Tell us about yourself and your books.:
My rather convoluted life story goes something like this: conceived in California, born in Zimbabwe, schooled in South Africa, emigrated to Australia, worked in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
With a background in psychology — and a career as a copywriter and creative director in the Mad Man world of multinational ad agencies — people watching and understanding the human spirit have always come naturally to me.
The 10 books I’ve published to date have sold over 100,000 copies, thanks to a very engaged readership (if that includes you, thanks so much).
I write military history (WW 2 books), business behaviour (especially involving creativity and cognitive skills and the science and art of persuasion), Asia expat books, and travel.
This eclectic mix of genres makes me slightly unusual as a writer, where authors tend to specialize in one category. But I’ve checked the rule books and nothing says I can’t do this!
My bucket list is mostly comprised of two-wheeled motorcycle adventures in remote parts of the world. Riding and writing – two of my favourite things in life.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
My MOST unusual writing habit? That's not fit for publication here!
For me, writing starts with the feint sniff of a story angle. A topic I'd love to know more about, and love to share with my readers. Regardless of whether it's something historical, or something that I'm going to create from zero.
At any one time I've probably got 10 books on my long-list to tackle. Of those probably 4 are in various stages of writing progress at any one time. I'm quite methodical in mapping things out, ie chapter orders etc, less so in organizing all my research papers and shoeboxes, but the real storytelling doesn't start until I know what the first line and first few paragraphs are going to be. That gives me a ‘true north’ to work towards and it flows from there. Openings and closings are very important to us psychologically.
Mostly, I'll start with the most emotional event within a story to get us off to the races with a bang … then work backwards to explain how we got there.
Sometimes when working on a longer book I might feel I need some instant creative gratification, so I'll set it aside and write a shorter book (or a magazine feature article) quickly just to get the creative fix.
What authors have influenced you?
I probably plough through 50+ books a year. I'm not a fast reader, just voracious.
I love musical biographies and autobiographies. Loved the authentic voice of Keith Richards' Life. (It was just like Keef speakin' to me.) Just finished Bruce Springsteen's autobiography too. What a great work ethic, and he deserves all the success that came his way. To me it’s the self-belief and overcoming the naysayers to achieve your dream that I find most compelling there.
I also devour behavioural economics and pop psychology books in great quantities. Gladwell. Dan Ariely. The Freakonomics gang. Robert Cialdini. Kahneman: brilliant but heavy-going (even for me with a background in psychology).
And military history. The Japanese theatre in World War 2. Especially Singapore, Malaya and the Thai-Burma Death Railway in Kanchanaburi. I'm a special interest military history tour guide and have become something of an expert on this. I can learn at least one new thing from each military history book that I read. At primary school, Paul Brickhill's The Colditz Story and Reach for the Sky (The Douglas Bader Story) I probably re-read a dozen times because I was gripped by the derring-do.
I'm not a big fiction reader, but I'd say Noel Barber's Tanah Merah is probably the most emotionally engaged I've been with a fiction book. I also respect his non-fiction works, such as Sinister Twilight, greatly.
I went to the same primary school as Wilbur Smith in South Africa, and grew up with his wonderfully descriptive (and well-researched) novels of action and adventure in exotic settings.
Do you have any advice for new authors?
Just. Start. Writing. Oh, and read a lot.
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
Came across it recently, and sorry I can't remember who dispensed this wisdom on work ethic:
"Just write a lousy 200 words a day."
The point is to get started, even if only intending to do this miniscule amount, and once you're flowing … well, you'll probably end up doing what I did on a recent Sunday evening, and had pumped out 3000+ words by the time I looked up.
What are you reading now?
Just finished The Gurkhas, about the gutsy spirit of Gurkha soldiers and regiments around the world, because I just traveled to Nepal, their homeland.
The Reputation Game (by Waller/Younger) about the 3 key aspects of reputation creation and management. Partly for self-interest, partly work related.
What’s your biggest weakness?
I'm usually a 100% or Nothing kinda guy. So I wonder how I came to have about 3 books stalled at the 80% mark in my computer. I rectified that this year by finally finishing off one of them (another volume of Hardship Posting – Asia expat books), but still need to get around to Tales from the Tiger's Den which is a collection of oral history interviews of foreigners in the Far East from 1920s to present. It just needs a bit of touching up of the last 2 or 3 chapters then I'll be done.
So, what am I saying my weakness is? Attention span? Focus? Something like that.
What is your favorite book of all time?
Gee — tough, tough question. Different books have resonated strongest at various points of my life.
As a kid growing up in Africa: the Hardy Boys' adventure series.
In university, Jerry Hopkins' No-one Gets Out of Here Alive about Jim Morrison. See above section about music biographies. Scar Tissue by Anthony Keidis was vulnerable and heartfelt. Loved Fogerty's music and story.
The Life and Mind of Reg Mombassa by Murray Waldren I absolutely love because it is an encyclopedic treatment of the fevered creativity of a minor celebrity (that's not the right word) in the NZ/Australian music and art industry. He's someone I've been in awe of growing up and subsequently knowing him on the music circuit and following his exhibitions.
What has inspired you and your writing style?
The need to purge a story. After all the infatuation with a new topic, the joy of stumbling across elusive but valuable nuggets in the research phase, and the unfettered dreaming of global domination of the best-seller charts and 7-figure Hollywood film rights, finally finishing a book is probably best likened to child birth.
It's great to finally get the bloody thing out!
I love the detective work and the fact that I get to fully satisfy my curiosity on any given subject. But that itch still needs scratching till the whole thing is complete and purged and you move on to the next topic of fascination.
What are you working on now?
Bleeding Slaughterhouse, another WW2 book, set in Singapore, and giving the definitive account of the outrageous massacre at the Alexandra Hospital in the days just before Singapore fell to the Japanese.
Another one is BIG T THINKING, a creative thinking approach that leverages creativity an as import/export exercise. Some might call it trans-sectoral thinking.
Also a few shorter books related to Future Skills: Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Persuasion because I'm building out a portal of online video training programs on these themes, and each needs an accompanying workbook.
What is your method for promoting your work?
Media releases to secure mainstream media and niche media coverage is always a starting point. I've enjoyed everything from full page features to small reviews. I also set about doing book signings at strategic stores (often in airports). But more uniquely I do a lot of 'guerilla' marketing based on where my target readers congregate. It might be certain sports events or bars. I infiltrate them and get known and start a ripple in that small pond. This works better than trying to make a wave in a huge ocean (although this is the ultimate aim of course). Other more skullduggerous methods include going to book shops and moving my books from where they are buried, onto an eye-level shelf, turning them cover out of course, and even moving them onto 'recommended' or 'best-seller' shelfs.
Exposure and publicity is everything. If people don't see your book they can't buy it.
What’s next for you as a writer?
After 10 books I feel I'm just getting warmed up. I have so many stories I want, make that NEED, to tell. Having just released my entire back catalog as ebooks, my next big step would be to move into audio books. I plan to voice these myself because I think my voice is my greatest asset (well, it's certainly not my face, is it!?!)
How well do you work under pressure?
Really well! I can produce up to 5000 words a day when the clock is winding down. Pressure creates energy and focus, but I'm a self-starter anyway. Who would write a book if they didn't bounce out of bed wanting to write it more every day?
How do you decide what tone to use with a particular piece of writing?
The tone tone must serve the story. When I write military history it is done with utmost care and respect to getting the details right. But when I write an expat 'beer and bullshit' book, the puns come out and double — if not triple! – entendres fly out of me.