Today, I’m speaking to Tony Sevil, winner of the New England Award in the Thunderbolt Prize for his short story, The Disappearance of Buck. As well, the story received a Highly Commended citation in the Fiction category.
First of all, Tony, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning story, The Disappearance of Buck?
Thank you! Back in 2011 I did an online creative writing course with the NSW Writers Centre. I found the course invaluable and the tutor, Laurine Croasdale, very encouraging.
One of the exercises in the course was to write a personals advertisement for an invented character. I invented the character of Alf Buccal, a competition brickthrower. He was looking for a ‘missus’, someone to settle down with. The exercise was designed to create a character’s voice. I got a bit carried away with the character and the story finished up longer than the guideline wordage.
Who knows where the character came from, but I have always been attracted to people who are passionate about what they do, no matter what that might be. I am a country boy whose family is still on the same property they selected in the 1840’s. I expect I am a bit of an observer and a listener, so I have probably picked up on the patterns of speech and mannerisms of people in rural Australia.
The tutor’s response was very encouraging:
“I laughed so much I nearly fell off my chair. It’s a hilarious piece! Love it!”
So I thought,”Well I think I will hang onto this character, store him away in the back of my mind.”
Then earlier this year I saw the promo for the Thunderbolt Crime Writing Competition, and I started to think whether I might be able to weave my character, Alf Buccal, into a crime story. I decided to base the story around his favourite, precious brick, which is stolen. Then it is his search to try and find the culprit.
What attracts you to writing crime fiction?
This is my first attempt at writing crime fiction. It excited me. One part of the plot seemed to lead to the other rather seamlessly. It’s fun to write a mystery story where the reader might wonder “where in the hell is this story going”, especially when it’s just a story about a brickthrower whose special brick is stolen! It is fun to weave the story. Not giving too much away. Perhaps I am a bit of a trickster. I like telling verbally a story in a roundabout way so that people will listen to me! And perhaps wonder what is coming next.
Crime fiction may not be where my writing future lies, but humour certainly will.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?
I studied Economics in the early 1960’s. Much later I did a Diploma of Social Science. I have worked in Market Research, Economic Research, public relations. I have been in selling. I have driven a cab and worked in restaurants. Coming from a farming background I have tried my hand at that. I worked and travelled in Europe and Africa for nearly three years. One of the more interesting jobs was taking livestock to South Africa. I was working on a Hereford stud farm in Hereford on the Welsh border. I heard that you could get a job as a stockman on a cargo ship taking animals to south Africa. An opportunity came up and for a couple of weeks I looked after 13 head of cattle, 3 horses and four dogs that were being exported to South Africa. The cargo ship dropped off cargo at the Canary Islands, Ascencion Island and Napoleon’s exile Island of St Helena on the way. Then I worked as a shunter on Rhodesian Railways for around 6 months. There were a number of other non economic jobs I took on.
When I returned to Australia I felt lost and found it hard to settle. Where do I go now? What work do I do? I felt mates from my school and Uni days were getting ahead with their careers, and I was floundering.
I eventually got a job as a public relations officer for a mining company at Gove on the north eastern tip of Arnhem Land. It was an escape for a couple of years. Just another job. Not really a career path.
In more recent times I worked as a care worker for what was then The Challenge Foundation in Armidale, which was the most rewarding wage work I have ever done. During this time I was also progressing with my art making things out of found objects. This eventually became a passion. I have exhibited in commercial galleries and also been in group exhibitions and a solo exhibition at NERAM. I have an exhibition coming up at Gallery 126 in Armidale in November and another solo exhibition at NERAM in September 2016.
All the way through I have written or tried to write. I have had stories and articles published, but I have never , until now, had any fiction published. I tried writing fiction but my stories seemed embarrassingly naïve and stilted. I think I got caught up too much in structure and not enough in letting a story flow. The Disappearance of Buck story seemed to flow rather seamlessly so I feel I may have found my voice in writing humorous fiction.
What do you hope winning the New England Award will do for you as a writer?
I know I will be writing with a lot more confidence now. I will certainly be more confident about writing more humour. I will probably go back over my life and expand on humorous incidents in my life. And drag out half done stories from my drawers and maybe re work them. Perhaps a collection of humorous stories some day. Who knows. The prize has opened up so many possibilities.
I have a rather interesting project going at the moment. I love Facebook-Seeing the art and reading the thoughts of friends from around the world. It is a wonderful way to test the water with my artwork.
I noticed drawings of cute fat cats that I really liked by an Iranian artist from Tehran (who has not been published). I suggested to her that we try and write a children’s book together on cat behavior. She liked the idea and for the last year we have been sending emails backwards and forwards with drawings and text. I wanted a Persian name for the cat. So I asked Bahare if she could come up with some Persian names for me to chose from. I chose a name. But she said it was a female name and she thought the cat was male. So we have chosen the name Homayoun. I asked Bahare to pronounce it so I could possibly work out a rhyme for it. Her husband sent me an audio with the correct pronunciation. With my regular correspondence with Bahare I always now ask her to say g’day to the man with the lovely voice.
There are two aspects of this that appeal to me. Firstly is it possible to collaborate in this way and produce a book? Secondly I like the idea of reaching out to someone on a personal level who is from a different culture and nation to mine.
You are an artist too as well as a writer. How do those two practices work with each other?
I think making art and writing can go well together, especially with the way I operate. With my art I like to have several, sometimes many, projects going at the same time. I like to move freely between projects. If I get to a point in a project that requires more thought I will move to another project and then return to the other one with a fresh eye. Writing seems to fit ok into this ‘routine’. I often write early in the mornings. I don’t really sit down and slog away at a plot on the computer. I usually have quite a lot worked out in my head before I tap things into the computer. And these ideas for stories often come when I am working away on an artwork.
The trouble is my mind can get a bit full sometimes and I can get a bit ratty. That’s when I walk or do a little meditation. I always take a break, read the newspaper, start the crossword and have a nap after lunch.
As a reader, what do you look for in a good story or novel?
I am not an avid reader at all. I do read the newspaper from cover to cover. However some wonderful writers have sort of landed in my lap at important times in my life. Back in my school days I remember being mesmerized analyzing some of the set texts. One was Silas Marner, the other two were Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I thought English was up there with my best subject at school but did a bad leaving certificate exam, even though my English teacher in the then 4th year asked me if I was going to study English when I left school. I only got a B. That threw me a bit. So I studied Economics. I got an A in that 🙂
After high school and for a number of years, I cannot recall reading much at all other than the newspaper from cover to cover starting at the back page, the sport page. After 11 years at boarding school I just wanted to party. I did not do much study at UNE but I had some very bright mates. Come essay and exam time I would visit them, pick their brains and often borrow their lecture notes. They didn’t seem to mind.
I don’t like saying it but I don’t seem to have a lot of time to read novels. I cannot read during the day. Perhaps it is my farming background. The day was for physical work. I read at night in bed…sometimes. I usually fall asleep after a few pages. I tend to wind down in bed at night with the Herald crossword. Not the cryptic…
Sometimes I find my mind is working overtime on new ideas for an artwork, working out how I will put something together. I cannot seem to concentrate on reading. My partner suggested we should read your books, Sophie. I said to her perhaps you could read them and tell me all about them! 🙂
However I would like to mention a few books and authors that have made a huge impression on me. Books seem to have landed on my lap at the right time in my life. I loved The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen. Other writers I cannot put down include John Steinbeck, and more recent writers, Annie Proulx and Barbara Kingsolver. I love their characters. I love being immersed in the environment of the word pictures they paint. I love their characters.
I was hugely inspired by Nelson Mandala’ autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Years ago I read a historical novel on Ghandi, Freedom at Midnight, by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, which I really enjoyed. It perhaps canonized Ghandi a bit. But he deserved it.
Tony’s website is here.