Q&A with ANU English alumnus and author Simon Turner

Simon Turner (BA '15)

Secrets of a River Swimmer follows a man who is taken on a journey that helps him and the people he meets gain a new lease on life. The book, written by CASS alumnus Simon Turner (BA ’95), was originally intended as a personal project. It has now been published by US-based publisher The Story Plant, as part of a three-book contract.

We caught up with Simon Turner to learn about the process he went through to get his novel published, and about his time at ANU.

Would love to hear a bit about you! Where are you based in Australia and what did you study at the ANU? 
I feel like Frodo in the Lord or the Rings in that I’ve also been on a very long journey before returning to where I started! 

I studied Arts (English major) at ANU way back in the mid 90s when students handwrote everything on paper. I left uni full of optimism for my future but short on detail. 

Soon after graduating I moved to the UK largely because my family are English and I felt drawn to it. I was based in London and Edinburgh for the next couple of decades working in investment management roles which required me to travel Europe for three months a year. Despite not really planning to working in the investment world, I enjoyed the amount of learning those experiences offered me. And I enjoyed living in the UK. For around a decade, my wife and I lived in a two-hundred-year old castle like you’d read about in a Jane Austen novel in the middle of the Scottish countryside. It was a wonderful albeit chilly experience. And we learnt the hard way that the term “money pit” is well matched to run-down Scottish castles in need of love and care. 

After a particularly dark and wet Scottish winter a few year ago, we decided we needed more sunshine in our lives, so we moved to Australia. These days, we live on a few acres in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland where we are making up for two decades of sunshine deficits. 

Why did you choose to study at ANU?  
I chose to study at ANU because of the uni’s great academic track record, as well as its beautiful campus in Australia’s best uni town. For me, it was empowering to move away from my family to attend uni as it allowed me to become myself in a wonderful way. I have great memories of those days. 

Can you briefly describe what Secrets of a River Swimmer is about and what the inspiration was behind it? 
Secrets of a River Swimmer starts with the main character Freddy gazing at a majestic river gushing past him in the depths of a Scottish winter. He's ready to jump in and end his less than fulfilling life. But what happens next is not what he expects. From the moment he enters the river, Freddy begins a journey which is more beautiful, funny, and mysterious than he could have imagined on dry land. And through this journey, Freddy's story becomes interweaved with a cast of characters who are equally lost and in search of answers. Eventually they all unite in their quest for an answer to the biggest question of them all: will the river take them where they want to go?

The novel shares a number of key themes with The Alchemist and Life of Pi in that it’s an exploration of the pathways we all follow as we navigate change towards living a meaningful life.

The inspiration for writing the novel came from my own river swimming experiences in Scotland. A friend and I used to jump into the River Tweed every few weeks, including in the depths of Scottish winters when the water was two degrees Celsius. And every time we immersed ourselves in the Tweed’s majestic waters we’d experience love, joy, and fun in more beautiful ways than we could have imagined on dry land. It was like pressing a reset button on life.

That’s why I wrote Secrets of a River Swimmer—to capture and immortalize the joys and mysteries of the river’s world in a story which connects what’s happening above and below the surface. 

Every author knows that getting published can be a long and difficult journey. What was your experience like with Secrets of a River Swimmer
Writing Secrets of a River Swimmer was a joyful experience for me. I wasn’t thinking about getting it published at the time, I was just writing a story which was important to me and which came from deep inside.

The challenging part of my writing journey came when I’d finished writing the novel and I had to consider whether to pursue publication. The novel was so precious to me that the idea of other people reading it felt foreign, frightening even. I eventually decided to test the water by running the novel by an editor called Katie Zdybel at the Darling Axe in Canada. So I sent her the novel, and held my breath. 

Around a month later, Katie sent me her feedback. She was wonderfully positive on the book and implored me to pursue publication for both myself and the reading world. Here’s a quote from her letter:
‘This is a really fascinating and touching manuscript. I feel lucky to have read it. The voice is so compelling, funny, and insightful. Freddy is an exceptionally likable protagonist and from the very first page, I was hooked. It’s a unique manuscript and I hope you pursue publication because I think many people will gather strength, clarity, and comfort from this book.’ 

On the back of Katie’s feedback, I decided to pursue publication, and I resolved to come to terms with having random people reading my book. So I sent the novel off to a few leading indie publishers, and was lucky enough to receive two offers in short order. I went with The Story Plant’s three-book offer because they have a great track record. 

How did studying English at ANU help you to get to where you are now, in terms of writing your two books and/or the publishing process? 
When I decided to study English at ANU, it was for the simple reason I love reading and writing, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to connect my English studies with my career. I’ve since learnt that our life-path only becomes clearer with the benefit of hindsight. So it’s become clear to me that my English studies at ANU helped me by creating a thread between my real skills and passions and the real world. When I look back, it seems obvious that I was meant to be a writer, so I’m grateful I was able to continue developing those skills at uni. 

Do you have any advice for other writers as they endeavor to get their book published? 
Great books will always be published so my advice is centred around how to write that great book which is existing inside of you right now. In my experience, the key is to write the story which matters to you for you, and no one else but you. Let the story jump onto the page just as it wants to. You can edit it with the reader in mind later on, but writing a great book comes from allowing what’s already inside to flow onto the page. 

Simon Turner’s book Secrets of a River Swimmeris published by The Story Plant.