Interview with Jeff Hopkins

Published 2022-01-11.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
That is an impossible question to answer. All the stories I read have some impact on me.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first story I ever wrote was a play called 'Kindness Pays'. It was in fact a playscript and I wrote it in Grade Five and then, with some friends, performed it in front of the class. Alas the the original manuscript is lost.
What is your writing process?
I begin with characters and then try to tell their story and back story if need be. Sometimes of course they tell the story and drag you in directions you didn't expect to go. I like to have a physical picture of the character to refer to as I write. This helps initially in describing them. If I don't have a picture I search for one online, in magazines, or in old photo albums I have accumulated over the years. Then the character must get a name. Sometimes the character's name changes during the course of the writing. It is amusing how the names of various characters went through a number of name changes before I finally settled on the one they have in the book. Once the characters are established I then start writing vignettes about them. There is no order to this. When I have enough vignettes I begin to assemble them into a coherent story. Many vignettes finish up in in the trash in this process. Then the moment of epiphany comes when you know where you are taking the characters. Then it is just hard work telling the story. When the story is complete I edit it a minimum of eight times then put it on the bookshelf for three months. Only after that process do I dare send the manuscript to the publishers for their consideration.
How do you approach cover design?
In consultation with the graphic designer at the publishers we discuss possible covers. Often I try to let the cover image relate to the story. Often it is a character being represented. Sometimes it is a significant place in, or referred to, in the story. Then the graphic designer puts her ideas into a draft. Sometimes what she comes up with is a complete surprise, but a welcome one. Only once did I have such a firm idea of a cover right from the start that I directed the process. The fonts and title design is always the graphic designer's domain as she has so many more resources than I do.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Hard question. Probably there would be one or two Charles Dickens' novels in the list. I think Tim Winton's 'Cloudstreet' is a modern Australian classic. D.H. Lawrence would make the list as would Patrick White. I would not like to choose between their books.
'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks would make it.
What do you read for pleasure?
Just about anything. I like following an author. When I read one of their books, which I like, I usually order more from their published list and read a whole selection of their work. Authors who create series with characters lend themselves to this. When an author starts repeating themes and ideas (even phrases) in subsequent books I move on. Some series are extensive but fascinating and worth pursuing.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I download to my laptop and read from there. It is not as satisfying as lying in bed reading a paperback. I am toying with the idea of getting a Kindle or a reading device, with which I can read in bed.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Funny you should ask. Not many really. I like doing Amazon Giveaways. At least then you know that someone got your book and if they like it they might follow you and read some of the others.
Describe your desk
My desk is situated in front of a window that looks out over the Swan River and has glimpses to the Indian Ocean. The laptop dominates the space, but all the tools to run my life are in easy reach. A return to the left supports the printing section and there is a filing system which contains drafts and cover design possibilities. I do have 'in' and 'out' trays for bills pending and paid. I must do some filing of the latter.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Fremantle, Western Australia. My book 'The Spiv: The Robbie Sparrow Story' ,which is a very unreliable memoir indeed, does hint at some of the experiences that have influenced my writing. My first musical play 'The Round House' written and produced in the early 1980's was set at an historic building in Old Fremantle and 'Benedict Lovelace and the Travelling Show' explores the old town in some detail circa 1897.
When did you first start writing?
My first writing was in the form of film screenplays. At high school and then university (in the 1960's) I was making films. I continued this with students in the early years of my teaching career. People say my novels are very visual and would make good films, I suppose it comes from thinking visually when writing screenplays in the early days. Writing plays and musicals probably started in the mid 1970's. They were all designed for productions at various schools at which I taught. It was not all that big a transition from writing screenplays although dialogue technique required some work. My novel writing didn't start until I retired and it took six years in retirement before I really found a way to work at it seriously. I didn't do any self publishing until 2015. Now I am afraid I am hooked on both writing and publishing. It really is rather exciting.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The challenge of creating the characters and then building a story around them. Where research is required to authenticate the text that can be really exciting as you discover things about the period in which you have set the novel and weave some previously unknown details into the writing. When you see paintings or sketches of actual historical characters or gain access to photographs of the interiors of long forgotten (and scrapped) ships it is like a form of time travel. You are actually there and hopefully can take the readers there as well. Of course there is no greater joy than taking the first proof copy of the book from the courier. That is an event that still excites me.
What's the story behind your latest book?
'Handsome Jack: A Whizz-kid's Story' was published in 2019. The ‘Whizz-kid’ is Jack Burton, a boy from the Goldfields’ town of Kalgoorlie, who wants to be an apprentice jockey. Almost jokingly, Jack’s father ‘Boy’ Burton, suggests that career path, and then has to stand back and watch his son’s introduction to the world of thoroughbred horse racing, which is both dynamic and dangerous.
Featuring in the passing parade of characters from the ‘Sport of Kings’ are the Stewards, who make and enforce the rules, and the cheats and criminals who try to bend and break them. There is also the state’s biggest owner- breeder, and a range of horse trainers; some who are just starting out, others who are struggling to survive, and one who is making a comeback at 71 years of age and relishing getting ‘another chance’.
Into that ‘heady’ mix are thrown a crusty newspaper Editor and his young protégé, the staff of a chemical analysis laboratory, private investigators, lawyers and two brothel Madams, from opposite sides of Australia, who have very different attitudes, agendas and perspectives on life.
Towering above all of that are the horses, which all have their own unique stories. Named after popular songs, playwrights and a surfing beach in South Africa, they all have one thing in common. They have the courage to run fast, and do so, especially for apprentice jockey, Jack Burton, the ‘Whizz-kid’.

It was such a joy to write this novel about racing and race horses. It incorporates many stories that my father told me over the years and includes some of my own experiences as a racegoers over many years. Inventing thoroughbreds and naming them was a big thrill for someone who never had the opportunity to own racehorses. I think some of my favourite characters get cameo roles in this book.

Of course 'The Hydrographer' will not be published until the second half of 2017. My latest book to be published is 'Reflections: A Story of Friendship'. This has an interesting back story. It started life as a film screenplay in 1979. Only a few scenes were shot before the project was abandoned. I resurrected the idea in 1984 and made it into a musical for an all boy cast. It was the first musical in which we (the man who wrote the musical score and I) wrote original songs and music. The title song has actually survived and appears in the novel It had a successful run as the school play in that year for a private boys' school in Western Australia. When I retired in 2006 I went back to 'Reflections' as a vehicle for a first novel. It was a bumpy ride and it was never published. As I began self publishing in 2015 I kept tinkering with the manuscript for 'Reflections' and eventually submitted it for publication in 2016. When it finally was produced it was the end of a long thirty seven journey and a quite satisfying outcome.
What do your fans mean to you?
If by 'fans' you mean readers then they are the only reason to write. If no one reads the material then there is little point in writing it. I sometimes wonder what readers in the United States make of my Australian stories? I know their names after an Amazon Giveaway, but that is all. I try to image how they will react to the stories
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I was encouraged by friends. Previously I just wrote spiral bound manuscripts and sent them to friends to read for pleasure. They kept saying you must publish some of these. Hence when I started self publishing I already had a few manuscripts with which to start. I would not have kept going without the wonderful support of the publishing team at Indiemosh.
What are you working on next?
There is a sequel to 'Gnarl' which I have called 'Lord Gnarl', which will be published in 2019. I have completed the third part of the trilogy which I have called 'Caliphs and Kings'. I am hoping it will be published in early 2020. My current project is 'The Gavin Johns Story: A Belle Beamish Investigation'. Belle Beamish is a fictional fifty seven year old Detective Inspector, the first woman appointed to the Criminal Investigation Branch (C.I.B.) in Perth Western Australia in 1971. She is handed a cold case to investigate. This takes us back to an actual historical event in 1942 when Guildford Grammar School was evacuated to the Fairbridge Farm School in Pinjarra, W.A. This sets up a juxtaposition of privileged boarders from a private school with child migrants from England, and introduces us to Gavin Maxwell Johns, Luke Fitzgerald and Alexander Grayson Elliott all sixteen years old at the time. The murder of George Brander becomes the focus. When the trail for suspects then takes us to the Port City of Fremantle we see the US Navy building up its submarine base in that location after the destruction of Pearl Harbour and the loss of bases in the Dutch East Indies. Writing about Fremantle is like a 'home game' for me and I have walked the various locations described in the book and lived in and around them in 1971.

Basing a book around a series of actual historical events which were quite strange in themselves(the Guildford evacuation, the submarine base in Fremantle) and then projecting the narrative twenty nine years into the future and catching up with the characters who were sixteen, and are now forty five was a fascinating exercise as a writer. The two years (1942 and 1971) are so different and exploring attitudes in the two periods, plus researching to make the writing about the two years historically accurate was an engrossing challenge.
Who are your favorite authors?
Charles Dickens absolutely fascinates me. His language is spectacular and the books are so complicated that you can come back to them time and time again and find something new. His personal life is also intriguing. I spent some time reading as many biographies of him as I could. He only lived to be fifty eight years old, but he crammed an awful lot of living into that span. Sebastian Faulks is a contemporary writer who I love to read. His interest in war and psychology keeps recurring in his books and I find his philosophies really interesting. 'Birdsong' is a classic, but I was really engrossed in 'Human Traces'. From an Australian perspective Tim Winton (a West Australia) has a unique perspective on Australian life and language. His 'Cloudstreet' is a must read
What are you working on at present?
Towards the end of 'A Horse Called Signs: A Sequel to Handsome Jack' I sent a character to Aquinas College in Perth as a boarder. As I didn't know anything about boarding houses at Aquinas College I did some research and stumbled over one called Pinder Boor House. The accompanying explanation of whom the House was named after fascinated me. I let Koen Jandamaurra read the biography of this intriguing young man on the way home from his interview with the Principal. Then I became enthralled. I researched his short life and the more I did so the more I realised that there was a book in it. It turned out to be 'Alaric Pinder Boor: A Life Reimagined'. Alaric Pinder Boor lived and died more than a century ago. His fascinating life has been reconstructed using historical sources including: certificates, documents, photographs, immigration, travel and shipping lists, electoral and rate book rolls, newspaper articles, letters, war records, and interpretative paintings.

The literary device of ‘faction’ has been employed. The facts have been embellished with fictional stories and conversations that may, or may not, have occurred. The aim is to reimagine a life story that should not be allowed to fade into the mists of time, and hopefully introduce Pinder Boor to a new audience who can appreciate a life well lived, but cut short far too soon.

Since writing the book I have now narrated the text with a view to creating my first audio book. This will be an adventure that lies in the immediate future and will no doubt be reported upon in future updates
What is your latest book?
'A Horse Called Signs: A Sequel to Handsome Jack' will be published in February. The title explains what it is and I have revisited some of the original characters and given them new directions, and a few problems to solve, in their lives. I have also introduced some new people. Chief among these are the Jandamurras and indigenous family from Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The book tells the story of Koen Jandamurra a thirteen year old who is guided in a new direction by a caring and hard working set of parents.

Ray Ratcliffe is back trying to get from perdition to redemption after his diabolical exploits in the original novel. He has eight years in prison and four hard working years on parole to think about what he is going to make of the rest of his life. The Whizz-kid, Jack Burton is back as is the horse Handsome Jack, but they both have serious challenges to face.

I really enjoyed writing this and giving Ray Ratcliffe 'another chance' and exploring the life of a talented young indigenous boy and the mentors who set him on a life path that may surprise some readers.
What have you worked on in the last few months?
After writing 'Alaric Pinder Boor: A Life Reimagined', I have gone back to a similar period 1890 - 1914 to tell the story of Frederick Charles Faulkner. I have called the book 'The Headmaster: Frederick Charles Faulkner's Story'. He is a complete fascination for me. Frederick Charles Faulkner (1852 – 1924) was the longest serving Headmaster at the Perth High School (the present-day Hale School) from (1890-1914). Arriving to take up the Headmastership as a bachelor, he married into one of Perth’s most prominent families and then proceeded to revolutionise secondary education in Western Australia.

Working in ramshackle buildings, that were barely fir for purpose, he developed the curriculum, set a high standard for university entrance qualifications and produced four Rhodes scholars in his time at the school. He also pursued a policy for his boys of a ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ and fostered all sports, gymnasium activities, calisthenics and physical education. He always maintained his greatest achievement was developing the ‘tone’ of the High School boy. It is his enduring legacy.

Along the way he won lasting friendships with some of the notable educators and political figures of the day and lost many fine boys on the battlefields of South Africa, Gallipoli and in Europe.

For twenty-four years, he battled prejudice, litigation, a serious health crisis and tragic personal loss, but endured; setting up the Public Schools’ Association and leading it, as President, for a decade, from its inception, in 1905 until his retirement. The denouement of his life was not what he had hoped for or envisaged.

Thanks to the diligent and talented journalists of the day the voices of the protagonists will often be heard speaking their own truth in many different settings over a period of a quarter of a century.
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Jack Burton wants to be an apprentice jockey, but the 'Sport of Kings' is both dynamic and dangerous. He encounters cheats and criminals, a leviathan owner-breeder, horse trainers, other jockeys and bookmakers. Above all, there are the horses. They have the courage to run fast, especially for Jack Burton, the 'Whizz-kid'.
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