Kristen Alexander ‘E-Chat’ with Justin Sheedy, 1st May 2013 – Originally Published at KristenAlexander.com.au
The book world is changing. Print books are challenged by ebooks; traditional publishing houses are threatened by self publishers and niche publishers. Even the way readers think about books is changing: is a book something to treasure; is it disposable; is it something to read on a smart phone, ipad, ereader, or something to listen to on the ithingy.
Writers, of course, face the greatest challenge, that of finding a readership when traditional publishers are becoming more choosy about what they print, and ebook lists are flooded by thousands of new titles every day. And, assuming they have found a readership, writers can’t just close the attic door and get on with their writing. They have to market themselves continuously. They have to be available for interviews and signings – or book tours if they have cracked the big time – constantly Twitter, blog and Facebook. How on earth do they succeed in a rapidly changing world where social media is king?
As I anxiously await the results of my agent’s attempts to pitch my next opus to a traditional publishing house, I watch, fascinated, as one writer successfully navigates through this strange new world. Justin Sheedy started his self publishing career with Goodbye Crackernight, a memoir of growing up in 1970s Australia. He followed this with Nor the Years Condemn, a fictional tribute to the boys of the Empire Air Training Scheme who flew Spitfires and Typhoons against the Luftwaffe. He is currently poised to release Ghosts of the Empire, which focuses on one of the characters from Nor the Years Condemn. I wondered, how does Justin do it? I thought, it wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it? And so I did. In the week he prepared for an in-store appearance at Dymocks Chatswood and an interview on a local radio station, Justin kindly answered a whole raft of questions about his life and writing experience.
First off, I asked Justin how he overcomes the challenges of self publishing, the limited distribution networks, the miniscule publicity budgets. The secret of his growing success, Justin told me, is ‘employing the three Golden Rules of Writing and Publishing. 1. Persistence. 2. Persistence. 3. Persistence.’ And Justin works hard at being persistent. He almost daily posts on his facebook pages, he puts in personal appearances at bookshops, chats with radio interviewers, produces a blog to publicise his books, and attended the 2010 Byron Bay Writers Festival. All this, even as he holds down a day job and works on his next book.
I am always intrigued about the person behind the book. Cover blurbs hardly ever tell you much about the author, so being happily married myself and a potty pet lover, I like to know that others are in a similar state. And if they are, how they manage to balance their home and writing lives. (OK, I’ll admit it, I’m just trumping up the fact that I am a sticky beak, but I bet you’re interested too!) Justin currently has no conflicts between ties at writing. ‘I am bound to meet my significant other any day now. I see her all the time. But I have yet to meet her.’
Still stickybeaking, I then asked for a potted version of Justin’s life and passions. ‘I grew up in the suburbs of 1970s Australia, back when a child’s proudest possession was not a PlayStation but a second-hand bike’, he reminisced, and my mind instantly turned to my own childhood of the 60s and 70s when I was desperate for a bike so I could range around the neighbourhood (not that we used that term then. Somehow, that was too American). How well I remember those wonderful, carefree days. But hang on. This is not about me. It’s about Justin, who wrote all about this amazing childhood in his first book, Goodbye Crackernight.
Childhood behind him, what does Justin do to earn a crust? ‘My first job out of school was as a go-go dancer in a 60s psychedelic night-club, I studied Fine Arts at Sydney Uni (qualifying myself to drive a cab), sang in bands, and worked in the Australian Public Service for a time though made a full recovery.’ I am glad to see that the service (or ‘the circus’ as we fellow escapees not so fondly refer to it) did not knock out Justin’s creativity and sense of humour. They (you know, the ubiquitous ‘they’) always tell you to make the most of your life experiences, and Justin certainly did. He worked for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, ‘where I was privileged to speak to many WWII aircrew veterans, brilliant research for my latest book, Nor the Years Condemn’. Now, Justin works for ‘a not-for-profit organisation who are really supportive of my writing and writing commitments such as radio interviews to promote my in-store events, writers’ festivals etc.’
As part of my research for this first ‘Echat With…’, I listened in on one of his interviews thanks to the wonders of internet streaming. It was held at 11.30 on a work day, and as well as promoting the aforementioned Nor the Years Condemn, it heralded the Dymocks signing session. Justin has obviously had lots of radio experience. He deftly fielded the announcer’s questions and told just enough about his book to whet appetites and have the local listeners bounding into the bookshop that weekend. His enthusiasm for his subject shone through; his passion was clear. And on the subject of passions, writing, of course, is one of Justin’s but only one. ‘My passions are women, military history, cooking, women, mountains, fogs and snow, also skiing so am counting on becoming a best-selling author so I can earn enough cash to keep doing it. Please help.’ Love that sense of humour!
Just for a laugh (and to see if our tastes coincided in any way) I said to Justin: You have a gift voucher for the world’s biggest DVD shop. It stocks every film, TV series, doco, one off special ever made. What five all time greats would you spend your voucher on. With barely a blink, Justin proved something I have long believed, that maths is not a strong point of the creative types: ‘First Light, the story of Geoff Wellum, youngest allied pilot of the Battle of Britain, and possibly the best docu-drama I have ever seen, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the House of Cards series, the Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Oh, and The Italian Job with Michael Caine. Sorry, that’s six, no, seven. Doh!’ Interestingly, all bar the classic caper film are based on books. Just proves that Justin is a reader from way back, and so, naturally, I asked who or what was the greatest influence on his reading life. ‘Many’, he told me, ‘but a key three would be Tolkien, for his mastery of the “journey story”. Michael Herr (Dispatches), for his capture of the perverse “sensuality” of war, and Bill Bryson for his hilarious, warm and wonderful humanity’.
Influence aside, Justin has any number of favourite books, too many really to designate just one as his ultimate, all time favourite ‘but in the context of my latest work, Going Solo by Roald Dahl for the way he portrays the adult world (in WWII) with the involuntary unrestrained perfection of a child’s eye. In the context of my first book, Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James which a senior English teacher friend of mine recently maintained as “one of the funniest books ever written”’. Going Solo was a must read for me when researching Clive Caldwell’s experiences in the desert. I have not read any Clive James yet but with such a good (double) recommendation, I will have to add Unreliable Memoirs to the pile next to my bed. And on the subject of books on the bedside table, it seems as if Justin rarely takes a break from his research. Currently piled up for his late night reading, are The Gestapo Hunters. 464 Squadron RAAF by Mark Lax and Leon Kane Maguire, Mosquito—The Original Multi-Role Combat Aircraft by G.M. Simons, The Mosquito Log by Alexander McKee, and Mosquito Mayhem by M.W. Bowman. And with that, we turned from the personal to the creative, and Justin’s personal book philosophy.
Justin believes ‘that a book must make me read it. It should never be a struggle but a constant reward. In precisely this spirit, I try to make anything I write constantly reward the reader for buying my book. One of the nicest things I’ve been told by readers about my latest book Nor the Years Condemn is that they feel IN the history I’m writing about, that the characters become “friends” to them, even that they “become” the characters. And to my blessed relief and delight I’ve been told this a few times now’.
I always wonder how writers start off. Was there a spark that made them pick up the pen, or was their desire to write as innate as breathing. For Justin, it was ‘When I met an Australian Korean War RAAF veteran who flew Mustangs there in low ground attack. Despite all the death and destruction he meted out and narrowly survived, including the loss of dear mates, he looked at me square in the eye and said, “Justin, it was the best time of my life.” And I knew that I had to write and hopefully capture that monumental human irony.’
There is usually a long journey from spark to first published piece, and many hours hunched over a desk writing or typing, scrawling notes on scrubby bits of paper or in a writer’s journal if you are really organised, or even wandering around, just thinking. Given I try to write in a cluttered office where my creative life is constantly in conflict with the demands of my ‘real’ life, what, I wondered, is Justin’s special writing place: ‘The floor of my flat in Glebe’ but he would forsake that spot in a flash: ‘If I won the lottery I would move it to on the water at Kirribilli’.
That floor in Glebe has seen the creation of two works now, and another that is still in the works. Goodbye Crackernight, the first, was Justin’s ‘personal portrait of growing up in 1970s Australia (when it was still the 1950s!). The story is full of laughter, tears, simplicity, in a way a “shared” memoir for a few generations of Australians, a “mirror” to them. It traces the demise of Crackernight in parallel with the passing of our youth, showing how, just as we were growing up, so was Australia, and turning from a “white-bread” world into the multi-cultural Oz we know and love today’.
Justin was inspired to write his latest release, Nor the Years Condemn ‘to bring to life a truly great Australian story which is so exciting, so heroic and tragic, in a word so dramatic as to seem the stuff of science fiction and yet it is true: The story of the young Australians who flew Spitfires and Typhoons as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme, WWII. The true facts on which my story is intensively based really are the stuff of Star Wars, the attack on the Death Star. I wanted to bring this largely untold chapter of our history alive for Australians and in doing so make them even prouder of who we are. I wanted to tell the story of how the best and brightest of an Australian generation ironically picked one of the fastest ways to die of WWII and yet did so much to win it. The loss of any young person in war is a tragedy, yet these young Aussies were the shining stars of their era, which (given the true history on which it’s based) can’t help but render my story a heart-rending read, and the anti-war portrait that it is intended to be.’
As you would expect, Justin put in the hard research yards. It took ten years to research Nor the Years Condemn. Happily, he had some indispensible book resources: ‘Typhoon and Tempest at War by Roland Beamont (Typhoon pilot) and Arthur Reed, and Chased by the Sun by Hank Nelson.’ His ‘main research resource’, however, ‘was the internet, and the access it gave me to the amazing range of WWII historical experts and institutions who so selflessly aided me. (It’s a massive list, included at the end of Nor the Years Condemn.)’
Justin’s trawling of the sources has paid off. He has a feel for the cut and thrust of battle and an affinity with military aviation. Why then, did he decide to write a fictional account of young airmen’s lives, rather than history? For Justin, fiction was the best way ‘to bring alive the stunning true history on which my book is based by engaging readers in a way that only the descriptive powers of Fiction can allow, and thereby have readers feel the loss of such young Australians as vividly as it deserves to be felt. Also, it’s only via Fiction that a reader can be put ‘in the cockpit’, not just reading “about” the history, but entering “into” it.’
One thing I have discovered is that other writers are usually all too happy to help others. I have enjoyed assistance from seasoned writers as well as on-going chats with new authors, all the while gaining much from their different experiences. Justin was recently asked to be a mentor to a budding writer and I asked him about the sort of advice he would pass on. (I will confess to a lot of self interest here, over and above the sheer altruism of sharing Justin’s words of wisdom). ‘Find a subject you are passionate about’, advised Justin. ‘Readers will want to buy your book because of your passion’. Next, he encourages, ‘write the book. Then re-write it ten times, after which your book may just turn out to be the book it should be. Then when it is, LOVE talking about it to people in radio interviews and at your in-store book-signing events. I do.’ Such sound advice. Justin also willingly shares the most important advice he has ever received: ‘No askie, no gettie.’
Once they have enjoyed one book (or two!), readers want to know what else the author is working on. I am no different. Happily, Justin is currently in the latter stages of a sequel to Nor the Years Condemn, entitled Ghosts of the Empire. Its ‘hopeful’ due date is at the end of June 2013. Just over two months away, so not much time left to wait now! ‘This is the ‘parallel journey-story of one character from NTYC who flies the awesome “Wooden Wonder”, the de Havilland Mosquito against Nazi tyranny. One key theme of Ghosts of the Empire is, if all those young aircrew who flew Lancasters had been flying Mosquitos instead, they’d have most likely died of old age.’ There is no cover image yet but click HERE for a sneak preview of Ghosts of the Empire.
Like any author worth his salt, Justin is already thinking about what will come next. There is a sequel to Goodbye Crackernight in the pipeline with the working title Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer and he is contemplating ‘something on the truth behind the motives for the Amiens Prison bombing raid of 1944.’ This is very much in the preliminary stages and, as such, he is open to ‘Any suggestions?’
Well, I think that is enough of picking Justin’s brains. For more details of his writing life and practice, you can befriend him at his Facebook Page, ‘like’ his “Nor the Years Condemn” Facebook page and “Goodbye Crackernight” Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter. Yup, Justin certainly has social media all wrapped up! I am delighted Justin Sheedy agreed to be the subject of my first Echat With… Happy Reading! – Kristen Alexander
For another interview with Justin, CLICK HERE