Michael Brissenden's The List straight out of headlines

Journalist Michael Brissenden has seen more than his fair share of conflict over the years.

He's seen wars in the Middle East and the Balkans, he's covered Obama's first term in the White House, and dealt with politicians much closer to home for longer than he'd care to remember.

When it came to writing his first novel he had so many stories swirling around in his head it was hard to know which direction to take it.

But he had one idea he hadn't been able to shake since covering the Yugoslav Wars during the 1990s.

"I was there and I kept running into Dragan of Brisbane, or Milosh from Melbourne, young Australians on all different sides, and most of them weren't even born there but they were sent there and they were fighting."

Close to 30 years later and stories about Australians heading off to fight for the Islamic State are in the headlines again.

The List is a timely thriller. Brissenden's not too proud to call it an "airport kind of book", but it will have you on high alert in any airport lounge.

Young Muslim men on the Australian Federal Police's terrorist watch list start turning up dead in the western suburbs of Sydney and it's up to the members of the K Block taskforce to find out what's going on. Veteran policeman Sid Allen, his partner, a Muslim woman Haifa Hourani, and a humorous bunch of colleagues head the investigation. Haifa's brother Hakim is a respected Muslim community leader with his sights set on politics. From Afghanistan, to Sydney, and in and out of the halls of power in Canberra, The List is scarily relevant.

"There are Australians going over to fight in the Middle East, we know that. I started to think about what happens if they bring the war home?

"One of the big concerns for the authorities is that these radicalised kids, and they're not all kids, some of them are mature adults, go over there and what happens when they come back?

"Anyone who goes to those conflicts comes back brutalised ??? what happens when they bring that back to Australia?"

Brissenden wrote the book while he was working as host of the ABC's AM national radio program.

"I finished around midday, there was plenty of time to write ??? Canberra is pretty quiet between one and four in the afternoon."

That sledge aside, he thinks it's important that Australian authors set books in Australia.

"We should be doing it, and it was fun writing about Canberra, sometimes it doesn't feature other than the cliched view of Canberra being shorthand for federal parliament."

The List isn't a political thriller, although his Prime Minister Brian Williams is a great character, and indeed it's set mainly in the streets of Cronulla and Lakemba.

Journalist Michael Brissenden

Journalist Michael Brissenden. Photo: Rohan Thomson

There will be the inevitable comparisons to Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis' Secret City trilogy, Brissenden knows that.

"That will happen I suppose because we're in Canberra and we're journalists and we're writing but I think the things I'm dealing with are pretty different," he said. "I'm not dealing in the politics very much, other than the way politics is interacting with this issue.

"One of the challenges we have is how politics deals with this issue and I thought it was important to explore that."

As one of the ABC's most experienced journalists, Brissenden, 56, found writing fiction very liberating.

"You have to make it believable, steep it in what's going on, so people read it and believe it but it is fiction. I didn't have it mapped out, I knew some of the twists, but I didn't know where it was going to end until I was about three-quarters the way through.

"But the best thing was being able to take the book where I wanted it to go."

Not every journalist has a book in them, he says.

"Everyone can have the ideas but you've got to write it, 90 per cent of writing is about writing. You can talk about it all you like but you have to do the hard work."

The List is published by Hachette at $29.99.

This story Michael Brissenden's The List straight out of headlines first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.