For this weeks Wednesday with the Author, we were able to get in contact with Al Venter, author of BARREL OF A GUN: A War Correspondent’s Misspent Moments in Combat. Here’s what he had to say about himself, his life, and BARREL OF A GUN:
At school. Being at boarding school from start to finish, I was an inveterate reader – anything from Biggles to Zane Grey (and inbetween, Royal Navy Captain Roskill’s official history of the Second World War at Sea, most of which I’d read by my early teens). I had the first stabbings at writing a book – a Western, coincidentally – by time I’d turned 14.
What is it about writing that appealed to you?
It came in phases: I found school life numbingly boring, and by starting to scribble, I seemed to alleviate some of the grief of being cooped up in a quasi-concentration camp. Once I’d spent three years in the navy and gone into shipping for a career, I wrote about that subject because I’d come to assimilate so much of it. I also liked to stay abreast of what was going on in the maritime world. Remember, it was a shipping job that took me to Nigeria early 1966, where I was thrust headlong into the beginnings of a full-blown civil war.
Do you have any advice for budding military history authors who want to get published?
Read all the established military writers and as much on war and conflict as possible. Then read some more! Don’t ignore contemporary writers like John Le Carre, Paul Theroux, John Coetzee and a host of others on both sides of the Atlantic. If you can, include some of the ‘ancients’ like Maugham, Kipling and O’Henry – they could all spin a marvelous yarn. Libraries are free, they have huge resources and it is all there for the asking. Avoid computer games like the proverbial plague because they intrude almost slavishly on valuable time. If you are really set on military writing/reporting as a career, get a wealthy aunt to buy you a ticket to places like Kabul or the Philippines or Colombia (where there are ongoing insurgencies). Once there, you’ll meet a bunch of scribes and there is always the occasional ‘Old Hand’ willing to impart something of value. They might even share a few writing skills (and possibly a few valuable contacts) but ultimately, it is you that has to demonstrate initiative, because that is the only way to ‘get noticed’ by people sitting behind desks back home.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
Somebody had to do it, because I know of only a handful of other writers in today’s mileau who have had as many narrow scrapes as I have. There are an awful lot of ‘wannabees’ out there, but few who have walked the walk. Moreover, it is something to have survived so many conflicts where a lot of other people have not. The book demonstrates the inordinate amount of luck I have had during the course of what I’d like to think has been a fairly illustrious career.
How long did it take you to write it?
Overall, in various drafts, to which I added several new exploits (such as the Sierra Leone war, flying gunships with Neall Ellis and going back to Lebanon to meet some of the Hezbollah leadership elements), about 15 years. I worked on it only a tiny proportion of that time, but the pot has been on boil for decades. In the meantime, I finished half a dozen other books, some on conflict, still more on current nuclear issues and even a novel on the ‘skin trade’ involving the human trafficking of minors, which I regard as my best work ever, though it remains unpublished. It is based on an actual event that took place in Thailand and the uncle of the girl – she was 13 years old when she was snatched – was one of my Israeli military escorts.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
It is markedly different to anything else in this genre in the marketplace at this time. It deals with a succession of events that actually took place and in the process, a lot of lives were lost and still more, incontrovertibly altered for better or worse. Bottom line is that the book demonstrates rather forcibly how one man survived all these shenanigans, sometimes against impossible odds.
Who are your favorite authors, fiction and non-fiction, and why?
I don’t read fiction that often because of time constraints, but I make a point of reading both John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth whenever they have new titles out. Their research is always meticulous and their issues they deal with are immediate: it is all today’s dreadful world. A recent exception was Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: an excellent work.
My non-fiction reading centers around all the notable military historians, with the focus this year on the Battle of Britain’s 70th Anniversary, Dunkirk and the war in the Pacific. I have read most of the better-known books to emerge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most recent being Sebastian Junger’s War. I also devour anything with historian Paul Johnson’s name on it.
If there is something interesting that deals with what is taking place in Africa today, I’ll make a grab for it, but a lot of what appeared on the subject recently is either disjointed or politically motivated
How do you relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests?
I am into my seventies and would like to believe that I am still as fit and strong as I was three decades ago, in part, because I work out hard in the gym three or four times a week. The normal regimen is 500 yards in the pool, plus time on a treadmill, alternating with weights. When I live within sight of high ground (as I did for a decade, at the mouth of the Columbia River in south-west Washington State or afterwards, on Scotland’s Isle of Bute), I like to tackle everything accessible. Now I am in the Surrey Hills and I’ll have other options with my equally active lady who also loves to trudge.
I still dive a lot, and am actually leaving shortly on a two-month dive safari down the east coast of Africa – all the way from the Red Sea to Cape Town. The idea is to finish my next two underwater books. One of these books will be on free-diving with sharks, something I’ve been doing for 40 years and the other will cover Indian Ocean shipwrecks. Both books are about three-quarters done.
For the rest, I liked squash, but played my last game a year ago. I also collected art, and at one stage had one of the largest privately-owned collections of Ethiopian Coptic Christian memorabilia, art artifacts and religious items, some of which were centuries old: the roughly 400-piece assortment was on display at the Seattle Art Museum for some years.
Be sure to keep an eye out for Al’s new book Gunship Ace: The Wars of Neal Ellis, Gunship Pilot and Mercenary. Expected release: January 19, 2012.