‘A brilliant rollercoaster ride of a novel. I couldn’t put it down.’
The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Sydney, raised for the early part of my life in Tokyo, then came back to Australia to attend Knox Grammar School. After that I studied Film Production at North Sydney TAFE part time, then completed a Bachelor of Arts in Screenwriting at the Australian Film Television & Radio School.
I’ve written two action-adventure novels, Velocity and Combustion and I’m currently writing a third, set in the world of Formula One. Also, a movie I co-wrote is shooting at the end of this year. It’s an Aussie kids adventure, in the vein of Stand By Me, called ‘Paper Planes’. Robert Connolly (‘The Bank’, ‘Balibo’, Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’) is directing. We don’t make many kid’s movies in this country so I’m thrilled Screen Australia decided to fund this one.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be a journalist, which I was by the time I was eighteen, as a cadet at News Limited on the Daily Telegraph.
By the time I was eighteen I wanted to be a screenwriter, which I was by the time I was thirty and ‘Big Sky’, the first television show I worked on, was on air.
By the time I was thirty I wanted to be a novelist, which I finally became by the time I was forty-five when my first novel Velocity was published!
It would have to be related to getting married and having kids. There was no way in the world I was ever going to do it — until I met my lovely wife. Now I can’t believe I ever thought that way. Also, when I was eighteen I was sure the 1980s would forever be the dominant influence on western culture. And they still are — but only in my mind!
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
That’s a difficult question. There are so many that influence me. I’ll have to pick four, one song, one book, one movie and one genre of TV show.
Television: The dramas I loved growing up in the early 1980s tended to be American action buddy shows, like Magnum PI, Simon & Simon, Hardcastle & McCormick, Remington Steel, The Dukes of Hazard and Moonlighting. They revolved around two completely different characters thrown together in a high pressure environment that’s ripe for conflict, action and comedy. The show’s plots were never groundbreaking and the action was often clumsy but you kept watching because you loved the humour and heart generated by the central relationship. Unfortunately these shows were always American and when I was a kid I was constantly disappointed that we didn’t make one in Australia. So when I was thinking about the characters that would populate my first novel ‘Velocity’ I decided to create my own ‘buddy show’ and make sure there was a larrikin Aussie front and centre, partnered with an uptight Yank.
Music: ‘Armageddon It’ by Def Leppard off the ‘Hysteria’ album. Yes, that’s right, I just wrote Def Leppard. Love ‘em or hate ‘em it’s a perfect rock song. To me, a well structured song exhibits exactly the same qualities I’m trying to create when I write a novel: set up a killer hook, develop it in an exciting yet unexpected way, pay it off with a satisfying climax, then get the hell out of there before you over stay your welcome.
Novel: The Player - Michael Tolkin. Tolkin’s background in screenwriting (‘Deep Impact’) created the novel I’d always wanted to read (and write); a sophisticated page-turner with the pace and brevity of a screenplay without the inherent time constraints. The book, which, by the way, is a master class on how to write succinct and punchy dialogue, is a ripping yarn about a collection of tortured characters within the soulless Hollywood’s studio system. I met many bitter screenwriters and robo-executives during my time living in LA and most would have been perfectly at home within the pages of ‘The Player’.
Movie: Field of Dreams. Written & Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, adapted from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. The idea behind my novels is to write the best action movie you’ve ever read, but the movie that has had the most influence on me is a mystical story set in the Iowa cornfields about a guy who builds a baseball diamond for a bunch of ball players who happen to be ghosts. Go figure. The movie is a perfect storm of relatable characters, gentle humour and a poignant father-son relationship, all wrapped up in the idea that there are few things in life that are permanent, but sport, and in this case baseball, is one of them. As the world rolls past, it is a constant, anchoring us to home and family. Just thinking about it makes me want to come up with a magic-realist story about cricket! What I learned about writing from ‘Field of Dreams’ is that, no matter how far fetched your plot may be, the characters ground the story so you better get them right.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Writing was pretty much the only thing I was good at at school so I gravitated towards it. The idea of creating something funny or exciting or poignant on the page always appealed to me. On top of that, from an early age, I was fascinated by why some stories (be it a TV show, movie, book or even a song) connected with the population, even became cultural touchstones, while others didn’t, and I wanted to at least try and create one of those stories myself.
In a nutshell Combustion is an action adventure yarn that finds the two main characters from my first novel Velocity, tightly wound Yank Astronaut Judd Bell and his best mate, laid back Aussie chopper pilot Corey Purchase, coming to grips with the fact that everyone in the world now believes them to be great heroes, something they are not at all sure is true.
They’re in Los Angeles when an eco-terrorist releases an airborne virus into smog above the city. The virus doesn’t affect humans but infects combustion engines and causes them to explode. In moments the town is on fire as vehicles detonate everywhere.
Judd and Corey must prove themselves to be the heroes the world thinks they are by stopping the terrorist before he can spread the virus across the globe and send the planet back to the Stone Age.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I’d like the readers to have been exhilarated, to have laughed and to have been moved. Most importantly, I hope the characters resonated. You can write the highest concept action packed thrill ride but if nobody cares about the characters within the story then they won’t finish the book.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Again, there are so many to choose from but I’ll have to land on Stephen King because I’ve been reading him since I was a boy, well over thirty years, and his ability to consistently tell a satisfying story inspired me to do the same. Some of his work is excellent, some not so much, but it’s almost always exciting and emotionally truthful. I learned a great deal from him, especially about digging deep to find that unique, special ‘something’ in a character. I also love his use of regional patois.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’ve been around for a while and had my share of career highs and lows so my goals are relatively straight forward. Work hard, write a novel a year, improve with each one and hope readers not only find them amongst all the other great fiction out there but enjoy the ride when they do.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I have seven pieces of advice for aspiring writers:
1.) Good writing is rewriting. Prose never comes out perfectly formed. It needs to be tweaked and worked to make it right, so don’t lose heart if it takes a while because practice really does make perfect in this profession.
2.) Look for the conflict in every scene, no matter how small, even between characters who love each other. It is the meat and potatoes of good drama.
3.) If there’s a problem at the end of the story it’s because you somehow screwed up the beginning. Go back and fix it.
4.) You pay for the heart with the funny. I think this is the key ingredient to writing successful popular fiction. It’s an old Hollywood saying that essentially means that if you want the readers to care about the characters at the end, when the stakes are at their highest, then the readers must love (or at least like) the characters, and the best way for that to happen is for them to make the readers laugh at the beginning. It endears the characters to the readers better than anything else I know.
5.) Before you send a manuscript to an agent or a publisher make sure you pay an editor to look at it. Not your mum or your brother but a professional who can give you informed feedback. It may cost a bit but you will learn a great deal from the experience and the work will be better for it.
6.) Content may be King but marketing is Queen and she runs the household. This means you can write the greatest book ever but if no one knows about it then no one will read it. Run competitions to give away copies, embrace social media, go on book tours, visit book shops, do everything you can to make sure people can actually find your novel. If they like it they’ll recommend it to others and that positive word of mouth is the best marketing of all.
7.) Write a certain amount everyday. Make a deal with yourself and stick to it. For example, vow to write 6000 words every week. One thousand every week day, then 1000 over Saturday and Sunday. Be tough with yourself. If you have too much else to do during the day, then sleep less. It’s worth it.
Steve, thank you for playing.