Last week I reviewed The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests. This week Bill Wilkie, the author of that excellent book, kindly took the time to answer some questions for me.
He’s also generously made a special offer to readers of this blog, Adventures in Biography. Details at the bottom of this post…
Bill grew up in Brisbane and studied sociology and Australian history at the University of Queensland. He has lived in London, Dublin and Sydney, and travelled throughout Europe, Asia and South America. Bill now lives in the small Queensland town of Mossman with his partner and their two daughters.
Bill was a participant in the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY 2015 program, which was where I first met him. (You can find a compilation of all my posts about the program here.) I found him to be friendly, supportive and quietly intelligent.
The Daintree Blockade is your first book – what sort of writing have you done up until now?
I have a filing cabinet full of unfinished short stories, screenplays and the beginnings of a crime novel (which was to be part of a trilogy). Before The Daintree Blockade, I hadn’t published anything.
What was it about the Daintree blockade that first captured you?
I moved to the Douglas Shire in far north Queensland in 2005. The blockade was a part of the shire’s mythology and, adding to that, the Mayor when we moved there, Mike Berwick, had been one of the protesters in the Daintree blockade (which happened in 1983-4), so it was a big part of his back story.
I was intrigued by stories of hippies lying down in front of bulldozers and chaining themselves to trees, but not much information about the blockade was readily available. I did some very tentative research and contacted a few people who were involved in the campaign.
I had an exhilarating moment when I stumbled across a collection of archives at a university library that had not yet been catalogued. There were boxes and boxes of folders with letters, newspaper clippings, and other material about the protest and all the issues surrounding it. I felt like I had struck gold. So, on weekends I took myself down to the library, an hour away, and trawled through 20 to 30 archive boxes, steadily narrowing my focus on the blockade, honing in on that piece of drama, that conflict. Opening each of those archive boxes was like pot luck, sometimes I struck gold, maybe one handwritten note, or some correspondence that outlined an issue, and sometimes there was nothing. But I went through all of the boxes. I guess I felt a little like a detective, and those moments of discovery really spurred me on. Here was a big untold story, just what a wanna-be writer needs.
What was your writing process? Lots of research then lots of writing? Or did you undertake the research as you went along?
It was done in stages. I tried to do the bulk of the research about an event, scene or chapter first, then I wrote about that event without referring to the research, hoping that the story would unfold in an interesting and natural way, without getting bogged down in facts and details. It didn’t always work out this way, but that was the approach I aimed for. So it was a series of research followed by writing. It was more haphazard than that, but that is how I tried to approach it. The challenge during the editing stage, then, was making sure that I had stuck to the facts, and not let my imagination and creativity take the writing into places where the story didn’t go.
How did you go about organising your research material?
Initially I organised it by subject matter – so things like logging, subdivisions, environment, towns (Mossman, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation), people. It was in manila folders in my filing cabinet, with similar folders on my computer for digital material. Once I began looking at writing what is essentially a chronology of the campaign, I began to break that down into dates and events – so Daintree pre-1980, blockade pre-1983, the battle for Red Hill, road opening 1984, world heritage etc. Research doesn’t always fit into neat categories though, so there was lots of cross over and at times I would be scrounging around for a quote or piece of information that I knew was in there somewhere, but I just couldn’t locate. There is probably a better way, but once you are in the thick of it, you just push on with your own system.
How did you juggle the challenges of parenting young children with the discipline necessary to write?
This was a real struggle. I work part-time and look after our daughters for the rest of the week (though our eldest has now started school), and my partner works full-time and was studying for a lot of the time while I was working on the book. There’s no easy way. I was researching and writing at night and on weekends, I chewed into my long service leave, taking weeks off at a time to feel like I was making inroads.
I made a decision when our eldest was one year old, when I took over the role of primary care-giver, that the kids would come first. If it took a little longer to get the book finished, so be it. Sometimes you just do what you have to do – our eldest daughter was a light sleeper, and our house is fairly small – for while I stored a fold-up table and chair in our bathroom, and if I was working late at night or early in the morning I would write in the bathroom, as my study was set up right outside her bedroom and I was paranoid about waking her up.
I still have issues with discipline and procrastination. Right up to the end I could find ways to distract myself so I wouldn’t have to write. I think I was scared of not getting it right, of not doing the subject matter justice. And ABC2 is a very good friend of mine!
What was the hardest thing about writing the book? And the best?
Wow. Every stage was difficult. I think of writing The Daintree Blockade as my long, difficult, excruciatingly painful (did I already say long) apprenticeship.
I thought of myself as a writer before writing this book, but I had never actually finished anything. Every stage was a big learning curve, particularly interviewing, bringing the structure together and the writing. Sitting there, just myself and the blank screen, wondering what it’s all for, whether anybody will ever read it or be interested, it’s all a bit daunting. I had been working on the book for so long, and had nothing that I could really show for it, it was like it was a big lie. Writing a book for me is this strange kind of irrational propulsion, you have to do it, but you don’t why and whether any good will come out of it at the end.
The best thing has been being able to share the book with so many people who were involved in the blockade. This was a huge part of so many people’s lives, and it so great that they have something tangible to show their kids, grandkids, nephews and nieces, and friends, what they did. And they did something remarkable – they changed the way people in the far north think about their environment. The Wet Tropics is protected – to think that I am now a part of that story, through writing the book, is really thrilling to me. When our eldest daughter, Thea, took the book to school for show-and-tell, that was pretty special for me too.
Like me, you participated in the 2015 HardCopy non-fiction program at the ACT Writers Centre. What did you take away from the program?
I left the program with the real desire to write the best book that I could and to keep going until that was the case. I knew that you and other people on the program would be writing and publishing some great books, and I wanted mine to be able to hold its own amongst those. The interest that other writers and the publishers involved in the program had about my project really gave me a boost in confidence that the project was viable.
For me as well, being a regional writer, becoming a part of the HardCopy community has given me an incredible network of writers to be inspired by and connect with. Two of the 2015 crew edited my book, and I rely on the HardCopy community for information about writing programs, opportunities, and articles about the writing and literature.
From memory at least one of the agents at HardCopy was interested in representing you, and your feedback from the publishers was positive. So why did you decide to self-publish?
I did get some good feedback from the publishers, and while they didn’t roll out the red carpet for me, a couple of the big publishers said they were interested in seeing more of the manuscript and having another look once I had taken on the feedback from the ‘meet the publishers’ weekend. After HardCopy an agent contacted me a couple of times to say she was really interested, but by that stage my plans to self-publish were well underway and I was comfortable with what I was doing.
Having said that, after all those years of slaving away, hoping to attract a publisher to the project, and finally getting an agent who represents some really big names in Australian writing, enthusiastic and really interested in the project, saying no to that was a really big (and fraught) decision.
‘What have I done?!?!’ is a question I have asked myself on quite a few occasions over the past year. Anyway, it was really important for me at that stage of my life to back myself. I was kind of having a mini existential crisis of sorts. And I had a vision for the book, to use the layout that I have which allows for the use of over 250 images, combined with over 70 000 words to create something really beautiful. And I have done that. To resolve my crisis, I had to do it my way.
I went into the HardCopy program with some plans to self-publish already in process. These were on hold that year, while I was editing (and re-editing) the manuscript. There are two main reasons (apart from my existential crisis) why I eventually self-published. One was to fulfil my vision for the book – I didn’t know if a publisher would go for using all the images in that way, from a cost perspective and format wise, I just wasn’t sure if they’d buy into. As well, I was convinced that I would have a ready market for the book in the far north, both among the locals who remember the protest, and the thousands of tourists who visit the area every year. I also figured I would be able to distribute the book locally myself. There are some challenges still to overcome with those plans, but so far it’s going ok.
There is currently quite some discussion in literary circles about how little writers earn from their craft but no-one ever seems to ask writers about their day job. What’s yours? Or are you a gazillionaire living out your luxurious days by relying on your own private hedge fund?
I work part-time in the public library in Mossman, and I am a stay at home dad for the rest of the week. It was at the Mossman Library that I discovered the first of a series of archives that started me on the Daintree blockade journey. Working in a library helped me so much with understanding archives, catalogues and research. It was also great for networking among my local community. The library work environment compliments being a writer really well. I’m sorry, I don’t know what a private hedge fund is, so I can’t answer that part of the question.
I’m not really sure that I know what a hedge fund is either, but I think I want one! Where to from here? What does your next writing project hold in store for us?
I have a few ideas. I love researching and writing about Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen years, it’s such a fascinating (and disturbing) time in the state’s past, and the issues keep re-emerging and retain currency. I also enjoyed writing about the hippies and alternative lifestyle people who formed the backbone of the blockade, and I love the far north. So, something that incorporates all of those elements, without giving away too much! But more narrative nonfiction, that’s for sure.
So there you have it – Bill’s fascinating insights into his writing processes. And his special offer to Adventures in Biography readers?
Send an email to Bill (at email@example.com) with ‘Adventures in Biography’ in the subject line in order to buy a copy of The Daintree Blockade for only $39.95 WITH FREE POSTAGE (a saving of $9.95). Thanks Bill!