ROSEMARY NEILL meets
YOUNG ADULT AUTHOR, FIREFIGHTER
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