This book was worth going to prison for

james phelps author imageJames Phelps, you should be locked up. You’re a sports journalist and you’ve written a non-fiction book, Australia's Hardest Prison: Inside Long Bay. Tell us about it.

Ever wondered what it would be like to go to prison? Not an American movie style prison, but the one you would really be locked up in for one DUI too many  or purposefully-forgetting to pay the tax-man. This book was my attempt to take the reader on a non-censored trip through arguably Australia's most famous, and feared, prison.

And how exactly did you do that?
Through first hand accounts from inmates and guards, I used the stories of several infamous Long Bay inmates to take the reader on a complete prison journey – from arrival to release (whether that be walking out a free-man or ending up murdered on the shower floor). My goal was to not only recount, and uncover, famous Long Bay stories, but also to write the book in a way that chained the reader to the bars of a cold prison cell. The book tells the complete history of the jail: the escapes, the inmates, the murders, the stabbings, the sex and the gangs. Many of these tales are told for the first time.

That’s quite the tour. Now, in your early journalism years you were a police reporter for the Daily Telegraph. Did the idea of writing a book form in your mind back then?
Not at all. A 1000-word feature seemed beyond my reach when I began as cadet reporter. I can remember sitting down to write my first 450-word news report and being scared stiff. The thought of writing a book never crossed my mind. It took me years to learn the basics of writing, the ‘building blocks’ as they are called, and to this day I am still finding my own style.

How long did this book take you to build – from idea to research to finished product?
The book took 11 months from start to finish.

Wow, we know some first chapters that have taken writers that long. What steps were involved?
During the first stage, the ‘earning a living while trying to write’ phase, I got my hands on every piece of available literature I could find on the jail. My information came from newspaper articles, books, court documents, ICAC documents, government reports, and heritage documents. At the completion of this initial research phase, I mapped out a plan of which prisoners and events I wanted to write about. The next, and the most important stage, was conducting interviews. I had a hit list of 50 or so names that had come up during my research. I then attempted to find each and every one of them.

So you were researching prisons and then came up with a “hit list” – sounds ominous! Also, interviewing 50 people sounds intense.
This was an exhaustive process. It took a four-month investigation alone to find one of my targets, notorious escapee Ian Saxon Hall, and another two months to get him to agree to an interview. Each interview would lead to another, and also to more research when untold cases were discovered.

Hang on, four months and two more months and all those other interviews. Seriously, it really only took you less than a year?
I sat down to write the book once I decided I had all the material I needed on each topic I would discuss. I had over 200,000 words of transcribed interviews. The actual writing process only took six weeks, thanks to a tent, a caravan park and a flock of ducks that proved my only distraction.

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Aha, the old ‘hide out in a caravan park’ trick. So how did the book deal come about?
I had just finished a bestselling sports title and was asked by my publisher to write another. I said I had no interest in writing another sports book, but I would be happy to explore other subjects. After some thought, I submitted a proposal for this book. I was offered a deal about a week later.

Writing routine? Got one? 
I suppose I’m lucky to work full-time as a journalist, so rarely a day passes where I don't write 1000 words. We are always waiting on a last minute phone call so most stories are not even started until 15 minutes before they are due. When writing a book, I tend to do the bulk of my work late at night. It is not unusual for me to start at 9pm and finish at 4am. I find I am most creative at this time and there are no distractions; kids asleep, mobile phone tucked in a drawer. I then edit what I have done during the day, when mostly I am sober.

Mostly! Got any useful advice for aspiring writers?
Crawl before you walk. Don't attempt to write like your favourite author until you master the basics. Write your story like you would orally tell it to a friend, remembering most friends will slap you in the face if you attempt to talk like Edgar Allan Poe. This method will teach you the importance of flow. Leave out metaphors, analogies, incremental repetition and those fancy tools that you think make you look smart. At least to begin with anyway.

Too many people confuse mud for prose. Once you have mastered the rules you can break them. So write, write and write some more. And when you are not writing, read. Your most important writing tool is your vocabulary. The only way you can increase your vocabulary is to read lots and often. Finding the best one word to describe something is the endless journey of the writer.

Wise words. So finally, before they call “lights out”, what’s your writing superpower?
I used to think I could fly. I was wrong. FA-THUD!

My body bounced, bones broke, and the pavement proved my power pie in the sky. Yep, I can't fly and I wouldn't call onomatopoeia a superpower, but it is a tool I like to use. I also love a bit of alliteration.

Australia's Hardest Prison: Inside the Walls of Long Bay Jail is out now and available from all good bookstores and online.

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