I’ve just updated the cover for The Sunset Assassin using an image licensed by Shutterstock. Instead of editing the image with a graphics program, I used Shutterstock’s built-in editor, which is terrific for simple jobs involving a single image.
I’ve used a consistent format for all of the Siranoush Trilogy novels: A bleached sepia image of the city where the novel is set (Cairo, Valletta and Sydney) with the title in a russet serif font, and a dark sans serif font for the author and the text at the foot of the cover.
Here’s the back cover blurb:
Sydney, New Year’s Day, 1978. While the beaches teem and the cold beers flow, a clandestine syndicate is planning to overthrow the Australian government. They’ve commissioned dodgy businessman Kerry Rich to detonate a bomb at the Opera House on Anzac Day. He’s passed the job on to Pierre Farag, a reluctant British sleeper agent dumped in Australia. But Pierre and his wife Zouzou want out — out of Sydney and out of doing other people’s dirty jobs. Meanwhile investigative journalist Liz Lanzoni has got a sniff of the bomb plot and sees the chance to break the story of the decade. As the day of the blast looms the operation unravels, and Pierre, Zouzou, Liz and Kerry find themselves on the run to a hideout in the northern tropics of Queensland. Soaked in the hedonism and corruption of late seventies Sydney, The Sunset Assassin traces the fine line between loyalty and betrayal.
Let me know what you think of the cover. And check out my books here.
‘At my first lecture this year, I had to ask all the ladies wearing tall wimples to sit at the back,’ writes Professor Susan Bridehead in my genre-defying novel The True History of Jude.
The book combines a coming-of-age-tale, a time-shifting love story, and a reimagining of a Thomas Hardy novel—all embedded in a dystopian setting.
And as a fantasy, it gave me the power to project a set of contemporary themes to their potential extremes: I predicted a climate-ravaged and depopulated Australia leased to the world community for uranium mining, a corporatised global authoritarian system controlled by an Australian royal dynasty, and the destruction of artistic creativity under the crushing conformity of an information monopoly.
Could it happen?
When I was studying Russian in the USSR in 1974, could I have imagined the fall of the Soviet empire? When we basked in the Australian summer of 2019, could we have imagined a pandemic that would upend the world?
Back to the wimples: The Australian monarchy is the world’s first virtual state, having excised itself from its own territory*. The Palace operates from leased premises at Oxford University. Across the city is the exiled campus of my alma mater The University of Sydney. It’s from here that the elderly Susan writes fawning hagiographies of the Australian royals and teaches history to their offspring and aristocratic cronies whose royal stipends make it unnecessary for them to get jobs. The students return year after year to take the same courses, some even passing away from old age during lectures. Cosplay is a campus obsession: This year’s theme is Medieval, thus the tall wimples blocking the lecture hall sightlines.
It’s satire of course, but I’m certain that many academics will identify the threads I’ve pulled to weave scenarios like these: The banning of paper and handwriting so that all student work is created and archived online; the obligatory use of AI text generators to write assignments that result in randomly generated grades; works of fiction proscribed; professionals trained not at the university but in online polytechnics run by a consortium of three global consulting companies.
I’ve spent decades of my professional life helping create Australia’s higher education system. What I observe today is a quantum leap away from the undergraduate degree I took in the UK in the seventies—no internet, no credit point system, no fees, no student support service, no assignment mills, no student surveys, no casual lecturers. My future scenario for the university in The True History of Jude may seem outlandish, but the threads are clear to see today.
*The Australian Parliament excised the mainland from Australia’s migration zone in 2013.
Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell
To check out The True History of Jude and my other books click here.
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:
rented black and white TVs
improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
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.
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.
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.
Like most writers I know, I have voluminous files of old drafts, abandoned chapters and even abandoned novels. It’s all part of learning the craft – knowing when to let go of something that just isn’t working.
Last year, I began writing a complicated dystopian novel. My writing critique group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (I couldn’t live without them) gave it a big thumbs down.
Undeterred, I brought it back a few weeks ago with a new beginning. Thumbs down again.
Another beginning. Another thumbs down.
But last week, with beginning #3, I got the seal of literary approval. The corpse has risen from the dead. It is walking. A twisted future world is under construction.
To celebrate, I dusted off a short story I wrote a while ago, did some more work on it, gave it a new title Unmasking Mr. French, and posted it on this site as the prize for signing up to my newsletter. I even invested in a Shutterstock image and made a ‘cover’. (My regular professional cover designer is busy right now, and will probably shriek in horror when she sees my work!)
Because I’m still in celebratory mood, I’m giving you the story without making you sign up since you managed to find my website. Just click here and pop in the password FREE.
After Goodreads giveaways in November, December and January 2018, word is spreading about my espionage romance Cairo Mon Amour. In total, 2597 people entered the giveaways, and 547 have the book on their ‘to read’ list.
I’m planning more giveaways this year, but if you want to skip the line, just click here to find out how to buy a copy.
Sincere thanks to publisher Austin Macauley for organising the December and January giveaways.
I’m still puzzling over Mutch Katsonga’s novel Beyond the Spiral Gates a couple of days after finishing it. It’s a weirdly compelling book about the experience of a boy in Wickfields, a brutal home for criminal children. I read it quickly in two sittings, with questions accumulating in my mind as I went along.
Where is it located? Perhaps Australia, perhaps Europe, perhaps New Zealand; the clues are contradictory. The language of the first-person narration is faintly archaic, but peppered with colloquialisms that would be familiar in modern Australia.
What is the time period? The rural setting has horses and carts – but there is mention of plastics. And the legal-political context: A dystopian future, or a grindingly cruel modern dictatorship?
My guess is that Katsonga’s invented world is tailored to the psychological and spiritual journey of the boy. It’s a reversed-engineered mash-up of Lord of the Flies and Ivan Denisovich, and it doesn’t matter a bit if I can’t pin it down to a place and a time. I believed in it and I wanted our boy to win over his travails.
This is a debut novel of the kind I like: It’s brave, fresh and different, and it owes nothing to anyone.
There’s a bonus: Mutch Katsonga doubles as musician Indie Soull, and has recorded some sweet tracks on Spotify to accompany the novel. Check out Frozen in Time.
Find out about my new novel Cairo Mon Amourhere. Like Mutch Katsonga, I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.
When I was studying Russian in Moscow in 1974, it was unthinkable that in less that twenty years, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would be no more.
For my literary invention Ivan Zlotnik, the flawed Soviet diplomat in Cairo Mon Amour, the USSR was there to stay. Zlotnik gambled his freedom on the date of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Did he win or lose? That’s for the reader to judge.
Forty-three years later, tourists buy up Communist kitsch in nostalgic homage to regimes whose harsh outlines soften over the decades. But more permanent traces of the Soviet era remain, as this small gallery shows: