Canberra Writers Festival 2017, Day 2, Pt 1: A conversation with Tony Jones

Choices, choices. Such a surfeit of riches across such dispersed venues made today a difficult one. In the end I had to make the tough decision to not see Jane Rawson, whose session was across the lake, though it broke my heart. My decision was made harder by the fact that as I was drafting this intro over my lunch break, a tweet came through promoting the event. Wah, but I’m trying to keep a cold at bay so being sensible about rushing around was the way to go.

But now, I’m going to have to try to emulate those historical fiction writers who need to leave out much of their research, otherwise I’ll be here all night – and I have things to do, books to read. Even so, I’m going to break this post into three parts.

Crime: Tony Jones with Krysia Kitch

Kitch and Jones

Kitch and Jones

Writers can’t always avoid controversy, particularly if they are political journalists, and so it was for Tony Jones who was attending the festival to discuss his new book, Twentieth man. Outside the venue was a small group of protesters holding a placard that said “Phony Tony, Propaganda through Plagiarism”. They believe the book is anti-Croatian, and that it plagiarises, writes Ina Vukic on her blog, “a Yugoslav era work of Propaganda titled Dvadeseti čovjek (the Twentieth Man) written by Đorđe Ličina”. I can’t comment on the propaganda aspect, because I haven’t read the book, but in his talk Jones mentioned that there has been speculation that there was a twelfth man in the Bugojno group which carried out an attack in Yugoslavia in 1972. So he decided to create a fictional twelfth man who survived the attack. And that’s all I’ll say about the protest, which Jones referred to a couple of times during the conversation.

Twentieth man is Jones fictional debut, and the first question turned on a favourite topic of mine, genre. Well it’s not that I love “genre” per se but I do enjoy discussions about definitions because they can help us tease out expectations. The question was, is this crime (as it was described for the Festival) or political thriller? Jones skirted answering this decisively by saying that it’s thrilling, it has crimes and it’s about politics! Fair enough. As the conversation progressed, I decided a third genre (or, perhaps, sub-genre) could be considered, historical crime! (Though again that raises the spectre from yesterday’s session about when is “history”.)

We’ll return to history later, but first something about the plot. It starts with the bombing of two Yugoslav Travel Agencies in Sydney in 1972 and ends with an assassination attempt on the Yugoslav prime minister. (Jones told us this so I don’t think it’s a spoiler!) Jones spent some time talking about the inspiration for the novel, at the same time giving us a refresher on fairly recent Australian political history.

Convenor Kitch from the National Portrait Gallery then referred to the Festival’s theme of Power, Politics, Passion and asked Jones what he thought about the power of the past over the present. Jones responded by referring to a quote often attributed to Mark Twain that:

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

He then talked more about the historical background to the novel, and about subsequent reporting and actions through the 1980s, 1990s and into the present, which prove that “history resonates again and again, it rhymes”.

Kitch mentioned how the shift of power between individuals is a major part of book. She said she loved his visceral descriptions of fear, and asked how he did it. Jones flippantly responded that he works at the ABC, but then, more seriously, said that he used his imagination … and that he could draw on some tricky situations he’d been in as a journalist.

This led to more conversation about the process of writing, such as his decision to mix “real” people with fictional ones. After all, he said, Tolstoy did it! He said he likes novels which deal with real history and fictional characters, and named James Ellroy’s novel on the Kennedy assassination, American tabloid, and Marlon James’ Booker prize-winning A brief history of seven killings exploring the assassination attempt on Bob Marley.

He also talked about researching and using documentary evidence to support his story, saying that the novel is fictional (of course) “but as close to real” as he could get. He’s not claiming it’s history but hopes it will encourage its readers to “reflect on the past”.

Kitch asked him about pacing – including the role of the moments of solitude for the characters – and also about his use of landscape to support his themes and characterisation.

Jones also mentioned the role of respected Australian publisher and editor Richard Walsh who offered to look over his manuscript. He told Jones there were two or more books there. So, folks, there will be a sequel!

There was so much more but this is getting long and I’ve covered the main issues I wanted to. There was discussion about the passion part of the Festival’s theme. First, Jones is clearly passionate about the topic. But, also, there’s a Romeo and Juliet style love story between the young Jewish journalist and the Croation hero/antihero.

Finally, Jones talked about the role of Canberra in the book, saying the city is “the star of this novel”. He thinks it provides a good picture of Canberra and its inhabitants at the time it is set. This was a blatant pitch to the locals as, he admitted, he’d been told to do!

There were some intelligent questions, but really, I must finish here, and will do so on Jones’ final words that Twentieth man is “a novel, largely a work of imagination but based on real events”.