What were you doing when you were 20 years old?
Perhaps you were already working full time or were studying hard for a professional career.
Maybe you were enjoying a gap year backpacking around a foreign country.
Regardless of whether you were working, studying or travelling it’s likely you had a thriving social life and partied regularly with your friends with little care in the world.
Now cast a thought to the 20 year olds of today.
Sure many of them are working, possibly multiple casual jobs to make ends meet and to qualify for a mortgage they’re unlikely to pay off, and large numbers are also studying for a professional career. But gone for now is the gap year, travel to foreign lands to discover the world, and in most parts of the world right now gone too is a thriving social life and in-person catch ups. Added to this is the very real fact that the 20-year olds of today are entering adulthood in the most critical decade so far for the future of our planet.
The goal of halving global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 represents the absolute minimum we must achieve if we are to have at least a 50% chance of safeguarding humanity from the worst impacts of climate change.
There is much to do and the stakes are high.
So what’s a 20-year old creative who is extremely concerned about the future of our planet to do?
I’d like you to meet Oliver Smuhar.
Oliver is an award-winning author, is studying Communications’ Journalism at University of Technology, Sydney and lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales Australia, an area ravaged by the horrendous 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires. These fires burned for a period of months and killed or displaced 3 billion koalas, kangaroos and other animals. A study funded by the WWF found that the fires were the worst single event for wildlife in Australia, among the worst in the world and likely pushed some species into extinction (source).
Shocked and traumatised by the destruction he witnessed during the fires, and deeply concerned about the impact on wildlife, Oliver threw himself into writing an adventure novel to raise funds for environmental projects.
The results is FireWorks and the Fireworks Fund.
FireWorks is an adventure story about a koala named Iluka who explains how he and his friends survived the 2019-20 bushfires. All proceeds from the sale of FireWorks go to the Fireworks Fund to support environmental charities.
In this episode Oliver shares why he created FireWorks, what it’s like being a young adult in 2021 (spoiler alert – it doesn’t sound like much fun being overeducated and socially distanced!) and what advice he has for other young adults who are wanting to do something bigger to help the environment.
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Could you share your background and what compelled you to establish the FireWorks Fund?
My background isn’t too complex. I originally started writing during high school while I was studying for my HSC. My first book was released just before my HSC trial examinations in Year 11. It was a fantasy book.
When it was released, the school and my local community started to support it, and it inspired me to write a second book.
My third book, Fireworks, was written after the bushfires. I wanted to explore different genres in book writing, while balancing my Degree in Communications (Journalism) at university.
What do you hope to achieve through the creation and sale of the FireWorks novel?
I am from the Blue Mountains in New South Wale. We were horribly impacted by the bush fires in 2019 and 2020. We would wake up and there would be burnt leaves in the backyard, from a fire that’s burning in the next suburb. I work in Penrith, Western Sydney, and every time I would leave for work there was this very real fear that there might not be a house to go back to.
My community had over 68% of our natural bushland burnt. So that includes a lot of native animals, their environment, their habitat, all completely destroyed.
Towards the end of last year I went to take photos of the land as it was recovering. There is an area between the Blue Mountains and Lithgow where you can see through the trees as they don’t have any leaves anymore. You can see the entire valley, which is ridiculous, because it’s a giant area of land.
Also, I’ve grown up with bushfires. When I was 12, I went to a school in the middle of the Blue Mountains called Springwood. The school had a long driveway through the bushland. One day the fire alarm went off, and it wasn’t a drill, we were trapped inside the school building until 8pm that night while the firefighters got the bushfire under control and the school buses could get to us. When we back out the school gate, it was carnage. In my head, it really made the think ‘wow this is real.’
Another one of the reasons I wrote Fireworks is because, as I’ve grown up, particularly over the last 2 years, I’ve feel like a I have a weird bond to animals!
So I thought I would write a book, that shows how animals and the community are impacted by the bushfires. And that book, Fireworks, can raise money for different charities.
There is a list on my website of the different organisations that are benefiting from the book sales. I know the Koala Foundation in Katoomba has received a donation from us. They focus on koala repopulation, because I don’t remember the statistics, but a huge percent of koalas actually died during the bushfires. They said that about I think it was 80,000 left in Australia.
So essentially, what you’re hoping to achieve through writing your Fireworks novel is to raise money that you can then funnel back into your selected charities to help wildlife impacted by the environment.
How did the process of creating the adventure novel FireWorks help you process your experience of living through the Black Summer bushfires in the Blue Mountains?
I appreciate that would be incredibly traumatic, and a lot to come to terms with. It’s just a normal summer but for you, the Black Summer was a life or death situation. Did writing this story help you process what you’ve been through ?
It’s quite odd. Like I said, I did grow up around bushfires. But that summer was very chaotic. Reflecting on it now, its like “wow that actually happened” because since then, we’ve gone through so many other things in that small period of time. Like Covid, the floods in NSW which impacted the Blue Mountains, the mice plaque!
But I think the big difference is, and this is just my point of view, everyone has their own opinion about Covid, but with the bushfires, everyone’s response was the same. Everyone was supporting one enough. The individuals reaction is just so different.
I starting writing FireWorks during the lockdown. And I think that’s what pushed me to get it out so quickly. I wasn’t able to hang out with my friends, so I just sat and wrote the story idea I had in my head.
As a kid, I grew up watching a lot of Australian TV. And a lot of those show use native Australian wildlife as the main characters, like koalas and kangaroos. I wanted to do something different, but a koala was the perfect choice as a main character in Fireworks because they live in the Blue Mountains. I wanted to set my story in the real world and retell the story of these animals surviving the fires. We know people are affected by the fires, but people don’t often think about how the animals are affected. And that’s the story I wanted to tell.
So basically, the story is about a koala cub called Illuka who goes on an adventure with a sugar glider named Bouddi.
All the animals in the story have Aboriginal names. The Aboriginal community were also impacted by the fires because they have a deep connection to the land. So I kind of wanted to acknowledge that even though I’m not Aboriginal, I think it’s just respectful.
The koala and the sugar glider go on a massive adventure to basically survive the fires and warn the other animals that the fires are coming. As they go on their adventure they meet different characters and get into some chaotic situations.
Illuka wants to help other, but he needs to overcome his fear of being alone, Bouddi also wants to be helpful but needs to get over his fear of being scared to talked to other animals. As the story progresses, they learn to overcome their fears and are able to help the other animals.
Fireworks is suitable for everyone. It can be read to younger kids, or older children can read it themselves. Those in the 12-14 year old age bracket would get the full experience out of it as some of the story lines are a little complicated.
At the end of each chapter I quote a famous Australia, like Carrie Bickmore, Steve Irwin, Don Bradman, I’ve even included a poem from Banjo Patterson. I also ended up including 26 different drawings, all hand drawn by myself and edited on the computer. These are included at the end of some chapters instead of a quote. There are also fun facts about different animals included!
It’s got a storytelling piece, and a educational piece as well.
Can you share with our listeners what it’s like entering adulthood in the most critical decade of our planet (the decade where we have to do the work to limit global warming below 1.5°C)? How do you stay positive for your future?
It’s crazy. It’s not great. 10 years ago people my age were free to go travelling all over the world. I’m turning 21 this year and can’t leave the country.
A lot of people, especially older people say I’m so fortunate because I’ve been born with technology, which is good because I can look up a fact on my phone and win an argument but you lose touch with people. I remember Mum told me that is was an experience, a social outing, to go down to the library to look things up. We don’t have that social aspect now.
Going into adulthood is complicated. The environment is the worse it’s ever been. I think we are doing some good in terms of that, I won’t say too little too late, but I think we can try harder.
Fireworks can help with that, and hopefully with more sales we will be able to break even and continue to support out cause.
Currently I’m reaching out to councils throughout Australia, and the Head of Education in NSW, to try and get these books into the publics hands. I’ve got other ideas of promoting the book such as creating a colouring book for kids in primary school, just to get them involved and then hopefully their parents will buy the book.
In terms of staying positive, sometimes you just don’t.
I appreciate your honesty. And of course, you don’t want to be lectured to by the older generation, I appreciate that as well. But as an older person, I do want to say let’s keep this faith and let’s keep going because every single person has a different skill set and something to offer, and the work you are doing is making a different and is helping others keep positive.
What advice do you have for other young adults who are wanting to do something bigger to help the environment but aren’t sure where to start?
That’s a good question. Because sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going with everything that’s happening!
I think passion is key. You can be good at something but if you don’t love it, what’s the point. You gotto love what you do.
So like, obviously with climate, I’m passionate about the environment, and the way I could support that passion was through my creativity, my story writing.
There are little things you can do, like donate money, but if you have the skills to educate someone, like in a book, or a film, then you should use that as your platform to raise awareness.
It’s funny giving advice like this, because I am young, it’s like, what do I know? I’m 20. But I am fortunate where I have found my passion quite early in life.
Fireworks was written to raise money that could be donated to organisations helping with the bushfire recovery, and I was thinking about writing another book to raise funds for mental illness. Not everything I do needs to be about making money for myself.
Where to next for Oliver Smuhar and the Fireworks Fund?
For the Fireworks fund, I’m hoping to keep it around for as long as I can. The idea is that the fund grows, as my other books grow. So as people start knowing my name, and reading the other books I plan to write and release, they will be able to donate to Fireworks. I’m excited to see what it’s going to become.
Last year I released 3 books within a timespan of about 7 months, which was a lot of work. I just reached burnout. So this year I am taking it a bit slower. Having small moments when people acknowledge what I’m doing, actually shows me that I am making an impact. I’m still writing and editing, but I’m not putting in 12 hour days anymore!
I also want to get into different types of writing, so maybe writing films and plays, and maybe even a comic. It would be great to be able to make Fireworks into a short film. All the dates in the book are accurate to actual fire and it would be great to raise awareness that way.
I’d also consider writing a sequel to Fireworks, maybe one called Waterworks that focuses on floods and use the same characters. It could be expanded to cover other issues such as mining, drought, deforestation, and use animals from other countries.
What I really respect about Oliver is not only that he created something amazing and reached out to be featured on Eco Chat, but that he’s incredibly humble and is open about just how hard it is to stay positive in these challenging times. I encourage you to support his work and purchase a copy of FireWorks for yourself and pay it forward by purchasing a copy for your local school or library. Doing so will send a very clear message of validation and encouragement for Oliver and his work and will also help raise much needed funds to help protect the environment and in turn, help make green mainstream.
Purchase FireWorks on Amazon Australia
Follow Oliver on Facebook or Instagram
Over to you!
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Oliver Smuhar is a twenty-year-old Australian author who wants to help people and positively impact the world through his craft of storytelling. Currently, he is studying a Bachelor of Communications’ Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has won several award including a global award for Australian literature from Reader Views. His current books include: The Gifts of Life, The Gifts of Happiness and FireWorks. As of 2021, he has started the fundraising campaign FireWorks Fund to raise money for environmental and conservation projects.
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