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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.

Creating a fictional human language – a beginner’s experience

 

 

Most people are familiar with the idea of constructed languages like Esperanto, Tolkien’s Elvish languages, and Dothraki from Game of Thrones. As a novel-writing linguist, I was keen to get it right when I invented two languages for a novel Patria Nullius I’ve just finished writing after a six-year slog.

Constructed languages or conlangs is a serious business. The Language Creation Society brings together experts like co-founder David J. Peterson, language consultant to Game of Thrones. Oh, by the way, people who invent languages are called conlangers, and I guess I’m now one.

I took the easy road in my twenty-second century world – inventing a Creole for a mostly depopulated Australia, and an English ‘underground’ dialect in a dystopian England. I anchored my creations in existing languages, and used linguistic theory to make them plausible.

My languages are mere fragments, nothing like Jasper Charlet’s extensively constructed Carite which even has its own opera Heyra. I have a skeleton vocabulary and basic grammatical rules, but no phonetics or phonology.

Orange Creole is named for the Australian town of Orange, where I located a climate refugee camp of speakers of Fijian, Fijian Hindi, Tongan and Vietnamese whose progeny created an English-based pidgin. This developed into a full Creole in the second generation.

Using Derek Bickerton’s Bioprogram Hypothesis, I was able to invent plausible basic grammatical features for a Creole. Vocabulary was adapted from the base languages and English, e.g. nowrotu ‘> an hour of two, meaning ‘in the near future’; the word for stomach – zazzy > Vietnamese.  Dạ dày.

Here’s an Orange Creole fragment: miyanim spisi yu ‘we are your fruit’, where miyanim (we excluding you) contrasts with miyanyu, (we including you), and spisi is derived from SPC, a brand of Australian canned fruit.

And here’s a bit of Arg, my English dialect spoken by a criminal underclass, which has developed progressivemodifiers ‘msorta, ‘mlike and ‘mkinda, as in we’msorta wait ‘we’re waiting’. My professional future gazing suggests that this is a plausible development.

Patria Nullius is starting its search for an agent right now, so Orange Creole and Arg are under wraps for a while (maybe a long while!). Meanwhile I’d be glad to hear from other linguist-novelists about how you deal with literary challenges. I promise a thread soon on how I incorporated an Arabic ‘feel’ into my Siranoush Trilogy.

Frozen creative muscles thaw after lockdown

The sun’s shining in Sydney, lockdown is over. I’ve eaten in restaurants, been shopping in real shops. The memories of Click n’Collect are fading fast.

After ten years of writing novels and a lifetime of reading them, I found myself emotionally stalled for eighteen months. My sense of humour disappeared. Writing seemed futile, irrelevant, pointless.

Three weeks into freedom, the urge to read and write fiction is back.

The pleasure of reading was the first to reappear. As vaccination rates soared in Sydney and a date for the end of lockdown was announced, I happened to be staying in an AirBnB with a well-stocked bookcase. I knocked off a Richard Flanagan a Christopher Koch and a Gwendoline Riley (my delicious first) in short order.

I knew all along that I had to keep my writing muscles in order, and I’d spent three months of confinement revamping my backlist, including unpublishing a debut novel that I now find mortifying. I regained my rights from the publisher of Cairo Mon Amour and made it the first book in The Siranoush Trilogy, followed by Bury me in Valletta, and rounded off with a new work The Sunset Assassin. I designed a new set of covers and independently published the trilogy in August 2021.

Meanwhile, the old urge to create was nudging. I had in my files the unfinished draft of a complex speculative-cum-dystopian novel Patria Nullius I’d been working on for six years. I’d pestered my writing critique group with it, putting it away for six months and then dragging it out again and again. The problem was the conclusion, or lack thereof. With the thawing of my spirit, the ending leapt out at me. I finished the ms. with a sense of satisfaction rather than despair.

I made myself a promise with Patria Nullius – that I’d spend a year trying to find an agent or publisher for it. I’ve been happy to independently publish my books in recent years, but there’s something special about this book. After six years of struggle, it deserves a chance! So Patria Nullius is now sitting in the slush pile of an Australian literary agent, no doubt one of many I’ll be querying in the next year. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Eminent Professor Susan Bridehead works for a university in New Canberra, an enclave of Oxford that houses the Australian government in exile, now evolved into a monarchy ruled by a mining dynasty. As she completes a flattering history of the dynasty, she works on a parallel story, typing on an antique Remington to avoid electronic surveillance. The story recalls her early life in a largely depopulated Australia and her marriage to Jude, a naive mystic. As Susan’s health falters, she struggles to finish the story of Jude and to reconcile herself with the ghastly prophecy that haunted him.*

The Sunset Assassin is set in Manly, my adopted home town. I set the novel in 1978, and loved the challenge of recreating the atmosphere and language I encountered four decades ago fresh from London. Manly’s an intriguing place with its famous Corso connecting the ferry wharf to the surf beach, and the back streets and alleys that the tourists tend not to penetrate – a setting perhaps for an Australian Brighton Rock.

And that’s where I’m headed with my next work – a historical thriller set in Manly. It’s still in the planning stage, and I’ll be submerged in the New South Wales State Library archives for a while yet.

Happy reading!

Stuart

*For the odd Thomas Hardy tragic, you might guess that this book is partly scaffolded by elements of Jude the Obscure.

YOU CAN FIND LINKS TO MY BOOKS HERE

Stuart Campbell tells how culture shock inspired The Sunset Assassin.

A few weeks after I arrived in Australia in 1977, I was taken to a sporting club in Sydney’s inner west with some of my wife’s Armenian cousins. The men were sharply turned out in shortie leather jackets and collared shirts. Fresh from England, I was wearing the kind of gear a would-be intellectual would wear for a pint at a London pub—Levi’s and a denim shirt over a roll neck sweater. When my turn came to sign in, a bouncer stopped me.

“Jeckut?” I thought he said.

“Sorry, didn’t get that.”

“Jeckut.” No upward inflection this time. “Follow me, sir.”

My wife and her relatives had already crossed the ginger-carpeted entrance hall and were weaving their way through the flashing pokey machines.

The bouncer took me by service lift to a room with a rack of blazers in the same ginger tone as the carpet, with the club’s emblem on the breast pockets. I put on a jeckut and went back to the sign-in desk amid smirks and nudges. I might as well have had pommy git chalked on my back.

Well, that is how I felt at the time. Perhaps the staff smirked, perhaps they were just cheerfully following regulations. When I found the Armenian relatives, they shrugged and went back to enjoying the floor show and seafood-in-a-basket. I backed my chair into the purple drapes, fuming at my humiliation.

What was really ailing me was culture shock: Not the jarring shock of a Pom freshly arrived in Egypt or China. No, Sydney looked easy for a Londoner to slide into—until you actually tried: The class categories of home didn’t align; people came across as superficially affable but unreadable; accents were no guide to working out who was who. It was impossible to know where you fitted in.

Canberra, where we spent our first year, was even more mystifying. Like many newcomers, I spent hours driving around looking for a non-existent city centre. I was studying at the Australian National University, and a fellow student invited me to a barbecue at the farm where he lived outside town. OK, so I didn’t expect a thatched cottage, and ducks in the pond, but I wasn’t prepared for sitting on a stump eating charred sausage and ketchup in sliced white bread while my new chum blasted vermin with a rifle.

Today, my regular bike ride takes me along Manly Beach. At Shelly Beach I change down to bottom gear for the short push up to the car park, where I stop to look over the Tasman Sea. Blue headlands to my left stride thirty kilometres northwards to Palm Beach. Waves smash on jagged rocks below. I change up a gear and head towards St Patricks Seminary, the golden neo-Gothic pile that overlooks Manly. Then it’s the long sweep down past the art deco cottages of Darley Road to the ferry wharf, and through the back streets to my home. If there’s a place in the world where I fit now, it’s Manly. Which brings me to my latest book.

When I was planning The Sunset Assassin, the third novel in the Siranoush Trilogy, the theme of culture shock was giving me an irresistible itch. In Bury me in Valletta I had installed my Armenian-Egyptian protagonist Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a seedy flat in London:

“We’re out of cigarettes, Zouzou. Do you need anything else from the shop?”

“A box of sunshine, bring me that.”

Outside, a bluster of April wind chased away the sooty bus fumes and the smell of damp pavements. He waited in the Pakistani shop behind an orderly line of lumpy British in their anoraks and bobble hats. The shelves bore the packaged goods that spoke of stuffy bedsits just like Pierre’s: Kit-E-Kat, Spam, PK chewing gum, HP Sauce.

Now when an itch starts, you’ve got to scratch it. Cycling the back alleys of Manly during the 2020 COVID lockdown, I came across a knot of shabby lanes where I decided to instal Pierre and Zouou to see how they would cope in 1978 Australia. Conveniently, I’d left the couple at the end of Bury me in Valletta with airline tickets to Australia and false passports in the names of Kevin and Rhonda O’Donnell. I found Pierre a job in the State Translation Office as a court interpreter, so I could sharpen his sense of being neither insider nor outside.

His great challenge is to master Australian English:

Pierre took a mental note: A lend of you—another new expression to file away; he was fluent in Armenian, English, French, and Arabic, and could make a fair impression in half a dozen other languages. But the victory over Australian English was yet to be won.

It’s not just the language that confounds Pierre. The novel opens with his first abortive attempt to entertain work colleagues at a front yard barbecue. The day is furiously hot, and the firelighters won’t catch. The catering arrangements confound Pierre:

“Tell them to bring their own meat and grog. Just make the salad,” his colleague Hermann had said. Could this be true? It would be unforgivably rude in Egypt, laughable in fact. Why eat your own food in someone else’s home? “Keep a few snags and some booze on hand in case you’re a tad short,” Hermann had added. 

After the guests wolf down the free salad and guzzle the emergency box of Moselle, the party descends into sullen political mudslinging under the blistering sun. The incident was actually inspired by a party that my wife and I organised in 1978—our first attempt in our new homeland. We’d acquired about ten friends in Sydney by then, and we invited them all to our flat one Saturday night. Two turned up, sour at the turnout, and the sorry affair was over by 9pm.

A clear memory of my early days in Sydney is the darkness of the garden suburbs at night. Unlike English suburbia, where nature has succumbed to centuries of taming and streets are brightly lit, these Australian gardens seemed to cower on the fringes of the hostile bush. Even today I get flashbacks of desolation if I happen to drive at night through northern suburbs like Wahroonga or Pymble.

Let me give the last words to Pierre’s wife Zouzou, riding her scooter home late one night:

Broad bungalows stood in darkness, front gardens sinister with dense shrubs and trees. Her headlight picked out the eyes of a startled possum scuttling along the top of a fence. A silvery whisp strung between trees indicated the fresh web of a spider hanging at eye level, ready to tickle the face of a blundering human. The very air was alien with its blend of night aromas, some minty, some sour, some bearing an enigmatically savoury tang. A dog barked, and another replied from six gardens away — ‘Yes, I’m scared and lonesome like you!’

My new novel is set in Manly, Australia. Find out why.

Manly, Australia’s favourite seaside town, is a location spotter’s treasure trove. Sitting on a peninsula overlooked by the neo-gothic pile of St Patricks, the town is an architectural mish-mash of Art Deco shopfronts, Federation era cottages, glitzy apartment blocks, and brown-brick walk-up flats. In normal times, thousands of tourist take the thirty-minute ferry ride from Sydney to Manly wharf and amble down the Corso, the street that bisects the peninsula and leads to the ocean beaches. But behind the beachwear shops and restaurants lies another Manly, unseen by the tourists, that offers an edgy fiction setting.

Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020 forced me off the seafront promenade into the empty back streets to avoid hordes of gasping joggers deprived of their gyms. But my walks opened up corners of the town I’d barely noticed. Soon my meditative strolls turned into location spotting for the novel I’m currently writing.

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

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 blocks of flats rather than glitzy apartments. I’ve spent hours studying the 1978 Sydney newspapers and browsing the brilliant Lost Manly FB group pages.

To recap the series, the novella Ash on the Tongue, set in 1972 in Cairo, introduces Armenian-Egyptian private eye Pierre Farag and his first incursion into the world of espionage. In the full-length novel Cairo Mon Amour, Pierre and his actress girlfriend Zouzou are drawn into a plot to conceal the launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In Bury me inValletta, we meet Pierre and Zouzou in exile in London in 1975. As sleeper agents they are reactivated by the UK government to sabotage an IRA gun-running plot in Libya and Malta. My current novel in progress The Impeccables, finds Pierre and Zouzou exiled to Sydney, where they are drawn into a plan to stage a coup against the Australian government. The novel ends again in exile, but this time to a remote spot in tropical Far North Queensland. I haven’t decided whether there will be a fifth book in the series; it depends a bit on whether I can find a plausible way to get the pair out of exile. I may have painted myself into a plot corner! In addition, I regain the rights to Cairo Mon Amour from my publisher in August 2021, which will give me the option to publish the series as single edition.

All three novels are based on carefully researched historical scenarios, and each includes what I call a ‘moral core’ for want of a better term: Cairo Mon Amour is in part my personal tribute to the resilience of the Armenians in exile; Bury me in Valletta is about the collapse of the relationship between a father and daughter; The Impeccables deals with the far boundaries of betrayal.

But what has surprised me is the development of the relationship between Pierre and Zouzou as its power balance shifts and the couple find new ways to bridge the growing emotional gulf between each another. I never anticipated this when I first put finger to keyboard. This presents another challenge for a possible sequel; are they headed for the divorce courts, or will the balmy tropical climate of Queensland soothe their angst?

But back to Manly. For The Impeccables I installed Pierre and 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 might 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 is now accessible through thousands of bookshops and libraries around the world. I was thrilled to receive the proof copy in November — excellent production values, and the interior all designed by me. I incorporated the lovely cover designed by Rachel Ainge for the ebook. This new print version is now available, and I was delighted to get some US and UK sales immediately after the release date on December 1 2020.

Here’s a great customer 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?’ And for an excellent independent review from IBR, click here.

You can find vendor links for my books here, including for the novella Ash on the Tongue, which is permanently free on Smashwords. The Impeccables will be released some time in 2021.

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.

*

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.