As you well know, all things expat are my passion, especially when pertaining to South Africa. Books and writing are my other passion. When these two worlds overlap, I’m in heaven.
So perhaps you can imagine my excitement when Tony Park – who has been hailed as Africa’s next Wilbur Smith – agreed to give an interview and have it published right here on Joburg Expat!
Tony Park is an Australian author who writes novels set in southern Africa, with a focus on South Africa. His books are sold around the world with two, Ivory and The Delta, so far available in the U.S. (However, I’ve been able to buy three others, African Dawn, African Sky, and The Hunter via Amazon 3rd party sellers.) He recently launched his 13th novel, Red Earth, which is set in KwaZulu Natal. He is an expat of sorts, spending six months of every year in Africa where he has a house near the Kruger Park, and the remainder of the year in Sydney.
I hope you’ll pour yourself a cup of coffee or Rooibos tea, sit back, and enjoy reading what Tony has to say about the inspiration for his novels, how he likes to spend a Saturday afternoon, his favorite “This is Africa” moment, and why “now now” gets him into fights with his editor. And oh, I’ll be raffling away a copy of The Delta among those of you who leave comments and questions for Tony, so don’t be shy! I promise you The Delta makes for great beach reading with the school holidays looming.
Joburg Expat: How (and when) did you come to South Africa for the first time, and what made you fall in love with it?
Tony Park: My wife Nicola, the planner in our relationship, decided in 1995 that we would go for a once-in-a-lifetime safari to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. That one-off trip proved to be anything but. Within the first few days of arriving in South Africa we were bitten by something, drank something, or breathed something in – but the continent hooked us. I guess it was a combination of the amazing wildlife, incredible scenery and the fascinating stories that everyone seemed to have that made us book our second trip to Africa before that first one was over. With the exception of 2002, when I was called on to serve with the Australian Army in Afghanistan (I’m an army reservist), we’ve been back to Africa every year since.
JE: Ha! If it weren’t for our spouses, we writers would never go to the places we need to see so we can write about them! Were you a writer before coming to SA or did SA inspire your writing career?
TP: Ever since I was a little kid the one thing in life I always wanted to do was write a novel. Around the time of my first or second trip to Africa I left my full time job in public relations to try and write a novel. I wrote a turkey of a book set in the Australian outback and fortunately that manuscript never saw the light of day. It was dreadful. It was on our third trip to Africa, a four-month self drive safari, that I sat down to try and write a book again, and it was then and there that I found my inspiration, my ‘muse’, Africa.
JE: You are killing me! As a fellow author, but one who had no aspirations to write books when I was a little kid, I somehow always feel envious when others say that. though I’m a bit mollified about the “dreadful manuscript”:-) What do you love most about Africa?
Every Day is a New Adventure
TP: The unpredictability. Good, bad or otherwise, every day is a new adventure. That goes for game drives in the bush – you never know, literally, what’s lurking just around the corner – and for life in general. Countries that were doing quite well when we first visited in 1995 – Zimbabwe is a case in point – are a basket case now, but on the upside, places that were war zones or devastated by tragedy 21 years ago are thriving, go-ahead places today. I’m a positive person and I see no end of evidence of the indomitable human spirit on my travels in Africa.
JE: Are your characters inspired by real people you know?
TP: No, the characters per se in my books are not inspired by real people but some of the things my fictional characters go through are based on real events and real stories told to me by people I’ve met.
JE: Many of your characters are the adventurer types who don’t always play by the rules and know how to wield an automatic weapon – where have you learned so much about guns and explosives?
TP: I served with the Australian Army in Afghanistan in 2002 as a public affairs officer. I was called up from the army reserve to full time service – what the American Armed Forces calls active duty. My 34-odd years in the army, part time, have exposed me to some interesting stuff. I’m not a man of action myself, but to paraphrase one of the characters from Stephen E. Ambrose’s ‘Band of Brothers’, I had the privilege of serving in the company of some real life heroes. I learned a lot from the people I served with.
JE: This is a more geeky question I hope my readers will excuse, but I’m always curious about other writers’ source of inspiration. Where do your best ideas come from, and how do you go about putting them into your books – i.e. is it a very methodical approach with an overview first, then chapter by chapter fleshing out of the storyline, or do you just get struck by an idea and write down that scene and build the rest around it later?
TP: My ideas come from newspaper articles I’ve read in South Africa, from conversations I’ve had with people around the braai, or, in the case of my latest book, Red Earth, from one of my readers. I have a friend and reader named Andre Botha who is the head of the Birds of Prey conservation program for South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust. He suggested I write a novel that touched on the plight of Africa’s critically endangered vultures. (Vultures are killed for use in traditional medicine, thanks to a mistaken belief that they bring good luck, and poisoned by poachers because vultures act as an early warning system for national parks rangers who are drawn to freshly killed rhinos and elephants by the vultures.)
JE: That’s fascinating! Who would have thought vultures are endangered? So how does a book come to life from a suggestion like that?
TP: Once I have a basic premise, such as ‘guy in the bush researching vultures,’ I then sit down, open my laptop and start writing a new book. I do not have a plot or overview first – I’ve found from experience I can’t work that way – so I simply make up the story and the characters as I go along. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow when writing a new book any more than I know how the story will end. Not everyone writes this way, but it’s what works for me.
JE: Thank God! I was secretly hoping you’d say this, versus telling me about binders full of character studies. What do you do to get new material for your books?
The Best Way for Me to Research and Write My Books is On Location
TP: I’ve found that the best way for me to research and write my books is to do it ‘on location’. As I’m not from here, I have no residual knowledge of the countries I write about, and rather than Googling information I find it’s much more fun (and a great excuse to travel) to spend time in the places I’m writing about and draw inspiration from the people, landscapes and wildlife.
JE: Where is the next place you’d like to visit?
TP: My wife and I just did a seven week road trip from South Africa to Tanzania and back in our Land Rover. We did 11,000 km on atrocious roads so at the moment I’m not planning on going anywhere for a while! Seriously, we were very impressed with Zambia, a country that was well and truly on the skids when we first visited in 1998, but today, after a few years of stable government and an influx of displaced farmers from Zimbabwe, is looking fantastic. I have a hankering to visit the Liuwa Plains in Zambia, the site of the second biggest animal migration in Africa.
JE: Aha! So might we see Dusty Plains next in the bookstores? Coming up with book titles is agony to me, especially short ones like yours. Speaking of agony, do you ever get writer’s block?
TP: I find that it’s almost impossible to get writer’s block in Africa. If I ever get stuck for something to write I just look around me, pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio, and I’ll get a dozen or more bizarre ideas for plot twists!
JE: That’s for sure. Africa was a blogger’s dream. Shifting gears a little bit: What do you like to do on a rainy Saturday?
TP: I love to read. I spend so much time in between writing with re-reading and editing my manuscripts that I don’t get as much time as I’d like to read other authors’ work. I grab any chance I can get.
JE: You’re sometimes called “the next Wilbur Smith” – have you read his books and what would you say to that?
TP: I’m happy to be compared to a man who is incredibly successful with a following around the world. I’m a fan of Wilbur’s earlier, stand-alone books, which tended to be snapshots of Africa at the time he was writing them. I think if people like his stuff from the 70s and 80s they might find something of interest in my books. I didn’t actually start reading his books until after I was published and travelling more in Africa. I like to say that the two major differences between me and Wilbur are about 35 books (though I’m catching up), and $35 million.
JE: Ha! One book at a time, right? What’s your favorite novel set in Africa? Favorite author?
TP: Hold my Hand I’m Dying, by the late, truly great, John Gordon-Davis. It’s set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the bush war. I love that book and loved all his novels.
JE: Whatever one can say about Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, it has given the world some of the best literature! Changing track a little bit again… Rumor has it you live in one of those “wildlife estates” near Kruger Park; what can you tell us about that? Is it as awesome as it sounds?
We Have a Resident Leopard Who Sneaks Around Our House
TP: Yes, I do. And yes it is as awesome as it sounds. My wife and I bought a house in a small game reserve that joins on to the Kruger Park. We have sundowners every day on the Sabie River, looking into Kruger, and we regularly see all the Big Five and much more. We have a resident leopard who sneaks around our house – I’ve caught her on my infrared camera trap again, but when the bushbuck bark and the baboons yell out their signature ‘WA-HOO’ alarm call, you know the neighbourhood cat’s out there somewhere.
JE: Are there many other expats in your area?
TP: Most of the owners on our estate are South Africans, but we do have a small, active community of expats. We have other friends from Australia and there are also people from Holland, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Nicola and I were recently featured on the U.S. reality TV show, Househunters International Off the Grid, talking about how we found our house in South Africa, so we’re bracing for some new neighbours from around the world!
JE: Everyone moving to Africa has their “This is Africa” moment, as in “I can’t believe this is happening but it IS kind of quaint.” What was yours about?
TP: I think that when we were buying our house in Africa our best TIA moment was when we first saw a copy of the title deeds to our house. As well as the person we were buying the property from there was another name on the deed, as a joint owner, and we had never heard of this problem. The advocate (lawyer) handling the sale said, “don’t worry about that, it’s just a mistake. It happens all the time. It will be fixed.” We had a minor melt down, but it turns out he was right!
JE: Sounds just like the meltdown my husband had when handing over a few hundred thousand rand and not receiving a title deed for the car. Could you see yourself moving back to Australia full-time? What would be the biggest culture shock when moving back?
TP: I think we’ve got a good balance, living half the year in Africa and half the year in Australia. Not only are we on different continents, making the most of what both have to offer, our lifestyles are very different. In Australia we are very much ‘city people’, living in an apartment in Sydney, a beautiful harbour city with beaches, restaurants and bars close by, while in South Africa we are ‘bush’ people, enjoying the peace and solitude of the natural environment. The biggest culture shock I find when I return to Australia, is that drivers actually stop for you when you cross the road at a pedestrian crossing!
JE: What’s your favorite South African food?
TP: Biltong. I’m an addict and can’t get enough of it.
JE: That reminds me I have yet to use my biltong maker I purchased and hauled back from my last South Africa trip! One last question: How would you explain to an outsider what, exactly, “just now” means?
TP: Ha ha. Just now means sometime between half an hour and six weeks. I also like ‘now now’, although whenever I have a character say that in one of my novels my editor wants to chop off the second ‘now’! I have to explain to her that it’s an essential term that should be introduced to the rest of the world.
JE: Very essential! And this concludes my interview. Thank you so much for your time, Tony, and best of luck on your quest to catch up with Wilbur Smith – I’m rooting for you!