I'm a Melbourne writer and journalist with a dozen or so books to my name. 'Blackie' was published by Knopf and has been translated into Dutch, Italian and Greek. 'Advanced Australian Fare' is a prize-winning history of the development of restaurants and eating patterns between the Melbourne and Sydney Olympics, almost half a century. My food books have won national and international prizes, and three of my books have been translated into a total of five languages. My most recent book is 'A Lasting Record' (HarperCollins 2013), which tells the eerie tale of the great American concert pianist William Kapell, who died in an air crash at 31, and the recently found Australian amateur recordings that proved his genius.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
It's somewhere at home! Unlost! It was about the life and death of a Barrier Reef sea turtle, an animal that must have captured my imagination at school. It's called 'Sally the Sea Turtle', or something like that. I did the drawings -- must have been about eight or nine. They're copied from a real book about Queensland sea turtles. But I appreciated even then that books that satisfy readers have a beginning, middle and end. Probably the next thing I wrote was a diary of a trip by car with my parents and brothers across America from San Francisco to Washington DC. A nine-year-old's wide-eyed fascination with motels and toys and hamburgers -- Australian kids hadn't yet experienced them back then. For years I kept folded in my wallet at high school a very short story I wrote called 'The Duel', in which the duellists shot each other dead. I lacked the confidence to show it to anyone except a very close friend who thought it was 'cool'. He boosted me.
What is your writing process?
Writing is how I've made a lifetime's living -- often a good one -- and how I do it varies quite a bit. For novels and longer non-fiction, I draw up a grid using ruler, pens and pencils ... no spreadsheets for me. The title of the book I'm working on is across the top. Below it are five columns headed 'Week', 'Task', 'Progress', 'Problems' and 'Notes'. I'm hardly re-inventing the wheel! Then the dates go down the left-hand side, and under 'Task' I set myself, say, 5000 edited words for the week. I couldn't write a longer book without this kind of discipline. These sheets hang in a transparent folder on a cup-hook right alongside my computer screen. They stare at me, remind me to work. Remind me to get up early tomorrow morning and get into it. And I really analyse and chastise myself if I fall behind the 'Tasks' I've set myself. My journalism tends to be written without any great plan or even rough drafts, but I suspect that it comes as naturally as that only because I've been doing it a long time.
While rummaging in a cupboard one day, the narrator of 'Adagio for a simple clarinet' rediscovers his father's clarinet, forgotten for years on a high shelf. Finding the instrument arouses in him long-buried memories and the childhood passion for music that his father had thwarted. Can the haunting notes of a long-dead composer somehow provide the key to atonement? 'Adagio' swells the heart.
The heart-warming and passionate story of an unlikely friendship between Australian writer Stephen Downes and a back-fence stray. Blackie falls ill, and Stephen makes every attempt to see that his cat survives pioneering brain surgery. The book explores the intense experience of loving and being responsible for another living thing.