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.

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.

Experimenting with Bookbub ads

Bookbub statistics

I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.

Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.

BookBub ad creative

Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.

There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.

As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.

So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.

And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.

AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.

REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.

VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.

WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.

AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.

Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.

The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.

I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.

Tense day working on my latest novel (weak joke alert)

Hard at work today revising my dystopian novel Patria Nullius. It’s a book within a book: The outside shell is in past tense and the kernel is in present tense. Yesterday I made the big decision to rewrite the kernel in past tense.

I’ve got Ladytron on the cans to help me along, so it’s all good so far.

Meanwhile, I’m grinding through the task of promoting my new book Bury me in Valletta. I’m given away some botched copies of the paperback (my botch-up, now fixed), and I’ve had great feedback. The ebook is discounted to 99c on Amazon and $1.99 on Apple. Do yourself a favour and download a copy. Even better, post a review if you like it!

The vendor links are here.

Thanks,

Stu