“I write novels set in Africa. Care to join me on safari?” Tony Park, Author
I discovered author, Tony Park, on Twitter last week. His biography, quoted above, sounded intriguing, so I contacted him immediately saying that I’d love to join him on safari. Well, not literally of course, but who knows what the future holds? Maybe the Candy family will bump into him and his wife some where exotic one day.
So thanks to Twitter, my brazen request and Tony’s generosity, I’ve now got an amazing interview with him that I’m delighted to share with you. If this doesn’t make you more determined than ever to follow your heart, and dare to live your dream, then nothing will.
I’d love your thoughts on how people what people should do to live their dream. Can you give me a pithy quote about living your dream?
Be brave and don’t listen to other people. When I quit my full time job in 1997 to write book many people I know said I was crazy and some even used the idiot word. I was told I would never be published, and that “everyone has a book inside them and that’s where most of them should stay”.
It was a big leap, but with the help of my wife, I was able to give it a try. I was going to take six months off, but found that working in my spare room at home wasn’t helping me write a book. The next year my wife decided that she would live her dream and that we would travel around Africa for five months. It all came together – we both had a marvelous time and I found the inspiration, space and time I needed to write my first novel, Far Horizon.
We ignored the people who were looking for reasons why we wouldn’t succeed, we took a risk, and we supported each other. The end result is a life in which we spend six months of every year in Australia (where my wife, Nicola, still works as an HR and IT contractor) and six months in Africa where I write my books.
It’s brilliant that you were courageous enough to ignore the naysayers and follow your hearts. What advice do you have for people who want to live their dream?
If you think living your dream means sacrificing something – typically, money, or maybe having kids – then don’t do it because it’s probably not your dream.
I have friends who ask how Nicola and I can afford to fly to Africa every year, but these are often people with two cars, kids, a big house and swimming pool. We don’t have kids, a car, a big house (we own our flat) or swimming pool because we’ve decided to “sacrifice” these things, or make trade-offs. We just don’t want them. Our dream is to live the way we do.
That’s sound advice. One of my most popular articles, Live Your Dream in a Material World, mentions how we also gave up material goods in order to follow our dream. How did you launch your travel writing career?
I’d say it’s more a writing career than travel writing career. I do a bit of travel writing, but it’s mostly novels, plus a couple of non fiction books
I started work as a journalist on Sydney suburban newspapers. Local papers are great placed to work because as a young journalist you are literally thrown in at the deep end. As there are generally few reporters on these papers I was expected to fill my quota of the paper from day one. You sink or swim and some people sink.
I learned early on that I loved traveling and while I’ve done some travel writing, books are my passion these days. I’ve had six novels published by Macmillan; my first non fiction book, Park of the Pride, written with South African lion man Kevin Richardson, comes out in September 2009, and my second biography will be released in 2010.
Travel writing is good fun and gives you a good excuse to explore the world, but it’s hard to break into. As with other jobs in journalism, it’s often a case of who you know, rather than what you know. You have to start somewhere, and I started on local papers. The skills I learned there – a basic grasp of grammar, working to deadlines and the ability to get people to tell you their stories and then put them down in words, have stood me well for the rest of my life.
How much of your success do you attribute to luck, skill, brains or perseverance?
A lot of luck. I was the dux (top academic achiver) of my high school, but dropped out of university in my second year because I didn’t get it. I’ve never landed a job I’ve applied for, but fell into some very good jobs because I was in the right place at the right time. In the media industry in Australia, there are so many people applying for so few jobs that word of mouth plays a huge role in finding the right people.
When it came to writing novels, again it was “right place, right time”. My publishers, Macmillan, just happened to be looking for a mainstream mass market fiction novel set in Africa when my manuscript, Far Horizon, landed in their office.
If I was smart I would have done maths and science at school and become an Army helicopter pilot. I would have had a good life, I think, but I doubt it would have been as good as the one I’m living now.
It sounds as if you were destined for something exciting. How do you stay motivated?
When I was working full time, in journalism and PR, I used to consider myself a fundamentally lazy person. I was good at my job, but I was usually seeking the easiest path.
I find I’m a different person, work wise, when I’m writing books. I think this is because, as much as I enjoyed my previous jobs, I’m now doing something I truly love, and I don’t consider it as “work”.
I’ve written three books in the last 12 months – a seventh novel (due out in August 2010) and two non fiction biographies. I’ve loved every minute of writing each of those books. I’ve been thinking to myself all this year… “wow, this is so cool – because I’m writing all these books I don’t have to work this year”. In the past, when I wasn’t writing a novel I would “work” doing freelance public relations work. I don’t consider writing books working, so I don’t need to work at staying motivated.
I’ve just had a month where I have been between books, waiting for some edits to come back from the publisher. In the past I would have dreamed about taking a month off, but in the past four weeks I have been climbing the walls trying to find things to do and driving my wife crazy in the process.
You’re prolific! How do you deal with rejection and bad reviews?
I am my own harshest critic, so there is nothing anyone else can do that will phase me. Whenever I submit a new book to my publishers I am petrified it will be rejected, but so far this hasn’t happened (touch wood). I’m always pleasantly surprised when the publishers say they like something.
I don’t pay any attention to bad reviews, but I put copies of the good ones on my website!
Seriously, I’ve been pretty lucky with reviews so far. I found a harsh critique of the sex scenes in my books online, written by a South African writer and editor living in Cape Town. It was on her blog and I decided to leave her a cheeky comment saying “thanks for buying my book”. I did, and she got back to me. We corresponded and she’s now a really good friend. My wife and I have stayed at her house and she proof read my last book for me (to check my South African references… but I also got a B+ for one of the sex scenes).
Great idea to ignore the bad reviews and post the good ones on your site. I’m impressed that you took the criticism and learned from it, apparently that’s a vital skill for writers. Probably for anyone actually. You’ve got a website and a blog. Has the Internet helped your career progression?
The blog, in particular, has certainly helped me keep in touch with readers, which has been fantastic. Also, I’m taking a tour of 10 readers to South Africa in September 2009 and I’ve been able to fill the trip thanks to the Internet. I’ve advertised it on my blog and website, and via my e-newsletter. The tour was organised by a friend of mine from the Africa Safari Co and he got in touch with me via my website after reading my books. The internet has certainly opened many doors for me.
Please tell us a bit about the work you’re doing at the moment and where when you’re not on the road.
I’m back to being busy now, which is good. My sixth novel, Ivory, has just been released (like all the others it’s set in Africa); my first non fiction book, Part of the Pride, is due out in September. I am currently doing the first edit – the structural edit – on my seventh novel. That should take about three weeks and it will then go back to Macmillan for a copy edit. Very soon I expect to get the structural edit back for my second non fiction book. It’s set in Afghanistan (where I served with the Army in 2002) and is about a military contractor.
I’m also traveling through August and early September to promote “Ivory”. I really enjoy getting out and meeting people. I’m heading back to Africa in September for six months and during that time I’ll be writing a first draft of my eighth novel.
OK, I think your success is partly due to hard work. You seem to be incredibly focused and organized. Please tell us a funny story – something to make us laugh.
The first time I ever saw someone other than a blood relative or close friend holding one of my books was when my fourth novel, Safari, came out. I saw an elderly lady in a bookshop in Sydney looking at a copy. Bold as brass I went up to her and told her if she bought it I would sign it for her. After her initial shock she agreed.
As we were walking to the checkout a shop assistant, who had obviously been talking to the lady earlier, appeared around the end of a line of shelves carrying a stack of books. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts was on the top of the pile.
“I’ve found some books you might like,” the shop assistant said.
“No thank you,” said the elderly lady, “I’m going to buy this book, Safari, by Tony Park.
“No, don’t do that,” the shop assistant said, holding up the copy of Shantaram, “this book’s MUCH better than that one.”
When the elderly lady explained who I was we both got a chuckle as the color drained from the poor girl’s face. She was terribly apologetic and the shop manager asked me to sign 20 copies of Safari, which I did. It was a good result, as that was 20 copies that couldn’t be returned to the publisher if they didn’t sell, because booksellers can’t return signed copies!!!
That’s hilarious. I think your background in PR has helped you too. I love your brazen attitude. Changing the subject, do you think it’s possible for people to follow their dream as well as find love and have kids?
My wife and I love each other and we are living our dream. We’re lucky that we both wanted the same thing and I’m lucky that I have a wife who loves camping in the African bush in a tent for six months of the year.
We never made a conscious decision not to have kids… it just worked out that way. My wife is happy not having any (we’ve discussed this over the years), and so am I. We didn’t plan it that way, but we’re happy with the way things turned out.
I’m sure our lifestyle would be difficult, if not impossible, with school-age children, but like I said before I don’t see it as a trade off or a sacrifice. I met a family from Cape Town on my last trip – mum and dad and two young kids they were home-schooling while driving all over Africa. They were certainly living their dream.
Who inspires you and why?
People who do the good things in real life that I write about in fiction. National Parks rangers in Zimbabwe who go out on foot day after day knowing they may be killed in a gunfight with poachers, in order to safeguard their country’s wildlife. Teachers in Australia, like some I met from John Paul College in Coffs Harbour, who use their annual leave and savings to go and teach and build facilities at a school in the village of Kawalazi in Malawi. A friend of mine who spent three years living by herself in the African bush researching hyenas at her own expense. Anyone who can be kicked off their farm in Zimbabwe and start their life all over again.
Africa, which is where I get my inspiration for my books, has more than its share of troubles, yet what amazes me is the way that ordinary people deal with day-to-day adversity on that continent. The continent’s natural beauty and wildlife inspire me, almost as much as its people.
Tell us some of your favorite books
I like mainstream mass market fiction thrillers. I don’t read literary fiction, because I like a story with a beginning, a middle and (generally) a happy ending.
Hold My Hand I’m Dying, by John Gordon-Davis, anything by Nelson de Mille, Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell; The Frozen Circle, and all of Aussie author Peter Watt’s books; also crime novels by Amercian, Michael Connelly, and South African, Deon Meyer. Just read a crack tale of 18th century seafaring as well, called Lords of the Pacific by Australia’s Grant Hyde.
There are some familiar names there as well as some new ones to read. What’s your favorite book by you?
I don’t have one, and that’s the truth. To me, I live and breath every story when I’m writing it and I love it to pieces, but once it’s done, it’s done. I’ve liked them all for different reasons. One thing that really pleases me is that people who have read all of them all seem to have different favorites. There is no clear winner, which is great. I think your favorite book reflects who you are, as much as it does the story or writing.
Which country would you most like to revisit and where would you like to go next?
I’ve only been to Uganda once, to see the mountain gorillas. I wrote a travel story on them for the Melbourne Herald Sun, and included some stuff on gorillas in my book, Safari. I would love to go back and see the gorillas again, and explore more of Uganda.
I’d love to go to Canada some time and see some bears, but I’m hooked on Africa and always end up going there instead of anywhere else.
The gorillas are on my wish list! Here’s a tough question: what could everyone do to make the world a better place?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This goes for the environment as well. Think of the world as a person – a loved one – and ask yourself what you’d do differently.
Finally, what are your current dreams or goals?
To keep doing exactly what I am doing now, writing and traveling, until I die. As I don’t consider this as working, I don’t see a need to retire.
Many thanks to Tony Park for being interviewed and for sharing his wisdom with us. Great advice and plenty of inspiration. Check out Tony Park’s website and blog for his latest adventures, follow him on Twitter or find out more about his books on Booktopia.
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