Who is Bernie Shakeshaft? This is the question former Gunnedah author James Knight is striving to answer.
Mr Knight is in the throes of writing the life story of the former Gunnedah youth officer who founded the successful BackTrack Youth Works program in Armidale in 2006.
To date, the author has conducted 70 interviews with teachers, youth workers, parents, police officers, a magristrate, NSW Governor Hurley David Hurley, Greg Chappell, BackTrack participants, and Mr Shakeshaft’s friends, family and ex-colleagues because “they all add something to the picture”.
“I think one of the best ways to discern who Bernie is to find out through the eyes of others, particularly in a project like this,” Mr Knight said.
“It’s a lifetime in the making and it’s Bernie’s lifetime. Fifty years has led him to this point.
“Such is his humility, [Bernie] says, ‘I can’t see there being much of a story’. And I say, ‘Bernie…’ ”
Mr Knight last visited the BackTrack base in Armidale in mid-December 2018 to spend time with Mr Shakeshaft and BackTrack participants.
“I even went out stick-picking [preparing for cropping] in the 30 degree heat with the fellas. There was a bit of good banter,” Mr Knight said.
“I think as much as anything it’s about getting a feel for it, and the more time you spend, the more you get a feel for not only the environment but also the relationship with Bernie and the boys, and others there and you get an overall picture.
“I’ve said to Bernie a couple of times, ‘When you walk into the old council depot up there, guaranteed every day your breath will be taken away’.”
Mr Knight said he has transcribed most of the recorded interviews “and now it’s just into the bunker and blood on the keyboard”.
When you’re a writing a book about someone, it becomes all encompassing. And it’s almost as if you’re living that person’s life.Author James Knight
The author said he is getting up around 4am and writing for much of the day.
“When you’re a writing a book about someone, it becomes all encompassing. And it’s almost as if you’re living that person’s life,” Mr Knight said.
“I feel it’s the utmost privilege to be invited into people's lives and some of the things people have told me during this process are just so raw, they're revealing, they leave them vulnerable and yet they want to talk about it. And to be in that position where you’re listening to them is a honour, a privilege, and it’s a position to be respected.”
Mr Knight said writing a book about someone’s life meant putting in the “hard yards”.
“It’s piecing together the most ginormous jigsaw puzzle, but the reward comes from knowing you’re telling the story, and it’s a story that needs to be told,” he said.
“It’s just so important to share them… Stories are the essence of who we are.”
Back on Track will be published by Hachette Australia Group in June 2019.