Well, this is exciting! One of the new things I wanted to launch in 2019 was an interview series with other authors, so I’m delighted to announce the start of a series I’m calling Holden’s Heroes.
This will be a regular series of interviews with fellow writers: I’ll welcome them to my “home” (virtually only, but let’s use our imaginations) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. My favourite thing about interviews is when there’s some deeper or more personal insight than would usually be revealed, so coaxing out some of these insights is going to be my aim when interviewing my
victims subjects friends.
The aim will be for interviews to be published on a monthly basis, and I thought for 2019 I would begin by focusing on the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub. I’m calling this the “January” interview even though we’re in early Feb, so just go along with it, okay? Great.
I’m starting things off with my buddy Michael Trant – he has the fine honour of becoming the first ever featured author for Holden’s Heroes and chatting to him was as fun and fascinating as I expected. Let’s dive in and see what he has to say for himself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ January 2019
Holden: Michael Trant, welcome to my house and sorry the place is such a bloody mess. Please, don’t mind the piles of clothes and rubbish everywhere. I swear I’ll pick them up one day.
Michael: What mess? You’re talking to a guy who’ll buy more coffee cups just to avoid washing the pile on his desk.
H: Now, this explains why we’re mates. Okay, let’s dive in: your debut novel Ridgeview Station was published by Allen & Unwin in 2017, and it’s a cracking rural fiction read about life on an outback station in the Midwest. In your acknowledgements, you mention this is inspired by your time on Gabyon Station near Yalgoo. I am fascinated – what was it like living on, and running, a station?
M: To be honest most of the running was, and still is, done by my former wife Gemma. Having a station was always her goal, so that’s what we aimed for. And in 2009 we achieved that, though I spent most my time looking after our Geraldton farms so she could go up and help her parents who moved there. It is a great life, but it is very hard, and that’s something I wanted to put across in the book. Simple things like getting hot water, keeping the power running, even before you get to the actual working side of it. And just the sheer scale of those places. That’s why I rib you about your ‘huge’ drive down to Fremantle.
H: I maintain Butler to Fremantle is like The Shire to Mordor, but you’re a guest here, so go on.
M: Later on, after we had to sell the farms, I ended up working four and one FIFO to pay some bills. So really I only spent about a year fulltime on the actual station, but travelled up and back quite regularly. I do miss the place though. One thing I’ll always remember is the stars and the stillness. They run a station stay up there and I highly recommend it. It’s only *coughs* five hours from Perth. Not far at all.
H: Still closer than Butler to Freo, ha! I wanted to ask as well, since the novel is so heavily autobiographical – can you actually fly a plane? And also, did you actually fight off a bushfire?
M: I never did get my pilot ticket, but I was generally the one who went up with my father-in-law Mike as a spotter for the ground crews on motorbikes. Mike is getting on a bit, so I made sure to ask what everything did, you know, just in case we were 500 feet up and he blacked out or something. I figured I could land it if I had to, even if the plane may not fly again afterwards, but any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Thankfully I never had to test it, but not long after I left he was very lucky. Just after take-off a cable snapped and ploughed him sideways into the dirt, just missing a shed and the house. He was okay, but normally I’d have been with him, so who knows what might have happened?
The fire scenes are pretty much as it happened to us, with the exception of Ash’s near miss. I made that up for a bit more excitement. But we’d had record rain the year before, just as the book starts, and then it all lit up in the summer from lightening. We lost 80 000 hectares, about a third of the place. Unfortunately most of the scenes with the fire control officers I didn’t have to change too much. Murder was nearly done that week, I can assure you.
H: I was about ready to strangle those guys when I read the novel, so I would hardly blame you for a murder there. On a serious note with the autobiographical stuff, after you wrote this novel, you separated from your wife and left Gabyon Station. Is it difficult to look back on the novel and revisit these experiences from a distance?
M: It was extremely hard and I struggled. The publishing contract came through about five months after we split, which was fine, but the first round of edits hit six months later, just when the reasons for the split start to fade a little and you begin to look back with rose tinted glasses. I am very grateful our split has been mostly amicable, but at the same time when you’re not clawing each other’s eyes out there are times when it’s not easy either.
Coupled to that I attended a family funeral around the same time and it was like I’d never left. No animosity at all, just open arms from everyone. Plus I was working on a farm just down the road from where it all started which brought back more memories, so yeah, I wasn’t good there for a while and did some stupid stuff that hurt both Gemma and my current partner Kylie, but we got through it and I’m very grateful to get that sorted. And for Kylie’s understanding. Every event we go to she sits there and listens to me tell the same story about how Ridgeview came about. I don’t know how many other partners would accept that, but she does and I’m very appreciative of it.
H: I think we can all agree Kylie is a good egg! Speaking of good eggs, I really love a lot of the characters in this novel – especially Pete and Alexi, who are both foregrounded – but I seriously think Bull is the coolest character of all and I want to be him when I grow up. What inspired Bull and why do you think you’ve had such a response to him?
M: Bull’s just one of those real old school ocker kind of guys. I love him. Swears like a trooper, but immediately apologises for it if he’s in front of an older lady. Jovial and jolly, but not afraid to front up to someone if needed. He’s a combination of a few people, but mostly an owner-operator stock carter called Steve. He had this massive red beard and these two beautiful big Huntaway truck dogs.
The scene with Mork and Mindy towards the end came from his two dogs, and I’ll never forget his face when he told me that. I’ll also never forget when he shaved off his beard. I thought he’d put a new driver on until this pasty face man spoke.
H: There is a genuine, down-to-earth, masculine quality to your writing that I really enjoy reading – there’s swearing and humour and it’s the kind of humour I grew up with, being a Midwest boy myself. Is this something you consciously craft for your writing, or is it just something that seeps into your work?
M: Not intentionally, but because most of those characters were drawn from real people, or a combination of, I already knew how they spoke. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m very musical. I play, and I listen. John Harman, a Perth based writer who assessed Ridgeview early on and who runs very good writing courses, says ‘good writers do not have a tin ear,’ and he’s right. I can hear accents, how people phrase words when they talk, where they pause or run on, just as I can hear riffs and base lines under a melody. Alexi is a good example. She’s based off many backpackers we had through. People who come to English as a second or third language phrase things very differently to native speakers. ‘We go now then?’ as opposed to ‘So we going now or what?’ or ‘So we be going soon then, lad?’ if they’re Irish. But you have to be careful not to overdo it or its hard work for the reader. I toned Alexi’s dialogue back a bit in the final version after advice from the editors. I did refuse to change the phrasing of one of Kev’s lines though. I forget what it was, but is was worded extremely strangely and I said no, that’s how this guy speaks.
H: Speaking of editors, many readers of this blog will wonder what it’s like to be published by one of the bigger publishing houses in the country. What was it like to have your precious book edited, altered, packaged up, branded and sold?
M: I loved it. To finally have some guidance was so good. During the negotiations before a contract came through, my publisher Louise wanted to make sure I was happy to change a few things. Her opening email line was along the lines of ‘It’s really good, but needs a lot of work.’ My response was ‘You say jump, I’ll ask how high. You’re the experts.’ I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the manuscript. I had multiple points of view in the same scenes, I took far too long to get the story moving and had pages of beautiful prose describing a stone tank. I think we ended up cutting about 15 000 words from the original submission, but replaced them with another 10 000. Less describing stuff, and more ‘stuff actually happening.’ Looking back, I think the start is still a bit of a slow burn, but once it ramps up it seems to hook people in.
Having the support of those who know what they are doing was invaluable. The cover design is amazing. I was always going to self-publish, and had a lovely photo of an old windmill that was going to be the cover, but when the email with the pdf came through I was stunned. And then to see it in a bookshop for the first time, I’ll never forget that. The first reader-submitted photo of it out in the wild came from Wagga-Wagga. Couldn’t think of a better place for it.
H: It would be surreal to reach that point. I’m in the editing stage for my novel at the moment, and part of me is like “there is no end to this”. Once your novel was published, did you look at it and think “it’s perfect”, or do you look at it now and still want to change stuff?
M: Haha, first page of my copy I opened had a bloody typo. No, I don’t think anyone is ever one hundred percent happy with their work, but I think it’s as good as I could do knowing what I did back then. I feel for those writers who launch their book while working on the next one. By the time launch comes, that book is way out of your mind, you’re already in another world working on the next.
H: Well, I am now dreading opening my book once it’s printed. The typos will scream at me, I’m sure of it. Okay, so I wanted to ask about your beginnings as a writer. You initially made the leap from farmer to writer when you started a successful blog a few years back. How did that happen and do you think blogging is important for authors?
M: I’ve always been able to pen something half decent, but mostly they were strongly worded letters to people who owed us money, or politicians. I think I get that from Mum. But when the whole live export thing blew up there were no farmers on social media, and as part of a push by industry to change that I started a blog, mainly just to give an insight into how things worked on a farm. It was mostly humorous anecdotes about what we were doing and why, but every now and then I’d pen something really serious. It kind of blew up, and through it we organised the biggest rally of farmers in Perth since the early 80s, and met the then Federal Agricultural Minister for a one on one discussion.
I think blogging is important, but only if you really want to do it. My original blog is mothballed now. I wasn’t going to post on it after I left the station, and the new one I created is sorely lacking in content, so I would suggest only do one if you’re prepared to put the effort in.
H [*looks wistfully at irregular blog post history*]: So, since Ridgeview was published eighteen months ago, you’ve been writing a lot. What new projects have you completed and what are you working on now?
M: Yeah, I actually listed them all the other day for this upcoming writer’s retreat and went, oh wow. I have actually been busy. So far I’ve finished (I use that term loosely) two novels; Ned, the life of a sheepdog from his point of view, and Fly-out Day, which follows a farmer struggling to balance work/life after taking on a FIFO job (sound familiar?). I’ve just finished the first draft on a third novel I’ve tentatively called Where Wild Dogs Roam, where an outback dogger stumbles across a people smuggling operation and is paired with an Afghani refugee as they try to find his family. This one took me ages to write. I kept getting stuck so in between I penned a novella called The Last Waltz, which I’ve set in a fantasy world based on Australian folklore. I’m really excited about this one, and am halfway through a second novella set in the same world. And this year I plan to do a narrative non-fiction piece on the rescue of a two year old boy who fell down a borehole in 1952. It’s an amazing story and I know some of those involved in the rescue. Finally I’ll keep pumping out short stories based around my Australian folklore/fantasy idea until I work out what to do with them.
H: Your pitch for a speculative fiction novella has just been shortlisted for the Drowned Earth novella competition – congrats mate! How does it feel, and what’s this one all about?
M: Stunned would be the word I’d use. When the email came it had the usual opening line. ‘Thank you for your submission etc etc we were inundated etc etc.’ Here we go again, I thought. ‘We are pleased to inform you…’ Wait what? So yeah, quite surprised. It’s an interesting concept. 9-12 writers are going to pen individual novellas about The Rise. The ice caps have melted much quicker than expected, so what happens next? Coastlines have flooded, hundreds of thousands of people displaced. I’ve always thought outback stations are the perfect setting for dystopian survival. They’re already pretty much self-sufficient so that’s what I pitched, a family living relatively unaffected until refugees turn up on their door step. Do they accept them or tell them to go back where they came from. I’ve got until March 3rd to pen a 1000 word sample, and we’ll see what happens, but it’s a great boost to my confidence, regardless of the outcome.
H: It’s a great boost, and you have other cool stuff ahead. My amazing literary agent Haylee Nash is running a writer’s retreat and I believe you’re flying over east to take part in it. What’s it going to be like, and what are you hoping to get out of it?
M: I’m really looking forward to this, particularly the sessions on pitching and the current publishing industry status. Unfortunately for me, my publisher resigned just as Ridgeview was released (completely unrelated, for sure) and I’ve kind of fallen through the cracks a little, so this seem a good way to get feedback and advice on some work from someone in the know. Rachael Johns and Josephine Moon are also presenting, and those two are great fun. I’m actually doing a talk with Rachael at Centre for Stories in early April, and really excited for that too. She’s been a huge help in the last year.
H: I’m going to that – should be a fantastic event. Tickets are available here.
M: Ideally what I get out of the retreat would be for Haylee to read my samples, go absolutely nuts over them and sign me up there and then. But I’ll settle for solid advice and some direction for the coming year. I’ll be dropping your name so hard your ears will hurt, by the way.
H: Hey, I have no problem with that – namedrop away. Although I’m way behind on my deadline for the next novel, so mentioning my name *may* make my agent snarl something like “that bastard owes me a manuscript”. So, namedrop at your own risk.
Something I just thought of … we’re both Midwest boys – should I dig up my old Akubra some day and we can take our books for a tour in the bush?
M: Absolutely. We’ll load up the ute and hit the dust. They won’t know what hit them. Are you sure you’re up for the road trip though? I mean, you consider Fremantle practically in another state, and that sort of trip length would get us to Bindoon, which I still consider suburbia.
H: Don’t forget I’m a Midwest boy myself – I hate long city drives, but I’ve done more road trips between Geraldton and Perth than I could ever count! Hmm, I suspect we may start quibbling on the road trip. Let’s move on. What made you join the #5amwritersclub, and what made you stay?
M: Peer pressure. I am a procrastinator, so posting a pic of me writing then having fellow writers saying ’See you tomorrow!’ makes me get out of bed and sit bum on seat. I haven’t been doing much of it lately because I’m fortunate to work flexibly, so I’m writing during the day at the moment. But when I head up to Three Springs I’ll start getting back into it. Urgh. I hate mornings. What makes me stay is the awesome people I met through it, such as yourself, and just having that support group around really helps. Published, unpublished, all writers go through the same problems, and sharing them really helps. And while I think of it a huge thank you to fellow member Bec for putting me onto the Drowned Earth competition.
H: Bec is a legend, and she has agreed to be interviewed on Holden’s Heroes in a few months’ time, so stay tuned.
Meantime, Mike, we’re nearly done with our chat. I want to ask you what advice would you give to aspiring and emerging authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known right at the beginning?
M: Be patient. Don’t send of unfinished work in a rush because you’re afraid you might miss out. Finish the manuscript and stick it in a draw for a month or more. More is better. Read it with fresh eyes and tighten it up again. Because it will need tightening. Then get other writers or avid readers to read it, and listen to their advice. You don’t have to accept it but if three out of four say it’s a little slow, they are probably right. And if you find a reader who is not afraid to be blunt, hang on to them.
Read. You have to read. You can’t improve your craft if you don’t observe how the pros do it. Last year I burned through 600 hours of audio books at work and learned so much. I can see it in what I’m writing now, it’s much tighter the first time around.
Find your writing tribe. Pretty much what I said about the #5amwriterclub. You’ll be surprised how common your problems or concerns are, and when something goes really well for you they’ll understand just how big a deal it is.
H: So agree, especially the last one – sometimes I’d tell non-writer friends my good news about a mentorship or residency and they’d be like, “okay … is that a big deal?” But writer mates totally get it, and get almost as excited as you do.
Okay, final question: I’m a big believer in goal setting and dreaming. Tell me, what would you love to have accomplished five years from now?
M: Firstly, getting something else published, or at least contracted to publish. That’s this year’s goal. But in five years I’d like to be able to repay Kylie’s faith in me. I quit a six figure FIFO job, not just to write, but partly because of it. It’d be nice if one day she had the option to do the same on the back of that faith.
H: What a poignant note to finish on. Michael Trant, it’s been awesome having you over for a chat and thanks for being so generous in your responses. Care to hang around for a drink? What’s your poison?
M: Been a pleasure. I’ll have whatever is cold, wet and free. I post a lot of Emu Export pics, but just quietly those are usually provided by work. I don’t normally drink the stuff, but when in Rome, as they say …
H: Bushchooks it is! 😉
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderfully talented Michael Trant. He’s a top bloke and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give him a like and a follow:
And of course, if you haven’t already got a copy, you can pick up his excellent novel Ridgeview Station here.
Holden’s Heroes will return in February (um, in a week or so ^_^) with another interview with a local WA author from my #5amwritersclub – stay tuned.
Until then, thanks for visiting, and may all your heroes be Holden (okay, I’ll work on a better line)!