Ep 207 We chat to actor and author Steve Bisley about his memoir ‘All the Burning Bridges’

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In Episode 207 of So you want to be a writer: Learn how to write media releases. We chat about Tom Hanks’ new book ‘Uncommon Type’, and how one woman turned her side hustle into a career. Discover how Kelly Exeter funds her creative life. Plus, we chat to actor and author Steve Bisley about his memoir All the Burning Bridges. 

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

Show Notes

podcast-artworkSpecial announcement

How to write media releases course


Links 

Tom Hanks typecasts himself in first book of fiction

How I Turned My Side Hustle Into a Career That Earns 10x the Salary of My Day Job

How I fund my creative life

Writer in Residence

Steve Bisley

 

Steve Bisley has been a film and television actor for more than 30 years, best known for his roles in Mad Max and The Great Gatsby and as Detective Jack Christy in the long-running television series Water Rats. He has most recently played Jim Knight in the popular Nine Network drama Doctor Doctor.

He is the author of Stillways, which was shortlisted for The N.S.W Premier’s Literary Awards 2014, The National Biography Awards and The Queensland Literary Awards. Steve lives in Sydney.

His latest book is All the Burning Bridges, published in 2017.

(If you click the links in this bio 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.)

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Steve thank you so much for joining us today.

Steve

It’s a pleasure. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Valerie

Now do you realise Steve that you were almost responsible for me missing my plane last week.

Steve

Why?

Valerie

Because I was so engrossed in this book – All the Burning Bridges, by Steve Bisley. And my plane was at 5:30 and I was sitting in the lounge and I was reading it, and it’s a page turner. I read it from cover to cover in practically one sitting, with the exception of getting on a couple of pieces of transport. And 5:27 I looked up and went oh my god! My plane leaves in 3 minutes. And I had to run like the wind in order to get there. Fortunately, I was the last passenger on and I made it and everyone gave me dirty looks.

Steve

I’m so glad. I’m so glad.

Valerie

But I didn’t announce to the plane that it was because of you.

Steve

Oh good on you. Well, I’m glad you were so transported that you nearly missed your plane, but equally I’m glad you made the flight.

Valerie

Transported from the first page. Because it sure starts off with a bang.

Steve

It sort of does, doesn’t it?

Valerie

Literally.

Steve

Yeah, it’s a little bit like, to me the prologue is a little bit like Raymond Chandler. It’s sort of Raymond Chandler-esque. In fact I flirted with the idea of writing each chapter in the style of different writers that I like. But finally I got back to just me. But it does grab you, I think.

Valerie

It does, it does. Now, tell us for some of the reasons who haven’t got a hold of the book yet, tell us what it’s about. And obviously it’s a memoir, but just describe what period of your life it’s about, or what aspects of your life you decided to write about.

Steve

Okay, well I’d written the first book, Stillways, which was a childhood memoir. So I’d then been contracted to write, which I’m writing at the moment, a novel, my first novel for Harper Collins. But between Stillways and the novel, I talked to another publishing house and they thought I had another memoir in me. And so All the Burning Bridges is an adult memoir where Stillways was a childhood one.

So when I started it I thought I would just progress on from where Stillways left off. Stillways finishes when I’m around 17, when I left school, and I go to the city. And I thought, okay, I’d start it there. But then it took a different turn in the opening, which you mentioned. And I don’t quite know where that came from. But I enjoyed it myself. So we have a little prologue. And then it sort of butts up to where Stillways left off. But then it sort of goes boom, and it goes everywhere.

And to me, and I said in another interview, that what I tried to do with this book is to not be as bridled as I was with Stillways. I wanted it to just transport me where it wanted to go. And that’s what it is, really. And to me that’s memory. To me memory is fleeting, memory is captivating, memory comes and goes, the tenses change, sometimes you’re in the moment, sometimes you’re reflecting on past events. And hopefully that’s the nature of All the Burning Bridges.

Valerie

That’s interesting how you say sometimes you’re in the moment, and sometimes you’re reflecting on past events. Because I felt that in some chapters it was like you’ve got these great stories that you’re telling your friend over a beer, and in some chapters it was very much reflection, it was very much being in the moment, and it was like it was in your head.

But it’s interesting that you say it kind of went everywhere, which it sort of did. There are stories from different aspects of your life, but it does hang together. So what did you do? Which is very important and very powerful. What did you do then to make it hang together? Did you write a bunch of things and then take out stuff?

Steve

No.

Valerie

Did you think of a jigsaw? How did it work?

Steve

In comparison to the first book, the first book has a linear progression through it and through the various ages. And it has a line, a developing line through the book that you can follow, when I’m age 8, when I’m 9, 10, 12 through to 17. But this one, when I say unbridled, I was guided by whatever memory landed on me at the time. So there is a progression, but it’s out of, I didn’t ever sit and plot the whole book, thinking oh, I’ll write about the truck driving here or when I went to drama school there. Each one came to me with a sort of instruction to write this now.

Valerie

Wow.

Steve

I know. There was never a shuffling of the deck when I’d finished. The book sort of came to me as we read it today.

Valerie

That’s incredible, because it really does have a strong thread. So I thought that there must have been some other technique. But that’s pretty incredible.

Many people are very familiar with you as an actor. During your acting career, at some point did you think I’m going to do writing on the side? How did this come about?

Steve

No. Okay. So I’d had the idea to write about the farm, with the first book. It’s called Stillways which is the name of the farm where I grew up. And I had the title first. It was always going to be called Stillways. But I had no real in point, and I thought, I don’t know whether I can write, and I’d spent a lifetime really blowing life into other people’s words. That’s what I do, as an actor. I thought, I’ve got a story to tell, I’m sure I’ve got a story to tell. And I knew nothing about the process. I mean obviously I play with words, that’s what I do for a living. But not my own words. And then one day I thought, oh damn it, I’ll start.

Valerie

Right.

Steve

Yeah. And I started. And I’d written ten pages and I was having dinner with an author friend of mine, and I had this sort of, I was writing longhand, and I had the notepad in my backpack at the dinner. And my friend said, oh what have you been doing, and what work are you up to and blah. And I said, oh look I’ve started to write a book. I said, it’s a memoir about where I grew up and blah. And so she insisted on reading it and so I let her. And she said, you’ve got to send this to my publisher. And I said, no, no. I just want to write the book. She said, no, no, that’s not the way it works.

So she was my first guide into the mosaic world of publishing. So she insisted and then sent it to her publishers, and then there was some interest, and then they made me offer to write the book. So welcome to publishing.

Valerie

Yes. And it did very well. It got listed in awards. Did that really then give you the taste, did you decide then, I’m going to take this seriously, I’m going to do this?

Steve

Well, I suppose I was about 50 pages into Stillways, the first book, when I’d been made the offer, they had made me an offer on the book and I thought somebody else, not only my friend who I first showed it to, but other people think I can write. But by page 50 I started to realise what people talk about in this world of publishing about the voice in the book. And there was a voice in the book, and I identified the voice and I liked it. I really liked it. And some days were pure joy. And other days were just hard. And nothing’s changed. I’m back on writing the novel now and it’s like, you know, I’ve been battling away today.

But, writing the first book was a little like playing your first game of golf, to me. You go out, you know nothing about it, you swing and things happen and you have a good time. And you go back for the second game of golf and you think, oh right, I’ve got to hit, got to be careful, look at the ball, and oh gee. And then it all goes to shit. So, that’s pretty much how it’s been developing.

But look, the good days are great days. And I love the process. And if I could make a living out of this other career that I have found, then that’s all I’ll do. Because I’m in love with it, I just love it so much.

Valerie

What do you love about it? What aspect of it is so fabulous for you?

Steve

I think after, some days when you’ve hit a seam of gold and it all sort of works, and people talk about the muse arriving and all that sort of stuff. And we forever chase the muse. But those wonderful days where it all feels like it’s worked, and it has worked. It has worked. And I’ve had days, like I was saying before, of absolute joy, and that’s what I continue to chase. Because if it’s informing me, and I’m my worst and best critic, and I probably over edit to buggery, but I know if it’s working or not and when it works it’s fantastic.

Valerie

So tell me about the process, particularly with this book, the one that’s out now. You said that you let the memories come, in a sense. Did you give yourself a period of time to finish the manuscript? And if so, did you have a target for each day or week? How did you make sure it all came out?

Steve

Well, I had two careers. I’m an actor as well. And what I can’t do, I can’t perform and write at the same time. I have to do one or the other. And I’ve been involved in the last two years with a television series. It takes up around three or four months of the year to do. So while that’s happening, I can’t write. And I don’t want to start anything and have to go back to it.

So I virtually wrote All the Burning Bridges… I wrote Stillways the first book in six months, which people tell me is fast. And I think for memoir maybe it’s easier, because you do have the raw materials. So I wrote All the Burning Bridges, I started, then I got this work and so I had to leave it. And so I left it and came back to it. So in actual writing time, All the Burning Bridges was probably a year in the making, a year in the writing.

But I try and get, so I sit down, I’ve got a strict schedule, I sit down at 9 o’clock in the morning, and I get up at 5 o’clock. It’s like a job to me. I have to be strict about that. And if I get five main pages done in a day I’m happy.

Valerie

Are you still writing longhand?

Steve

No. Well, some days I do. Some days, because I’m so bad at typing, that it comes too fast and I need to get it down. So I’ll write long hand and then transpose it at the end of the day into a document. But if I do five main pages a day I’m happy.

Valerie

That’s very disciplined of you.

Now a lot of people who have some kind of profile who write books, particularly memoirs (and I’ve read many), part of the thing that works for them, and part of the thing that some readers find interesting, is their life experience obviously, but the people who have come into their life. In other words there’s a lot of name dropping. That’s probably an unkind word. But there are a lot of names of other famous people that they have met along the way and that is a point of interest. But probably with the exception of Mel Gibson, because you both started out at the same time, there’s not a single name, I would say, almost no names in this. In fact, often you don’t name the television shows that you’re on and that sort of thing. So there’s none of that relying on the glitz and glamour of celebrity. Was that a conscious decision?

Steve

A conscious decision. Yes, absolutely.

Valerie

Tell me more about that.

Steve

I wanted no names in it, including Mel’s. But I realised that so many people would know when I mentioned the film, that I would have to name him, it was sort of compulsory. But I avoided everybody else’s. And I wanted it to be completely that way all the way through the book, but I had to make that one concession. And I think I name Jasper, my youngest. I have six children, Jasper is 12 when we go to America, and Scarlet my daughter is 14 is dancing in LA, and Jasper and I go to Arizona, then I name them. But pretty much there are no other names in the book.

Also originally, I’d given each chapter a heading as well. They were all, the chapters had a descriptive one liner heading. And then I removed those as well, because I wanted it to be – you mentioned page-turner – I wanted people, as they turn the page from chapter to chapter, to be transported like in memory. Where does it go now? And that could be anywhere. So I didn’t want to distil each chapter into a one-line heading to give people any indication of where the book was going. I wanted it to unravel as they went.

Valerie

Yes. And I think that it’s not jarring at all that there are no names in there. It actually works. And I picked it up because I look at things analytically. Was it hard to write it that way?

Steve

No. No. In a way, I hated taking some of the chapter headings out. Because there was one called in ano est, which means ‘in the arse’ in Latin. And there was de melkman which is Dutch for milkman.

Valerie

But I meant the people’s names. Was it hard to write it without the people’s names? Because it is a normal thing to name people.

Steve

No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. The cover, similarly the cover has a picture of me from the character that I played in Mad Max. And a journalist asked me the other day, he said, won’t people think that maybe it’s going to be a book about your life in your other career, in performance? And I said, that’s the last thing I’d write. I can’t bear those books. I can’t bear them. About when I did this, and who I worked with, and like you were saying the name-dropping books.

So I dropped all the names, in a way. I’m a name dropper because I’ve dropped them all. You know what I mean. So name dropping in the pure sense. And it wasn’t difficult to write. I know the people I’m talking about.

Valerie

Yes.

Steve

But that was a decision I made very early in the piece. I thought, I want it to be more the event than the names. Equally, there are no photos in any of my memoirs. ‘Any’ of my memoirs, he says, having written only two. But there are no photos. Because if I pick up a memoir with a named person, and then I immediately, if it looks like there are photos, that’s where I go to first. Oh, let’s have a look at the photos. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be purely about the stories in the book. Purely about the memory. And not a photographic reference to it.

Valerie

When you say that the memories unfolded and you’ve captured them in that way, the thing is, after it was done, or the first draft was done, the thing is you’ve lived quite an eventful life. Were there then stories that came up afterwards that you thought, oh, maybe I should put that in?

Steve

Oh, I still do, even after… I kind of have the book sitting beside me and every day I think, oh, I could have written that in. But as I said, it led me, and I think that was a decision. I tried to free myself to the point where I’d be led by it rather than me leading the story, and me leading the event. And one would naturally follow. When I would complete what I thought was the end of that story, then I would meditate on where it would go and something would occur to me.

And it wasn’t ever, oh, what should I write about… I didn’t ever get up in the morning and go for the workout and then come and put my bum in the writer’s seat, and then think, oh where will I go today? Will I write about that, or will I write about that, or what was the choice? It came to me as the notion.

Valerie

Okay. And so when you then submitted that to your publisher, did your first draft work for them or was there much of a structural edit or stuff to be changed? Apart from obviously just little things.

Steve

Nothing changed.

Valerie

Wow. This is extraordinary, Steve. This is extraordinary.

Steve

I know, look.

Valerie

Because it works so well, this is extraordinary.

Steve

We could do a whole load about editors. We could do a whole load.

All my work, in my other job, I’m continually edited. You know, in performance and television and film. Another thing I like about writing, in my other work I’m edited all the time. There are so many hands in what I do, that when I write it’s me.

And I’m not an editor’s friend, I have to tell you. I’m not. And there was some, I was blessed in the first book that I had an editor in Harper Collins who completely got Stillways from the get go. And she wrote me this wonderful email that said, look, she had to be working on the book, but she also said if you want it to go out exactly as you’ve written it, then that’s the way it will be. I will offer some suggestions and then you can either take those on board or, you know. And pretty much, there were some minor things, words.

But I self-edit all the time. I probably do it too much. Because I crank backwards and forwards. And the thing that I’m very conscious about in my work is the rhythm in the work. The beats and rhythms. And I get it from my mother. In Stillways there are about half a dozen of her poems in the back of the book. And she was such a great wordsmith. She spent her life constructing the best way to say something. And to write, equally to write something. She was a poet. Her treasury of words was just wonderful. And so I get it from her. And I’m very conscious of the beats and rhythms of the work myself, so if somebody else puts a hand on that it jars me to the core. So I’m not an editor’s friend.

Valerie

Tell me about your self-editing process then. Do you do it straight away, do you wait until you have a chunk of text?

Steve

Well, I do one after my five main pages day. When I transcribe it, after I finished the day, I transcribe it into a Word document, then I can work on it. And I start to work on the beats and rhythms and the work. And I’m very conscious of if something needs another word, or if something needs that tailored. Then the true work starts for me, really, then.

And so when I’ve, and maybe that makes me a bit more wary. Not more wary, but I know I’ve done a lot by the time it leaves my desk. But I am very, I’m like a female crocodile at breeding time around the nest. I really am. And I find that you want to have a really good idea to be better than the one I’ve got. Because an editor is just another interpretation of your work and I’m not prepared to loose the reins on that a lot.

Valerie

Well, if it works. And obviously it does. So now you’re writing a novel. Very, very different. You’ve written two memoirs now. At what point did you think, oh, I’m going to turn my hand to fiction? And at any point during your acting career did you think, I’m going to write screenplays? And go into that side of it which is a bit more related.

Steve

It’s interesting, because I’ve had over 30 years of working on other people’s stories, I’m really aware of how the story unfolds. And I’m forever thinking, oh it would be better if that was… In the theatre, you get the wonderful luxury of that rehearsal period in the room with the other company of actors, and that’s what you’re doing all day. You’re massaging these words, you’re finding a way to breathe life into these characters to get them off the page and up walking and talking. And all you’ve got is the word on the page.

But I’ve always had a tremendous respect for writers, when I work in film, television and theatre. I’m always very, very conscious that somebody sat like I’m sitting at the moment, just them and the tyranny of the blinking cursor or the blank page, and wrote this stuff. So that’s a tremendous responsibility to the writer.

But after Stillways, I thought, and I think my publisher at Harper Collins said, we think that maybe you’re masquerading as a memoirist. Maybe you’re a fiction writer. And I thought I was too. And I wanted a crack at it. I really did want to write it. And I liked this book that I’ve started.

I’m really, you know, my partner lives in Perth and we were talking last night over Facetime and she said she knows I’ve just started. We’re going away on holidays, and she said, I know what it’s going to be like. You’re going to say I need a couple of hours a day to… Because I’m at that stage, it’s like being in an old house that has lots of rooms and all the doors are locked and you’ve got a large ring with all those old skeleton keys dangling off it, and you’re trying to get into the room. Right now, that’s where I am with a big bunch of keys, trying to unlock each door. And when I get the door open I can go in the room and play, but I’m still trying to find the door.

Valerie

Right. And so you’re finding it quite a different experience to memoir?

Steve

No, I found that with the memoirs as well, the bunch of keys. But once I’m in the room I can play. Then I can really play.

You know, I once, I think it was after Stillways came out and I did an interview with someone, I said I can’t wait to start the novel because I won’t be bridled by the truth. I think it would be easier, well, I was kidding myself. A little self-deception.

Valerie

What are you finding most challenging about writing fiction?

Steve

Okay. I write, and you’ll probably get it, there’s a certain sense of, it’s quite sparse, my writing. I don’t, I avoid conversation, I avoid writing conversation and I’m writing conversation now. But it’s completely different. It’s a completely different structure, this novel. And that’s the nature of the difference between the two mediums, I think.

But I’m finding it delicious, and I love authors who write conversation well. And detail. I’m in love with the detail in Hannah Kent’s work. I just love Hannah Kent’s work.

Valerie

When’s the novel coming out, we have to know.

Steve

That’s the piece of string. How long? I would be hoping, and I think my publisher’s probably on the same page – get it? I’d like for next year, late next year. I’d like to be able to have the time to not do anything else but that, but that’s probably folly.

Valerie

So just backing up to my other question, of being in that writing world, were you tempted to write scripts?

Steve

Oh sorry. Yes, Stillways is actually, I’m co-writing a film, a screenplay, a draft of a screenplay, well, we’re up to about draft five. I’m co-writing it with a writer who is in London. The screenplay of Stillways, the first book, the first memoir.

It was her suggestion. she read the memoir, and then she rang me from London and said, oh this has got to be a film, surely. I thought, oh, film. And it’s a wonderful period. It’s the 50s and 60s, in that little rural scope. And I think as the world gets crazier and madder, certainly Hollywood seems to be on the nostalgia bandwagon a bit. And you find people looking for some solace in the past, and in nostalgia. And the wonderful look of that time.

So we’re seeing where that will develop. I’d love to write for film, I really would. And hopefully this novel, hopefully you can point a camera at this novel, I think.

Valerie

But these are, what you’re referring to are adaptations of books that you’ve written. Did you ever think of writing a script for the cop show that you’re on, and that sort of thing?

Steve

No. Not at the time. But my thinking has changed. I was so, to me performance was everything, and that’s where all my energies went. But now I’m a more mature actor. I would like, now that I’ve got the writing bug, I would love to write for the screen. I’d like to write for the theatre too, but I think I’m more drawn towards writing for the screen. It just offers a bigger canvas to play on, really.

Valerie

With this book, All the Burning Bridges, were there any parts of your life that were hard to write about? Or conversely were there parts that you just loved writing about?

Steve

I write on depression, because I went through a bout of depression. Which was really the springboard into me starting to write, in a way. Because I was saying I had the idea of Stillways, which I’d had for a couple of years, and I was hit by this debilitating bout of depression that I had no idea where it had come from. I have more of an idea now that I’ve been through it. But it’s just impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t had it what it’s like.

And I was just, I was forced to pull out of lots of shows that I was asked to do. And I kept trying to do it, trying to perform, so I’d say yes, and then I wouldn’t be well enough to do it, so I’d pull out of another show. And I pulled out of probably half a dozen theatre, film, television, the whole deal. I just couldn’t do it.

There was, it just, that awful condition just really destroys your sense of self, your sense of anything, anything with any spontaneity just gets rubbed out. None of the medications that they suggested worked for me. So it was just a matter of hoping that it would one day go away. And it probably, if I look at the whole timeframe, it’s probably ten years out of my life that I was really, really unwell.

So writing, and I do write about it in the book, and the girl, because I lived in Vaucluse quite close to the cliffs, the legendary cliffs. And I write about it. And I touch on it because… And like I said, I was guided to write by whatever came to me. And that came to me one morning. I was sitting here, as I say in that chapter, I was sitting, I’d sat down, I’d got a coffee, I’d gone out early at like 5am and got a coffee and come back here and it was a wintry day and the rain was lashing around, and I started to write on that condition.

Valerie

Very powerful.

Steve

And that was – I’m well now, so it’s okay – but the joyous stuff was great. And it was terrific.

One of my eldest, I have four older children and two young ones, one of my eldest boys said, but do you think it’s wise to write about growing dope under your house in the Blue Mountains? He said, they might fire you off your current work that you do as an actor. I said, oh, well, it happened.

Valerie

Yes, it sounded like such a hedonistic period of your life, all of the things that happened in the Blue Mountains house. But it sounded like a lot of fun.

Steve

Yeah, it was fun. But it was also a great place, you know, the kids would all come, and friends would come, and I do write about some of the high times, excuse the pun. But it was a wonderful place that affected everyone who came there in a really positive way. And it was a lovely, it was peaceful, it was just beautiful. One of those really welcoming houses that you walk into and you feel the life that’s been before you in there. It had that. And where I live now has that as well.

Valerie

Tell me now, you are actually talking to me in your writing space. Can you describe what your writing space comprises of and what you look at and what is in there? Just to give us a picture.

Steve

Okay. So I write in one of the back rooms. I live on the top floor of an apartment block in Vaucluse. And if I look out of the door I’m looking at now, so right in front of me is my big computer. I write on an iMac. So there’s a window right in front of me which has a green belt outside of trees and plants. And if I look to the right there’s the ocean.

And I write, in summer the door is always open because the beautiful nor-easter blows straight off the ocean, so it’s pure ozone. It’s wonderful.

It’s fairly tidy at the moment. It’s not always that way. There’s a printer to the left of my computer. There’s notepads everywhere, which I’m about to box up. Because I’ve got about eight boxes of notes written longhand for the first book. And probably double that for this book. When I write long hand, there’s stacks of them. And I really like stationery.

Valerie

Yes!

Steve

I love stationery. So I buy really nice notebooks, and they’re of all different sorts, just the one that appealed to me at the time. And they’re all there. Stacks of that. And then there’s media things, pages of media things I’ve got to do in the lead up to the launch of this book. And then there’s a bicycle pump, pictures of my children, a box with various leads that go in various things. There’s several rocks on my desk that I’ve collected from different places around Australia.

Valerie

Rocks?

Steve

Yeah, little rocks. Stones. There’s a cup that says ‘Australia’s Greatest Dad’, from Jasper. He gave it to me for Father’s Day. There’s a bound, a beautiful leather-bound notebook that Rebecca my partner gave me. That’s special, I only write special things. There’s a white box that my daughter gave me on Father’s Day which has pictures of her and I when she was a baby. Now she’s 14. And there’s a poem in there. And it’s all surrounded with pink paper. There’s my Zoom microphone that I record stuff when the mood takes me. And it’s pretty clean, but it’s going to be cleaner because I need to clear the decks before I get serious, before the first door really opens.

Valerie

Yes, from that skeleton key. Well, I have no doubt that many, many other books, whether they’re novels, or maybe there’s another memoir.

Steve

There’s no more memoirs, Valerie, there are no more memoirs. I promise you. There are no more memoirs. That’s it.

Valerie

All right. Well, we certainly look forward to the next one, the novel then. Thank you so much for your time today, Steve. Fantastic book. Everyone should go buy it. It’s awesome.

Steve

Thanks Valerie. Thank you so much.

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