‘From country Queensland to Ethiopia: How I came to be writing someone else’s story’

Stephany Evans Steggall says she could never have imaged she'd be writing the story of others. Source: Getty Images

If you had told me when I was a 16-year-old, wondering what to do with my life, that 50 years later I would write the life story of an Ethiopian athlete, I could not have possibly imagined it. Yet here I am in my 70th year holding my book titled A Time To Be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story. Let me tell you my story leading up to Feyisa’s.

My family was poor, but enriched by the determination of our parents to educate us and encourage our reading. Isolation on a sheep property near Goondiwindi, Queensland (where I was born), and reduced circumstances in Warwick (where we were educated), meant we relied on each other’s company and the wide world of literature to adventure as far as each book took us. I don’t think it is possible to be a truly competent writer unless you have been an avid reader.

I proudly presented my teacher with my first book when I was 11 years old! I wish I could remember what it was about. “You will be a writer one day,” he assured me. I went to see him, many years later, after I had written my first ‘real’ book to tell him that his prediction came true.

We all experience several different lives, by age 60, and my writing life did not start properly until 2001. Before that I was a teacher, a wife, a mother of four children, a collector of many casual jobs, a freelance journalist and a mature age university student. Then I had the very good fortune to meet Colin Thiele, best known for his classic, Storm Boy. At the time I was searching for a topic for my PhD.

“May I write your biography, please?” I asked Colin. Always a supporter of incipient writers, he agreed. I researched and wrote the scholarly version and adapted it for general reading as Can I Call You Colin: The Authorised Biography of Colin Thiele.

“You told me when you were a teenager,” my husband of nearly 50 years likes to remind me, “that you wanted to write biography!” I don’t remember that, but I have always loved meeting people and talking about their lives. I discovered, as I wrote theses about Queensland poets and then Colin, that I loved the research — following a trail of papers, people of interest, places — and recording it all.

Colin Thiele and my other subjects — Ivan Southall, Bruce Dawe and Thomas Keneally — all wanted their stories told. This is the best reason I can give for writing life stories: most of us feel the need to leave an accurate record of who we are, words weighed carefully and thoughts measured meaningfully. Of course, when you are writing about another author, their works reveal a lot about them.

“You are the first to perceptively interpret my life through my poetry,” Bruce Dawe told me. “How did you do that?”

I don’t want to give the impression that academia is a precursor to successful writing. I chose to push ahead with my studies, but my seven siblings, who did not, are all talented writers and have chosen different creative outlets.

For those of you who want to write your own memoirs or a life story of someone else, the best advice I can give is to do your homework thoroughly. Interviewing others is a challenge, but if you prepare your questions well and make sure that your recorder is working properly, you will enjoy it. Don’t rely on your ability to take notes and/or remember details because that doesn’t work. It’s time consuming, but playing back your tapes and transcribing the interview is the tried and true method.

The difficulty of recording a subject increased tenfold when I went to Ethiopia and returned with a story about an elite marathon runner! I had to employ an interpreter and rely on his translations — hours of recorded interviews conducted in Arizona where Feyisa Lilesa, the athlete, was living in exile. Yes, add ‘likes adventure’ to the prerequisites for writing books!

I knew that Feyisa’s story was a gift, the words used by Tom Keneally to describe his chance to tell the story of Oskar Schindler. Feyisa bravely seized an opportunity to defy his government, to break the silences, to expose the truths in Ethiopia, to risk death and pay the price of exile. His protest gesture at the 2016 Olympic Games challenged me to write his story as a narrative memoir in the first person. This book is the culmination of many years as an apprentice writer — it’s rather like training for a marathon!

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