In 1985, while I was in the Royal Australian Air Force, my soon-to-be wife and I hiked to a cave in central New South Wales where two bushrangers had engaged in a gunfight in the 1850s. I was twenty-two years old. On the drive back to Sydney, a story formed in my head and I mentioned to Rhonda that I might like to try my hand at writing. She enrolled me in a creative writing course and, as I completed the assignments, I built the story that had come to me in the car. My tutor encouraged me to submit the short story to magazines. The very first magazine accepted, and writing was no longer a hobby, but a passion. I went on to see other short stories published, but what I really wanted to do was write novels, so I set about writing one. By this time, it was 1989 and I was stationed at an Air Force base east of Melbourne in Victoria. I got to Chapter 13 and then writing kind of stalled as family and career became more of a priority.
In 1996 I discharged from the Air Force and became a police officer in my home state of Western Australia. I hadn’t written anything for some years, but I always had the thought in the back of my head that my police experiences would be good research for the time when I finally took it up again. Policing wasn’t really the job for me, in fact, I hated it, and was delighted when the Air Force had a change in structure. I walked back into my old firefighting job as a civilian contractor. I was back among my old friends from my Air Force days and life was good.
Then I was diagnosed with cancer.
I was 39 at the time. Luckily, they found the tumour early. They operated and then I had several courses of chemotherapy followed by five years of intensive monitoring. I can still recall the moment my oncologist came around his desk, shook my hand and declared me cured. Over the next weeks I began thinking about where I was with my life and what was important to me. I decided that writing was very important. Rhonda and I bought 5 acres 200km south of Perth, I transferred to a closer fire station, bought a laptop and started to write again.
In my spare time between shifts, I wrote Blood on the Wattle over the next eight years or so. When it was finished, I sent it off to a publisher. I think I was a little surprised when they rejected it. I submitted to every publisher in Australia who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. They all rejected it. Then I started submitting to literary agents, but the rejection slips came in one after the other until the pile was so high, I could have stood on it to change a light bulb.
During this period, I wrote another novel, Mekong Dawn, (this one only took about two years) and was working on a third when I decided to Google my favourite author, Wilbur Smith. That was when I learned of the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award for unpublished manuscripts. I had two of those, so I submitted both, thinking Mekong Dawn would have the better chance as it was the last written and I had honed my skills more for that one. One day I received an email from Georgina Brown, who manages the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation, the organisation which runs the award. Georgina informed me that I had made the shortlist. I was surprised to learn it wasn’t Mekong Dawn which had made it, but Blood on the Wattle.
I had spent years sitting alone with my laptop, typing out scenes, editing and changing things so that one day, somewhere, someone might like what I had written and give me a chance. I didn’t realise how quickly things would change. I received an email from a young lady in London named Charlotte Colwill who set up a telephone call. When the call came through, I was surprised to learn that I was on a group call with Charlotte and also Kevin Conroy Scott, Wilbur Smith’s own literary agent. Would I be interested in having Charlotte represent me as my agent? If I took more than a nanosecond to decide, it was only because of the shock.
A week later, Georgina Brown asked for a Skype call. This time I found that I was talking with Georgina and Niso Smith, Wilbur Smith’s wife and the managing director of Wilbur Smith Enterprises. They informed me that I had been voted the winner of that year’s award for an unpublished manuscript. I was still in shock when Niso picked up the laptop at their end, walked to the other end of a long table and spun it around. I found myself face to face with Wilbur Smith himself. He congratulated me on the win, and I got to show him all his books lined up on the bookcase behind me. A moment I will treasure forever.
Soon after this, Charlotte informed that my novel had been picked up by Bonnier Zaffre and would be published as Blood in the Dust. Rhonda and I flew to London for the awards night and I got to meet and personally thank everyone who had made my dreams come true.
Blood in the Dust was released in Australia in July and in the UK in September. I’m 56 now, a long way down the road of life from that 22-year-old who had a notion he might like to be a writer. If I get asked for advice on becoming a writer, the first thing I tell people is to never give up. You only fail if you stop trying.
(c) Bill Swiggs
Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs, published by Zaffre, 19th September 2019, paperback and eBook £7.99
About Blood in the Dust:
For readers of Jeffrey Archer and Bryce Courtenay, Blood in the Dust is a fast-paced adventure story and the winner of the best unpublished manuscript category of the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
1853, Victoria, Australia. Five bushrangers led by the murderous outlaw Warrigal Anderson raid a small homestead. When they ride away, nineteen-year-old Toby O’Rourke’s life is changed forever. His parents lay dead at his feet and his brother, Patrick, is badly wounded.
But Toby O’Rourke is made of steel forged in the hardship of colonial life. Forced into adulthood, he and Patrick will seek to restore the family fortunes and outwit not only the rich businessman who conspired to rob them of their birth right, but the vicious men who murdered their parents . . .
‘Essential reading for all adventure fans. Honour and courage in the wild and unpredictable Outback.’ Wilbur Smith