The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -


WHEN au­thor Robert New­ton vis­its schools, the teach­ers, nat­u­rally enough, want him to dis­cuss his fiction. But the stu­dents of­ten clam­our to hear about the non- lit­er­ary side of New­ton’s life: the pulse- quick­en­ing emer­gen­cies, the dra­matic res­cues, the fu­ri­ous heat that can rip through a home in min­utes.

For as well as writ­ing well- re­garded nov­els for teenagers, New­ton is a sea­soned fire­fighter, as­signed to the Highett fire brigade in Melbourne’s south­ern sub­urbs. ‘‘ Eigh­teen years I have been do­ing it,’’ says this burly man with the creative bent and black belt in karate.

New­ton clearly rev­els in his un­ortho­dox ca­reer cou­pling: ‘‘ I love it, the dou­ble act of fire­fight­ing and writ­ing, be­cause writ­ing is a very soli­tary thing, while fire­fight­ing is very teamor­i­ented. When you go to the fire sta­tion, you never know what you’ll get sent out to, it’s a very un­pre­dictable sort of job.’’

He sees a par­al­lel be­tween this un­pre­dictabil­ity and his writ­ing; when he sits at his com­puter, he doesn’t know what nar­ra­tive de­tours his char­ac­ters will ul­ti­mately take. ‘‘ It’s al­most like hav­ing an ad­ven­ture,’’ says the writer, whose real- life ad­ven­tures have in­cluded tack­ling a pe­tro­leum re­fin­ery blaze in Melbourne’s west that burned for sev­eral days. ‘‘ One of the big petrol tanks went up; that was pretty scary, be­cause it was a huge, huge fire,’’ he re­calls.

He points out house fires can be just as dan­ger­ous, ‘‘ be­cause you have to get in and make sure no one’s inside’’. Th­ese days, fire­fight­ers are also trained to as­sist at road ac­ci­dents. ‘‘ We do see a lot of tragedy . . . it’s es­pe­cially tough if kids are in­volved,’’ this fa­ther of three young daugh­ters says soberly.

Clearly, there is no short­age of drama and heart­break in New­ton’s work life. It is per­haps be­cause of this that in his re­cent fiction he has turned to the rel­a­tive safety of the past. Run­ner , pub­lished in 2005, is set in Vic­to­ria in 1919 and cen­tres on a boy who runs mes­sages for Melbourne gang­ster Squizzy Tay­lor. This novel has been sold to the US and Canada, and New­ton nom­i­nates this as a ca­reer high­light: ‘‘ It’s re­ally good to know that sto­ries set in Aus­tralia are be­ing sold over­seas. I was very proud of that.’’

New­ton’s latest novel, The Black Dog Gang , is a warmly funny, vivid tale set in Syd­ney’s once- no­to­ri­ous slum, The Rocks, dur­ing an out­break of bubonic plague in 1900. It tells the story of two boys who live just me­tres apart in the same skint com­mu­nity. One teenager has a lov­ing Ir­ish fam­ily while the other’s life is dis­fig­ured by his vi­o­lent, drink- sod­den fa­ther.

The boys, who speak in a fruity fu­sion of Strine and stage Ir­ish, form the Black Dog Gang. When the au­thor­i­ties — pan­icked by sev­eral cases of plague — of­fer re­wards for rats that have been caught and killed, the gang dreams up a lu­cra­tive yet bone­headed plan. Obliv­i­ous to the risks in­volved, they de­cide to se­cretly breed rats so they can cash in on the re­wards de­signed to en­cour­age the erad­i­ca­tion of th­ese pests.

Dur­ing the 1900 plague, some adults ac­tu­ally en­gaged in this reck­less scam, ac­cord­ing to New­ton. ‘‘ The clincher for my story was ( find­ing out) that some men were very en­tre­pre­neur­ial; they started breed­ing rats un­der their houses to make money.’’

The writer’s in­ter­est in the Syd­ney plague epi­demic was pro­voked by a black and white pho­to­graph of a group of men stand­ing in front of a huge pile of dead rats. ‘‘ My eye was drawn to the photo. I just pored over it . . . I was fas­ci­nated by it all,’’ he ex­plains.

New­ton trod the cob­ble­stoned paths and rib­bon- like lanes of The Rocks, now a slick tourist hub, to re­search his novel. He dis­cov­ered that about 100 Syd­neysiders died in the plague out­break. ‘‘ There was a mad hys­te­ria,’’ New­ton says. ‘‘ Th­ese cases caused a huge panic in The Rocks and else­where in Syd­ney.’’

Only three of the 100 or so vic­tims came from The Rocks, but of­fi­cial ef­forts to con­trol the plague fo­cused on that area; lots of houses there were de­mol­ished, for ex­am­ple. This was partly be­cause the first plague vic­tim lived there and partly be­cause The Rocks was pre­car­i­ously close to the city’s docks, where ships teem­ing with rats were berthed.

Apart from life- threat­en­ing dis­ease and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, The Black Dog Gang fea­tures mur­der and an older wo­man’s ( un­suc­cess­ful) sex­ual ad­vances to­wards an un­der­age boy. Does New­ton think teen read­ers are ready for such dirty re­al­ism? ‘‘ I think they are, for sure. I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant when you’re writ­ing for young adults not to dumb things down. I think they’re a so­phis­ti­cated lot and they can see through what you’re do­ing.’’ The Black Dog Gang ’ s grit is soft­ened by its hu­mour, a breezy ir­rev­er­ence that also char­ac­terises New­ton’s other ti­tles. He agrees ‘‘ hu­mour pro­vides that kind of light and shade that is re­ally im­por­tant in the story, but I think it also helps young peo­ple make sense of the world’’.

New­ton started ex­per­i­ment­ing with fiction a decade ago. Since then, he has pub­lished six nov­els for teen read­ers, a prodi­gious out­put given the de­mands of his young fam­ily and day job.

His first novel, My Name is Will Thompson , about a 13- year- old boy with a learn­ing dis­abil­ity, has just been reis­sued by Pen­guin.

New­ton con­fesses that his sec­ond novel was in the book­shops be­fore he plucked up the courage to tell his fire sta­tion col­leagues about his se­cret writ­ing life. ‘‘ I kept it quiet for quite a while and when I spilled the beans they were very shocked,’’ he says, but they now think his moon­light­ing as an au­thor is fan­tas­tic.

New­ton’s writ­ing ca­reer evolved through the long, colour­ful let­ters he wrote to his ex­pa­tri­ate brother in Switzer­land. ‘‘ Th­ese let­ters mor­phed into sto­ries and I re­alised how much I loved writ­ing them.’’ He spent a year or so shap­ing and pol­ish­ing My Name is Will Thompson be­fore send­ing it off to a half- dozen pub­lish­ers. To his amaze­ment, the Univer­sity of Queens­land Press ac­cepted it. New­ton is now com­plet­ing a three­book deal with Pen­guin.

Re­cently he branched into film- mak­ing, writ­ing the script for a short film, Lip­stick , about a cross- dress­ing fam­ily man who is pub­licly hu­mil­i­ated. The film was sub­mit­ted for the Tropfest short film fes­ti­val, but wasn’t short­listed. New­ton was dis­ap­pointed but not dis­suaded. ‘‘ It was a lot of fun and some­thing I want to do more of,’’ he says.

As a sports- mad boy it never oc­curred to him he might one day be a writer, mostly be­cause he didn’t read for plea­sure. ‘‘ You read dif­fer­ently when you’ve got some­thing hang­ing over your head,’’ he re­calls.

New­ton agrees writ­ers of young adult fiction face a big­ger chal­lenge to­day to en­gage their tar­get au­di­ence, given the range of elec­tronic and mul­ti­me­dia pas­times on of­fer. ‘‘ Read­ing might be the fifth or sixth op­tion in their leisure time, or only an op­tion if it’s rain­ing,’’ he says.

Which is why, when dis­cussing his nov­els with school stu­dents, New­ton goes out of his way to be his unas­sum­ing, ap­proach­able self. As he puts it: ‘‘ I im­press on them that I’m an av­er­age type of per­son who had a bit of a crack.’’

Pic­ture: David Ger­aghty

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