Spotlight On / Graham Wilson

‘Rather than being motivated by imagined commercial success, be driven by the joy of telling stories which give pleasure to readers.’

Each month, we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements and inspirations. This May, our Spotlight On features Graham Wilson, author of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children, the Old Balmain House series and the Crocodile Dreaming series. Wilson will be launching his latest novel, Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children, at the NT Writers Festival in Darwin this month.

Our Membership Intern, Lucie Towers, spoke with Wilson about growing up in the Northern Territory, the importance of memory, and the challenges which come when writing from a very real, very raw, very powerful place.

Congratulations on the release of your autobiographical novel, Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children. Tell us a little about the book. 

I grew up in a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, NT at a time when almost no non-Aboriginal people went there. It was an amazing childhood. This small community welcomed us and made us part of their family, extending over 50 years. This is a story of both transformation and continuity in in the heart of Aboriginal Australia.

How will you be launching the book? 

At its core, my book is a story of place and people in Top End of the Northern Territory. So it seemed most fitting that it be launched at the NT Writers Festival in Darwin on 27th May. I feel honoured to be doing a joint book launch with Toni Tapp Coutts, who tells of her life growing up on a cattle station called Killarney out towards Wave Hill in a book called My Outback Childhood and whose family I knew.

If there was one thing you wish people knew about the Northern Territory, what would it be?

How vast and empty it is. If you exclude the thin bitumen strip of road running north-south which links the main towns of Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin, the non-Aboriginal population in the rest would at most number a couple of thousand people spread over an area twice the size of NSW. Yet this whole landscape is an aboriginal place, continuously occupied and used by them for over 60,000 years.

Place is an important theme in both Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope Children and your two book series, The Old Balmain House and The Crocodile Dreaming. What inspires you to write about a specific place?

My earliest memories are dominated by images of place, the landscape of Arnhem Land and Kakadu – sunlit hills, green floodplains, muddy rivers – remains imprinted after many decades. Later, when I worked there, more images of deserts, red ranges, vast dry grass plains and endless scrub filled my mind too. My NT books begin with these mind images of place into which I set stories of people, the real people of my memoir and the imagined people of my Crocodile Dreaming books are all embedded into this landscape.

When we moved to Balmain in Sydney, I found another place of bright images; old sandstone houses, narrow streets meandering out of nowhere and emerging to vistas glimpsed of boats and harbour seen through flowering jacarandas, with a looming horizon of city skyscrapers and the Harbour Bridge. I built more stories around these place images too, adding people to a mix of built and natural landscapes, with each flowing through the other.

What challenges come with writing memoir?

One challenge is trying to faithfully record distant and fallible memories in ways that are kind to those whose stories are told but also give an accurate telling that captures both the mood and reality of another time and place.

Another challenge is to thread disparate memory fragments together in ways where they build on one another and move the story from a series of disjunct events into a flowing narrative that draws my reader along

You have a unique approach to promoting and distributing your ebooks, making select books available online for free. What are the benefits to this approach?

As an unknown author without a public profile I found the only realistic way for others to discover me was using free books to find readers for my books. But free books alone are not enough, there are millions of these already out there into which one’s own words soon vanish without trace. So you need to build a level of enjoyment in your readers that encourages them to come back, read the next book and one after and along the way recommend your books to others. Over several years this approach has found me tens of thousands of readers and several hundred reviews through which a wider book community is now discovering me too.

Do you have any words of advice for other writers looking to self-publish? 

Rather than being motivated by imagined commercial success, be driven by the joy of telling stories which give pleasure to readers. My greatest pleasure comes when a single reader tells me my book has consumed many hours of their precious time as they lived inside my story’s journey. This value far exceeds any cover price.

The great thing about being self-published is you own all the intellectual property and can do with it as you wish, revise it when you want, ignore editorial advice, try new things, new covers, new blurbs, new twists in the tale without the permission of others. This is a great freedom.

The downside is you need to do it all yourself. While you can take a no-cost option the quality will suffer without the input of others into covers and content. And you need to be a shameless marketer to get your books in front of readers, without being seen as pushy or tacky. First encourage others to read what you have written, then ask readers to write reviews and tell friends. I have never found much value in social media. For me lots of one on one contacts work best, telling 3 people/day = 1000/year. Others find different ways work better for them.

And most importantly keep writing and publishing. You will lose the readers you found for one book if the next one takes too long to follow. Remember, while you want quality, perfection is the enemy of the good! If you enthral your readers they will forgive little imperfections which you can always fix later.

Your print book covers have been professionally designed by award-winning book designer, Nada Backovic. What was the design process like?

Nada is a creative wonder. She takes a story idea and turns it into a masterful image. In my Old Balmain House series she took an antique perfume bottle, a child’s silver locket and a toy red car and turned these into cover images for each book within a series theme. She also did a variant where she did a hand drawn weatherboard cottage. Along the way she helps polish and refine the cover text to give a complete professional package.

For my memoir she took two of my father’s old damaged photos of people and landscapes from many decades past. From these a remarkable book cover emerged. It captures the essence of a place in its light and colour and with a faded sense of times long past. For me this is her best work yet and deserves its own award.

What are you reading at the moment? 

Two books I bought at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell is a frightening look at how fast sea rise is coming and how it will change our world as we know it. The second is People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, true crime in its darkest form. It is not an easy story but is profoundly shocking and moving. It is both an intense reading experience and a source of ideas for my own darker writing.

What’s your favourite part about being a writer?

Getting lost inside my own mind in the telling of a new story. Then seeing it come alive in other people’s minds.

In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring:

Writer? Too many to choose from that have moved me to love – I can’t decide
Weather? A huge thunderstorm rolling across the Top End
Music? Gurrumul in all his songs.
Time of day? Dawns of endless promise and dusks of magic infused fading light
Location? Rainbow Valley near Alice Springs on a starry winter night




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