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Ep 346 Meet Nick Place, co-author of ‘Stalin’s Wine Cellar’.

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In Episode 346 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Discover what you need to know about writing across age groups. Meet Nick Place, co-author of Stalin's Wine Cellar. It's launch day for A.L. Tait's eagerly anticipated book The Fire Star. Plus, there are 3 copies of The Good Teacher by Petronella McGovern (AWC alumna) to give away.

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Show Notes

Congratulations to A.L. Tait on the launch day for her anticipated book The Fire Star

Write across the ages – from junior fiction to young adult




Writer in Residence

Nick Place

Nick Place is the author of five published novels and several non-fiction books, as well as comedy and screenwriting, occasional poetry and even an original stage pantomime. He has also enjoyed a long and diverse journalistic career across all media, mostly covering sport. He lives in Melbourne, where he is an enthusiastic supporter of the single malt whisky, wine and coffee industries.

His latest book is Stalin's Wine Cellar, co-authored with John Baker. 

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WIN ‘The Good Teacher’ by Petronella McGovern

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

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Thanks so much for joining us today, Nick.

Nick Place 

I'm really thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.

Valerie Khoo 

This is such an interesting idea for a book. Stalin’s Wine Cellar: Stolen from the Tsar, hidden from Hitler and found by a Sydney wine merchant. Now you've written this, it says by John Baker and Nick Place. First of all, before we get into that collaboration, for those readers who haven't read the book yet, tell us what it's about.

Nick Place 

It is a pretty amazing story. It's mostly a true story. I had a little bit of license to play with it. It's the story is that in the late 90s, John Baker, my co-author, was running the Double Bay Cellar in Sydney. And he developed a thing where people would sell the cellars. I don't know, someone in the Hunter Valley might die and someone would ring up and say, “Look, my father's died. He's got an enormous cellar. He's been collecting French wines for years. Do you want to come and have a look at buying the whole cellar?”

So John had a part of his business was to go out and go, “Oh, wow, there actually are a whole bunch of French classics here. And this would be worth quite a bit of money. So I'll pay for the cellar, and the I'll go and sort of auction the cellar off.” That was part of his business.

And then he got an invitation to basically look at a list, which he wasn't even sure was a wine list, that had all these names he couldn't quite work out. And instead of being sort of, you know, for him an antique kind of wine was 1960 or 1970, or something, but these ones kind of looked like they were 1830s and 1860s. And through sort of right through to kind of 1900, 1910.

So he was really intrigued. And he finally worked out that actually these weird words he couldn't work out were where someone had phonetically tried to say wine labels. And at that point, he went back and pieced through it and worked out they were like the greatest French wines in the world.

So the long story short is that this seller allegedly was sitting in Tbilisi, Georgia in a little-known winery and had something like 40,000 bottles of incredible wines that a lot of French chateaus wouldn't have that kind of collection of their old wines. And it was actually Nicolas the Second, the last Tsar of Russia's wine collection that had become Stalin's wine collection after the Russian Revolution and after Lenin passed away.

So John had a decision. Was this real? Was this a huge con? Should they go to Tbilisi and see if this thing was real? It's kind of a Raiders of the Lost Ark of wine. And, you know, mostly actually happened back in the late 90s.

Valerie Khoo 

That's, it's, I mean, it's just truth is stranger than fiction, isn't it? And so this is actually a story, as you said, about John Baker and his sort of partner in crime – or not crime, but, you know, his associate, Kevin Hopko. How did you become involved in this process?

Nick Place 

John had been sitting on the story for 20 years. Of course it's his classic dinner party conversation, that time we went to Tbilisi. And you know people love the story. He just always got a great response to the story. And I think friends of his, possibly a film director friend of his, I'm not really sure, who sort of says, “You've just got to get this book written. You've got to write the book.”

And John had had a go at doing it. But he's a businessman. He's now in his 70s. He just had tried to write the book and realized he probably couldn't write a book. So he one way or another ended up with the Cameron Cresswell agency saying, “Would you have anyone who could help me write this book?” And little old me was sitting on their books as a gainfully unemployed writer at the time who could dive into it.

But actually, you know, I've been a journalist my whole career for like 35 years or so. And I've written five novels, kid’s novels, detective novels, things like that, and quite a bit of nonfiction. So actually, my CV really matched up as someone who is A) a generalist. I've covered everything from Wimbledon and world title fights and police rounds and murder scenes and neuroscience and magic and all sorts of stuff. So I think they thought, you know, Nick's the kind of guy who could get his head around this crazy story and bring it to life with his kind of fiction novelist kind of sensibilities. And, you know, it was a great challenge for me. I mean, how much fun is that?

Valerie Khoo 

So what I'm hearing is that your agent then basically said, “Hey, here's this idea.” What happened next? Because I am assuming you didn't just say yes on, you know, an email. Like what happened next before you ended up deciding, “Yeah, I could get my teeth into this. I could tell a good story”?

Nick Place 

Well, I don't mean to take the podcast to a black place, but actually my father died on the Friday. And on the next Thursday, six days later, I was sitting in a cafe – that's on the coast in Victoria – six days later, I was in Sydney sitting at a cafe with John meeting him for the first time and a senior publisher from Penguin and my agent, Jeanne. And John, basically, who's a fairly interesting character, he's a good businessman. He's very, can sort of really get to the point of things. And I had him saying to me, “Nick, with all due respect, why would they get you to write this story? Do you know about French wine? Are you an expert in Russian history? Why would they…? I've tried reading your detective novel and it didn't really work for me. I only got about 30 pages in. So why would they get you to write it?”

So that was my intro to John!

Valerie Khoo


Nick Place

And I guess I was in a mood because of what was going on in my personal life where I was like, “John, it's not terrifying me yet. It's a story about a winery. I've written plenty of other stuff. And basically, you know, it sounds interesting, but I'm not terrified by the concept.”

And we sort of had this funny push and fro, but then actually we got on famously. I think he just needed to know that I was someone who could kind of look him in the eye and once he worked out I could then we actually have become really good friends and had a great time telling the story.

It was a weird thing for him too. I mean, he had to choose me as much as I had to choose to be involved.

Valerie Khoo


Nick Place

You know, it's a hard thing for him to have someone tell his story. And he's never written a book, he's carried this story around for 20 years. I made it very clear very early that I was probably gonna muck around with the story. There's this whole, we can get to that, but there's whole parts of it that I needed to flesh out. And I said to him, “Look, John, you're kind of going to become a semi-fictional character. And I'm going to be in charge of that.”

So, you know, we had to have a few really full and frank discussions to just understand where we were both coming from. But luckily, I wrote one chapter, I sort of had a little section of the story, and I wrote that, and Penguin looked at it, he looked at it, we all looked at it, and actually said, “Wow, actually, it's cool, this is gonna be good.” And we all sort of agreed that it would work. And I think for John, that was a big moment. He went, “Oh, actually, Nick can do things that I can't do in terms of writing a story.” So we both sort of started to relax in each other's company and get on with it. But it was fun. It was a funny way to get acquainted.

Valerie Khoo 

Yes. But before you threw yourself in, before you wrote that first chapter or that sample, just take me back a bit. Because, as you said, you said, “it doesn't terrify me.” But there's a difference between “it doesn't terrify me” and “hey, I'm really keen to get stuck into it.” What was the thing that made you want to do it? It can't just be that it didn't terrify you.

Nick Place 

No, that's true. That's a really good point. And I think I did say it doesn't terrify me. So you're right on it. Um, well, it was a good challenge for me, actually. I've written nonfiction. I wrote a 20,000-word introductory chapter to a book that I did with a friend about 50 years of Australian TV. And I really enjoyed writing that sort of crazily extended nonfiction piece. I mean, as a journalist, you write a lot of 500 words or 1000 words or, as a feature writer, you might get up to three or 4000 words. But it's very rare you get beyond that. So writing 20,000, which I've done a few times now, I really liked.

And I think just the idea of, you know, this story existed, it is an amazing story, the idea of kind of, not like my detective novels, my other my novels where I have to come up with the plot, and I have to create the characters, it's sort of attracted me the idea of taking reality and trying to actually turn that into a page turner of a book. I mean, I think from day one, I thought, this is going to be – tragically, given the pandemic – I thought, “this is going to be an airport book. This is a book you should pick up and read on a plane and love that it was a perfect airplane book.”

So I made it a page turner. There's all sorts of history and stuff in there that I decided to add. That again, you know, I said to John, “I think we need to have these sort of, I call them billabongs, little side bits about who was Stalin, who was Nicholas the Second, things like that.” That was all sort of my idea to add those little history sections. But, you know, I never wanted them to be history sections. I didn't want them to be some academia. I wanted them to be very readable. So that was my challenge, which really attracted me.

Valerie Khoo 

And so you decide, “okay, it's a challenge and I want to give it a go.” How then, on a practical level did you go about… Can you describe how you went about downloading the information from John? From 20 however many years ago?

Nick Place 

Yeah, luckily I had a head start because he had tried to write the book. So he tried to write it and got maybe a chapter in and it was very stiff, and he just realized he wasn't a writer. But he had put some information down. And then a friend had very wisely said to him, “John, just dictate into a Dictaphone, just tell the story, like you would tell it to a dinner party and just tell everything you can remember about it.” And so John had done that. And he'd actually, he's got all the correspondence. He's actually got, you know, printouts. He's a very meticulous guy who has kept all the records. So he went through all those, flicking through going, “okay, here's an email from George in Tbilisi, and you know, he's saying this and I think that my reply to him was that” and he kind of had that. So I had in the end, we had 70 pages of kind of his dictated thoughts on what happened and what was happening then, and “I was probably trying to do this when I said that” and just his kind of talkings through it. So that became very much the spine of what we had to go on.

Valerie Khoo 

Okay, so you have your 70 pages, but obviously you need to, you know, flesh it out and get a lot more information, accuracy, colour and all of that. What then happened? Did you, you know… What I'm asking is, did you then meet on a regular basis to nut it all out? Or what happened between you and John to then make it into this book?

Nick Place 

You know, actually, we didn't. I've always wondered what… I had ghost-written one other book and had a lot of contact with that person. But on this one, John was kind of like, “there's the story. I've told you everything you need to know. So I don't know what else I've got to offer.” He was completely available and happy to help, but he didn't really know what else he could offer me.

I went up to his place, he actually lives up the back of Bowral in New South Wales. And Kevin actually picked me up at the airport. I'd never met Kevin; I'd only read 70 pages about him and Kevin. So it was funny that Kevin picked me up and drove me that hour and a half or whatever down to Bowral. So we kind of bonded, and then we actually had a weekend where, I think that was on a Friday, and on the Sunday, Kevin dropped me back to Sydney, or might even have been on Saturday night, I can't remember. But I stayed the night and we all had dinner. And, you know, basically John showed me all of his stuff, like, “here's all those documents that I talked about; here they all are. Here's my photos, here's everything.” And then we had dinner where, of course, I was able to really pick their brains about everything.

Look, to be honest, they were great. I mean, they're both, and Kevin's been fantastic, too. He hasn't got any official involvement in the book, but he's thought it's a great adventure and he's really enjoyed the fact it's happening and we've actually become quite close as well. So I've had that amazing resource of both of them to call on.

But I did decide quite early, “Okay, I do have your takes on it now. Now I'm going to go and turn it into a book and I'm going to take quite a few liberties on that front.” And when I say liberties, all I'm talking about is… John's a… Like I said, they were there on business. When they went to Tbilisi, they were very much like, “are these bottles real? Are we being played? Are we, you know, what's the price?” They were very much in doing a deal mode. So when we sat around for dinner and I said, “Tell me about Tbilisi.” John was like, “oh, you know, it was just kind of like any other city, I guess.” And Kevin was sort of, “I remember there was quite a few old buildings that look like they'd seen better days.” And that was kind of their entire description of Tbilisi. So clearly I had to go and do some work to…

And I said, “I'm fine with that. I get it. You guys weren't tourists. You were there on a job.” But I had to go and kind of, you know, flesh out Tbilisi and flesh out, you know, what is it like sitting in a cafe in Tbilisi where scenes happen, where there's a conversation, what is that cafe? What does it look like? What food would you be eating? What sort of people would be around? You know, can you see the river? The novelist me kicked in and went, “Okay, there's a heap of questions here to make this live and breathe for the reader.”

Valerie Khoo 

So how did you do that? How did you figure out what it was like in the late 90s for a cafe in Tbilisi? And who was around and what the river looked like? How did you do that?

Nick Place 

I'm still not terrified yet, Valerie. I had a lot of fun, actually. I dug around. I mean, I turned back into a journalist. That's what's kind of funny for me. I'm a journalist and a novelist at the same time. So I completely turned back into a journalist and I hunted and I found people who've been to Tbilisi. And I found even a book, which was a miracle, thanks to my ex-sister-in-law, had a book about Georgian cooking that happened to have come out in 1999 and happened to have basically an entire section at the front which is like all about what's it like in Tbilisi and what's it like in Georgia and, you know, it just was this incredible find.

So you know, there were things like that. I mean, obviously, there's a lot of stuff online, but I'm very careful using online resources. I'm, you know, the entire book, I was never going to use Wikipedia as my source. I had to use sort of three or four or five sources and get things backed up. And I was trying to use official kind of encyclopedias where I could and, you know, there's… It's great now, you can do a lot of research online. And, you know, Google image library has a lot of pictures of Tbilisi, for example. But trying to date Tbilisi back to then was a real challenge. Absolutely. It was. It was crazy. But I was lucky, I had a few wins.

Valerie Khoo 

So apart from, you know, Tbilisi in the 90s – and that's great that you were able to get that resource from your ex-sister-in-law – but as you've mentioned, there are what you refer to as billabongs in this book, where you do have these breakout sections that are the history of Russia or Nicholas, you know, the Tsar. How did you decide what needed to be in a billabong? And how did you decide where the billabongs needed to occur?

Nick Place 

Hmm, good question. So, look, I just, I took the view… I mean, I hit the story fresh, right. It wasn't my story. I was, I was writing it, you know, as a job really, to help John out. So, you know, I didn't claim to be an expert on Joseph Stalin Nicholas the Second or St Petersburg or Château d'Yquem, which is like pretty much a character in the book. That's one of the great, great French wines. And it pretty much, I treated that like a character just like I would, you know, the league kind of negotiator in Georgia.

So, in my head, these are all characters and I just kind of thought, you know, I can't assume that a reader knows the story of Stalin, and I need to, at some point, kind of flush that stuff out. But I didn't want to sort of have John and Kevin walking down the street in Tbilisi, and suddenly I go in to a five-page ramble about the history of St Petersburg.

Valerie Khoo


Nick Place

Yeah, yeah. I mean, imagine. It would be terrible. And you know, I worked out pretty quickly, I wasn't going to have them talk about it. “John, did you know that St Petersburg was founded in…” You know, that was never gonna work. So I thought, if in doubt, be honest with the reader. Just say, “hey, if you want to know a bit about St Petersburg, here's a couple of pages that will kind of give you…”

And again, I tried to approach it in a very chatty dinner party conversation way. And happily, John has had a couple of friends of his who are really learned people who know a lot about Russia and have studied Russia a lot, who have now said, “that's some of the most concise, readable, accurate, like, you know, beautifully written histories of Russia I've ever seen.” Which is hilarious, because it was me digesting a whole bunch of sources and then thinking, “I'm going to walk around with that for a good few days before I try and regurgitate it. I'm just going to think about what I've read and all those different accounts of it and then I'm going to basically tell it like I would at a dinner party, what's interesting about this.” And so that's kind of how I did them.

In terms of where to put them, that was tricky sometimes, because there were, it was, there were places, say the Château d'Yquem one could have gone in several spots. You know, we had a few people involved. It wasn't just me. John had a say in that. There was an editor involved later in the piece. A few of them moved around. But I kind of found their slots. They actually sat pretty comfortably where they sat, so that wasn't too big a debate.

Valerie Khoo 

So they are, as you say, it was a strategic decision from the outset on telling it in this way, as opposed to working it out through some kind of exposition. And what you've done is you've written this, obviously, even though I don't know John, I'm assuming you've written it in John's voice. And even though I don't know John as to know whether it is John's voice, it seems very consistent and very authentic and believable. What did you do to capture that?

Nick Place 

Yeah, I listened to him. I just, I actually love dialogue. And in all my books, I love dialogue. And I love the way people talk. And I love mannerisms. And I think that that can really flesh out a book, whether you're talking about a book like this or, or a novel.

You know, it's just what you said about making those decisions. I mean, to me writing is, to write a good novel or a good book, there's a lot of decisions. You have to make decisions. You don't just let it happen. You don't just drift along, write, and see what happens. You make decisions. And you know, everything we've been talking about really have been decisions. And so, again, I basically just, you know, having that dinner with John and Kevin and watching their interaction was huge for me. It only took that one dinner. I just needed to see them spend some time together. And they don't even work together anymore. They only see each other every now and then. It's years since they worked together. But they have an old furniture way of dealing with each other. And they, they kind of have in jokes and they have ways that they will talk to one another. And you know, John's still the boss and Kevin works for him even though that's not the case and hasn't been for years. And there's, you know, that's where the novelist in me was watching, watching, watching, watching. And I kind of then try to bring that back out.

I didn't always get it right, by the way. I'm not trying to claim I'm a genius at this. You know, what happened after I'd written the draft is that John then stepped back in and read the draft and said, “I would never say that. That's not me. I would never say that.” And he got to basically go through and edit the way… And you know, I would have things like, one example that really sticks to mind is at one point I had him saying, “Mate, I'm not here for a dick swinging contest.” And, and if you met John, he's right. He would never say that. He's just much too genteel and old school and he wouldn't… He might say something similar, but very direct, but he wouldn't say that. That's a Nick Place kind of stupid thing to say to someone.

And so, you know, he was straight on to that. “I would never say that in a meeting.” And I'm like, “okay, that's cool. I'm fine with that.”

And, you know, the other thing too, is that there's characters in there who are real people. And, again, for me, they're characters on a page, because I've never met them. I only know about them from John's kind of story and from the whole thing. So again, I had to create a dinner in London with John and several people that are real people. And I had to create this whole dinner and the whole conversation and kind of get the plot from A to B through this dinner. And then John would say to me, “look, Nick, you know, that guy would never talk like that. He's an incredibly accomplished, you know, English scholar, he would never use those words.” And I would just… But it was fine. I would say, “Well, John, I've never met the guy. I'm just trying to make up a scene, put words in that he would use.”

So you know, between us, we got there. But, yeah, it was mostly observation. Valerie, I'm one of those people who, I'm one of those writers who sits on a train or a tram or whatever, when we're allowed to, when there's not a pandemic on, and I'll sit there with my headphones on but nothing playing and listen to the people around me. Which is a guilty secret of a lot of writers. And it's not because I care about Valerie's actually sleeping with Trevor or whatever, I couldn't care less what I'm interested in…

Valerie Khoo

Oh, damn it, that Trevor, he's a pain.

Nick Place

He's a bad one. But I'm very interested in the words used and the inflections and the tone and the reactions and, you know, I love that stuff. And I'm often shamelessly eavesdropping. And again, not for content, just for ways of expression. It can make a novel incredibly real.

Valerie Khoo 

Tell me about the timeline. So from say that meeting with Penguin at the initial meeting, and just if you give me a really kind of overview of after that it took X amount of time before you decided to do it, you got the 70 pages, you got your first draft and so on. Can you just give me a little bit of a timeline of the book?

Nick Place 

Yeah, I can try. Um, I haven't actually noted it down so I'll have to think about it. I mean, look, it's funny, you know, one of my novels took me 20 years to finish, and another one took four months. So this one was different because I had a contract with Penguin that said I had to deliver by a certain date, which got my full attention. So it's not bad, actually, for a journalist to have a deadline. So I was like, “Okay, I'm delivering it on that date.” So I worked towards that.

In answer to your question, we met that first meeting was in mid-October 2018. By the time that I did that first initial chapter, and we actually got the go ahead from Penguin who said, “yeah, we like it. This is going to be good.” And we did the deal and contracts and my agent did her thing and all of that stuff – that probably took us through till late February. So I started writing pretty much in March 2019. And I finished actually on Christmas Day 2019. The first draft. And hilariously then to celebrate, because my wife was overseas and I was basically all by myself and I'd spent all of Christmas Day writing because I was by myself, and I then thought, “wow, I really need a drink. I just wrote ‘the end' on this book.” And I went around to my ex-sister in law's place where my sons and a few other people were. And that's when she told me she had this book about Georgia and cooking and stuff. So it was hilarious. I'd finished the draft and then got this piece of gold, and went back and added it in.

So that was Christmas Day. I think we probably got second draft done by about March 2020. And then probably we had third draft and really we're getting close now and we need to have this done. And by then, I'm also writing some marketing material, the blurb on the back, things like that. Probably about late May, I'd imagine, maybe early June this year.

Penguin, you know, it's a production line putting a book together. Once Penguin kind of get the manuscript and they're happy with it, and off they go, and they get their editor involved, it actually moved pretty quickly. I was incredibly lucky in that they loved the manuscript. Because I don't know if other authors have talked about this on the podcast before, but you know, you live in absolute… When I am terrified, I keep saying I'm not terrified, when I am terrified is after I've handed in the manuscript to Penguin, and now I'm waiting for the judgment. Because it could come back, “you have to rewrite the entire second half and lose five characters and this doesn't work and that doesn't work” and they could rip it apart. Because by the time you finish the manuscript, you know, obviously you like it or you wouldn't hand it in, but you don't really know. You've had such a climb Everest to get there that you really have no idea if it's any good. Well, I don't anyway. I don't really know if it's great or not. So happily, they came back and said, “We love it. We've only got minor changes.” And that made the second and third draft very easy, which was a huge relief for me.

Valerie Khoo 

So from March 2019 to Christmas, can you just tell us a bit about were you writing this full time? Were you juggling another job? You know, just tell us about your situation at the time and your writing routine – how you got the words done.

Nick Place 

I was grieving my father for quite a while. And I had a new baby who was like born three months before that first meeting with John. I'd had to move house. I was freelancing as a journalist, which meant that I had about 15 jobs. I'm on faculty at Melbourne Uni's Centre for Advancing journalism in charge of a capstone subject there. And then actually, I got invited in to get involved in a company which I'm now the creative and content director of, which kicked in as well and then became an absolute beast and just took all the oxygen. So all of that was going on while I was trying to write those words.

And I think that what I would say to the audience is the only thing I know of writers, and of all the writers I know and I know quite a few because I've, you know, we've crossed paths, I think the only thing we all have in common, in all the wild variety of people I know who write books, is that we got the book done. And it sounds really simple. And it sounds like I'm bragging, but I'm not. But actually, you just have to get it done. And life never stops. I've got plenty of journo friends who tell me endlessly, “oh, I've got a great book in me, I'm gonna write a book one day, it's gonna be great.” And I'm like, “write it.” And they're like, “Nick. I'm pretty busy. I've got my round and I've got two kids.” And I'm like, “mate, you either write it or you don't. That's the definition of a writer.”

And I know, you know… And so, in a way, I went into that mode where with everything going on, and it was pretty crazy the actual year and a half I had there, you know, I knew I had a deadline and I also knew that I had to get it done. So yeah, my wife took a lot of hits. So I would take off on Saturday and write for hours on a Saturday. Like I said, I've got a… I didn't say. I have a spare office that I keep in Fitzroy, which is just my little writing cave. So I can go there and shut the door and work. But there was a lot of nights, there was a lot of kind of spare days, there was a lot of, you know, weekend time. It just took up every available second.

And of course the research was huge. I mean, it wasn't just the writing of the words, it was actually the research.

I divided the book into three sections. It quite naturally fit into before Georgia, Georgia, after Georgia. And I pretty much wrote it in that order. I didn't muck around much. I pretty much sort of was able to keep to that and it sort of it just had a really good spine to it, which helped me a lot.

Valerie Khoo 

So on a practical level, though, you said you wrote at every available moment. Was it literally every available moment? Or did you kind of at least put some structure to it? Like on Saturdays, I'm going to write, and every Saturday. Or did you put some structure in terms of, Okay, I've actually got a deadline. So if I divide it up, I need to produce X number of words per week or month or whatever. Did you do any of that?

Nick Place 

Look, everyone has a different writing process. Raymond Chandler used to lock himself in a room for four or five hours a day with nothing but a typewriter and a pile of paper and a desk and a chair. And if he didn't write, he just had to stay in there for five hours not writing. That was his, that was his technique. You know, I would love to be able to have a good flow and to have a good system, but actually, life just gets in the way. I mean, we have my step son every second week. So that dramatically affects the house if Cassius is in the house or not.

So, you know, yeah, I tried to get every Saturday for a while, but I also didn't want to leave my wife with a huge load of the kids and to be one of those guys who's gone the whole time. She got it, that I was not off playing golf or something, I was working. But you know, you have to balance all those things. So I didn't have a system. I was well aware that I wanted to stay ahead of the word count. I didn't want to hit… I think the manuscript was due at say the end of January. Like January 2020. And I didn't want to hit early December or like December going, “Oh my God, I've still got 50,000 words to write.”

So I'm pretty disciplined. I was pretty disciplined about going, you need to be here. You need to be here. But yeah, look, to be honest, it's a bit of a blur. I just kind of got it done amongst everything else. I mean, I was freelancing for some of that. And so I could kind of do some freelance work and then go, “I'm going to actually…” Look again, usually I have to get myself into a headspace to write fiction. I can't normally just drop in and out of it. But this one for some reason, I was able to go, “I've got a couple of hours, I might just have a go at trying to write some of Stalin.” And I kind of would and I'd get somewhere.

The other thing with me, which again, I don't know if it's true of all writers, but for me, I call it catching a thermal. I can go weeks where I really don't write anything good. I try to write. I have a go. It's terrible. I think it's terrible. I really struggle. And then something will click and I'll hit what I call a thermal. It's like hang gliders, you know, they catch an up draft and go up. And when I get a thermal that means strap on and go. And so I can write 10 or 15,000 words on a thermal very quickly.

Valerie Khoo

How long is a thermal?

Nick Place 

I never know. That's why I have to grab it while it's there. I actually had one of my kids’ books years ago where I'd written 40,000 and 45,000 words, and I just didn't like it and I threw the whole book out and started again. I got 12,000 words in I still wasn't happy, and I was not in a thermal. And then suddenly, something clicked at 3am. And I hit a thermal and I wrote the whole book in four days.

Valerie Khoo

Oh, my God.

Nick Place

Yeah, it's incredible. So, you know, with Stalin, I hit a few thermals where I really made good progress, you know, in a very short space of time. And I don't look back, I don't do anything, I just go with it. Like, this is working, I feel like the characters are working, I feel like they're talking to each other, I feel like going from there to there makes total sense. Just go.

And then when the thermal leaves me, I can go back and have a look at it. And you know, see, it's a weird look. It's a weird process. I'm not advocating it's, it's hell. But exciting.

Valerie Khoo 

Wow. So you do write fiction. So did you juggle writing any fiction during that year, 2019 really, where you were essentially writing this book?

Nick Place 

Yeah, I'll try. I write short stories as well, which never really get published. I just kind of like writing them. I, again, a tip for writers, you know, if I'm, if I'm giving tips to people who are working their way into being a writer, a novel is really hard. I use the tortured analogy that a novel is like climbing Everest. You don't have to climb Everest all the time; you can climb a few foothills to work the muscles and to get good. So, you know, I've written an entire short story which is nothing but dialogue. And just as a dialogue exercise. It's actually on my website,, if anyone wants to look at it. It's called Dave and Marie, I think it's called, and it's nothing but dialogue. And the whole point of that was just to write dialogue as a practice thing.

In answer to your question, yeah, I had a crazy idea in my head that what if Bono decided to get involved in gun politics in America and basically kidnapped the daughter of the NRA president and held her hostage. And so I was writing that. And I finally finished it. It's about 12,000 words and I have no idea if or what I'll do with it.

Valerie Khoo

Oh my god.

Nick Place

But that was kind of my, “Okay, if Stalin's not working, maybe I should go and have a crack at Bono for a while just to freshen up and just throw my brain into a different headspace.” Which can be helpful. Sometimes, if you're really drowning in the plot, or the, you know… There was, with Stalin, there was so much. There was history, there was wine, there was so many things I had to get my head around. It was really intimidating at times. So you know, throwing myself off into a ridiculous cartoon sort of story was a good, good way to break out of that sometimes.

Valerie Khoo 

Yes. And so what are you working on now? What's your main focus now that this book is out and obviously getting a lot of attention?

Nick Place 

Ah, I've always got about five things in my head. Like I’ve always got, I've got… I do have books in my head that have been there now for 10 years that I still haven't started writing because I just still don't feel like it's ready yet to come out. It's really weird. But I've also got a couple, this has opened a few doors for me in my brain of like, you know, I know some other amazing stories and I'm like, “wow, I wonder if that story…” Like there's one story that I wrote for a newspaper 10 years ago, but I'm thinking that could actually be an amazing book if I wrote it the same way with the guy who lived the story. So it's kind of opened up in me that this is a potential path for my writing.

I've got also, I love writing my novels, though. I mean, I've got a detective character that I love. So I'd love to keep him going if I can. So it's funny, you know, like, no matter how many books you get published, there's no guarantee you'll get published next time out. So I don't, I'm not thinking, you know, I'll write something and then sit back and it will all just roll out into publication. I feel like I've now I'm back at the bottom of the mountain. Here we go again.

Valerie Khoo 

Okay. And the book, as I said, it's getting lots and lots of attention. Stalin’s Wine Cellar. Let's finish up on what would be your top three writing tips to people? And actually, let's focus on nonfiction. Because this book is essentially nonfiction. If there are people who are interested in nonfiction writing or writing long form nonfiction as opposed to journalism, what would be your top three writing tips for them?

Nick Place 

Well, I don't consider myself a world expert having done it once, just to be clear.

Valerie Khoo 

Well, based on your experience with this book.

Nick Place 

I would say treat, even though they're real people, treat them like characters. Because you are writing a book with characters and the reader is going to read it like characters. The people who read Stalin’s Wine Cellar, in all likelihood, will never meet any of the people in the book. So it's up to me to make them living breathing characters who you do feel like you know and you do care for and you do barrack for or you do barrack against or whatever. So, you know, they're characters. You can, at some point, throw away the real person and write them as a living, breathing fictional on the page character, not fictional on the page character. That's one thing.

I would say, don't try to pack too much into it. Don't go into pages and pages of exposition, or don't go into clunky conversations where people tell each other all about their world. It's got to feel real, it's got to, it's really got to feel real. One of the most fun things for me in people starting to finally read the book after all this time is that no one can tell the bits that I completely, basically, added the paint there and what was the real painting before it. So you know, where I've gone into fiction mode to flesh out entire parts of it, no one can tell the difference. So to me, that's a huge win for me.

And I think the other thing is, you know, do… the journo in me can't help but say, if in doubt, stick with the truth. If you have to change it because actually the story is not going to work in terms of your story, that's one thing. But you know when in doubt with this book, I went with the true story. I went with what actually happened. It gives it authenticity. It means that John's not out there now trying to say, “yes, this story happened, but actually, massive chunks of it didn't.” You know, although parts of it didn't. And we very clearly said, I fought hard for “based on a true story” not “a true story” because again the journo in me wasn't prepared say it's a true story when I knew that I had written parts of it.

So you know, just don't get caught up in it. But also, yeah, where you can, be authentic. And, you know, get interested in the topic. Really, really research it and authenticate it and bring that authenticity to it. I think that's what makes a story like this work, that you actually feel like you're in Tbilisi, and you can look around the streets and you can feel that you're in the place. It's super important that it doesn't feel like it's been written from Melbourne, Australia. It feels like you're there.

Valerie Khoo 

Well, Stalin’s Wine Cellar. Thank you so much for your time today, Nick.

Nick Place 

I've really enjoyed it. I love talking about this stuff. So thanks for, you know, bringing me in.

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