Two former Gunnedah men will share a story of trauma and triumph in the anticipated book Back on Track.
BackTrack is a not-for-profit organisation that works with youth “who would otherwise fall through the cracks”, and over the years has got alongside more than 1000 teens to help them “get back on track”.
Mr Knight said he first heard about Mr Shakeshaft’s initiative through his mother Anne Knight, a Gunnedah artist and poet.
“She said, ‘There’s a fellow doing great things with dogs in Armidale’,” Mr Knight said.
“I followed him for any number of years and with my media background there was a point where I was toying with the idea of approaching him about doing a documentary and then Catherine Scott did a wonderful job of BackTrack Boys.”
Before long, Mr Knight “put the wheels in motion’ and headed to Armidale to share a “pub lunch” with Mr Shakeshaft and discuss the idea of recording his life and how it led to BackTrack Youthworks.
Hachette Australia Group announced the acquisition of world rights for Mr Shakeshaft’s memoir on Wednesday, with plans to publish Back on Track in June 2019.
Mr Knight said he had already interviewed “dozens of people” including police and social workers, and undergone a number of “intense” sessions with Mr Shakeshaft.
The author said the book was “very layered” and would capture “the story of Bernie’s life, which inevitably leads to the BackTrack organisation” and the observations of the community and BackTrack participants.
“It is Bernie’s life story but central to that is his desire to help others and he does it in what I would consider a very distinct way,” Mr Knight said.
“He realised there was a need there and away he went.”
Mr Knight said it was an “extraordinary” and “heartwarming” tale and “I just hope I get it right”.
“Bernie is so refreshingly different and it works. He connects, and this is one thing I hope will become apparent in the book,” Mr Knight said.
“He just makes people want to listen to him and do their best by him.
“He makes things happen, that’s one of his strengths. He’s visionary and he’s a bit of a maverick. He’s not one to tick boxes as determined by other people.
“He’s managed to get a whole community behind him, and in doing so, he’s helped these kids and he’s reduced the crime rates up there.”
Mr Knight said Mr Shakeshaft’s success in turning youth around lay in his ability to see their value.
“So many people want to label our kids… [but] I would argue that someone who can put a fence up straight or do some welding, they’re good students in their own right and that’s what Bernie has tapped into - he has found their interests and tapped into them,” Mr Knight said.
”It’s important to realise he gives people time and that’s critical to what he’s about.
“Really, it gets back to showing an interest in them, showing you care and giving them a purpose.”
[Bernie] makes things happen, that’s one of his strengths. He’s visionary and he’s a bit of a maverick.Author James Knight
The author said he was out of all the lives he had put to paper, Mr Shakeshaft’s resonated in a “personal” way.
“I connected with it in a way I’ve personally never connected with [other stories] because I grew up in a small country town,” Mr Knight said.
“I’ve seen the type of people Bernie is working with now and the type of people I’ve gone to school with.
“It relates to my childhood and it relates to a country area, so I’m very excited about it.”
Mr Knight said the book would also give an insight into what it was like to grow up in a rural community.
“We have 80-90 per cent of the Australian population living in coastal fringes [and] so many people in these urban areas know nothing or next to nothing of rural communities or bush communities,” he said.
“I’m hoping the book - and the documentary certainly has done so - I hope it creates greater awareness of what it’s like living in a rural area.
“I genuinely believe it would do city kids a lot of good if they came out and mingled with the boys and girls there [at Armidale] and got a greater understanding.”
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