WRITERS' ROOM Q&A: TONY WILSON
Tony Wilson first stepped onto the public stage in the late ‘90s, winning the Australian travel documentary and competition series, Race Around The World. His critically acclaimed debut novel, Players, won him Best Young Australian Novelist 2006 and since then, he’s gone onto write another 20 books. There’s been sporting non-fiction, like Australia United and 1989: The Great Grand Final, and children’s books, like Harry Highpants and Hickory Dickory Dash.
Who are you heroes in writing?
My first hero in writing was Dr Seuss, I collect hardbacks of all his books, and he is the reason I’ve written picture books. There’s a bit in the Sneetches that is ‘peak Seuss’ and just so fun to read quickly:
Off again! On again! In again! Out again!
Through the machine that raced round and about again!
Changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money, they kept running through.
Until neither the Plain or the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one … or that one was this one
Or which one was what one … or what one was who.
So punchy to read aloud, and the meter rock solid always. I attempt sometimes to try a Seussian line. In ‘The Thirsty Flowers’ I snuck in, ‘And then came the swimgingest swing of them all’ which felt a bit Geisel. In picture books I also love Julia Donaldson, Mo Willems, Shaun Tan, Gus Gordon and Jane Godwin.
When it comes to grown up books, I read Nick Hornby as fanatically as he followed Arsenal, and I’ve loved other authors who can marry sport and literature too – Matthew Hardy, John Harms, Gideon Haigh, David Winner, David Halberstam. And on that front, my best read of 2022 so far is the Zwar sports-life memoir, ‘12 Summers’
My favourite Australian novel is Christopher Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’. My favourite all time novel is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. The writer who has inspired me the most is my friend Leigh Whannell, because he freaking well did it! The writer who has helped me the most is my good friend Kim Kane.
Favourite piece of screen or literary or non-fiction dialogue?
There’s so many, I feel like I’m emptying my brain and just going to the first one that comes to me. I’m going to with this one, because I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder. We called our second child Harry after Harland Williams. We interviewed him once on Triple R.
From ‘There’s Something About Mary’.
Hitchhiker : You heard of this thing, the 8-Minute Abs?
Ted : Yeah, sure, 8-Minute Abs. Yeah, the excercise video.
Hitchhiker : Yeah, this is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: 7... Minute... Abs.
Ted : Right. Yes. OK, all right. I see where you're going.
Hitchhiker : Think about it. You walk into a video store, you see 8-Minute Abs sittin' there, there's 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?
Ted : I would go for the 7.
Hitchhiker : Bingo, man, bingo. 7-Minute Abs. And we guarantee just as good a workout as the 8-minute folk.
Ted : You guarantee it? That's - how do you do that?
Hitchhiker : If you're not happy with the first 7 minutes, we're gonna send you the extra minute free. You see? That's it. That's our motto. That's where we're comin' from. That's from "A" to "B".
Ted : That's right. That's - that's good. That's good. Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you're in trouble, huh?
Hitchhiker : No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody's comin' up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes? You won't even get your heart goin, not even a mouse on a wheel.
Ted : That - good point.
Hitchhiker : 7's the key number here. Think about it. 7-Elevens. 7 dwarves. 7, man, that's the number. 7 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch. You know that old children's tale from the sea. It's like you're dreamin' about Gorgonzola cheese when it's clearly Brie time, baby. Step into my office.
Ted : Why?
Hitchhiker : 'Cause you're fuckin' fired!
Best excuse you’ve used (or heard used) for missing a deadline?
I’ve pushed out the deadline on my Allan Jeans biography by a year because I couldn’t interview in lockdown. I could, of course, have done It on the phone, but I don’t like doing them remotely. My wife says that I’m only writing these non-fiction sports books so I can go around and hang out with my childhood heroes from Hawthorn.
She knows me well, my wife.
I don’t think I’ve got any glamorous excuses up my sleeve though. I’m usually okay with deadlines. I don’t have much of a rebellious streak, and I barely need to sleep.
Worst note you’ve ever received?
I’m not even sure I’m ready to talk about this, but in 2009 I submitted a finished manuscript for the book that became Making News to my editor at Text Publishing. It was my second novel. The first one, ‘Players’, had done well, won awards, and I’d gone to Text over three other bidders because the smooth talking Michael Heyward promised he was about careers, not just books. I’d been at the novel for 2 years, too long really, and when Mandy called me she said ‘it didn’t work for her, and it wasn’t one Text was in interested in publishing’. I was horrified, wrote a 1000 word email asking what I could do to fix it, making lists of all the things I thought might be able to be improved, but I got a short email back. There was nothing I could do. I should consider putting it in the top drawer. I should write another novel.
I left Text and published the novel through Murdoch Books in 2010 as ‘Making News’. Is this the bit where I tell you about ending up on Oprah’s Book Club?
Not really. It was remaindered within 3 years. Nobody seems to love it. It’s possible Mandy was right. I haven’t written another novel for adults.
On a lighter note …. When I submitted The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas to Omnibus Books, the publisher there wanted to crowbar it into an Aussie animals series, and so wanted to make the princess in the story a cane toad. I normally buckle pretty meekly to editors and publishers, but on this occasion, I stood my royal ground. The princess stayed human.
What song best represents your career?
I’ll go with ‘Dream Baby Dream’ by Suicide, although I prefer the less depressing and more uplifting Bruce Springsteen version.
“We gotta keep the fire burning
Come on, we gotta keep the fire burning
Come on, we gotta keep the fire burning
Come on and dream baby dream.”
I am slightly obsessed with Springsteen. In a crossover with question one, one of my favourite pieces of non fiction reportage ever is Nick Hornby writing in ‘31 songs’ about why he loves Thunder Road.
So much of writing, and the creative life, is just hanging in there, and I do feel I’ve hung in there kept at it, written most genres, published twenty odd books.
You gotta keep the fire burning.
Favourite screen or literary or non-fiction hero and villain?
My favourite screen hero is Jack Nicholson as Larry McMurter in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’. He’s such a great combination of angry, funny, difficult, compassionate and lost. The basketball scene, the fishing trip, the card game, the party with the girls … perfect leading performance in a flawless film.
And while we’re here, is Nurse Ratched my favourite villain? She’s up there. But in deference to my son Jack’s obsession with Paddington 2, (we are currently shooting it shot for shot with Jack as Jackington) I’ll go with Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan.
‘Listen to the rain on the roof go pittery-pat!”
If not a writer, what would you be?
If Race Around the World hadn’t come along in 1998 I probably would have stayed a lawyer, although I couldn’t have remained in a big firm commercial law environment. I imagine that with my current day love of speeches and speaking, I might have shifted to the bar as a barrister, or maybe moved into Human Rights advocacy or public policy or politics or the public service.
I’ve been writing speeches in the last two years for politicians, and I do enjoy that engagement with politics and public debate.
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