If you'd have asked Campbell Jefferys where his career was headed 20 years ago, his answer would have been quite different to the reality that played out. Sometimes life simply has other plans for us.
Campbell has travelled the world making a living out of writing. His words have featured in international newspapers, travel and sports journals, and inflight magazines. Plus he is the author of four novels, (and a couple of others written under the pen name of his alter ego, Royce Leville).
Campbell lives in Germany but every summer he returns to the Kalamunda hills where he was born and raised and can be found offering workshops and presentations around the metropolitan area. Campbell has a grounded air about him and offers a realistic view of what it is to be a writer.
Since Campbell is back in Perth with his new novel Greetings From hot off the press, I took the opportunity to ask him (among other things); How exactly does a mad sports fanatic (and wannabe firefighter), become a writer?
Let's go for a spin and find out.
Basketballer to writer, that’s quite a leap. Tell us about the early years and how a sportsman turned into a writer?
While I started out wanting to make a career in sports, with basketball being the sport I was best at, it didn’t work out quite the way I wanted, but I never stopped playing sports. As a writer, I see a lot of correlations between the discipline of sport and the discipline of writing, especially the time commitment involved, the amount of training required, and the importance of persistence. And, of course, those moments where all the stars align and it’s magic. Sport offers moments of transcendence, and so does writing.
What was the first thing you ever wrote, that made you think, I’m okay at this writing thing?
One of my professors at Murdoch University, Professor Robert Reece, once gave some unexpected feedback on an essay I wrote about Chinese miners in colonial Australia. It was the first time someone had pointed out that I wrote well and that I clearly had my own style. This made me read the essay again, and from that point on, I started to take writing more seriously.
Did you do any studies towards a career in the humanities?
I studied history, with the loose goal of becoming a teacher. But when I finished my degree, I wanted to travel, which took me to Canada, where I talked my way into a job at a local newspaper. After a few weeks, they gave me my own entertainment column, and the writing thing went from there.
At what point did you feel you could call yourself an author?
My second book ‘Hunter’ won an independent publishing award in the States that bills itself as the Sundance of book awards, in reference to the film festival. I really didn’t see this coming, especially as the book had been rejected by just about every publisher in Australia and the UK. But with this award, the book landed on a pile with thousands of others and somehow floated to the very top. I was stunned and reassured, and I felt like I was onto something.
Looking back over the collection of novels you’ve written, which one gave /gives you greatest satisfaction?
That’s tough to answer, as each book offers some smidgen of satisfaction. But I think I have yet to write the book that leaves me fully satisfied. I hope it’s on the way. Maybe it never comes.
Do you measure success in sales or something else?
One of the myths of being an author is that we are all rich. Just making a good living as an author means selling upwards of 100,000 books a year, and there aren’t many authors on the planet doing that. A writer should write for the right reasons, and money-sales-fame-fortune-celebrity aren’t any of them. I think anyone who is writing and producing books and stories that people read and like, can consider themselves a success. It’s hard work writing a book. Just finishing can be considered a success.
You’ve used writing to carve out a career and you are a great advocate for educating others on how to make money as a writer. Apart for being a novelist, tell us about the jobs you’ve had as a writer?
I like to think I’ve adapted my writing career to the changes that have resulted from technology and business. I started out in journalism, branched out into travel writing and travel guides, then switched to advertising and corporate writing when there was no more money in journalism. I also taught writing, which I found highly beneficial for my own writing.
How does an aspiring writer tap into these opportunities?
With the way the writing world is right now and with companies producing more content in-house than ever, my best advice for writers is to specialise: to combine an area of expertise, or even something they’re passionate about, with writing. For example, if you like cars, become a content or press writer for an automotive company. Or if you like renovating, look into writing for construction companies or home/garden/design magazines.
What are the pitfalls for anyone starting out in this industry?
Achievements may be incremental to the point they barely register. A good thing to know is that there is quite a lot of money to be made in writing, especially with writing content for companies, but not much to be made from books. And writing books can be a frustrating endeavour.
Do your storylines find you or do you go looking for them?
Stories are gifts I find in unusual places, and I’m always very happy to find them. I also think I’ve walked straight past a few without realising what they were.
As an author living outside of Australia, how do you think Australian literature is valued on the global scale?
Like literature in lots of countries, certain books do well, some are valued, and a great many disappear.
Do you have author friends? Do you brainstorm ideas with them about techniques, publishers, promotional opportunities etc..?
I have a few friends who are book authors, and a few friends who are professional writers. When together, we try not to talk shop, but we always do, because it’s what we’re passionate about and it consumes so much of our lives. I always like hearing about how others write and develop ideas. I admire the work my writer friends do and am very happy to learn from them.
How does the publication process vary from Europe to Australia?
Australia is a very small book market. There aren’t many publishers, and not many books get published each year. In Europe, Germany especially, many more books are published, as the market is larger. But in the end, there’s little difference other than size. In lots of countries, plenty of rubbish gets published, bad authors do well, and books that deserve to reach a wider audience disappear or don’t get published at all. It’s no wonder that writers choose to put their creative energy into something other than books.
In your view, what practices would the Australia publishing/writing sector benefit by following the European model?
I would say the one thing Australian publishing needs more of are readers.
Who is your favourite author? If it’s not an Australian, do you have a favourite Aussie author?
I like a lot of authors, but I often find myself going back to the books and essays of David Foster Wallace, and kind of read his work in awe. For example, he has written some brilliant essays about tennis.
I struggle with Australian authors, as many of them write what I call “misery-guts” fiction, which are basically long lists of events with one bad thing happening after another and horrible people living horrible lives and doing horrible things to each other.
I often wonder why Aussie writers seem only able to write misery-guts fiction. But I think Australia has produced some great non-fiction writers, including Donald Horne and Robert Hughes.
I also like reading Australian poetry, with my current favourite being Susan Bradley Smith.
You come back to your old stomping ground of Kalamunda each year. Do you write while you are home or is it purely for pleasure/family?
I work while in WA, as I do while I’m in Germany. But as Perth is a giant playground, the time here can’t help but be pleasurable.
Your latest book…Greetings From is a series of travel stories in which you share some of your interesting experiences as a travel writer and the many eclectic people you met along the way. Tell us a bit about it.
This book was over twenty years in the making. I hope it finds some readers and maybe gives them the impetus to do some travelling of their own.
I note you’re doing a couple of author talks and workshops while you are here. Where can we find Campbell Jefferys while he’s here in Perth?
February 19, 2-4pm, ‘Going Places’ travel writing workshop at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne. March 2, 5:30-7pm, author talk at Mundaring Library.
Fun facts about Campbell
Bookmark or earmarker?
Boarding pass, as a bookmark.
Holiday destination, beach or countryside?
Beaches that border hills and countryside, as in the Basque, the French Riviera, and the islands of Croatia.
Favourite food indulgence?
Good gluten free cake (hard to get in Germany)
Who do you barrack for in the Olympics? Australia or Germany?
Australia, but I think it’s okay when we don’t do well, as we place far too much value on sporting achievements. I’d like to see Australia placing as much (if not more) emphasis on education and the arts as on sports.
What is the Deutsch word for author?
Schriftsteller or Autor. But I like Schreiber, as this means scribe.
What is the strangest Deutsch word you know?
Schifffahrt. The three F’s make my head spin.
If you were a contestant on Mastermind, what would your specialty subject be?
The Wire or the music of Beck.
Which best seller have you read that you thought ‘My books are better than that!’
This happens a lot, namely because bestsellers seem to be lottery winners and are rarely great books, and it adds to the frustration of being a writer. As an example, in the past month, I have started several bestsellers and barely got through fifty pages before flinging them across the room, including ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen, ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith, and ‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder. I’m not saying my books are better, but at least I’ve got a story to tell and am not simply detailing a bunch of stuff that happens.
What is the best advice you ever got about life?
Play straight. This is from cricket, and it was one of the first things I learned about the game when I was young. Over the years, it has come to mean many things for me, from being fair and honest to saying things “straight” without sugar-coating and wishy-washy language. It also makes me think about doing the simple things well and not over-complicating. And perhaps most importantly, to never cheat.
You can find out more about Campbell Jefferys here. Thanks for coming on the road with us.
Next month we have two new local authors including Nadia King.