Today, this morning, right now, it feels as if I live in a lighthouse. The howling – almost screaming – of the wind hitting the corrugated iron of the roof and passing through, the clank-clank-clank of the neighbour’s back gate, windows rattling, the Old Lady of the House putting her paws over her ears (she’s not good when the weather’s like this). In the old parlour room that’s now my library there’s an airy rush coming down the chimney as though it’s a connection to a very wild other world. The day’s overcast, but it’s not raining, though it might rain soon, when the wind has blown itself out. I can admit to you that, in a perverse kind of way, I like the house on days like this – it’s as if the place is alive, it’s as though the paddocks that begin half a kilometre away have reached in to my back door.
Somehow it seems right for it to be like this, because today, so I’ve been told, Blemish Books sends my second novella, I’m Ready Now, to the printer. I’m nervous, I’m nerve-wracked, I’m excited, I’m frightened. What’s there to be frightened about? Isn’t this a good thing? Yes, it’s a good thing, a great thing – it is, in fact, quite miraculous. They say that only 1% of writing in Australia gets published, and that without an agent only one in a thousand manuscripts is turned into a book. These are horrible statistics, there’s no dancing around that. So I’m lucky, very lucky. But still this time I’m both excited and frightened.
There’s something about turning yourself inside out when writing words for others to read, any kind of writing really, even this blog post. But with fiction it’s different. All the questions and judgements: does this guy know what he’s doing? Will readers engage with the work, will they be moved? I operate within the context of small-press independent publishing, so being a ‘top-seller’ isn’t a consideration (or even a dream), nor is winning the big awards. One small fish; an endless, endless ocean. But still you want the words, the characters, the story – the predicament, the end result – to mean something to someone. Eminent Australian novelist Roger McDonald said not long ago that he dreaded the silence; a novelist works on a story for years, maybe even decades, and then…the silence. McDonald also said that he loved nothing more than a reader coming up to him and saying, I loved your novel, I immersed myself in the characters and what was happening to them, and I lost myself in that world, so thank you. That’s what Roger McDonald writes for – that response. After everything he’s achieved, all the accolades.
Obviously, I’m not in McDonald’s league, but my motivation to write is the same: to tell a story, to be heard, to get a response. One reader of Fall On Me, the first of the Blemish novellas (2011; yes, two novellas in two years – I could never imagine that this is how it would turn out), said that she cried at the end, that she then visited her parents and found herself re-telling the story and her parents asking, ‘What happened next?’ So a story goes out into the universe and it does its thing, or it doesn’t, and sometimes you hear about it and sometimes you don’t. In essence, it’s no different to when, over thirty years ago, in primary school in the posh northern suburbs of Sydney, a teacher scolded me for demanding – very loudly and persistently – that I be the one to read my story to class. My hand’s still up, it appears.
Let me tell you a little about I’m Ready Now. The first draft of the story was written in the first half of 2010 during a mad month of writing while an artist-in-residence at Cataract Gorge, Launceston. I found it difficult to engage with the gorge and the city – winter wasn’t far away and there was a palpable sense of darkness and doom. So I retreated into a story about Lynne Gleeson, a mother who, after the sudden death of her wealthy husband, leaves her grand ancestral home in Hobart to spend a fortnight with her son Gordon who is reaching the peak of what he calls his Year of Living Ridiculously. I’d had the idea for years: a mother who comes to stay but won’t stop cleaning and a son who is on the verge of losing control. As had happened with Fall On Me, I thought that the idea was nothing more than a short story. I was wrong.
Over the past two years I’ve edited and polished and edited some more; it’s been looked at by others – professional others and simply generous and honest others – and I’ve edited and polished some more. Perhaps like any writer, I’ve gone through stages thinking ‘this is kind of okay’ but then ‘this is absolute rubbish – where’s the delete button?’ before ‘maybe, just maybe, it works, but what would I know’. Have I put everything I’ve got into I’m Ready Now? Yes, I have, and perhaps even the title alludes to that. But I’m not Gordon Gleeson in the book, I know no one like Lynne Gleeson (maybe, at the most, she’s a composite of some people I know, but I’m related to none of them), and I’ve never been in the precarious situation they’re in. What am I writing about? The complexities of modern Australian families. Why is this so fascinating? Because we all have a family of some sort, and we all know – though not everyone can admit it – that they’re endlessly complex and intriguing and bewildering and destructive and hopeless, and in the end we’re nothing without them.
So, as the wind barges its way over and around and just a bit into my little old house, I think of an idea that became a hand-written first draft that became a manuscript – a series of manuscripts, too many to count – that today, perhaps right in this very minute, is in the process of being turned into a book. The official launch is still two months away (here’s me claiming the date, as they say: Thursday evening, 22 November 2012 at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra, the capital city of my increasingly infuriating nation), but in many ways I can’t wait to have this thing in my hands. Is this how first-time parents feel when they hold a new-born baby in their arms: what is it that we’ve done? The analogy has been done before, because it’s apt.
Maybe it’s fitting that I can report to you that it’s raining now, the sound of the pummelling on the corrugated iron, the thrumming on the window panes, all of it a great big roar as though there’s a wild ocean outside.