Catching up with Ryan Butta
Last month the SMSA had the pleasure of hosting an eye-opening author talk by writer Ryan Butta. The talk explored Ryan’s latest book The Ballad of Abdul Wade, sharing his inspirational journey unearthing the hidden history of the first Afghan men in NSW.
Following such an insightful talk, we couldn’t resist asking Ryan about his passion for writing, his drive to amplify unheard voices of history and get the scoop on his next project.
Ryan, we would love to know how you found your passion for writing?
I have always been a voracious reader. Coming from a small town in rural NSW books were a way to go out and explore the world. Writing is a natural extension of reading and my passion for writing came from my love of reading. I imagine it must be very difficult to write if you do not read.
However, despite the urge to write and the love of writing, I never really dedicated myself to it seriously until I was in my late 30s. I can’t explain that delay, because from as far back as primary school there was this feeling that I should be writing and a sense of guilt if I wasn’t writing. I think there is still a tendency in Australia to encourage kids to get a trade or a profession and that writing is something that you do on the side. We should be encouraging more children to see writing as a career, but we should also ensure that those who do choose to pursue writing can make a living from it. As a society, where would we be without writers?
It is always fascinating to get an insight into a writer’s approach to their work. Do you have a routine for writing?
When I am writing history, my routine is to read everything I can on my subject before I even think about writing a single word. I just read and read and read for months and from that reading a story emerges, a path that I want to follow to tell the story. At the beginning you do not know where that will lead, which is always quite exciting.
When it comes to actually writing, I write first thing in the mornings, whether that be 5am or 7am. And I try to write a few days a week. I don’t find set routines useful. Some days I don’t feel like writing, or I feel dry of words. On those days I might go back and do some more reading. I never try to force it. I also never look back on anything I have written before I finish the first draft. Before I start, I have a set structure that I try to follow, or waypoints to get me from start to finish of the first draft. I make notes as I go along as things occur to me, but I never go back and put them in until the first draft is done. The first draft is a small flame that can be easily extinguished if I play with it too much. Once the first draft is down then I can go back and edit and insert or delete as needed. Knowing this allows me to push through and complete the first draft without worrying about how good or, as is usually the case, bad it is.
A lot of the writing is done away from the desk, usually walking. I am constantly making notes on my telephone.
Lastly, I use Microsoft Onenote to plan and write my first draft and then use Word for the editing stages.
When reading your latest book, The Ballad of Abdul Wade, it is evident that this must have been a challenging research project. Can you talk us through your experience uncovering and working through the information you collected?
There are always challenges, but the exciting thing about research is you never know where it will lead. A seemingly innocuous thread can take you anywhere and bring you into contact with stories, people and places you may never have encountered otherwise. For instance, doing the research for my current book on any one day I could be speaking to a private detective in Tokyo or a forensic pathologist in Adelaide. What other career lets you do that?
The great challenge of The Ballad of Abdul Wade was also the great opportunity in that there was not that much written about the Afghan men in NSW and most of what was written was inaccurate or false. This meant I had to go back to original sources of the day and often times the newspapers of the day. I really had to understand the sources I was using, what biases they had, were they pro-Union or anti-Union? Facts had to be weighed and cross checked before I could use them. Often times I would find a fantastic piece of information but was unable to verify it and therefore unable to use it.
Another challenge was that lockdowns started just after I began writing which made travel to the various archives around Australia very difficult. I remember one occasion of driving five hours to the National Archives in Canberra to find that the file I requested contained only one page, and even that was of no use. But the flipside is when you find something remarkable. A case in point was when I ordered a copy of a rare book from England and after waiting months for it to arrive it contained a firsthand account of meeting Abdul Wade in Afghanistan in 1924.
They say books are never finished, only abandoned and research is much the same. I am sure there is more information out there waiting to be discovered. And I know that some people are building on my work to dig and explore further into the lives of the Afghans that came to Australia in the 1800s. And I think that is the best we can hope for, we can never discover everything, at some point you have to hit publish, but if I can move the story along a little bit closer to the truth so that others can take it further forward than I feel that as a writer I have done my job.
Do you have any tips for writers wanting to embark on their own projects to uncover hidden voices of the past?
First of all, I definitely encourage writers to start taking a critical look at Australian history. There are still so many untold stories out there, or stories that need re-telling, and it is such fertile ground. It is also such a necessary thing for us as a society to start looking at what really happened in this country. For too long the version of history we have been fed has gone unquestioned. If you walk into any bookshop, the majority of biographies on the shelves are still about white men. Do we need another biography of Captain Cook or Charles Kingsford Smith? Our history is so much richer than that and we need to embrace it and tell it.
The resources are out there in the archives and the libraries and online for those who wish to look. It is important work. In terms of getting started I recommend the National Archives of Australia, NSW Archives, the State Libraries, the National Library, Trove online, State Probate records and also the regional or local history societies and libraries. All are great sources of information. And always remember to speak to the people at the archives and libraries, I have found that they are always keen to assist in any way they can.
Can you share what you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a biography of an Anzac soldier who was the first man to win the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Gallipoli. He led a fascinating life before World War I, raised as a Samurai in Japan, he worked as a sailor and soldier of fortune. He was recruited into Australian military intelligence at the outbreak of World War II and was sent undercover into Japan. He was attacked by Japanese intelligence and died later in Australia. The Australian Government has always denied that he was working for them and refused to provide a headstone for his grave. He currently lays in an unmarked grave in Sydney and through the book I am trying to build the case for the Government to review their decision and provide a headstone. The book will be out in July of 2024.
We also wanted to chat about your online community Out of Office. Can you tell us a bit about Out of Office?
In January of 2022 I quit my job in Federal Government to pursue a writing career. Out of Office came about as a way of charting that transition and sharing the experience. Who doesn’t dream of chucking it all in and doing something creative? A few months after starting the newsletter, my father passed away and I started to also write about death and grief and trying to find a more meaningful way of spending my finite time on earth. I don’t have any answers, I just shared my musings and readers really responded to these themes. I think that they are things we don’t really discuss that much even though we all have it waiting down the line at some point. It was lovely to see how quickly the readership grew just from people sharing it with others. I now have readers from all over the world and it is somehow reassuring to think that my experiences as a human resonate with people from all parts of the world regardless of language and culture and religion.
Since starting the newsletter, I’ve written about everything from Italian food to Italian drivers, boiling frogs and opal mining, and my most recent edition is about forks. For me it has acted as a kind of meditation on life, but it has also served as an exercise to improve my writing. I publish every two weeks and having an audience expecting a newsletter in their inbox every fortnight has made me accountable to that deadline.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Ryan for answering our questions. Don’t worry if you missed The Ballad of Abdul Wade – the untold history of the first Afghan men to come to NSW event at the SMSA, you can listen to a recording here.
SMSA members can borrow The Ballad of Abdul Wade from our library on level 2. This book is also for sale at your local book store, here is a link to our friends at Abbey’s Book Stop.
Interested in joining Ryan’s newsletter Out of Office? Sign up here