on writing

The Rose Leopard

I wrote this, my first published novel, as a response to the death of a very good friend of mine.

That said, the main characters in the novel – Vince the storyteller and his tolerant wife Kaz – are not real people. They’re certainly not me and my friend. They exist in their own right, as do all characters.

The death of my friend, cruel and terribly unexpected, provided the emotional impetus for the development of the narrative. The story itself is independent of her.

People will judge my work as they see fit but I do think, to use a metaphor, that better water comes from the deeper parts of the well. The Rose Leopard may have flaws in a technical and structural sense (or it may not) but never doubt the sincerity of its tone. I felt that book come out of me as strongly as anything that I have ever felt. It was a special kind of love.

The fable that Vince tells his children – that of the rose leopard – came to me when I walking along the beach at Torquay, in Hervey Bay. For me, walking in a natural environment is a very clean way of processing my thoughts and ideas. On that day I rushed home and wrote-wrote-wrote. That particular section of the book came out very quickly.

The toughest part of the book for me to write was, naturally, the death of a central character. I delayed, pontificated, did all that I could to ignore the knowledge that I simply had to write this set-piece; the story needed completion. I wrote everything else, front to back, then finally one Saturday afternoon I went into my study, sat down and just did it without over-thinking or allowing myself time to agonise. I think I took a single breath throughout that process. Maybe two. I do know that it hurt, but sometimes you just have to break through the grit and do the hard part of the task. Hurt is a necessary part of any progression.

I’m grateful that I was able to write The Rose Leopard. For me, it feels like a tribute. When it was published I was finally able to farewell my friend in the way that she deserved.

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Drink The Air / Spring Rain

These verse novels arose out of a desire to write about my then home town of Hervey Bay.

As such, both works have a strong sense of place. This led to a writing style which was heavily invested in the use of imagery. I didn’t plan to write this way but it soon became clear that writing in pictures (I see the novels as photo-essays done in words) was the most effective way of transmitting the story.

Both novels were immensely pleasurable to write because of this. I was able to focus intensely on small pieces that would eventually make up a whole, like a builder carefully examining and adjusting each brick before it goes into the wall.

The main characters, Tom and Zooey, stemmed from over two decades of teaching in the area. They are not so much linked to specific students as to all of the Hervey Bay kids that I had the pleasure of working with over that time. I was particularly keen to show both the opportunities and limitations of growing up in a coastal, regional town. Kids play sport and go to the beach and see each other at parties – it’s a lovely, community-based lifestyle but they also miss out on a great deal that cities can offer; a wider range of activities, specialist training, cultural opportunity. It’s especially difficult when they finish school and are faced with leaving town in order to further their education. I’m not sure that city-kids realise how tough that aspect can be for their country counterparts. This is a key focus in Spring Rain.

My other desire with these novels was to be honest about the lives of young people. That doesn’t mean immersing them in an endless cycle of angst and woe but being realistic about some of the challenges that can present. These challenges might be life-altering (such as both characters coming in contact with family-based grief) or rite-of-passage (the transition to what the community would see as adult behaviours) but they are all significant in the lives of young people. Literature has an innate responsibility to never patronise such events or moments.

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Joyous and Moonbeam

Years ago I worked for the federal government, specifically the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. At one time my job was Trusts Officer; tending to the monies that were held in trust by the department on behalf of those veterans who, through various circumstances, were unable to manage their own affairs.

Naturally this brought me into contact with a diverse range of disadvantaged people. They were predominantly older men who had been unable to recover properly from war and were prey to alcoholism, drug dependency, loneliness and mental health issues. But there was another bond; these men were unfailingly courteous and dignified in their dealings with me. In fact, I was frequently humbled by the richness of their collective character and felt impoverished by comparison.

Thus, many years later, was Joyous Bowen created.

He was a delight to write. I remember beginning the novel one lazy, wet weekend; I’d been playing idly with half and quarter words, odd sentence constructions, inventing slang, when this strange consistency arose. Imagine putting random ingredients into a bowl, mixing and suddenly finding that you have a good-smelling, thickening cake-mix … that’s how it was with Joyous.

His voice is extremely idiosyncratic. I’m aware that might be a ‘turn-off’ for some readers who want more regularity and fluency but I don’t apologise for providing a unique character and language style. He is as he is, and bless him for that. Sometimes, when writing, I just wanted to reach through the page and give the big guy a hug. I couldn’t of course, but that didn’t matter because I had Ashleigh there to do it for me.

She was a much more difficult character to write. It took me quite a while to find her voice and even longer to stay with it consistently.

It’s wonderful to get feedback from readers about my books. I particularly recall one reader who asked me, after an hour-long discussion with a group about this novel, “Will Joyous be okay?” Lovely, touching question, in that she had so strongly identified with the character and his struggles and obviously cared for him.

My answer?

Of course. Joyous will be fine. The big guy should be Prime Minister! Anyway, whatever happens, he’ll just keep working things around a little …

Speaking at the CBCA ACT Branch Dinner, April 14th 2015
Speaking at the CBCA ACT Branch Dinner, April 14th 2015

 

 

 

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