My road to becoming a writer wasn’t exactly a gun-barrel highway, it was more of a bush-bash through blackberries. My family wasn’t bookish, and I didn’t excel in English at school. We rode motorbikes, burned dolls at the municipal dump, camped, hunted and fished. I did read – mostly natural history books and survival guides. Story books seemed frivolous and I was hungry for knowledge. I didn’t get swept up in fiction until I was seventeen. When novels hit me, they hit hard. The book that cracked my egg was My Side of the Mountain by the American author Jean Craighead George. First published in 1959, it’s a story about a kid who walks away from home in search of adventure, camping in a tree, hunting with a trained falcon, fishing and foraging. These were things that resonated with my own experience of being a kid. I found a version of myself on the page.
Not all readers become writers, obviously. While my literary diet became broader, I had no hidden dreams of becoming a writer. I left school to become an apprentice gardener with the local council. I built landscapes and planted trees and while I loved (and still love) the work, I grew restless and hungry for something more. I retrained as a masseur and counsellor and worked in private practice for many years. I discovered that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories. I liked helping. I waited tables and drove trucks, played music and sold Didjeridus online when the internet was still wearing nappies.
I was hitchhiking with my friend in East Gippsland. The bloke who picked us up (some time after 10pm) turned out to be an editor for a hippy gardening magazine. He invited me to write for his magazine. I did. He paid me for it. Being paid for my ideas turned out to be my drug of choice. I wrote for other magazines and newspapers then realised I had a bigger story to tell. A fiction. Another friend signed us up to do a writing residency with John Marsden. I came home from that weekend feeling like my whole life had been rock-hopping towards writing as a career and, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I stole a day a week for a year and wrote a book. John Marsden introduced me to a publisher, and she loved what I’d written. She offered me a contract for the manuscript that became my first book, One Dead Seagull.
Publishing a book can seem like a goal realised, but it’s really just the prologue to a career. I didn’t earn a million bucks from my first book (or my twentieth book), but I did find something that is almost-too-difficult, something that regularly does my head in, loaded with deep pits of disappointment and flashes of success. In the months I’m writing, I’ll spend a lot of time on my own, in my own head, and that can be a dangerous thing. I have disappeared up my own bum on a few memorable occasions. By that I mean I’ve written some unhinged crap, stories that love the sound of their own voice. I have found ways to temper that hazard, namely writing outdoors and juggling a parallel career as a public speaker for (mostly) young people. I like encouraging kids to write their hearts out. In exchange, young people are good at pointing out when you’re vanishing up your own sphincter.