absolutely right, that it was non-consensual. Because there was a lot of alcohol and possibly even drugs consumed, from my understanding of it.

But that was an event that led the university, feminists in the university to march on to the St Paul’s college property down the main road en masse carrying signs saying things like, ‘castrate all Paul’s men.’ I didn’t entirely disagree with the possibility they should get a hold of the ones who were actually responsible and do just that, even though I don’t like violence or that kind of revenge, but I do understand the notion.

So you know, these events stuck in my mind. And I’d like to be able to incorporate them in a novel where my, as I say, feisty feminist edgy character, Anna Rosen, somehow becomes involved in finding out what the hell happened.

Valerie

That’s going to be fascinating. And for somebody who’s been to parties at St Paul’s, I am definitely going to be reading that!

But now that you’ve plunged into this world of fiction, you’re successful in this world of fiction, you’re not allowed to file stories when you go to China, tell me about how it feels to be writing fiction compared to your job as a journalist. You know, creatively?

Tony

It’s obviously a lot riskier, because you don’t get a guaranteed pay cheque. So, look, I will still be doing some work for the ABC next year, so I’m not entirely cutting myself off from the organisation that I’ve spent more than 30 years working at and for, and it’s sort of in my blood. And broadcasting is in my blood. So I’ll still be doing some work as a broadcaster. Not in China. So I may work for the Foreign Correspondent program a little bit and a few other things yet to be revealed.

But primarily I’ll be living in China, I’ll be learning Chinese. Plan to do an intensive Mandarin course which hopefully will start pretty soon after I get there. And I want to learn everything I can about the place where I’m living. But I also will be spending a good deal of my time writing.

Valerie

But tell me about how you feel creatively when you write fiction?

Tony

How do I feel?

Valerie

Yes.

Tony

Oh, okay. Yes. Well, I love it, actually, probably more than journalism.

Valerie

You love it more than journalism?

Tony

I think so, yes. I think I…

Valerie

Wow, why?

Tony

Well, I think I always had it in my heart that… I mean… It’s funny, because when the book came out, Sarah and I were talking about it and you get this physical thing arrives in your hands. It means a tremendous amount. Both of us grew up with books, novels particularly, and so we revere that perhaps more than, we revere the art of writing a good novel perhaps more than the journalism that we’ve spent our lives engaged in.

I’ve felt like that all my life. I also love film and I love the evolution, as I was mentioning earlier, to long format television, which is one of the great emerging creative art forms. It’s, let’s say, the long format television is one sort of, the one thing that can kind of compete with the novel in terms of storytelling. So I have both of those things in my head when I’m writing.

And I do love it. I always wanted to be a film maker as well as a writer. So in my very early days as a Four Corners reporter, I used to be probably really terrible to work with because I fancied myself rather as a filmmaker perhaps more so than a journalist. And a lot of, if you ever get a chance to go back and have a look at the archival stuff, I mean we sometimes did reconstructions in Four Corners. And I can remember pretending to be a director and going out with a massive crew and a big truck and a car which had to run off the road and a policeman with a gun who had to shoot the person in that car and mapping it out like a sort of cartoon. And spending three nights with a massive drama crew out filming it. That was one of the most exciting things I ever did, actually, and I think I probably could have jumped from there into making films had I not become a foreign correspondent.

Valerie

Well, let me guess, while you were at St Paul’s college you would buy deep novels at Gould’s at Newtown, go to the Toucan cafe, and then watch movies at the Valhalla. Would that be right?

Tony

You know it’s amazing you mention the Toucan cafe, because I lived, when I left college I lived in Glebe in a house Anna Rosen actually occupies in the fictional world. In fact, she lives in the very same room that I lived in in this beautiful old three-storey kind of spooky house with a witch’s hat. And that was immediately across the road from the Toucan cafe. So I know exactly of which you speak.

Valerie

There you go! All right, well, on that note, congratulations on the book, and thank you so much for joining us today, Tony.

Oh, actually, before I wrap up! I haven’t asked you the most important question of all! Which is, what three top tips do you have for writers, for aspiring writers, who would love to be in a position where you are one day where they’ve got their novels published?

Tony

Well, you know, I suppose I could be accused of being a bit plot-driven. But I would say, start with your story. And get a real sense of what your narrative is, what your narrative’s going to be. How it’s going to begin, how it’s going to unfold, and likely how it’s going to end. I know a lot of writers don’t do that. But nonetheless, if you’re starting out, it’s a pretty smart idea to have in your head a full formed story. At least something you can build on. So even if it’s kind of sketchy, if you kind of know how it begins and you think you know how it ends, then getting from one point to the other is a practical consideration.

If you can write, it helps a lot. And, you know, it remains to be seen whether people think that I’ve been successful at that. But I have tried very hard to turn myself into a novelist and actually putting a lot of eggs into that basket.

So be determined. Think about your characters. Think about them really deeply, actually. Think about what they would do under circumstances very different to the ones you live in yourself. Because you don’t want to write entirely about, you know, things that happen in your own life. You want to project yourself into the minds of others. I projected myself into the minds of people with very different cultural backgrounds to myself.

And of course writing a female character is an added challenge for a male author. I’m told by some female readers that I really respect, like Anna Funder, the novelist and writer, that I did that pretty well. And, you know, that’s one of the greatest compliments I could possibly get.

Valerie

Well, I think also when you read a book and there’s nothing that makes you, that is jarring, the right word is seamless, then you’ve achieved your goal, right. So congratulations on that.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Tony, really appreciate it.

Tony

Valerie, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much.


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