Why were you compelled to write the story of the Australian Light Horse?
I was aware from veterans in my family that the Light Horse had a far greater influence on events in the Middle East (in defeating the Ottoman Empire) in World War I than they had been given credit for in 90 years of writing, documentaries and films by British historians. The brilliant movie by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, did not have one Light Horseman in it. T.E. Lawrence in his literary masterpiece, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for several reasons suppressed the impact of the Light Horse and their outstanding commander, Australian Lt-Gen. Sir Harry Chauvel. Given that Chauvel and his Anzacs defeated two Turkish armies and Lawrence and his Arab force engaged just one Turkish army, the imbalance was clear.
There was a compulsion to write this book and put the record straight.
What kind of research did you undertake for the Australian Light Horse?
This book needed a great deal of library, file, museum research in Australia and the UK. The Australian War Memorial, the National Archives and the National Library – all in Canberra – were important, especially in dealing with Australians such as the key figure, Harry Chauvel. In England various institutions were mandatory, with the British Museum housing T.E. Lawrence’s notes and diaries essential. I undertook research in the UK, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
How would you describe your writing practice?
After 30 books, a clear routine has developed. Once I have done basic research (in this case about eight or nine months) I start writing while never ceasing research. After that I attempt to split the day between writing and research, roughly five to six hours each. The aim quickly is to be doing at least 1,000 words a day, without fail, six days a week. There is increased word output as the manuscript progresses. After a few weeks I am doing 1,300 words a day, and after a couple of months it moves up to around 1,700. The shape of the book becomes clear. Towards the end of the first draft I may be doing 2,000 words a day.
I revise each day’s work, then I will take a week’s writing – about 30 pages – and read and revise that as well. The process is a constant edit/revision as the book expands. I always say, never ask anyone if he or she is a writer. The correct question is, are you a re-writer (or a reviser)? If the person blinks you know they have never written anything professionally.
Where do you usually work?
In an office at home in Sydney. I have a two-level modern terrace place with a work area upstairs separate from the living area. I have two libraries; one in the office. It is a pleasant, isolated environment, which you need to be productive. It can feel like a prison at times, so I haunt local (St Kilda/Elwood) cafes during breaks. I usually take the day’s work (always written on computer) print out and read and edit it in a café. I love that part of the day – a good coffee is essential.
What made you want to write when you started out?
I had no pretensions about becoming a writer. I ‘fell’ into working as a journalist on The Age. After five years I wanted to develop that acquired skill. At 26 I left to work in England and began trying a novel. By fluke my first book, a fictional thriller, was an international bestseller. I did not really know what I was doing. I could not write in the professional sense. Most writers, if they are honest, will say it takes about four books to have a ‘voice,’ which is another expression for a ‘style,’ or perhaps ‘enough confidence’. The first book’s success allowed me to attempt a full-time career. I made my own luck to an extent, but was fortunate.
How important have libraries been in your life – from childhood to researching your books?
In grade two (aged seven) at Primary School I was bitten by the reading bug and spent many hours in the school library reading or arranging to borrow. I devoured a book a day. In secondary school this fell away but I revived the ‘bug’ in my 20s.
I have spent a fair proportion of my life in libraries, archives and research institutions in Australia, the UK, France, Russia and the US, culminating in my appointment to the Advisory Council to the National Archives of Australia in Canberra in 2006.
Which writers have inspired you?
A favourite writer is Australia’s Alan Moorehead. He was a fine war correspondent. Others whose style and approach I admire are Diana Georgeff, Phillip Knightley, Les Carlyon, Clivei James (non-fiction) and Denis Warner. Tom Keneally is entertaining and with a penchant for Australian stories and history. America’s Gore Vidal is a supreme essayist. Graham Greene and John Le Carre made a lasting impression.
A common theme of most of these authors that appeals is the spareness of their writing. Their economic use of the language, wit and a lack of pretension are keys to my appreciation of them.
Their writing has an integrity, and therefore an authority, that is admirable.