Your Frontier series, which some might know as the Macintosh and Duffy family saga, has followed the Macintoshes and Duffies from Colonial Queensland to South Africa during the Boer War, Europe and the Middle East during World War 1, and now to Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region leading up to and during World War 2. How has it been as a writer weaving the stories of the Macintoshes and Duffies through these historical times and places?
I guess writing the family saga has been an opportunity to entertain and educate readers about our past. I think if I had not chosen the life that I did I would have loved to have been either an archaeologist or history teacher. My role model in pursuing the saga is Professor Michael Roe, who taught me Australian history at the University of Tasmania, back in the mid 1970s. When I research and write the novels – including those outside the family saga – I feel the wonderful professor’s eyes looking over my shoulder, to ensure historical accuracy. Maybe I aim for a High Distinction from him.
Your Papua trilogy also leads up to and includes World War 2. Is this a time you want to write more about, or will you soon move on to post World War 2 or another time period?
So far I have only reached WWII in all my writing but there will be at least two more novels in the family saga post WWII. I have considered using my characters Karl Mann from the Papua trilogy and David Macintosh from the Frontier series to team up and fight those forgotten campaigns of Korea, the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi, leading into the Vietnam campaign. I knew such soldiers when I was in the regular army, back in my own enlistment in 1969 for three years.
You have written: “Research is vital to producing a credible novel that is historically based. I think readers expect not only to be entertained but also educated.” How would you describe your approach to combining entertainment and education in your last novel or in your current work in progress?
Once I reach 1963 I will then pursue novels set in the 19th century to remind readers of our forgotten, colourful past. I guess I love picking up musty old books with stories of people and events that were truly exciting and history changing.
As usual much of my time is taken up in research of events that happened before I was born but close enough to a time that many of our older population remember with the latest books. So accuracy is vital. Get just one tiny detail wrong and credibility is lost. I am pleased to relate that a few old WWII diggers I know gave me the thumbs up. It was not hard because it was their stories I was writing. My current work for release next year takes the reader to 1945 and the end of the terrible conflict. It was interesting to hear men who were facing the Japanese in the Pacific say that the defeat of Hitler in Europe did not mean a lot to them. How could it when they were still fighting and dying against an enemy who refused to surrender?
You have mentioned that you are a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s novels. What other kinds of novels do you enjoy reading?
Besides Bernard Cornwell (who is also a favourite of Wilbur Smith) I read our own great story teller of Africa, Tony Park. I guess because of having to research I get little time to seek out new authors, so my head is still in the past with greats such as James Clavell (who was an Aussie former POW of the Japanese who made it big in Hollywood), James A Mitchener, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith and Joseph Wambaugh (a former cop from LA who wrote great cop stories). More recent authors have been Tom Clancy and our Aussie author, John Birmingham. I guess I like novels that grip you and hence try to write the same turn-of-the-page style.
Where, in your opinion, do writers sometimes go wrong with wartime historical fiction, and what can an aspiring novelist do to avoid or fix such things in their manuscript?
It is interesting to pick faults in some writers of war novels. As an example, the myth that Aussie soldiers were landed on the wrong beach at Gallipoli has been discounted by recent research into British military records. An over flight by British recon aircraft very shortly before the landings discovered the beach we were supposed to land on was covered by Turkish artillery. It was artillery that killed most soldiers in WWI. There would not have been ANZAC Day if we had landed on the original choice, as it is likely very few would have survived the shelling to reach the heights and a retreat would have been ordered. I still read in popular novels this myth of the wrong beach being told. Those authors should learn to carry out more intensive research. Maybe my days as a police investigator, coupled with academic training, has taught me to be thorough and not simply copy what was written before.
Given the subject matter of your novels, do you or your publisher have any plans for readers around the centenary of ANZAC Day that you can share?
As I still remain one of the least known writers in Australia, the government does not know I exist, and because of my age I do not fit into the publicity machine. I think the great British writer, PD James summed it up. It is worth quoting her:
“I imagine I will continue to undertake major writer tours as long as I continue to write and have the strength. But this method of selling books, promoting the writer rather as if he or she were a pop star, seems a curious, even farcical concomitance. I note that today a new writer who is young and physically attractive starts with a considerable initial advantage. He or she will be a hit on the publicity trail. The image is promotable and acceptable.”
Are there any major surprises coming up in your future writing, or more of what your readers enjoy and know you for?
Future books will be written along the lines of historical saga. My genre is shrinking, as readers turn to whatever the media promotes, but I love history, and I think I am not completely alone. After all, history telling is about ghosts. Who does not like a good ghost story?
Peter Watt’s author website: www.peterwatt.com
Peter Watt on Facebook
Peter Watt is willing to Skype with book clubs and writing groups to answer questions about his books. If your book club or writing group would like to Skype with Peter about his books, you can contact him via his author website or via Facebook.
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The Australian Literature Review