Harrison Christian on the Best Writing Advice He’s Ever Received

Author Harrison Christian: Writing is a constraint.


Author Harrison Christian: Writing is a constraint.

Journalist Harrison Christian’s latest book, Should We Fall Apart, tell it story of a distant garrison of Allied soldiers who stood up to the Japanese in New Guinea.

This is your second historical non-fiction book in as many years – what drives you to write?

It is a constraint. I don’t know where it comes from, but it goes beyond pleasure. “Never bet on fun,” my longtime mentor, Joe Bennett, once told me. “Be happy to write. Be glad you wrote. Be thrilled to be challenged to create something new and beautiful. Be glad every day that you don’t have to leave your house to spend your time doing things you don’t want to do for people you don’t respect. And I am all of these things.

Why did Pacific World War II stories appeal to you?

I wanted to know what it was like for Australians and Kiwis: the sudden breakdown of order and the rise of a new and formidable power in the Pacific. No help was on the way from Britain or, at first, the United States. Australia and New Zealand had to fend for themselves. I focused on the New Guinean port of Rabaul, which is rarely mentioned in other war stories. It was the scene of the first battles between Australian and Japanese troops, long before the arrival of the Americans.

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The book follows a small Australian garrison in Rabaul, pulling from their diaries and letters – where did you find the letters?

The Australian War Memorial had everything I needed to reconstruct these characters: diaries, letters, telegrams, photos. It was intimate stuff, and you feel like you’re invading someone’s privacy by going through a handwritten letter, even if the person is long dead.

Sometimes just deciphering the handwriting was a challenge. These people would draw a quick note on a scrap of paper just before the mail package left, in the kind of scribbles that only their loved ones could understand. I would understand how the writer made his j’s, and the whole letter would suddenly make a lot more sense.

Should we fall apart, by Harrison Christian.


Should we fall apart, by Harrison Christian.

Which character did you particularly find irresistible?

Jack Burns was a young man from Melbourne who was captured by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war in prison camps, observing the collapse of the Japanese empire from the inside. He was treated brutally and nearly starved to death, but never lost his sense of humor. One thing that struck me in the diaries and the letters was the resilience at work; good humor, even cheerfulness, despite such brutal conditions.

What are you going to work on next?

I just got back from London, where I was flipping through old papers like a crazed litigant, and I think I have something.

Should We Fall Apart (Ultimo Press, $39.99 RRP) is out now.

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