I was lucky enough to be born into a big, supportive and fun family. There was never a dull moment growing up with three sisters and one brother, and memories of the squabbles, laughs and games will stay with me for a lifetime.
My earliest recollections are of the little town of Bowraville, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Dad was the principal of the Central School there, which had students up to Year Ten, or Fourth Form as it was called then. We lived in the school residence, and we had a couple of giant pine trees in the front yard. Every Christmas the local council would drape them in coloured lights, and Bowra’s giant Christmas trees were a minor attraction for the locals.
My parents valued education and the arts. They met at Armidale Teachers College in the 1950s, fell in love, and married in Sydney before moving up to the North Coast. In the late sixties Dad was transferred to Goulburn, where I spent most of my formative years, apart from an eighteen-month stay in Edmonton, Canada, where I attended my last year of primary school and a taste of Junior High. I missed Australia badly!
Goulburn! That cold and windy valley that stretched from Rocky Hill, across the Wollondilly flood plains to Mount Baw Baw. I attended a modern public school, then a traditional catholic boarding school (as a day boy).
At the same time I read books like a bear eats fish. One after the other; adventure fiction, thrillers, travelogues. Paperbacks from the big writers of the day were passed around our family. I read in the bath, in bed, on bean bags, and under the desk when I was supposed to be studying. Alistair Maclean, Leon Uris, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins, Wilbur Smith, Jon Cleary, Paul Brickhill, Frederick Forsyth. I was given a box set of Australian Classics, from Patterson to Idriess, and like a good bear I swallowed that up too. My father had, long ago, studied the classics, and when the hunting was lean I gave them a go. I loved Thucydides, thought Joyce was boring, fought the civil war in The Red Badge of Courage and got a secret little teenage thrill from Ovid.
Our school had a long tradition, supposedly passed down from the Gaels, of one senior student being crowned Bard of the Year. It was my honour to win this title, carried on a litter (yes, really) through the school grounds to shouting and general yahooing. There was a prize, I think.
My writing career started with trying to be funny. Writing silly poems, stories and songs to make my school mates laugh. I wrote them in cursive, on loose foolscap sheets, and they were passed from hand to hand around the schoolyard. I would watch them read. By learning which bits made them laugh, I learned to be funnier. Sometimes the things I wrote were hurtful to others. I wish I hadn’t been so callous.
After school I had a year at the Teacher’s College in Armidale, which I completely wasted. I don’t know how many brain cells I killed in that year, but I regret losing them. I finished my studies in Wagga and then my love of adventure took me to the Northern Territory. I did some amazing things there. Met my wife and had a child. I walked across Arnhem Land with a friend. Four weeks and three hundred kilometres of my life I will never forget. I canoed, I hunted feral pigs, I fished, motored out to remote Gulf islands in tinnies. I met people, characters. I met disaster, and happiness. In short, I lived. I learned a lot about life, through good times and tragedy.
At the age of twenty-five I tried seriously to write my first novel. I have the fifty or so pages here beside me as I type. Remember those tractor feed printers where you tore along the perforations at the sides of the paper? These were printed on one of those, and typed up on an Apple IIe computer. It was inspired by my life at the time.
... Murray, just 26 years of age, sat on a sixty litre oil drum, eating greedily in the stillness of dawn. ‘Hey Frank,’ he called ...
My next major attempt, three or four years later, was supposed to be a taut thriller about a bullied child who grows up to take revenge on his tormentors, by, er, killing them. I have this one beside me too. Printed with a dot matrix printer on A4 stock.
... The storm clouds that had been threatening for several hours had retreated into the north-east, leaving behind a sense of calm and perhaps, anticlimax. I picked my way carefully across the school yard knowing that I was the last to leave. I passed the bike rack enviously, wishing my parents could afford to buy me at least that luxury …
I sent the first three chapters off to Pan Macmillan. At the time I was living in the wilds of the upper Daly River in the NT and had to drive for an hour to Katherine to post it. I went home to the bush house I had built with my own hands and waited for the publisher to arrive by plane to congratulate me in person and hand me a very large cheque. I’m not joking. I seriously thought that.
When I hadn’t heard anything in about ten days I rang them up. They said to wait six weeks. After ten I received a polite letter telling me that it didn’t suit their list. I stopped writing again for a year or two, did lots of things, moved around, got married.
Then, one day at the age of thirty four I found myself in a business I hated, doing very badly, and I decided that writing was what I wanted to do. I wrote a full novel in a month. It was rubbish, but it had something. The literary agent I sent it to told me so.
I wrote another one. I was just young enough to submit it in the Vogel award. It didn’t win. I wrote another one. I wrote some short stories. One got short listed in the ABC Radio short story comp. I felt encouraged. I wrote every day. I felt guilty if I didn’t, no matter how much other work I had to do.
Five years after I started writing, Brian Cook, literary agent, decided I had something worth pursuing. He helped me redraft my latest manuscript, several times, then sent it off to publishers. We got a few bites, some encouragement. Family and friends, one by one, turned from bemused bystanders into ardent supporters; reading manuscripts and sharing the excitements and disappointments of the trying-to-be-published process.
I wrote another book. Again Brian helped me with several rewrites. This time the interest was serious. One of the big publishers gave me editorial feedback and asked me to rewrite it. It took me six months. Staff and priorities changed and they decided not to proceed, just one of many knock-out blows I suffered along the way. Brian submitted it again. Two publishers were very interested. It went to an acquisitions meeting just as the GFC started to bite. Sales departments were cautious. They said no.
I became interested in world events in the wake of 9/11. In between other projects I started working on a book I was calling ‘Travel, in an Age of Terror,’ then ‘The Gardens of Jannah.’ I did thousands of hours of research, I travelled, and slowly this story grew. All my stories had been about conscience, and the choices we make. This one was no exception.
I started calling it Rotten Gods because to me, the conflict between Islam and Christianity, or at least between extremist members of these religions, was and is the most significant threat to world peace. I learned from my research that the debt crisis, the endless borrowing, is a disaster that is only being averted by more borrowing. Climate change is a dark cloud on our horizon that people hope will go away. I saw all these factors converging and I wanted to write about them. And so I did.
Brian submitted the full manuscript of Rotten Gods in December 2010. By the beginning of January an editor who had championed my previous manuscript had been in touch to say how much she loved it. By the end of January, however, she seemed to be the only horse in the race. Then, one evening as I cooked dinner I got an email from Brian saying that he had been in the HarperCollins office that day and that they loved Rotten Gods too.
HarperCollins were a bit of a dark horse to me. They had never shown any interest in my work previously. Now, all of a sudden they were telling us that Rotten Gods was through the first meeting. Then the second.
Text message from Brian Cook: "HPC want to take the next step. They want to meet you. Call me."
I was at work when I got that message. The room went out of focus. I walked on air. I flew down to Sydney and sat in a board room with people who not just liked my work, but loved it. Soon there was a contract, and copy editing, and a cover. I’ve enjoyed every step along the way, but most of all I love the daily task of putting words together, making sentences and scenes, and stories. It’s my work. It’s all I want to do.
There have been a lot of changes since then. I started writing historical novels and set up Stories of Oz publishing to get them into print. I discovered serialising stories online, and this seems to suit my style.
What’s next? I’m not sure exactly, but I’ll be tapping away at the keyboard, you can be sure of that.