Native Brisbanite and adopted Gold Coast writer John Ahern has received rave reviews for his novel On The Road…With Kids, the hilarious and inspiring story of the year he threw in his high-flying career and embarked on the ultimate family adventure. Now he has another accolade to add to the growing list: Winner of the 2015 Queensland Literary Award’s Book Of The Year. Natalie O’Driscoll chatted with him following this most recent success to see just how he was feeling about the whole thing.
What special kind of madness inspired you to undertake such an adventure in the first place?
It was the result of what I would call a dangerous period thinking, culminating in a brain explosion in a board meeting. In this setting, it suddenly hit me that my health was shot, my work life had become my social life, I was away 5 months a year, and my kids had turned 4 and 2 without me really noticing. I also wondered what happened to that dude who once rode on bus rooftops across Africa or stowed away on a cargo plane over the Amazon. I realised I had to escape, reconnect with unrequited dreams, so raced home to my wife and insisted we had to escape. So we did
How old were your kids when you set off, and were the family already experienced travellers?
Two kids. When we set off our daughter Jaimie was 4, son Callum 2. My wife Mandy and I have both travelled through over eighty countries, but with the advent of kids, those adventurous days seemed like distant memories of a previous life.
Without giving away the best bits of the book, can you briefly outline for us one of your favourite anecdotes?
We were on the summit of the rock of Gibraltar. I was admiring the cute little apes that lived there, while getting a plastic-wrapped sandwich out of my wife’s daypack which was on her back. Suddenly, my son starting screaming. I thought he was hungry but looked up in time to see a tooth-baring ape soaring through the air towards us. Instantly, I reacted to this danger to my wife like a secret agent protecting the President – I launched out of the way screaming. As my wife turned into a human spinning top, the ape grabbed her hair with one hand like he was riding a rodeo bull and rifled through her daypack with the other. It was then I noticed the red warning sign on the fence that stated apes associate plastic bags with food and will snatch. The macaque eventually ran off with the food, leaving my wife distressed and son Callum apoplectically distraught, not for having seen his mother attacked by a wild animal, but because he had lost his vegemite sandwich.
You and your family are given the option to live and work for six months of the year in Australia, and six months of year in any other country in the world of your choosing. Which country would you all choose, and why?
Yes please, pick me! But that’s an unfair question; I would choose a different place each year. Still, if I had to choose just one, it would be London. Having previously lived there for five years it is like a second home, but it also a great basecamp for cheap travel throughout Europe, and a single hop to other regions of Asia and the USA.
How has your life back home changed since returning from the trip?
We made a revolutionary wrench of our lives when we returned, knowing we no longer wanted to be beholden to the working treadmill, chasing bigger TVs and houses. We sold our house, downsized and reduced costs to give us the power of choice in where we worked and how we would live. We had met so many ‘elders’ on the road, grey nomads and the like, that said their biggest life regret was working so hard during their children’s young years that when they finally had the bounty of time, their kids were gone. ‘The four of us’ became my family’s central mantra which we still strive to retain. And then we moved to the place we always went on holidays – the Gold Coast, embraced a new world of sustainability, built an eco-home, and chased long unrequited dreams – like writing a book; all things once considered unimaginable in our former busy upwardly-mobile lives.
Congratulations on winning the Queensland People’s Choice Book of the Year for 2015. What did bringing home that award mean to you?
Thanks. I have been buzzing since being shortlisted, given the quality of the other nominated books, so to win it was a hoot, particularly as the final decision was a people’s choice vote. It’s great to know the story has resonated with so many readers; it gives me a super boost to keep on powering towards the next book.
Any plans for more writing?
First, On The Road With Kids will be launched in the UK next summer; it is like I am experiencing a second birth of the same child, so am doing a lot of prep work on that. Other ideas include a kid’s book about a chocolate monster, one centred on awesome travel tips, and the current and main focus being on an African journey I took some years ago when I ended up being poisoned, jailed and a key witness at a capital punishment trial. Fortunately that was pre-kids.