A city of scandal. A place of political espionage — of sordid affairs, policy upheaval and a constant state of national intrigue. The Australian capital, where matters of global importance are hotly debated, cheered then chastised, buried and revived again with fresh blood, on new terms.
That’s the Canberra that journalist Steve Lewis envisaged when he first moved there some 26 years ago — exactly how many years he’s been wanting to write about it.
And write he did.
Secret City — The Capital Files is a trilogy of fictional political novels written by Lewis and fellow former press gallery journalist Chris Uhlmann. Offering an insider’s eye into the nation’s capital, its inner political circles and secret meeting rooms, the books take reality and forgive it with a fictional twist. The plot lines of their pages so popular, they are about to come to life through an entertaining TV adaptation, with series two of Secret City coming to Foxtel screens early next year.
“I decided that Canberra was a great setting for a political drama and thriller,” Lewis said.
“A lot of people have a view about Canberra — they’ve either never been, or went 20 years ago on a school excursion.
“We wanted to make it a very sexy, intriguing, great place — we wanted to show the dark underbelly of Canberra with the intriguing subterfuge.”
It took about 18 months for the pair to pen their breakaway book, The Marmalade Files, which they wrote separately using a shared Google document to note their progress, coming together to review work and pull chapters together. Writing a successful fictional novel with a partner — and near stranger at that — is no easy feat — but one that worked well for the unlikely duo.
“We decided that we would combine our efforts and talents and see if we could work together, which was an experiment as we didn’t know each other all that well,” Lewis, the Walkley-award-winning father of three continued.
“I had an idea, he had an idea, and we sat down with a blank piece of paper and sketched out what it would look like.
“We found we really complimented each other, and our ideas somehow came together.
“There’s plenty of collaboration for non fiction, but it’s rare to have collaboration on fiction.”
Once they had completed their first draft, they spent a week on the NSW South Coast, fine-tuning every word.
“We spent the week reading it aloud and edited it together,” Uhlmann told The Sunday Telegraph.
“We wanted a book that people are going to read, and we wanted to deal with the big issues — the collapse of the mainstream media’s business model and the rise of social media, the dysfunction in Australian politics, as well as the rise of china and the strategic play with the US.
“A lot of it was drawn from our direct experiences and working in the press gallery and going on trips with the Prime Minister — and there is also a lot of collaboration in journalism — if we needed help from an expert, we asked an expert.”
Authenticity, they say, is key to good fiction. Transporting the reader to a place not far from reality, as truthfully as possible, is what keeps readers engaged — and writers writing.
While the authors downplay their powers of prophecy, the Secret City trilogy foresaw the rise of a Donald Trump-style American President and a Chinese leader some believe is on the path to becoming an emperor. They also foreshadowed a clash on the South China Sea, which came eerily close to being realised in recent weeks when a Chinese destroyer near collided with the USS Decatur.
Despite swearing to be ‘entirely fictional’, when released, the books attracted fiery response from a series of unnamed political players, who felt they were immortalised by the characters within the chapters.
“Some Australian politicians have imagined themselves to be characters in this book, but then again, they have vivid imaginations,” laughed Uhlmann.
“It’s a romp — a political romp thriller — it’s satire — and if you don’t know anything about Australian politics you can enjoy it just as much as someone who does.
“The thing I love about journalism is I think it’s an incredible honour … we have a ringside seat to history, and writing the first draft of history books.”