Interview with Inside Magazine
*This article was published in Inside Magazine. The interview was conducted with Bruce Whatley.
What inspired you to start researching and illustrating the stories around Gallipoli?
My father-in-law ‘Pa Jack’ Sullivan fought at Gallipoli, and in the trenches. The war left him bitter, a highly functioning alcoholic, loyal and generous to his friends, violent at home. It was only years after his death, when his son married a writer and historian, that he learned of all his father had been through at Gallipoli and the battles that followed it.
It was many years after that- and a tragedy for both of them- that he finally discovered that his father had constantly spoken to his fiends of his pride in his son. Back then a man like Pa Jack rarely admitted either anguish or love.
For many years I accepted the popular canon that World War One was the most stupid of wars, fought for silly reasons. It was only after accidentally coming across a collection of letters of two nurses in Belgium, as Germany invaded, and later, reading the official German records, that I realised that what I had taken to be allied propaganda was true: the atrocities against civilians, the intention of Germany to conquer England, and take possession of its colonies. Australia was seen by both sides as a British possession, and an important source of raw materials. We were not as far away from danger as we might like to believe.
But mostly I became obsessed with finding the history of the Gallipoli campaign because of the sheer difficulty of finding out the truth. Often fighting and conditions were so bad that notes of battles and tactics were recorded days weeks or even months after, by women volunteers sitting at the beds of severely injured or ill officers. Every first hand account of the landing at Anzac Cove differs, both significantly and in details. The story of those months has also been made murky by deliberate propaganda or sentimentalising, or where popular fiction has slowly become accepted as the truth.
There is much about that campaign where I have to say simply ‘I do not know, nor probably will we ever know.’ One of the hardest things to do, in any account of Gallipoli, is to limit your words to what you believe can be substantiated. Each line of The Beach they called Gallipoli was rewritten and rewritten, to pare it down to what- I hope- is true.
Which resources did you find most helpful?
Many apologies - despite my enormous admiration for the Australian War Memorial and its library, my sources were neither online nor from its library, but from mostly books, often self published memoirs or collections of letters or diary entries, that I have found over the decades, or unpublished material that I been given access to by the descendants of those who served in the campaign. I strongly recommend the reader, however, to access the AWM web site and collection, as well as the publications of its historians, for further reading about the campaign.
What resources did you come across when researching your book that haven’t been widely used by others?
I was given access to two diaries by men who served at Gallipoli, and who kept detailed records- illegally, as keeping diaries was forbidden- as well as the letters from two men of the same family. The author of one of those diaries, however, was adamant that he did not want his words made public, although he wished his diary to be preserved and read, and his descendants feel bound by his wishes. The other is in such poor condition, with many words illegible, that only parts have been ‘translated’, but will possibly be made public at some stage.
Was there any information/artwork/photographs you uncovered that stopped you in your tracks?
Pa Jack was tormented by what he saw and experienced. But the author of one of the diaries I used as reference went on to have a life of laughter and family and fulfilment. He didn’t want his life to be remembered mostly as the anguish of the war years, but by the many decades after. It took courage to endure what he did, in those years of war. It took even more courage to create so much love and happiness afterwards.
The ANZAC gallows humour is no myth: stories of rat races and illegal bookies taking odds on the favourites. ‘Doing the Gallipoli gallop’ was diarrhoea; stretcher bearers were ‘body snatchers’; ‘Anzac soup’ was a shell hole filled with mud and bits of dead body.
If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?
What did happen that first day? When you try to match terrain to various accounts, so much doesn’t add up. And on the day in one of the diaries, where the day before the writer had recorded the deaths of two of his friends, yet the next day just wrote ‘Bad day today’, and nothing else… what was so bad, that a man who could carefully write of so many horrors could not even find the words to describe?
What’s your best tip for people wanting to write/illustrate a children’s history book of their own?
Use primary resources. Too much history or historical fiction for young people is based on history books written for adults, cut down like you might cut down an adult’s trousers for a child in the depression- and they never quite fitted. If you need to research an area as you are writing, you don’t know enough to write the book. You don’t know what you DON”T know- only what you do.
How did you go about bringing the characters and stories to life?
Sometimes when you read a diary or letters it is almost as if there is a whisper ‘remember me.’
They were real people, and real events. Place them on the page truthfully, and they will live.
How do you know when you’ve written/illustrates a good book?
If I cry, when I read it, not necessarily because it is sad. The deepest tears can be from wonder at what a human can be capable of, or tears of joy. But if the tears are there, then it has worked.