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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

Location spotting for my next novel at Manly Beach

Manly, Sydney’s favourite seaside suburb, sits on its own peninsula with a harbour on one side and a surf beach on the other. The Victorian Gothic splendour of St Patrick’s Seminary looks down on an architectural mishmash of styles ranging through Art Deco to Federation to concrete brutal to plain eccentric.

Thousands of jolly day visitors munch their way along the Corso from the ferry wharf to the beach, oblivious to the alleys and dark corners behind the tourist strip. On hot summer nights when the family groups have gone home, the partygoers, boozers and out-of-town revellers take over.

Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020 opened up corners of Manly I’d barely noticed. Hordes of joggers and cyclists – out for their one hour of exercise – forced me off the seafront into empty backs streets for my daily constitutional. But soon my meditative walks turned into location spotting for the novel I’m currently writing.

The Impeccables is set in Manly in 1978. Why? Well, the previous book in the series Bury me in Valletta ended with the main character Pierre Farag being exiled to Australia in 1975. I needed him to settle down for few years before he finds himself unwillingly involved with a clandestine right-wing group that aims to blow up the Opera House and stage a coup.

And I love a writing challenge: I couldn’t resist the idea of reconstructing the look and feel of the town where I came to live in 1978 – an era before iPhones and credit cards, when the seafront was lined with pre-war brown brick blocks of flats rather than swish seafront apartments.

I installed Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a run-down rented house. It’s in a made-up street called Rialto Close ‘in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach.’ The name Rialto harks back to a former cinema in the Corso. The site is now occupied by a small shopping arcade, commemorated by the unglamorous Rialto Lane. My Rialto Close could be in any of half a dozen locations around the town, but wherever it is you’d probably spot a dumped sofa.

Meanwhile, I’ve been honing my skills in book design. Right now, you can get a paperback of Bury me in Valletta through Amazon in the US, but there’s a big freight charge and a long wait for Australian readers. So, I’ve produced an additional paperback version with Ingram Spark, which will be accessible through thousands of bookshops and libraries around the world. I was thrilled to receive the proof copy – excellent production values, and the interior all designed by me. I incorporated the lovely cover designed by Rachel Ainge for the ebook. This version will be on sale from December 1 2020.

Here’s a great Smashwords review of Bury me in Valletta from a reader in Scotland: ‘Gripping from beginning to the end. Brilliant book and great sequel to Cairo Mon Amour. When is the next book of Pierre Farag, Stuart?

Finally, all my books are going off discount this week except for Ash on the Tongue, which is now free on Smashwords here. The Impeccables will be released early in 2021

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The end of my affair with Alan and Ray

One fateful day in 2011 my car radio accidentally found 2GB, home of Sydney shock jocks Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and associates.

With six months left of my academic career, I’d logged 18,000 hours of driving to and from university campuses all over Western Sydney. The ABC had been my constant companion, bathing me daily in rational argument, highbrow arts, and scrupulously balanced politics.

2GB was my guilty secret, like picking up a Mars Bar at the servo after a twelve-hour day of meetings.

After my retirement from commuting, I still got a guilty fix whenever I hopped in the car – for nine years.

I confessed everything to my incredulous friends. How could you, they asked? You, a Professor? The truth is (my truth at any rate) that my affair with Alan and Ray taught me things about populist media figures that I’d never have learned from the ABC: Not what they say, but the visceral feel of how they say it.

I knew we had to break up one day. It happened this week when Jones’s retirement was announced. Apparently Hadley isn’t to take over his spot, lost it to an upstart.

On Wednesday I jumped in the Forester to go to Bunnings. There was a nice woman called Deb on the radio. I checked. Yes, still 2GB. No snarling, no bombast, no outrage. No guilty pleasure. I switched to the ABC.

I’ll miss 2GB like I miss a late night Mars Bar.

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Stuart Campbell writes novels. Check them out here.

Writing an e-book review is easy!

Novelists thrive on reviews. Even the occasional snotty ones – you can’t please everyone!

You’ve probably seen the heartfelt plea at the end of many e-books: “If you enjoyed this book, please click here to write a review.” But the fact is that only a small percentage of readers will actually write a review.

So here’s how my readers can invest five minutes in reviewing any of my novels:

Method 1: Find me on Goodreads here and rate/review my books. Here’s what the page looks like:

Stuart Campbell’s Goodreads page

Method 2: Go back to the link where you bought the e-book (e.g. Amazon, Kobo, Apple) and hit the ‘review’ button. My vendor links are here.

Happy reviewing and thanks in advance!

Return of ‘Blue Murder’ evokes my dad’s book on police corruption.

I’m currently immersed in the history of Sydney in the late seventies as I work on my current novel The Impeccables, which touches on police corruption. What a treat, then, to get a second chance to see the 1995 ABC production Blue Murder last week (SBS OnDemand). Set in the 1970s and 1980s, the two-part mini-series follows the grisly careers of criminal Neddy Smith and corrupt cop Roger Rogerson, and the swag of gangsters who ran Sydney’s underworld. It’s totally gripping TV, delivered with a grittiness that we rarely see in the high-gloss era of Netflix.

Watching Blue Murder triggered a confluence of memories. My late father, detective-turned-barrister Donald Campbell, had a lifelong aversion to police corruption, dating back to his days as a young constable in London when stealing lead from roofs was in fashion. He was (like me) addicted to writing, and authored a three-part book on police corruption in the UK, New York, and New South Wales. The book Police Corruption, now out of print, was published by Barry Rose Law Publishers in 2002 about a year after his death, with the final editing tasks being shared by some of his sons.

I recall him writing to me in around 1998 to obtain a copy of the Wood Royal Commission report, which provided much of the background on the NSW section. I bought the CD of the report in a government office in George Street, and mailed it him in London. On a visit to my old family home not long after, I was woken by the fax machine in the early hours of the morning; it was from a very senior source in Sydney answering some point of detail.

I dipped into Police Corruption after watching Blue Murder to fill in the background to the mini-series, much of which I had forgotten. I hadn’t looked at my dad’s book for a few years, but the writing was as crisp and readable as I remembered it. In fact, I’m keen to make the book available to the public again, and I have the outline of a plan in mind.

So, back to The Impeccables, with a much sharper feel for my setting and a reminder of how rotten the state of NSW was in those days.

You can find out more about my novels here.

Review of ‘Anxiety’ by Dr Mark Cross

Given the ubiquity of anxiety in our society, it’s hard to think of someone who wouldn’t benefit from this book by consultant psychiatrist Dr Mark Cross. Have a close friend who’s not coping? A close relative on medication? Or perhaps you’re slipping into a bad place yourself?

This book demystifies and strives to destigmatise a condition that the author tells us affects eleven percent of Australians and eighteen percent of Americans. In the new world of COVID-19, those figures are surely higher.

It’s a difficult book to classify. Self-help manual? Popular science manual? Personal revelation? It’s all of these and more, but the fact is that it’s a damn good read, with the author laying out the facts about anxiety while inviting you into his personal struggle with the condition.

I found valuable content in all nine chapters, but several stood out. I suspect that every reader will find their own landmarks according to their needs and interests.

Here are the standouts for me:

Medications: I know next to zilch about pharmacology, and I really valued Dr Cross’s carefully set out account of the categories and purposes of medications for treating anxiety. I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew there were pills called tranquillisers and anti-depressants, and that was about it. I can remember the names of the drugs taken by anxious and depressed members of my mother’s family but I haven’t a clue what they actually did.

Types of treatments: A fascinating historical procession through the treatment models from the couches of Freud and Jung through to the wide array of contemporary talking therapies that can be used to address specific anxiety conditions. This is the kind of information I could have done with when I sought help some years ago for an anxiety condition that hit me out of the blue (and was thankfully resolved with the help of a great therapist). Any of us are likely to face in our lifetime a relative or friend who needs treatment; this chapter could cut out a lot of legwork.

I got a lot out of the chapter on the anxious employee. My blockbuster introduction to employee mental health was a couple of decades ago when, on my first morning deputising for my boss, an employee took a hostage in his office. Around the same time I had to confront a student who thought it was a good idea to hand in an essay about shooting someone. There was no gun, as it turned out, just a sad and confused kid. Dr Cross’s chapter is essential reading for anybody with WHS responsibilities, more than ever at the moment when COVID-19 is triggering workplace anxiety in an unprecedented way. Don’t try learning on the job!

I was struck overall by the quality of the writing, and Dr Cross’s courage in blending his own story with the factual content. The case study vignettes were compelling and effective in bolstering the arguments.

On our legally sanctioned morning walk today, swerving to avoid potentially virus-shedding joggers, my companion and I were anxiously discussing the central thesis of Anxiety. Beneath the factual content, the book has an underlying theme of compassion and humanity, best summed up by the quote by Robin Williams on the last page: You never know what someone is going through, so be kind, always.

Stuart Campbell is a former Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Linguistics, and author of several novels.

Walking back to 1978 in Manly’s back lanes

If you look hard enough, lockdown has its upsides. Here in Manly, my daily exercise walk takes me around quaint back streets I’d never normally go to. The glorious beachfront is too crowded for safety, even if the walkers are in singles or pairs as prescribed by the Public Health (COVID-19) Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.

The other upside of being locked down is the extra time I have for writing. After completing my socially isolated morning schedule (news, balcony exercises, daily deep cleaning project, family and work Zoom sessions, walk) I get to spend a fair chunk of the afternoon working on my next novel.

Now, here’s a nice confluence of things: This novel (working title The Impeccables) is set in Manly in 1978, and when I walk the quiet back streets my town looks pretty much as it did in the late seventies when I first lived here.

I have a habit of ‘prewriting’ a lot of my work while I’m walking, so I stroll around the empty lanes immersed in the story, and recalling fragments of life in 1978 Manly that I can weave into the setting. These are some of the things that came back to me yesterday:

  • water beds
  • rented black and white TVs
  • improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
  • joss sticks
  • KB beer

Yesterday I discovered this ingenious mural* on the back wall of the Salvation Army premises in Kangaroo Lane, and I returned this afternoon to take more photographs of this forgotten corner of my town. I’ve printed the picture in monochrome in sympathy with the fact there were still plenty of black and white TVs in the late seventies. It’ll feature somewhere in the new novel.

Here’s the draft opening of The Impeccables:

Pierre Farag was woken by a thump and a clatter. He took his hand out of the sheets to touch the wall of the tiny ground-floor flat. Their rented home was in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The bedroom wall was still warm. It would be this way until March, when autumn released Sydney from the ravaging summer heat. 

He padded out to the front yard. The Sun Herald – the New Year’s Day 1978 edition – lay on the doormat where it had bounced off the flyscreen. The paper van slewed around to serve the other side of Rialto Close, the driver steering with his left arm and lobbing the rolled-up papers into the front yards with his right.

Just give me a year and you’ll be able to read the whole thing!

Last thing: Thanks for all the wonderful feedback I’ve had for Bury me in Valletta. It makes the labour of writing into a pleasure.

*Update: A closer look at the mural shows that is signed by Manly artist Mark Budd and dated 09.

My top tips to be a rubbish blogger

A member of my writing critique group asked recently whether it was useful for an aspirational novelist to have a blog. Having been blogging for about seven years, I think I’m qualified to say something about this.

Now, I could give you a tutorial on how to be a great blogger, but I won’t because

(a) I haven’t been very successful, and

(b) there are hundreds of ‘experts’ out there who will give (or sell) you wonderful advice.

So let me tell you what I’ve been writing, and what people liked. I’ll finish with my tips for being a rubbish blogger.

What did I write, and what did people like? 

These are my top posts between 2014 and 2019:

Shoes under a bridge Kreuzburg: This was a little travel piece about an art installation in Berlin. Most of the hits were from Europe, and it was obvious that tourists had walked under the bridge, wondered about the coloured shoes, and hit their phones to find out what was going on. They got me! Did it sell any novels? No! You can tell this from what the visitors clicked on. It wasn’t the links to my novels.

Being British in Australia: No laughing matter: I wrote this satirical piece as a comment on my biculturalism, and for the chance to repeat my favourite joke about Poms in Australia. Most hits were from the UK, and they didn’t buy my books.

A boyhood memory shattered at Navarone Bay: When I visited my mate Paul at his house in Navarone Bay in Rhodes, I was shattered to learn that the movie The Guns of Navarone was fictional. I saw it when I was about fourteen and I have always believed it was true. My visitors were mainly from the UK and Greece. Do I have to repeat that they didn’t buy my books?

arab music

Andalus Arabic Choir – Sydney’s best-kept music secret?: I was bowled over by this performance at the Sydney Opera House, and I wrote a review that was picked up by visitors from Australia and Lebanon. No book sales.

Australia and the plight of the Armenians: This was my review of Viveck Babkenian’s fascinating book. Being married into an Armenian family, I had a personal stake in this. A lot of Australian visitors (who I suspect were of Armenian heritage) shared my fascination. Don’t ask about book sales!

How about the numbers?

  • My big years were 2016-2017 when I was posting almost weekly.
  • The more I posted, the more visitors and views I got.
  • In my peak year I had 2500 visitors.
  • Once I had a head of steam, visitors keep coming to read my old stuff.

Top tip #1 – Be realistic about selling books via a blog

In 2016 I posted weekly promotional articles in the three months before the publication of Cairo Mon Amour, my first Pierre Farag novel. It didn’t sell books. My guess is that it takes 1000 clicks to sell an e-book, which means that my entire blogging effort might have sold five books! In fact, I only sell books when I pay for advertising – just like selling bananas, cars, or any other commodity.

Top tip #2 Use your blog to improve your writing

Use your blog to improve your writing skills. A year before I started writing Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote twelve posts about my time in Cairo during the 1973 war. It revived a lot of memories and helped shape the book. As a bonus, I bundled up the essays into a free e-book called Cairo Rations! (which turned out to be a completely hopeless promotional tool).

Top tip #3 Write weird stuff and have fun!

Write about whatever takes your fancy. You’ll be amazed at what weird stuff people like!

Fast-moving Hungarian uprising tale with a ring of authenticity

I was lent Margarita Morris’s Goodbye to Budapest by Hungarian friends here in Sydney, which seemed a convincing recommendation; I’d heard some of the stories about how they’d escaped Hungary during the communist era, and the paperback copy they lent me was inscribed with enthusiastic remarks. I’d also visited Budapest a year or two before, visiting 60 Andràssy Avenue, now the site of the House of Terror.

The secret police headquarters at 60 Andràssy Avenue is a central theme in Goodbye to Budapest. It’s where university don Màrton Bakos is imprisoned and tortured by the dreaded AVO secret police. The book is built around the fate of the Bakos family, with daughter Katalin pushing the narrative forward.

Goodbye to Budapest spans the period from October 1952 until November 1956, covering the uprising and its crushing by Soviet tanks. It’s fast-paced, and focuses on the fate of a handful of authentic characters struggling to survive awful oppression and betrayal.

I had a peep at Morris’s website, wondering whether she has Hungarian family connections. Apparently she hasn’t, which is a great credit to the research and empathy behind this book.

I should mention that the paperback is independently produced (I have form in this area), and is professionally put together with a clean design and attractive cover.

A great read!

The penny dropped – a victory for love

When same-sex marriage became legal in Australia in December 2017, I was elated that the battle was won, and that Australia had – on this count at least – grown up. As a happily married straight male, my take on the matter was that this was a victory for human rights. That’s pretty much how I’ve thought about SSM for the last two years.

Last night, I attended my first same-sex wedding. Two dear friends tied the knot in front of friends and family in a moving ceremony at an elegant Sydney venue. And as the celebrant said the words, “Marriage, according to the law in Australia, is the union of two people to the exclusion of all others …”, I properly understood what happened in December 2017: That our lawmakers voted for love.

That doesn’t happen very often in the Australian Parliament!