Robert Drewe: The Western Australian columnist, author and judge of the best Australian yarn on the new novel Nimblefoot


It’s fair to say that Robert Drewe has some work to do.

He’s in his North Fremantle flat planning a family wedding, he’s got a sheaf of papers telling him what he needs to do to promote his latest book, Nimblefoot, and he’s about to start judging the 50 best entries in The Best Australian Yarn competition.

Drewe only has six days a week because every Sunday he skims to write his popular The Other Side column for Saturday’s edition of The West Australian, a 13-year-old ritual that still kicks him nowadays.

But no matter the pressure, he always makes time to do the daily crossword with his wife, Tracy. “If we can’t make them in the morning over coffee, we make them in the evening over a gin and tonic,” he says.

It’s the latest incarnation of an acclaimed 60-year career that took off the day Drewe entered the West as a junior journalist on his 18th birthday on January 9, 1961.

He has won a small mountain of awards for his journalism and fiction writing, chronicling the mood of the country and the lives of its citizens through novels, short stories, in theater and film. As the journey continued, the thrill never faded.

“Oh sure, that thing never changes,” he said. “I’m just as excited when an idea comes to me and I know it’s the one I’ll choose. That and the last stop are just like when I’d walk past bookstores to see if they had The Savage Crows (his first novel ) in the window.

Nimblefoot (available now via Penguin Random House) is a fun read that imagines the adult life of Johnny Day, a boy who captivated the world beating men in the sport of footman, who won the Melbourne Cup as a jockey in 1870 and who, at the age of 14, had disappeared from the face of the earth.

Drewe says he writes what he finds interesting “and I think if it interests me, I hope it interests other people”.

His curiosity about “this brave and imaginative boy” was piqued by a historic photograph of a 10-year-old Day in shorts and a jersey, a winner’s belt hanging across his lean chest. When extensive research revealed nothing else about his life, Drewe was given the freedom to let his imagination roam.

Camera iconDrewe’s previous books include The Bodysurfers, The Savage Crows and Our Sunshine, which was adapted into the Ned Kelly film. Credit: Ian Munro/western australia

“Once I found out what was going to happen after the Melbourne Cup night, it all happened pretty quickly,” he said. “I knew where I wanted him to go, I knew where I wanted him to run away and that was Western Australia, which is as far as you can go and still be in the country.”

As a child, Drewe vacationed with his family in the Rockingham area and was well acquainted with the distinctive smells that thickened the air on the old Fremantle Road.

“I wanted to write about some of the weird places like Woodman’s Point and Coogee where there were these tanning classes. It was nice to put them in a book.

Drewe was born in Melbourne but moved to WA with his family when he was six. At Hale School, he edited the school magazine Cygnet and was captain of the swim team.

By the age of 21 he was back in Melbourne, recruited by The Age newspaper, then moved north a year later to run the paper’s Sydney bureau. He started writing fiction at the age of 20. A first attempt came to nothing; he considered himself too young and had nothing to say.

He started again and The Savage Crows was published in 1976. “I had more life experience, I think, and more big city experience. Moving to Melbourne and then Sydney broadened me.

A Cry in the Jungle Bar followed, then his landmark book of interconnected short stories, The Bodysurfers, but Drewe continued to work as a journalist.

He was a literary editor for The Australian and a film critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. “They were good jobs, very interesting jobs for me, but I also needed dough,” he says.

Nimblefoot by Robert Drewe.
Camera iconNimblefoot by Robert Drewe. Credit: Provided

Drewe married his first wife, Ruth, when he was 18. They had two sons.

He enjoyed a golden age in the early 2000s when his award-winning memoir The Shark Net was turned into a TV series and his novel, Our Sunshine, became the feature film, Ned Kelly.

“I thought it would be nice if it lasted, but it didn’t last,” he said dryly.

The rich prize pool on offer in The Best Australian Yarn competition is part of the reason he came on board as a judge. “Writers always need money,” he says. “In a country like Australia, there aren’t enough readers, well, there aren’t enough people, not enough readers of literature.

“The little story is important to me. I think it’s a form as important as the novel. Anything that encourages Australian news is a good thing.

It has a romantic notion that evokes writers across Australia who work hard through the night, put down their thoughts and enter the contest.

“I like to imagine good quality stuff coming out of it and the authors being rewarded,” he says.

Drewe was an early champion for WA writer Tim Winton, propelling him to a split win at the 1982 Vogel Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript with An Open Swimmer.

“I saw a scene I was familiar with and found it refreshing. I found it spoke to me more than the other novels,” Drewe says. “The other two judges chose someone else but I held on for Tim. So even though there were three judges, it was a 50:50 prize.

He wants to find a fresh and original voice, which has the “wow factor”. “Good news gives the reader a sense of self-identification no matter what it is about. It doesn’t have a lot of room to do it, but when it does, you know if it’s working or not, if it strikes a chord.

Drewe thoroughly enjoys the freedom to write a weekly column and, every Sunday, lets go. “I don’t know where they are going to take me,” he said.

He will write about 800 words and then cut it down to exactly 786.

“The only restriction on the structure is the word, which is finite. I like that there is no subject, no subject. I can write on – which is a little self-indulgent – ​​the E to the end of my name or Donald Trump or whatever, anything goes, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly.
Camera iconHeath Ledger in a scene from the film Ned Kelly, adapted from Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine.
Credit: Caroline Johns./ Universal Pictures International

For the past 13 years he has sought out irony, something with a touch of quirky humor, something he describes as “just stupid”. “Something the government could do, or a person, that’s just a joke and it’s very hard to resist.”

Cracker Night in the Northern Territory led him to reminisce about Guy Fawkes fireworks, the death of Tricia the elephant at Perth Zoo brought up memories of the antics of Jimmy the chimpanzee and he recently wrote about lettuce shortages, ant infestations and some men’s uncomfortable kissing propensity.

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. He recalls a six-month stint in the 1990s teaching creative writing to “murderers and rapists” as a writer-in-residence at Brixton Prison in London.

About a dozen showed up at each session. “Well, they would do anything for any kind of entertainment, even go to a creative writing class taught by an Aussie,” laughs Drewe.

“The most interesting guy was from Lesotho who, no matter what I said, only wrote one thing every day on that beautiful copper plate: ‘My name is Alexander Lumumba. I am the assistant treasurer of the East Lesotho women’s basketball team. He wrote that every time.

“He was in jail for killing his son-in-law with an axe. He cut off his son-in-law’s head, yet he was so sweet.

Drewe also taught at a high school in the East End, London, Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper country. “After school, the good English teacher and the good maths teacher and I used to go to the local pub, which was The Blind Beggar. That’s where the Kray brothers used to kill people. It was the teachers’ room.

It seems he got a lot more out of the exercise than his students. “Oh, a lot,” he said.

Drewe has family on both sides of the country and tries to split his time between his home in northern New South Wales and his apartment in North Fremantle.

But Nimblefoot’s promotional schedule means he will only be spending two weeks in WA this trip. “Advertising is much harder than writing, and family marriage is more important than Ben Hur,” he says.

“But after a break and a bit of vacation, I’m sure things will be clearer.”

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