A few days ago I received an email from a chap that took me back more than 15 years to an army jungle training camp, and one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned in my life as a writer.
At 'Battle Wing' Canungra 1996-7
I’d gone for a week to the Battle Wing land warfare Jungle Training Centre at Canungra, in the Queensland hinterland, as part of the research for a long and ambitious war novel I was attempting to write involving three separate story lines: Vietnam … Gallipoli …. and Troy.
I’ve absolutely no military background, even though much of my writing has involved Australians at war, Soldier Boy in particular. And the voice that came from the past was one of the NCOs detailed to look after me: that is, to make sure I saw everything I needed at the rifle range, the bayonet practice yard, the obstacle courses involving ropes, water and climbing frames … without middle-aged me actually coming to harm.
It was very much the kind of training routine the Vietnam troops went through, and I had a splendid time. I learnt much and enjoyed good company. I still have the green ‘Battle Wing’ tee-shirt they gave me, though I can barely fit into it nowadays.
And what, my correspondent asked, happened to the book? He’d often wondered about it. Was it ever written? And if so, where could he acquire a copy?
Regretfully I had to answer in the negative in every case.
The disappearing book...
You see, I’d got 20,000 words into the manuscript, when the whole thing vanished like a cloud castle around me.
I had my title. War Games, I thought, was a good one. I had my storyline vaguely worked out. It was to revolve around an anecdote a friend had told me of turning 21 when he was an SAS soldier in Vietnam. I had copious research notes, thanks to Canungra, and had done much reading, I had an option and a small advance from Penguin. I was scribbling every morning, like mad.
It just fell apart. Utterly. Irretrievably. I suddenly realised that I wasn’t writing a novel at all. I was simply reciting a collection of learned facts. Transcribing my research notes. And saying nothing of any value either to myself or a future reader.
Anzac Day, Gallipoli 1995, with Bill and Dallas Hayden
I’d been to Gallipoli for Anzac Day. I’d seen the vast numbers of young people there – and more importantly witnessed their silence.
Whatever Anzac was saying to me, it was speaking to them too – and I wanted to find a story that would say something to them about the real nature of war. What’s it actually like? Is it the grand adventure they like to imagine – or something else altogether?
That’s when Don told me his story of turning 21 in Vietnam. On the way back I briefly visited Troy, on the other side of the Dardanelles, and thought I’d try to link all three conflicts together for a sense of historical perspective.
But it turned into a disaster. Worse than the Gallipoli campaign itself, for I had no objective whatsoever. Much worse than Troy, for I knew I’d never rebuild my literary citadel from the ruins of this catastrophe. In truth I had no idea what it was that I wanted to say in this book.
A wise publisher
So I rang my publisher, Julie Watts, at Penguin Books, and told her what had happened … that the story was no good … that I wished I’d never thought of it … and offered to give the money back. Let’s forget all about it. I’ll write something about dogs.
But Julie is a wise publisher. One of the very best in the trade.
‘That’s all right, Tony,’ she said. ‘The book will come at the right time, when it’s ready. Just wait. You’ll see. And nothing ever goes to waste in this business.’
She was quite right, in every respect. All that material I’d collected at Canungra, in libraries and endless interviews did in fact find a place – or at least the important bits did – in my next book. Which turned out to be the most successful of them all.
I’ll tell you the how and the why of it next time.
And I still have Don’s story to write when it’s ready.
At 'Battle Wing' Canungra: author photo.
Anzac Day, Gallipoli 1995: author photo.
The Wooden Horse at Troy, 2012: author photo.