Local Lifestyle

My life before writing

The Frontier series is the epic tale of two families [Duffy and Macintosh] who are locked in a deadly battle from the moment squatter Donald Macintosh commits an act of barbarity on his Queensland property.

Their paths cross in love, death and revenge as both families fight to tame the wild frontier of Australia’s north country.

Maclean’s renowned author Peter Watt’s 12 book Frontier series began back in 2000 with the release of Cry of the Curlew.

Since then, a lot has been written about Peter Watt’s books, but little was known about the man behind them.

The Independent’s Lynne Mowbray sat down with the author to talk about his life prior to becoming a writer and the inspiration behind the characters and settings, of his 12 book Frontier series.

“I was born in the last year of the 1940’s,” Peter said.

So that makes me a baby boomer.

My father who had served in the RAAF, met my mother when he was handing his revolver in at the end of the war and mum worked in the Women’s RAAF Auxiliary, as a cipher expert.

They married.

Dad was a Baptist and mum was a Catholic and back then religious differences were important and that didn’t go over well for the two families – hence, we have the MacIntosh and Duffy’s – the inspiration behind the two families, in the Frontier series.

When my father and uncle who’d returned from the Middle East and New Guinea campaigns, they obtained a soldier settlers block [of land] at Warrawidgee (west of Griffith) and share farmed.

So I grew up on a wheat and sheep farm until around the age of 10 and that’s where my writing career started.

I got inspiration from listening to plays being acted out on the radio of an evening and I’d read comic books.

Both of these were a big influence, because you had to use your imagination.

At the age of about seven or eight I’d be driving a tractor from sunrise to sunset ploughing fields, so I started to make up stories in my head.

It was at this age that I was introduced to battle fatigue or shell shock.

Many of the workers [who worked on the property] who had come back from WWII and Korea, you could see were badly affected.

One day we were stripping the wheat and bagging it and I remember one of the blokes who was sewing up the bags fell down on the ground screaming and the other men ignored him.

I said to my dad “what’s wrong with him?

And he said oh he’s got shell shock.

It was not uncommon to see these men who shook all the time; cause in those days there was no psychological counselling.

Peter in the mid 1990’s during his time working as a gas fitter’s assistant in the Aboriginal community of Doomadgee, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Temperature that day was 54 degrees. Image: Contributed

They always said that the WWI and WWII veterans came back okay; but they didn’t.

My family eventually moved to Leeton where I boarded in a Catholic school and college before moving to a boarding school in Bowral, Chevalier College, which was run by Sacred Heart priests.

In March 1969 I joined the Australian Army for three years and my first posting was to Holsworthy [Army Barracks] with 102 Field Battery.

While we sat around having a beer in the OR’s Canteen some of the men talked about a big battle they’d fought in, the year before.

It was the fire support base Battle of Coral and Balmoral, which proved to be bigger in scale than the Battle of Long Tan.

Writing the latest book ‘From the Stars Above’ I refer to that battle and it’s a tribute to my mates that I served with, who told me their stories.

Near the end of my three years in the army, I did the Mobile Army Training Team Sections [MATTS] training team course [similar to the American Green Berets] and I was the youngest to be selected.

As part of this course we had to learn to speak Vietnamese.

I trained with a heap of veterans who’d served in Korea, Borneo, Malaya and Vietnam.

I thought at the time what a great honor to be amongst the ranks of these men, training.

So I was all trained up and an expert on every fire weapon on the battle field, trained in counter insurgency warfare and learning Vietnamese and the war ended.

I left the army in 1972 and wandered around working as a brickies labourer for a while and worked as a chainman for a surveyor before selling real estate around Tweed Heads.

Around 1973 I was approached to do law and worked for Attwood Marshall & Woodward in Coolangatta, as an article clerk.

I didn’t work there for very long and was a bit bored doing law.

So one drunken Friday night while at a pub in Coolangatta, a bloke came in looking for a deck hand for his trawler that was going to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I said, “Yeah, I’m the best deck hand in the Pacific.”

I worked on the trawler for six months, experiencing one cyclone, where we almost went down.

I think I got on the trawler with $20 and got off with $20; we drank all the profits.

I hitched back to the Gold Coast from Cairns and thought to myself, I’d better get serious with my life.

A friend of mine was a Queensland copper and he said ‘why don’t you join the police?

So in 1975 I joined the QLD Police under Commander Ray Whitrod [who in bygone years, assisted in the forming of ASIO].

I had a few postings during my 18 months as a general duties officer, the last of which was in Fortitude Valley.

Commissioner Whitrod at the time was calling for officers to get an education, so I had to resign and I applied to the University of Tasmania.

In my second year I selected to do Australian History under one of Australia’s most famous historians Professor Michael Roe.

This was to be another turning point in my life; I suddenly realized that there was more to our history than Captain Cook discovering Australia and convicts.

My three years full time studies resulted in a BA and a major in Public Administration and Political Science.

I returned to rejoin the QLD police and a new commissioner was in place.

They said ‘we don’t even want to know you’, because I’d gone out under Ray Whitrod’s watch, to get educated.

So for about a year I drifted again, working on my cousin’s property in central Queensland [near Clermont].

I started reading a local history book of my cousins, which included the Cullin-la-ringo massacre [the largest massacre of white settlers by Aborigines in Australian history].

I also read about the dispersal where thousands of Aboriginals were slaughtered and that lead to the writing of ‘Cry of the Curlew’.

By now I had decided to go back to policing, so I went down to Sydney and re-did my basic training at Redfern in 1980.

This training was much tougher than I had experienced in Queensland.

It wasn’t long before I found out, that being able to speak Vietnamese, would be an advantage.

I was working at the Manly police station at the time and Special Branch was looking for an interpreter, so I was seconded to that department and even got to be the bodyguard to the Vietnamese foreign minister when he was visiting Australia.

He was not aware that I was also listening to his entourage on tour with him.

I spent a few months in the special branch and when I’d finished, homicide wanted me – not that I’d committed any murders.

There had been a lot of Vietnamese gang trouble in Cabramatta and Bankstown areas.

Most of the time when we had prisoners, I just listened and didn’t let on that I could speak Vietnamese – except when necessary.

I was able to convince the Commissioner, John Avery to allow me to set up a course for selected police and sent to Goulburn to co-ordinate a course through the Australian National University in Canberra on Vietnamese language and culture for officers of all ranks.

When the course was complete we returned to Sydney where a special squad was set up to target Vietnamese crime.

Operation Dragon was set up for people to ring in with information, which had a significant impact on reducing crime.

I eventually transferred to Corowa on the Murray River where I was greeted by a senior constable, now retired Townsend resident, Kevin Jones.

Peter as an Ares captain in the mid 1980’s. Image: Contributed

While I was stationed at Corowa I was also a member of the Special Weapons and Tactics Squad.

We had a few operations chasing bad guys in the hills and bush on the border.

I eventually returned to Sydney and rejoined the academy staff, before transferring to the Goulburn academy to help put together a new training program for police.

During my time at Goulburn, my thoughts turned to something that I had always wanted to do.

I had always longed for the ‘frontier adventure’ of being a patrol officer in the jungles of Papua New Guinea [PNG] as a kiap.

A job eventually came up with the Australian International Development Aid Bureau AIDAB, for advisors to the Royal PNG Constabulary ARPNGC and I got the job.

During my two year contract, I was in charge of a special squad unit called Fox Unit.

I had about 15 PNG Nationals who I trained and led and we conducted raids on villages and settlements around Port Moresby, after the bad guy locally known in neo Melanesian as Trabel man or to Australians, rascols.

I witnessed many atrocities committed by the trabel man during that time and had a close Kiwi mate cop an axe in his back, but fortunately survived.

My big moment came when I was able to convince police from firing on students at the local uni who were protesting.

I was even able to have the police sit with the students on the campus and talk.

The local Moresby paper gave me a good rap for defusing the situation.

By the end of the two years, not even the money could keep me there any longer.

I had a price on my head because of the operations my men conducted to smash the gangs, so I returned to Australia.

I ended up working back on building sites once again around Port Douglas and Cairns.

It was during this time that I started writing ‘Cry of the Curlew’.

I met up with a bloke in the pub one night, which needed someone to go up to the Gulf of Carpentaria to work with him as a gas fitter’s assistant, in the Aboriginal communities of Doomadgee and Kowanyama.

I worked there for three or four years; we had no money but we lived on mud crabs and barramundi. Most of our money was spent at the Burketown Pub.

Whilst working there I started learning the local Aboriginal dialect.

There was an old traditional Aboriginal man who lived off the land out in the bush and never came into town. He’d heard about this white fella who was learning his language and came into town to check me out.

During an army exercise in the Hunter Valley. Image: contributed

It was like he stepped out of the pages of a 19th century photo; an old man with a big beard, stripped down to a hair skin belt; a bit of a loin cloth thing and carrying Nullas and spears.

He’d take me out into the bush on my weekends off and we’d go barramundi fishing and he’d teach me things about the bush country; the foods to eat and survival stuff. He had an old battered pipe and of course he loved ‘baccy’ [tobacco] and was always knocking mine off.

Thus was the inspiration behind the Aboriginal character Wallarie who features throughout the Frontier series.

After returning to Cairns I sent my completed manuscript off to my agent Tony Williams who told me, “old chap you’re not ready yet.”

Tony had sent the manuscript to Pan MacMillan Publishers who had rejected it.

I received the reject letter back from an editor at Pan MacMillan Cate Paterson, explaining the reasons why it had been rejected.

I thought to myself, I can fix that and immediately sat down and started re-writing it.

It was around late 1998 when I finished it and I sent it off to Brian Cook at an appraisal agency.

I received a phone call one day from this bloke Brian Cook who asked if I was Peter Watt.

He then proceeded to tell me that he has read thousands of manuscripts and he’d just read mine and hoped I didn’t mind that he had sent it to every publisher in Australia.

He asked if I had any preference [of publisher] and as a joke I said, “Well give it to Pan MacMillan; at least the editor there was nice enough to send me a letter saying why she had rejected the book.”

He said okay and the next thing I know I got a phone call from my
agent saying, “Mate you’ve just scored yourself a contract with any publisher you want in Australia.”

He said it was Brian Cooks influence, because he said, “I’ve read thousands of manuscripts and this is the first one that has jumped out at me saying – this is Australia’s Wilbur Smith.” The books were also then published internationally in other languages.

A few days later I received a call from Cate Paterson saying, “Please don’t accept any other offers from other publishers until I get a chance to re-read your manuscript.”

I said, “It’s alright Cate, you’ve already got it.”

And the rest is history.