I wrote my first book in 1968 when I was 27 because three of the five journalists in my Reuters office in Vietnam had been killed – including my Australian roommate Bruce Pigott from Melbourne. There were also so many misapprehensions in Australia about what was happening there – and so many lies being told (even though some of the lies were true) – that I thought the only way to tell it all was in a book: because it is only in a book where you can give the detail necessary to explain something complex. You can’t do it in a newspaper article, or on radio, or TV, or Twitter.
Publishers didn’t want the manuscript because they said people “turned off and tuned out” at the mention of the Vietnam War – so it took me 17 years to get it published: in 1985 by UQP. Luckily for me it won The Age Book of the Year prize and so several publishers asked if I could write another memoir. I immediately suggested one on my childhood in Brisbane – and all recoiled in horror saying “everyone writes a book about their childhood – they’re boring and don’t sell” or “if it’s set in Brisbane it will never get through the tick gates into New South Wales”.
So none of the several publishers I spoke to wanted to even read my childhood manuscript. A Sydney publisher said: “Were your parents a big success?” I wasn’t sure if they qualified, so I said: “They ran a cake shop at Annerley Junction”. I never heard from her again.
I resigned from Rupert’s The Australian after 17 years and went home to write “Over the Top with Jim”.
I bought a card table off a friend for $30; a personal computer and MS Word from CCS computers in Petrie Bight; and an Israeli air conditioner – because all my little notes blew away in the first hot summer breeze.
Once again luck played a role. In my 17-years of waiting for my Vietnam book to be published I was asked could I write a book on Johannes Bjelke-Petersen by UQP.I replied: “Yes. Just like a could dig a foot-deep trench from my house to the GPO”. But I was a good idea because it was a great story – how did a peanut farmer from Kingaroy born in New Zealand rule Queensland with an initial 19% of the vote and bring down the Whitlam federal government? Plus I now had a lot of knowledge of politics and writing: from writing hundreds of long feature stories for The Australian as their Foreign Correspondent in Queensland. Also I’d written stories in Hong Kong, Peking, London, Vietnam, Singapore, Jakarta and West Papua throughout the ’60s.
I was primed and ready to go.
How did you come to writing?
I came to writing by typing out the radio programmes for The Courier-Mail – and putting a few paragraphs on the top about something to listen to. Best thing was I learned to type… and how to write a sentence most people could understand.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
Once again I got lucky. UQP allocated me a great young editor who was a former journo, Dr Craig Munro, and we worked in our singlets in UQP’s non-air-conditioned office to get the JOH book right. Mine was an unauthorised biography and so the Publisher interrupted us just as we were finishing and said: “I hope you’ve made sure there are no libels in this book”! He was worried because mine was one of three books on Joh – but the only unauthorised one. My book took off, selling 50,000 copies – 15,000 in hardback.
Though he was not excited by the childhood idea, Craig and I had become firm friends and so he said: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll have a read of the first three chapters”. I gave him the first 10 and the next day he rushed up my front stairs to say he and a friend had started reading it as it came off the dot-matrix printer and were still standing over the printer reading when the 10 chapters were finished. “More Jim,” he said. Craig came up with the title “Over the Top with Jim”.
It was Number 1 non-fiction book in Australia in 1991 and I had become a fulltime author.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
The only thing that motivates me is having a good story to tell. I don’t want to bore people. I am not a disciplined person – but, from being a journo, if I need to get something written I can write at up to 1,000-words an hour. It’s not much good, of course, but I get a lot of pleasure out of improving it – going backwards and forwards through it like my sisters brushing their hair and adding little essential details.
A lot of a successful author’s time is spent promoting their books or themselves. The best character in a book has to be the author! Being interviewed, writing something like this, having your photo taken, writing about you first car or dog, speaking (I’ve spoken everywhere: I don’t think anyone else has done literary dinners in Charleville and Cairns and Bathurst…): I even ended up touring the country appearing on stage in concerts every night after two of my books were serialised nationally on ABC Radio. Because I wrote about being a trumpeter in the school band at Gregory Terrace I ended up playing the trumpet on stage in the magnificent Hobart Theatre before a full house two nights in succession.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
Time is something I don’t have a lot of – especially now everyone can email me via my website. At the moment I’m writing a musical and auditioning actors and writing speeches about it to raise awareness. No use putting on Queensland’s first full Boulevard Musical – with 20 actors and 15 musicians – if no one knows about it. (It’s called HOME GROUND: The State of Origin Musical by the way and opens on June 23 at ERPAC Theatre, Southbank.)
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I now have a huge double-sided desk with a return in what should be the dining room; a large table in what should be the Lounge Room; an office for filing and sorting in the third bedroom; and a room full of research and photos and my old manuscripts and research and articles – even those I wrote as a cub reporter) under the house. One shows my first attempt at writing Over the Top – where I started with a proposed title “A Child’s War”. Three of my filing cabinets are in the foyer where I can get stuff from quickly.
What are your essential writing tools?
My only tools are a computer, a phone, a notebook and a pen.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
One thing I wish I’d known: that some reviewers were going to go after me for their own reasons.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I have all of George Orwell’s books and all biographies on him and I re-read them over again. I love poetry because it is the finer expression of all knowledge: particular Pope… and Browning and Byron and even Andrew Marvell. Because I’m an author people give and send me a hell of lot of books and manuscripts and I end up reading most of them. But I prefer Orwell. I’m not into fiction, but will read it. I like a story if I know it’s based on the truth.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I haven’t had writer’s block because I don’t start writing a book until I have thought about it and kept notes for years.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Piece of advice: Read. Too many people who want to write never read a book. Thus some say there are more writers than readers in Australia.
Hugh Lunn is a multi-Walkley Award winning author who has published over 17 novels. He is best known for his memoir Over the top With Jim and his political biographies, including that of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Named one of Queensland’s 15 Most Influential Artists in 2009, he also coined the phrase “there’s no such thing as an ex-Queenslander.”