Interview: Graham Wilson, author of the ‘Old Balmain House’ series

Graham Wilson, self-published author of the Old Balmain House series and the Crocodile Dreaming series

Graham Wilson, author

An interview by Shelley Timms

Graham Wilson is an established Australian author residing in Sydney, NSW. He has written two book series, the Old Balmain House Series and the Crocodile Dreaming Series, and has recently completed a memoir, Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children, which details his life growing up in a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. His most widely-read series, the Old Balmain House Series, has ranked highly on the Amazon Kindle best sellers list in both the UK and US for the Australian Historical Fiction category.

What began your writing journey and what sparked the idea for the first book?
I have two first books. One is a memoir which I wrote slowly over years based on a desire to tell the story of my parents and childhood. The other is a novel which happened along the way to getting the memoir across the line and for which the first draft was written in a week.

The memoir was a story I knew I must write after my mother died. I slogged away at it over three years and 150,000 words and struggled to finish. People who read it said it was a mixture of many stories running together and I needed to decide what was the story I was telling.
While writing my memoir we bought a weatherboard cottage in Balmain, inner Sydney. The past owner gave us a photo found hidden in a chimney, faded and fire damaged. I was of a small girl, dated from 100 years ago. We put this away for safe keeping. All I could remember was she was eight with dark hair, the same age and similar in appearance to our daughter.
To help finish the memoir I did a writing course as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. Its main message was that if you get stuck on writing one thing to start on something else. During this course the teacher brought around a plastic bag of unknown things. We each put in our hand and took out a lucky dip object. Mine was a child’s perfume bottle. We were told to create the dot points of a story from our object. I imagined the perfume bottle belonged to the eight year old girl who had lived in our house 100 years before and sketched out the story of her life in ten dot points. After the course I put this away and went on with other work.
A year later I found this story outline and sat down one morning to write it. By lunchtime I was hooked on the story running inside my head. I wrote non-stop for a week from morning until late each night and by the end of the week I had written 50,000 words and the story The Old Balmain House was finished. After minor editing I uploaded it to an ebook site, warts and all. I watched in amazement as people began to download it and write reviews. It’s now had about 30,000 downloads and, for much of the last two years, has been No. 1 or No. 2 on Amazon Kindle for Australian Historical fiction. I have done more fixes over the last five years but the core story remains. I loved the experience of getting immersed in a story so much that a year later I wrote a sequel and a year later again I wrote a third book in the series. These books have done well too though none have repeated the success of the first book.

In what way does your upbringing and life experience influence your writing?
My memoir tells of my upbringing. Memories of this time drove my desire to write and record its stories; some were stories I remembered, some were stories told by others. My childhood was in an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, the landscape of Crocodile Dundee. It remained burnt so brightly in my brain, in all its colours, sounds and smells, that I felt a necessity to write it down and record it for posterity. It is the story of my parents, a story of black and white friends, a story of a place and its people. I finished it five years ago as an ebook with thousands of readers since. A print version will be launched at the Darwin Writers Festival in May 2018.

This NT background has also given me knowledge of the people and places I use in my Crocodile Dreaming Series. In particular, as told in my memoir, I survived an attack from a large saltwater crocodile which severely mauled my leg. This has added a real survivor experience to my interest with these large predators which sit at the core of my novel series.

What are some challenges as a writer getting your work published and reaching a wide audience?
I was lucky that my first book found an audience online with minimal promotion by me. While the first version was far from perfect, needing more editing and a better cover, somehow the title and image worked. I refined it as time went by with the assistance of writing courses and paid help. I sent an early version to a publisher but got little interest so I pushed on with self-publishing, teaching myself as I went. I have now reached a stage where the advantages of having an external publisher don’t outweigh that I retain my own copyright and creative control. The challenge is the need to do it all oneself or pay others to do parts. I am lucky as I have a well-paid job, so earnings from writing get recycled to pay others such as editors and cover designers.

As an unknown author I gave my first book away for free in order to find readers. Now some of these readers pay to buy my other books. For me income is secondary to the pleasure I get from writing and from hearing from readers who tell me that they enjoy my books or write a review to say so. Even bad reviews contain valuable criticisms which help improve my writing.
For me the key thing to build an audience is to keep writing. The readers of one book become the readers of the next and tell others along the way. I am not much of a user of social media but do use Goodreads in particular to connect with readers through reviews and comments.
The other key thing is to give readers something authentic of yourself. My love of an old house in Balmain motivated that story. Similarly, my love for the NT; its people and its places forms the backdrop to my memoir and my other novel series. Many readers across the world tell me these places feel real to them too in the reading.
Along the way I have also learnt a few tricks to help my ebooks stand out from the crowd and get noticed, bright colours on covers with big text, getting the first ten words of the blurb to grab the reader. When I first wrote the blurb of ‘The Old Balmain House’, it began, ‘The story of a Balmain family and house over five generations’. Now these first words read. ‘Sophie vanished, where did she go? For 100 years nobody knows.’ With these changed words the volume of downloads went up tenfold.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to publish their first book?
Don’t try too hard to get it perfect. Get it good and then get it out there for people to enjoy. Readers who enjoy it are very forgiving of a few imperfections and you can fix them up later, particularly with an ebook. Then write a second book as soon as you reasonably can to give something to keep your readers going along with you for the reading and writing journey.

Do you have a favourite book you’ve written and, if so, why?
I particularly like my second book in the Old Balmain House Series, ‘Lizzie’s Tale’. It was a joy to return to the mind-place of my first book but to then create something new. Along the way I took pleasure in creating a powerful female character. Even as I was writing it, I would admire and be moved by her courage. It’s not a perfect book but each time I revise it I feel I discover a new part of this person which I did not know before. I think my readers find this too.

I also love the totality of my Crocodile Dreaming Series, how each book builds on the next and the story goes off in directions which I never foresaw when writing the previous book. It still needs improvements before I am fully happy with this story and I plan to do a major revision in the next year. Perhaps I will try to create a screen version as many readers say I should do.

What is it like working with a cover designer to create a perfect book cover?
Nada Backovic, my cover designer, is an amazing creative talent. She has now done covers for four books for me, two versions for each. She came recommended to me from an editor I had used. With each book she asked for an initial synopsis and some key elements to use in the cover. In The Old Balmain House a perfume bottle was an element and an old timber cottage was another. She created two cover versions based on these and as I liked them equally I chose them both for different variants of the book, one for Australian and one for international sales. She then helps me craft the cover text to fit the images and book themes.

I am particularly delighted with what she has done for the cover of my memoir, Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children. She took old and damaged photos of this landscape and its people, taken by my father half a century ago, and with these captured an essence of the place and its people in the cover, a mix of light and colour in a faded image that gives a sense of times long past.

Do you have any book Recommendations?
Any book I get lost in and forget the world outside. Even after all these years looking back, The Magic Faraway Tree was one of those books. Other books I read with a similar remembered pleasure include Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. More recent books of that ilk include:

Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood, River of Ink by Paul Cooper, and Half Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb. I also love a great series where the pleasure extends over years, with ones like the Narnia stories, the Tomorrow Series, Harry Potter, and Wizards First Rule all very memorable.

Graham Wilson will be launching his memoir, Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children, at the NT Writer’s Festival on 27 May. For more details visit: https://www.ntwriters.com.au/festival/program-tickets/

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