Between two worlds

By Andrea Louise Thomas Photos Yanni

Robert Newton is complex. He’s a full-time firefighter with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Moorabbin, but, at home in Mount Martha, he’s an award-winning young adult novelist with nine books under his belt. On the surface, the two professions seem to have nothing in common, but the common denominator is variety. “That’s what I love about my job. You never know what you’ll go to. I love not knowing. It’s the same thing with writing. I love being surprised. I don’t plan a story, I allow it to evolve,” he says.

In his 32 years in the fire service, Rob has responded to a wide variety of incidents. Some stay in his head. One call to an overdose haunted him. As the young mother lay convulsing on the floor, her seven-year-old daughter held her hand. The mother later died. He wanted to make sense of it. He wondered what happened to that little girl in the pink pyjamas with bunny rabbits on them. So, he gave her a new life as Lexie in his novel, Mr. Romanov’s Garden in the Sky. 

In many of his novels, there is an outsider, a person craving to be seen, someone who wants to be understood and needs to be cared for. In his work as a firefighter and his own life experience, Rob has found a way to comfort the victim, the patient, the character, the reader, himself. He has a real sense of people.

It comes from keen observation, a kind heart and an intimate understanding of character.

Rob was born in Townsville, Queensland. His father was in the army so the family moved a lot. By the time he was twelve, he had been to eight schools. It was hard always being ‘the new kid’.

He often felt like an outsider. Among other challenges, it inevitably meant an encounter with the school bully. Despite the upheaval, Rob says his childhood was happy. He learned the true value of friendship and resilience – lessons that helped build character in his life and his books.

Becoming a writer or a firefighter hadn’t crossed his mind when he was young. He wanted to be a trumpet player in a jazz or rock band. He applied to the Victorian College of the Arts Music School, but didn’t get in so he went to Monash University to study history and politics. He got most of the way through his studies when a conversation with his cousin, a firefighter, changed his direction and he entered the fire service.

Rob attributes his love of stories to his parents. They were great storytellers who told original bedtime tales full of wonderful descriptions and rich imaginings. Rob liked gangster stories.

He remembers his mother referring to a notorious gangster as being  as ‘flash as a rat with a gold tooth.’ These kinds of details stuck with him. His novel Runner is centred around the life of infamous Melbourne gangster, Squizzy Taylor.

Fiction is not where Rob began writing.

His writing began with letters to his brother Chris who moved to Switzerland 30 years ago. Letter writing wasn’t really his forte so he started to write stories instead. They were so good his brother read them aloud to friends and they all agreed that Rob had a gift to be shared. Rob’s first book, My Name is Will Thompson, is based on their childhood and Chris’ struggles with dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects one in ten children. 

“Story ideas are everywhere. You have to be an observer and a listener. The more I write, the more I realise it’s about the little things. Ideas can come from anywhere: a photograph, a conversation on the train, history or life,” he says. After he left school, Rob started reading a lot. He feels reading teaches good writing. He was introduced to young adult fiction by a bookseller in his youth. He likes YA fiction because it captures the heightened emotions of teenage life and all the new experiences that come with it. It’s nostalgic for him and the genre suits his style of writing. 

Most of his books have been written at home although he says he has ‘secret spots’ on the Peninsula where he goes to start a story undistracted. He only wrote one of his books in his downtime at the fire station. He was working on Runner when his wife was pregnant with their second daughter. She told him that he had better hurry up and finish that story because he was going to be too busy for writing when the baby came!

When Rob is not writing, working, or spending time with his wife and three teenage daughters, he likes to go down to the beach for a sea swim, but the stories are always percolating. Right now, he’s working on a picture book about an asthmatic firetruck with a crooked rear end. Rob likes a good underdog in a story. 

Some of his books deal with very confronting issues. He likes to be a voice for kids who have had it hard in life and mirror those lives to kids who have had it good. “When I’m writing, I am hoping to make someone feel something. Feelings are at the core of my stories,” he says. At heart, Rob is a champion of people, in real life and in fiction. It’s what makes his stories so good.

Peninsula Essence – October 2021