Your on the spot reporter…
Don’t ever write books for a living if your ambition in life is to drive a red sports car. Go into banking. Or become a doctor or a lawyer. True, a tiny few of us become JK Rowling, but most writers (certainly me) are delighted if their books make them a modest living. I love what I do, and this is a job with perks. The greatest (along with wearing pyjamas til 5.00PM when you’re working from home) is travelling places to research your books.
I came to Sydney in 2005 to research my book ‘Prison Ship’ – about convict transportations to New South Wales – and spent a terrifying afternoon getting lost in Ku-ring-gai National Park, outside the city. It was a slightly brisk day in mid-Winter (I can’t begin to tell you how much I envy your climate) and it was brilliant being out in the Bush, until I blundered off the poorly marked path. I even ended up calling out ‘Hello – is anyone there’, and the echo bounced back to me, just like in films. I really thought I was in trouble until, quite by chance, I stumbled back onto the marked path two hours later. (Moral of story. Don’t spend six years sitting writing at a desk then go out hiking up hill and down dale in the Australian Bush and not expect to be completely discomknockerated…)
Still – no matter. In my story, my two main characters escape into the Bush and get completely lost. I got four or five chapters out of that rather frightening day – although I’m happy to admit my own experiences didn’t include murder and cannibalism.
I’ve been to Berlin to research my book on Nazi Germany (Auslander) and returned there three years later to research a novel on life in Communist Berlin (Sektion 20). I met people who became characters in my stories and got a real feel for the city, which gave me the confidence to write about it.
Last month I went to Moscow – the setting for a book I’m currently writing. This was a fantastic experience, and although it’s an unsettling place, I’m so glad I went. I got to walk from the Kremlin to the Lubianka, home of the infamous secret police, retracing the final journey made by thousands of doomed Soviet government officials during the Purges. I wandered round Red Square, and many other Moscow landmarks, and the photos I took are going to be invaluable to my story.
Here’s an interior of the Kremlin. Who’d have guessed that the spot where Stalin ordered the purges that ruined so many lives, would look like a fairy tale palace. That stairwell – minus the workmen’s scaffolding – would have been just the place for Cinderella to lose her glass slipper.
Here’s a character from the New Trechakov Gallery – a young Soviet woman from the 1930s – who’s just begging to be made into a character in the story.
And here’s one of the streets my characters would have walked down in 1941. It’s a bit dull, or maybe fascinatingly dull, but it still gives me a feel for the place and the lives I’m trying to bring alive in my story.