Everyone Asks

For my very first post, I thought I might address some of the questions that everyone asks when I let it slip that I’ve finished my first novel. As a bit of background, I’m no longer young enough to enter most of the competitions for emerging writers as, like many female writers, I’ve spent the first few decades of my life doing other things – studying medicine, more study, building a practice, getting married, raising kids, building a house, etc. Busy, busy, busy.

During that time, I’d been pottering away at various creative projects: vegie garden, cooking and preserving, knitting, interior design, learning French — without finding a passion. I have always wanted to write a novel, but how many people have said that to me? It always seemed like a pipe-dream, one that niggled away in my sub-conscious for years.

So, when last year I emailed a first draft of The Jacaranda Tree to a few of my nearest and dearest, it took them by surprise. They all seemed to ask the same questions.

Q: How long did it take to write the first draft?

A: Good question. I had to go back to the desktop, to check the date stamps on those original files to work it out. And even then, do I begin from the very first file planning the story, tiptoeing around the edges of the idea, or do I go back further, to all the false starts, the story ideas that never quite made the cut, the reading of craft books to try to work out how to begin? Because writing a book, when you’ve never even contemplated anything remotely like that before, is a massive leap of faith.

The short answer is that it took me four years, in fits and starts, at times becoming overwhelmed and putting it away for months at a time, before finding inspiration and beginning again. The first few chapters flowed out of me, smooth like silk, and then I lost momentum, working at it slowly, until the characters pulled me in and started dictating the story’s path. Gradually, the task seemed less daunting, more satisfying, until it became that creative passion I had been seeking for all those years.

I have no doubt that the next novel will take a fraction of the time, having finally found my confidence, my writing mojo, if you like.

Q: How did you find the time to write?

A: One of the books I read about the craft of writing (by a male author) almost put me off the whole crazy idea. The gist of it was that if you want to be a writer, you need to commit fully to being a writer, or don’t bother – that it’s not a part-time pursuit that can be cobbled into a busy life. I can’t disagree strongly enough. There are so many ways to create and, for me, I found success in using those small moments to write a few words. We all have time in our day that we could eke out for ourselves. For me, writing filled those moments, at the expense of the vegie garden (now limited to a few pots of herbs), knitting (haven’t done it for years), and cooking elaborate meals (sorry, family). I found the time to write because it was important to me.

Q: How did you come up with the story idea?

A: So many people have said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but couldn’t come up with a good idea.’ I feel your pain, but I would say, just persist. If you’re open to ideas, they will come. The first couple of ideas I had were forced, derivative, terrible ideas, and so I didn’t pursue them.

The inspiration for The Jacaranda Tree came from the media coverage of college initiation ceremonies at Sydney University that resulted in the hospitalisation of a first-year student, who had been forced to drink a cocktail of alcohol, dog food, off milk, tabasco and shampoo. It amazed me that the atmosphere in residential colleges hadn’t changed much since my time at university, that intelligent, privileged young men seemed to see no harm in their actions, and rarely faced any consequences – boys will be boys. The more I read, the more widespread the issue seemed to be, extending also to a high rate of sexual assaults on university campuses, many unreported.

I became fascinated in two aspects of the story: what sort of culture has allowed this behaviour to develop in Australia today, and how would it affect a naive young student, to be subjected to this sort of treatment, in their first week at college. At this point, I had enough to develop some characters and a basic plot structure, and little by little, the characters and story fleshed out, with a few light-bulb moments of inspiration, and many hours of trial and error.

And now I’ve come up with one story idea, it is as if someone’s removed my blinkers, and other story ideas have continued to present themselves, to percolate in my subconscious for a while until the time is right to embark on a new writing journey – hopefully soon.

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