Heart & Soul

Bestselling author Ben Mckelvey turned a heart attack in his 20s into an inspiring no-fear approach to his life and globetrotting career.

  • The Sunday Times

Story Liam Croy, 

Laid up in a hospital bed, crippled by the after-effects of open-heart surgery, Ben Mckelvey’s mind was heavy with painkillers and doubt. The heart attack that led to his valve replacement was the second major medical emergency of the past few years.

The first, a stroke, left him unable to speak, read or write for days.

He had a pre-existing heart condition, a hole in his heart, but this was the first time it had given him grief.

Mckelvey was a strong athlete in his youth at Perth’s Hollywood Senior High School, even earning a WA Institute of Sport scholarship for beach volleyball. But by 30, he was all too familiar with his own mortality.

“It’s funny with brain damage, you do wonder whether you’re the same person as before,” Mckelvey tells STM.

“I had the same problem after the valvereplacement surgery. I just felt like I’d lost a step.”

His health was the priority but the setbacks also threatened to derail his burgeoning career as a writer, one he already felt was behind schedule.

He’d completed a journalism degree at Curtin University, then moved to Sydney in 2000 to cover the Olympics.

At the time of his surgery he was writing for Ralph — a steady job but a far cry from his vision of working as a foreign correspondent. After a painstaking mental recovery from his stroke, he now had a physical mountain to climb. Four months later he was embedded with the Australian Army during the Iraq War.

“I’d been petitioning the Australian Defence Force for a while to go to Iraq and they approved it,” Mckelvey says.

 

“I had to make a decision about whether I was going to go or not. My cardiologist said ‘Well, you’re as likely to get blown up as anybody else’. A lot of people were suggesting caution and he was, like ‘Go and live your life’. “That was probably the first real, serious article I wrote. Personally, it was a big moment.”

Still recovering from the trauma inflicted on his body during open-heart surgery, Mckelvey seized an opportunity that might not have come again.He didn’t agree with the premise of the Iraq War but his job was to report on life for the Australian soldiers. The story ran in Ralph and The Bulletin.

“My thoughts on Iraq were that it was one of the greatest transgressions of Western governments for a long time but the story I wrote was about the soldiers,” he said. “They all did want to be there and they all enjoyed deployment. The prime minister actually read out part of my story as a reason why we should be there.”

 

The opportunities came more frequently after that. He profiled Sir Richard Branson, returned to the Middle East three times and spoke to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder for GQ Magazine. In Iran, he reported on “the mouse in the snake”, a generational population glut which stemmed from Ayatollah Khomeini’s calls for growth in in the 1980s. Khomeini’s pronatalism had created a surplus of Iranians in their mid-to-late 20s; well educated, unemployed and turning to drugs. In Kabul he wrote a feature on Skateistan, a thriving school skatepark concept founded by Melbourne man Oliver Percovich. Now 40 and the author of two bestsellers, Mckelvey can reflect on the impact the health scares had on his mindset.

“That gave me an understanding of the fact that life is finite and you have to do things that you want to do right now,” he said.

In some way, those experiences helped him relate to the two men he has come to know very well in the past two years.

Sydney defence lawyer Deng Adut and Ultimate Fighting Championship star Mark Hunt survived horrifying upbringings to become role models in their communities.

Mckelvey didn’t suffer the same type of adversity, but he knows what it’s like to come close to the edge. His biographies with Adut and Hunt have redefined his career. Adut was taken from his mother in South Sudan at the age of six, taught to use an AK-47 assault rifle, then sent into battle.

He would eventually escape to Kenya and then Australia, where he taught himself English and studied law at university. The 33-year-old refugee advocate is tipped to be named the 2017 Australian of the Year on Wednesday. His journey is told in gripping detail by Mckelvey in Songs of a War Boy. There is interest in making a movie based on the book. “Deng wasn’t super-enamoured with the idea of doing a book to begin with,” Mckelvey said. “The proviso was he wanted whoever wrote the book to go to South Sudan with him and he wanted someone who had been in a conflict zone.”

As Mckelvey delved deeper into Adut’s past, he was shocked by the extremes — his idyllic early years, the injuries he suffered as a boy soldier and his success in Australia. Then he started to realise it wasn’t such an anomaly. Few Sudanese refugees own a law firm like Adut, but triumph through adversity is a common thread. Their struggles have given them deep reserves of resilience. The same is true of Hunt. “It was actually my publisher who asked ‘Is there anyone in mixed martial arts in Australia who could bear a book’,” Mckelvey said.

 

“I went to meet up with Mark and we sat down. I knew very little about what his life was like growing up because no one did. “I said ‘You know, tell me about your parents’, and he just would not talk to me.”

The truth was, Hunt had spoken to no one about his childhood outside of his siblings, his wife and a counsellor, years earlier. His achievements in combat sports were impressive in their own right but if Mckelvey couldn’t get him to open up, he didn’t have a book.

“We had two or three sessions where I went out to Western Sydney to talk about it,” he said. “Eventually he said ‘Go and talk to my sister’, so I Skyped his sister and she told me what had happened. The first chapter was pretty much written without him.”

 

What Mckelvey learnt was disturbing. Hunt was the youngest of four children in a poor Mormon Samoan family in South Auckland. The violence dealt out by his sadistic father makes for graphic reading. The boys thought their sister, Victoria, had it easy until they were old enough to understand what was happening. She was raped by her father for more than a decade, with the full knowledge of her mother.

Victoria still lives in New Zealand with her schizophrenic brother, Steve. Their other brother, John, took his own life two years ago.

After an adolescence filled with crime and violence, Hunt was given an unlikely lifeline when a bouncer recognised his talent in a pub brawl. The bouncer invited him to his kickboxing gym and he never looked back. He made a fresh start in Australia 22 years ago, then rose to fame as one of the world’s biggest names in kickboxing and MMA. Mckelvey brought his inspirational story to life in Born to Fight.

 

“I went to Auckland where Mark was training and everything just flowed after that,” Mckelvey said. “He unburdened himself in a way that I don’t think he ever has before.”

 

He formed a bond with Hunt and Adut as he travelled with them and documented their lives. He is proud to count them among his friends.

 

“Deng and Mark actually get along really well,” Mckelvey said. “I really appreciate the opportunity to get the two of them together. The commonality between them, apart from Western Sydney, where they both have their backgrounds, is that there’s no reason why they should be as good and as moral blokes as they are.

“They haven’t had the opportunities that we’ve had, the role models. But they’ve ended up being warriors for the right causes.”

Mckelvey’s next book, The Commando, is a biography of posthumous Victoria Cross recipient Cameron Baird from the 2nd Commando Regiment.

Baird wasn’t born into adversity in Tasmania, he sought it, and ended up losing his life in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, in June 2013.

Mckelvey already has experience with Australian commandos in East Timor, a trip that left him in awe of their discipline and capabilities. Through research and interviews, he has found Baird was not an ordinary man who did something extraordinary but an exceptional man whose attributes came to the fore in his final hours.

The big difference with this biography is that he can’t meet the subject.

 

“I knew it was going to affect me but I didn’t know it was going to affect me as much as it has,” Mckelvey said.

“I went to Melbourne to interview his high-school mates. I interviewed nine tough blokes in their mid-30s who ended up breaking down talking about Cameron because they loved him so much. “When I came to doing the transcriptions, it was very difficult. The thing that was really tough was that with Deng and Mark I wrote about guys getting over mental trauma and doing that on their own, and that’s the same case for these guys.”

The Sydney-based writer is working towards a November publication date for The Commando, then it’s on to the next project.

He was born in Canberra but he came to call WA home and he still visits family in Perth several times a year. He ventured to Antarctica last month to write a travel piece for Qantas, a welcome diversion from heavier matters. As he put it, the scenery made Lord of the Rings look like a carpark.

It’s been 10 years since his cardiologist told him to go and live his life — and he’s certainly doing that. He tells stories that deserve to be told and shows that scars can run deep, even if they aren’t plain to see, like the one on his chest.