How a woman on the moon got John writing

Journalist CAM WILSON talks to a Canberra submarine engineer whose stargazing and curiosity led him to a whole new career – fiction writing. With three books under his belt, there’s a fourth on the horizon.

WHAT makes a Canberran ex-submarine engineer who’s “always hated writing” sit down one morning to write a thriller novel?

“I was gazing at the stars one night while on holidays in Salamander Bay, when I suddenly wondered if a woman has ever set foot on the moon” says silver-haired septuagenarian John G O’Neill.

Latter-day author John G O’Neill… “I research and research so no one can point to my book and say: ‘That couldn’t happen’.”

“So I called up NASA and do you know what they told me? ‘Well, sir,’” he says, imitating a US space agency employee with a Southern twang, “‘we ain’t ever put a woman on the moon, but we’re not too sure about the Chinese or Russians.

“That question stuck in the back of my mind for awhile until one Saturday morning, I sat down at my desk and I wrote the last chapter of ‘Kafira’.”

Since publishing his first book, O’Neill has written “Two Crowns” and “Seven Long Steps to Paradise: An Islamist Terrorist” and has another book on the way.

His books are in the style of Dan Brown’s thriller novels: they follow a cerebral yet flawed protagonist who is drawn into a global adventure with enemies trying to thwart them.

O’Neill credits his “insatiable creativity and imagination” for his transformation to full-time author and publisher. Before penning his first novel, his unorthodox career path hinted at his hidden curiosity.

O’Neill left school at age 15 to follow his father into the Royal Australian Navy. Despite insisting that his “father’s facilities were not passed on to his son”, O’Neill rose quickly through the ranks before becoming an engineering commander.

After leaving the Navy in his mid-twenties, O’Neill’s career has included an array of diverse occupations that sound like jobs he would give to his novel’s characters.

O’Neill says he’s developed submarines for a company in Sweden and started a software design business for tracking vehicles. He also served as the executive officer of not-for-profit Technical Aid to the Disabled ACT.

But he says it was a chance conversation with a submarine captain while in service that sparked his passion for learning.

“A submarine captain said to me: ‘Look, Johno, I’m just going to do the barristers and solicitors exam’. When he told me what that was, I thought to myself ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that’.”

After enrolling to study law in his mid-twenties while still working in the Navy, O’Neill was so “thirsty for knowledge” that he would work on submarines by day and then go home to study case law until the early hours of the morning.

O’Neill says this discipline and appetite for gruelling schedules equipped him to write a book while also working full time as a project manager for the Department of Defence.

“’I’d sit down after work and write. During the day, in between designing something, I was thinking about words. I looked forward to reading what I’d done the night before. I looked forward to starting again.”

O’Neill’s passion for knowledge is on full display in his writing. While the storylines are larger-than-life – in “Kafira”, North Korea develops a new version of the Ebola virus to threaten to spread unless their claim to the moon is recognised – O’Neill insists his book’s characters are realistic and the plots are grounded in real history or science.

“One of the things I’m keen on in my books is facts. When I find myself thinking how the story is going to work, I research and research so no one can point to my book and say: ‘That couldn’t happen’.”

For some, writing is a tortuous process. However, O’Neill is vocal about how much he enjoys writing.

“I love reading what I’ve read. Sometimes, I think: ‘Jeez, did I write that?’ I know it sounds odd, but I derive a great sense of joy out of it.”

Another way which O’Neill differs is his unusual writing process; he reverse-engineers his plots by writing the last chapter first and then working his way backward. By the time he’s written the first chapter, he’s already started on the last chapter of the next book.

And despite being well past the age when most retire, O’Neill shows no signs of slowing down.

“My doctor says I’ve got about 15 more years in me. I reckon I’ve got three more books before I kick off my perch.”

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