In this week’s ‘As a…’ interview, Dan Cross spoke with Bill Swiggs about his debut novel, his whirlwind experience of being selected as the winner of the 2018 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, and the road to publication.
Bill is a former firefighter for the Royal Australian Air Force and police officer from Western Australia. In 2018, his debut novel, Blood In The Dust, won the ‘Best Unpublished Manuscript’ award at the annual Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. His book was published around the world in 2019 by Bonnier Zaffre. He is represented by literary agent Charlotte Colwill of The Bravo Blue Agency.
DC: Thanks for speaking with us, Bill. It’s a pleasure to chat with you again! Perhaps we can begin with an overview of your writing? How would you describe it to someone new to it?
BS: Some reviewers have suggested that my writing shows the influence of Wilbur Smith, and I can only take this as a compliment, since Wilbur is my favourite author. Other influencers have been Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and Bryce Courtenay. I think my writing shows a mix of the sweeping family sagas of Smith and Courtenay, sprinkled with the action of Clancy and Cussler. Of course, every writer has their own style, but where these authors have inspired me, I hope I have done them proud.
DC: Well, undoubtedly, especially after your recent success at the 2018 Wilbur Smith Awards! But before we get into that, can you tell us a bit about Blood In The Dust?
BS: Blood In The Dust is set in 1850s colonial Australia and follows the adventures of two young brothers, Toby and Patrick O’Rourke, who are orphaned when a gang of bushrangers (outlaws) raid their homestead. It also tells the story of the Hocking family, immigrants fresh off the ship from England, who have endured their own tragedy on the voyage to Australia. When the brothers are cheated out of their home, they head to the goldfields of Ballarat, where they meet up with the Hockings and join forces to seek out their fortune. Life is hard in a near-lawless land and this patchwork family is on the point of destitution when Toby is offered a chance to return to the life he once knew, but to do so, he must hunt down and kill the man who murdered his parents.
DC: Wow, just the summary sounds exciting. No wonder you have enjoyed such success! The last two years must have been incredible for you. First, you win the 2018 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize for Best Unpublished Manuscript; then Blood In The Dust is published around the world.
BS: I look back at 2018 and the year that followed and I still pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. When I entered the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award, the best I hoped for was to maybe make the shortlist and use this recognition to seek an agent to help me publish. I made the shortlist and thought that would be it. Then, shortly after, I received an email from a young lady in London named Charlotte Colwill, who set up a time for a telephone call. When the call came through, I found I was on a group call with Charlotte and Kevin Conroy Scott, Wilbur Smith’s literary agent. Charlotte asked if she could act as my agent, working under Kevin’s watchful gaze. If I hesitated in my reply, it was only due to the shock.
Soon after this, I received an email from Georgina Brown, who manages the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation, the organisation which runs the award. Georgina set up a Skype call and when the call came through, I could see Georgina, but I instantly recognised the woman standing behind her. It was Niso, Wilbur Smith’s wife. They informed me that Blood In The Dust had been voted the winner of that year’s award. I was still in shock when Niso explained to me that she and Georgina were Skyping from Niso’s home in London. She picked up the laptop at her end and showed me a few of the beautiful African landscape paintings on the walls. Then she said there was someone else who wanted to congratulate me and placed the laptop down at the far end of the table, where I found myself face to face with Wilbur Smith. We chatted for a few moments and he congratulated me on the win. Luckily for me, I had set up in front of my bookcase and got to show him all his books lined up along the top shelf in pride of place, a moment I will treasure forever.
About a week later, Charlotte asked for a Skype call as well. She informed me that Blood In The Dust had been picked up by publishers Bonnier Zaffre of London and could she send me the contract? At this point, my thigh was beginning to ache from all the pinching I was doing to see if I was really awake.
My wife, Rhonda, and I flew to London for the award ceremony and I got to personally thank everyone who helped make my dreams come true. The day after the awards, I had a breakfast meeting with Kate Parkin of Bonnier Publishing, where she showed me an early draft of the cover for Blood In The Dust. I simply couldn’t believe it was happening. When Rhonda and I returned to Australia, I was contacted by my assigned editor at Zaffre Books, Claire Johnson-Creek, and for the next five or six months we worked through several stages of editing and proofreading. Zaffre have an agreement with local publishers Allen and Unwin and my book was released in Australia on July 1st, 2019. Two months later, it was released in the UK and the rest of the world by Zaffre. Strangely, I never got to hold one of my books until a workmate turned up with a copy soon after the release and asked me to sign it for him. It wasn’t until a few days later that I had a copy of my own. It was a strange feeling, and hard to describe how I felt when I held it. It’s still hard to believe that over twenty years of writing, editing, assessment and rejection has finally paid off.
DC: That’s phenomenal, and a real testament to both your talent and resilience. It’s wonderful you continued to pursue your dream despite the long journey. What inspired you to write in the first place, and what inspires you now?
BS: I have always had a fascination with Australian colonial history and with bushrangers in particular. I grew up on the south coast of Western Australia, as far as you can possibly get in Australia from what is known as Bushranger Country on the east coast of the continent. At age 19, I joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an aviation firefighter and my first posting was to Richmond in New South Wales, right in the heart of Bushranger Country. This is where I met Rhonda, and I would drag her all about the countryside to visit an inconspicuous piece of ground where something violent happened over a century ago.
One time, we drove to a mountain range in central New South Wales. I had learned there was a cave in these mountains where two bushrangers had engaged in a gunfight in the mid-1800s and wanted to visit it. We never made it to the cave. A storm rolled in and Rhonda and I dashed back to the car with lightning crashing about us. On the drive home, a story began to form in my head. I mentioned to Rhonda that I might like to try my hand at writing, so she did some research and enrolled me in a creative writing course. As I worked through the lessons, I wrote the story that had come to me in the car. My tutor was very pleased with it and encouraged me to send it off to magazines.
The very first one I submitted was accepted. The Return Of Darkie Gardiner was published and, from then on, writing became a passion. I saw a few more short stories published in magazines, but what I really wanted to do was write a novel, so I set about doing so. Between my Air Force career, postings and family, it took me over twenty years before I completed the first draft of what would become Blood In The Dust. During the process, I served as a police officer in my home state of Western Australia and then returned to my old job of firefighter as a civilian. I wrote during my time off between shifts and finally completed the first draft. Then began a seemingly never-ending cycle of submission, rejection, rewriting, re-editing and so on. I thought I would never see my novel published, until one day, I googled Wilbur Smith and learned of the award. The rest, as they say, is history.
I am inspired by the fact that I now know I can do it. I have a thousand different stories jumping about in my mind, all vying for my attention. Now, when I sit down to write, I wonder just how far my words will go.
DC: Have you noticed any changes in your writing style over time? What lessons have you learned?
BS: When I was undergoing police training and learning how to write court briefs, my work was selected to be read out to the rest of the class as an example of how to do it. The brief had to cover everything so that the courtroom got the entire picture of what happened. Unfortunately, when I took up writing again, I had to re-learn how to get from A to B without explaining every little detail along the way. There was no need to explain how a horseman rode forty miles along a dusty dirt track with the hot sun beating down on him the whole way if this wasn’t important to the story. All I had to do was write about him tying up his tired and dusty horse at the destination and trudging wearily into the pub while scratching his sunburned nose. The reader gets the idea. They know he rode a long way in trying conditions without me spelling it out for them, as I would in a court brief. It took me a while to get past this, and I still find myself doing it occasionally.
DC: I know what you mean when you say you have thousands of ideas jumping around in your head. In fact, the upcoming issue of Write On! explores the theme Head In The Clouds, Feet On The Ground; so, can you tell us a bit about how you translate those inspirations and ideas into a fictional world for your plot and characters?
BS: Along with my passion for Australian history comes a passion for Aboriginal Australia. Australia’s indigenous people have had a pretty raw deal since European settlement. In just 200 years, they have been thrust from the stone age into the space age, and their journey has not been an easy one. Most have lost their tribal lands and the places that were sacred to them are now tourist attractions or simply closed to them beyond the fences of some farmer’s property.
I explored a little of this theme in Blood In The Dust with the fictional Jannjirra tribe who are nearly wiped out by smallpox. The three survivors are tricked into becoming the henchmen of the main antagonist. While they roam about the settled areas, they see the changes overtaking the land and how the people of other tribes have been denied access to their country (tribal lands), and wonder how long it will be until their own lands are eaten up by the voraciousness of European settlement.
My current project also carries some of this theme some fifty years later, in a different part of Australia.
DC: I can’t wait to read the new project when it’s ready! Australian history, particularly its Aboriginal history, is one we don’t learn enough about in the UK, so it would be thrilling to get insights via your writing. Can you tell us anything else about your future projects?
BS: I am working on another novel that is totally separate from Blood In tTe Dust. For this one, I have borrowed a little from the Australian legends of lost treasure and feats of desert survival. It will also touch upon the amazing bushcraft of Australia’s desert Aborigines and how they are able to eke out an existence in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth. I can’t say too much at this time.
DC: Of course, but thank you for sharing that little snippet, as well as your success story so far. As you know, traditional publishing is a tough nut to crack. What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring writer?
BS: My advice to aspiring writers comes in two parts. The first is to get your work out there. Get people reading it and get good, honest feedback. I’m not talking about Mum giving you a ‘That’s nice, dear”. Join a writers’ group, either in person or online. You don’t need to have people read a whole novel. Do it in small extracts that won’t scare them away. Then, take on board what they tell you. You don’t have to implement all the changes suggested to you; just consider them.
And, secondly, never give up! Keep sending your work out to publishers and agents. Enter competitions and awards. You will get kicked in the teeth and feel like giving up, but pick yourself up and send off your work to the next person on your list. Perseverance pays off.
Blood In The Dust is out now and available to purchase.
You can read more about the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize and its various categories here.
Then she said there was someone else who wanted to congratulate me and placed the laptop down at the far end of the table, where I found myself face to face with Wilbur Smith.