This ANZAC Day, Coffs Harbour will host the fabulous Peter FitzSimons, who will be guest speaker at C.ex Coffs. His great respect for ANZAC Day is reflected in the many military books he has authored …
Peter, you have a strong background in military history, don’t you?
Yes, I have a background of writing a lot of military books, and I have great respect for ANZAC Day. The major military books that I’ve done started with the biography of Nancy Wake (The White Mouse) – the most decorated hero of the second World War.
I also wrote about Kokoda and Tobruk, and in my biographies of Kingsford-Smith and Les Darcy there’s a fair quotient of the first World War. So, I’ve done a lot of books with military themes, and I also get on very well with Diggers generally.
I am on the ANZAC Centenary Advisory Board, which is advising the Government on how we can properly commemorate major events of Australian involvement in World War I.
What fascinates you so much about the military?
Both of my parents were returned service people. Dad fought in the Battle of El Alamein and in New Guinea. Mum was an Army physiotherapist, helping to rehabilitate those who were injured and wounded. Mum and Dad were both early to mid-forties when I was born – my friends’ grandparents were the same age as my parents, so I grew up around people of the Second World War in many ways.
Basically, I have great respect for those people who have served our country.
You mentioned you wrote a book about Kokoda. Did you actually get a chance to do the Kokoda Track yourself?
I did, and it nearly killed me … it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! It was the most arduous thing I’ve ever done. I walked it in 2003 at an absurd pace – we did it in 5 and a half days, and we walked from Owers Corner to Kokoda. For most of that journey, I was writing the book, which has now sold about 270,000 copies.
You also write a lot of biographies. What is it about sharing other people’s stories that you enjoy?
Somerset Maugham, the great English writer, once said: “I don’t like to boast, but I don’t think I can spend half an hour in the company of somebody without getting seven ideas for a short story”.
I think that everybody has their own story to tell, and many of them are interesting. I’m not a short story writer, but I love stories. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved stories, so writing biographies fitted with that.
At the moment, I’m writing about the Eureka Stockade, and I can’t wait to get stuck into it again today, because it’s such a good story. I find the actual process of researching and then writing a story wonderful. I have a great passion for it.
You were a professional Rugby player prior to this, so how did you actually get into writing?
In the mid-80s I was playing Rugby in France … I’d played Rugby for a year in Italy and then four years in France. And when I was back in Australia, a friend of mine mentioned she had submitted an article to the Sydney Morning Herald, and it was going to be published the next Thursday.
We had a very competitive relationship and I wanted to beat her and show that I could be published, so I wrote a story about playing Rugby in Italy.
It took me 2 days and 2 nights, and they published it at the top of the back page! I’d never felt such professional satisfaction in my life in anything I’d ever done. Once I did that, I thought: “Who’s been keeping this a secret?!” When I went back to France, I started writing stories of life in the village in France, and then I wrote a lot of Rubgy stuff, sport stuff and travel stuff. So I just kept writing.
I did a couple of books, which were collected works of stuff I’d written in the Sydney Morning Herald, but my first real book was after the Wallabies won the World Cup in ‘91. In ‘93, I wrote a book on Nick Farr-Jones, which sold just under 50,000 copies, and that sort of launched me into writing books.
And these days you get to speak about your experiences too!
I do, and I love that too. I love telling stories, one way or another.
Well, we’re really looking forward to having you here in Coffs for ANZAC Day, Peter. Thanks for your time.