Australian author Justin Sheedy on success, restlessness and being a productive writer
Just a note that Justin, who was a dear old friend from my youth, passed away unexpectedly a couple of years ago. This interview is now my little memorial to a wonderfully energetic, creative and highly motivated writer. He really was an inspiration to us all!
I think you are one of the first Australian writers to really succeed at indie publishing. What made you decide to go that route, and who are your inspirations?
Walter, I am delighted and reassured that a widely cherished and respected Australian author like yourself should see my own writing and publishing efforts as ‘a success’ and I warmly thank you. My decision to charge down the path of indie publishing was born of simple necessity: Though major Australian publishing companies have shown interest in all of my 3 books since my first in 2009, their hesitancy proved a dead-end. To my relief, they have been proven wrong by reader response to my books ever since, both here in Australia and internationally. My inspiration is my readers, one of my favourite moments being a late middle-aged lady tapping me on the shoulder at one of my in-store book-signings, saying (of my Australian World War Two historical fiction Nor the Years Condemn), ‘I was at your last event, you signed your book for me and I just wanted to tell you I’ve since read it and loved it from start to finish.’ Moments like that are my rich reward.
We knew each other when we were both young and restless. I had no idea then that I would be a writer. When did you decide you were really going to make a life as a serious writer?
I’m STILL young and restless, Walter, and I know you are too. Though perhaps the crystalizing moment for me as a future author came for me in high school when an inspirational English teacher asked me to read out one of my stories in front of the class. It was the story of an Australian downhill skier from GO to finish-line in a Swiss World Cup ski race event where he is considered the likely wooden-spooner. He proves the world’s best wrong to the rapture of the seasoned crowd urging him on. When I’d finished my story, my English teacher faced the class and asked, ‘Now, boys. How did that make you feel?’ One boy put up his hand and breathed, ‘I felt like I was flying.’ I feature this moment in my upcoming book, Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer, which, as my 1980s teenage portrait, also features YOU, dear Walter.
You’ve been quite prolific over a short time. What is the secret of your productivity?
People often ask me how I maintain the ‘discipline’ to be an author and be as productive as I seem to be. I say to them I can’t NOT write. Your passion can’t NOT come out. And it also happens to be what engages readers and what sells books: a male bookstore customer at one of my recent book-signings said, ‘Mate, I’ll buy your book; I can see your passion.’
Can you tell us about some of the books that have inspired you?
A long list that would be but in the context of my first book, Goodbye Crackernight, my childhood ‘shared memoir’ of growing up in 1970s Australia, I’d have to nominate Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs along with Bill Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid. In the context of my latest two, Nor the Years Condemn and Ghosts of the Empire, I’d have to say Ken Follett for his gripping World War Two historical fictions and, massively, Kate Grenville’s emotive Australian historical fictions, especially The Secret River. Also, Roald Dahl’s Going Solo for the way he captures the ‘adult world’ as if with the involuntary perfection of the ‘child’s eye’.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who really wants to get serious about their writing?
Come up with a great idea, then re-write it 20 times until it ends up the piece of work it deserves to be. When it IS, then your troubles really start: Publishing is a tough, unfair and often chaotic business. Learn never to take 'No' for an answer but do it in the nicest way possible. Industry people say no only because it’s easier than saying yes. Persistence is the key. Your persistence will be fuelled by your passion. And your passion to write is your passion to share.