The Risk of Stephen King

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Okay, I’m going to admit something to you now. You may judge me. You  may scratch your head, thinking, ‘Wow! Didn’t see THAT coming!’ But I don’t care–I just need to get this off my chest.

I used to really like Stephen King. Probably up until my mid-20’s, I fell on anything the man wrote with something approaching religious zeal. There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, I think that one of his early novels, Salem’s Lot, is probably the single scariest thing I have ever read. (I mean, Twilight? Really? Get off the bus!) Secondly, one of my fond memories of my childhood was visiting the small newsagent in the town where I grew up and rereading, endlessly, the first page of Cujo. From memory–my well-loved copy is sitting on a shelf somewhere in about 1997, I think–the first sentence went like this: ‘Once upon a time, in a small town in Maine, there lived a monster.’ When you’re very young and you harbour an inkling that one day you might like to write books, that sort of thing grabs you right in the gut and never lets go.

I think I remember that Cujo was one of the first grown-up books I bought. I loved it. It had a masturbation scene in it, and the tension of the passages where the mother and son are trapped in their broken-down car by an enormous rabid St Bernard was thrilling–almost illicit, somehow. So my collection soon expanded–Night Shift, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Firestarter, Carrie, Christine. This last was another highlight, not so much for its haunted-car terrors but the adolescent ‘boys and cars and girls’ paradigm to which I related at the time, being into adolescence myself by this stage. On it went: Pet Sematary, It, Different Seasons, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, The Talisman, Needful Things. His style seemed so fluid, his pace cracking, his characters vivid, the situations they ended up in at once fantastical, sometimes absurd, nearly always genuinely terrifying. They were compelling.

So what happened? I’m not sure I know. I do know that King himself has described his work as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. Perhaps I simply outgrew him. I certainly lost the appetite, at around the time of Rose Madder. I think I formed the opinion that at some stage he started repeating himself.

So why am I sharing all of this? Our tastes change as we grow older, of course. It should be no surprise, really, that a writer I enjoyed when I was younger no longer floats my boat, as it were. (I sometimes whether, in future, today’s younger generation will have similar feelings about the Twilights or the Harry Potters; of the ‘Gosh, we loved it to death at the time, but we left it behind pretty quickly…’ refrain.)  Because I have a confession to make: I’m going to try again.

His latest book is 22.11.63, a time-travel novel in which the main character journeys back to 1958 (through a portal in the back room of a diner in Maine, of course) and realises that he should try and stop the assassination of John F Kennedy. I was also fascinated by this event as a child. I did projects on it for school and read anything about it that I could get my hands on, as you do when you’re about twelve and you don’t play sport. So perhaps there is nostalgia in this decision of mine–two now-distant threads that entranced me have combined themselves into a very neat package. There is really only one minor nagging little voice in the back of my head, piping up repeatedly with a very insistent question.

What if it’s crap?

Maybe I’ll forgive him. I won’t know until I’ve been on the journey–and, to be honest, I’ve yet to even get a copy of the book. I know it’s risky but maybe, just once, I’ll take the chance. I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

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The Journey: Part 2

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‘Fiction wants to tell stories, in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability…’  Julian Barnes

This post continues the tale that I commenced in ‘The Journey to the Cathedral Part One’, posted a few days ago.

That first submission, to Australian Scholarly Press in Melbourne, was interesting mainly because I received a very rare gift from the publisher: some feedback. It’s the norm, mostly, that manuscripts are submitted never to be seen again, apart perhaps from a tersely worded rejection letter; the very, very few get a nibble of interest (unless you’re working through an agent) and things go from there if you’re lucky. The chap at ASP–I think his name was Gordon Thompson–was very gentle in his rejection and was kind enough to pass on some ideas, the most important of which–that the narrative point of view should switch to someone opposed to the Franklin Dam–I took on board.  This was a key moment, really; it’s been much more interesting for me to recast the story from a point of view not my own.

I should explain that at this point that this draft of the manuscript was about 300 pages long, something in the order of 75,000 words. It was in the first person from the point of a view a policeman’s son who has newly arrived in Queenstown and befriends Billy (who is now the central character, in the published version). This friendship is fraught; Billy tries to entice this narrator into various petty crimes which places him, given his father’s role in the town, in a difficult moral position. This narrator’s older brother, who also remains in the published version, involves himself in the Blockade to stop the Franklin Dam. The narrator also develops an infatuation for his English teacher, in a subplot that–if truth be known–I was never happy with. Things come to a head between the narrator and Billy and they have a fight, which the narrator wins more by luck than anything else. Meanwhile, Pete, the leader of Billy’s gang of criminal mates (who has also survived to publication) is taken in by the cops and questioned over the bottle-shop breakin and Pete accuses Billy dobbing them in since he’s so chummy with the policeman’s son. In fear, Billy runs away and disappears. This draft was set about 12 months later than the current published version; so by now, Billy’s father has been dead for some time.

I can’t remember now how long I left this draft to percolate before coming back to it but it was likely a good twelve months or so. I realised that it was flabby and I also realised that the first-person narrator didn’t work. Apart from anchoring the book too closely to my own experience, it Just Didn’t Work. So, although that narrator has survived to make a very brief third-person cameo in the published version, he was sacked. Billy, a character I had come to really like, was promoted to Centre Stage and the narrative was shifted so that he now had to navigate the final months of his father’s life. During this stage of rewriting, various tweaked versions of the manuscript were submitted–to Allen and Unwin’s Friday Pitch, UQP, Brandl and Schlesinger. No deal.

Slowly, somehow, the version of the book that you have in hands emerged from this stripping-back process. From the earlier longer manuscript I kept the scenes of protest set on the Gordon River, the arson of the football clubrooms, the ending, the bottle-shop breakin and so on. In this version, also, Chris and Mandy Fall In Love–which at the time I thought I had handled reasonably well at the time, but on rereading these bits I nearly puked.  I have downplayed this significantly in the published version.  The scenes where Billy and the Pack visit Strahan–vandalising the Wilderness Society office, assaulting Bob Brown, slashing Bugs McKenna’s tyres–are all relatively new, added within the last 12 months or so, as are the scenes where Billy and Chris interact.  The newest scene, added after acceptance of the manuscript by Forty South during the proofreading process, is the one between Chris Blake and his dad early in the book.  I should add, perhaps, that to the best of my knowledge the Queenstown Football Club do not have clubrooms or a grandstand at the famous Queenstown gravel oval; in the book, in a gesture of grief and anger over the loss of his father, Billy burns this building down. That’s fiction for you, folks. The Queenstown of my book is not the town I lived in for a couple of years in the mid-1980s, although many of the landmarks are there–Mt Owen, St Martins Anglican Church, the school, those infamous bare hills (which are no longer bare, by the way; trees have started growing back.)

Anyway, this was the year I decided to stop tinkering. I believed I had the story, the characters, the structure in reasonable shape. I wanted to publish a book before I turned 40 and I turned 41 last week so I’ll take that. I submitted the manuscript to Warren in June of this year and here we all are: it will be launched in December at Fullers Launceston and at the Hobart Bookshop and there will be signings and readings in Devonport and elsewhere. It seems very strange indeed to have this object, over which I have laboured for so long, in my hands as a finished product. It’s not necessarily a process I would advise to follow, if anyone out there is planning to write their own novel–I did literally start writing this story in the middle, as per the quote with which I prefaced Part One of this recount, with that story that was published in Island. From there I worked backwards to the beginning and then on to the end. Don’t ask me why–it might explain why the chronology of the finished book is disjointed. (Point of interest: the aforementioned footy club arson scene is actually the very last thing that happens in the story but it occurs about halfway through the book.)

So that’s it, really. At one point I thought I had finished this mansucript and that it would become the Practice Novel, the one that gathers dust under the bed. I started writing another one, parts of which I may return to one day. Perhaps there’s a pattern forming here…

The Journey to the Cathedral: part one

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When writing a novel, you have to start in the middle and fight your way out.

On December 2, my first book will be launched at Fullers Bookshop in Launceston. It was accepted for publication by Forty South back in June, which seems a long time ago now, and since then I’ve been engaged with the usual editing/proofreading/cover design process and so on–the minutiae of transforming the book from a Word document on my computer to an object that will fit neatly into your hands. A few other things have crossed my mind, too, in the quiet moments. Among them: what do I write next? And when did I know this book was finished?

I will explore the first question, about what comes next, in future posts on this Blog. I’ll roadtest some ideas, try a few things out. (My actual current writing project is to develop and edit a poetry chapbook manuscript, some contents of which are being aired on the Private Conversations page of this blog.) This post is the first of a couple that will reflect on this journey.

I remember finishing the first draft some time in the middle of 2003, early one morning. I didn’t know then what I had, really, but I clearly remember how fantastic it was to have something completed. It was short–about 90 pages–and I also have an equally clear recollection that I had no idea who would publish it. It was a novella, I knew, and indeed it is now–although it is longer, at about 150 pages. That early version had very few of the ideas or characters of the publisher version–it ended instead with the death of the main character, for example. The germ of the idea for this draft came from an earlier idea I had had for a book, which was essentially to write three interconnected semi-fictional memoirs–reimagining my childhood, my adolescence and my young adulthood. I finished a draft of the first section, started the second and made some notes for the third, which never progressed further. Billy Anson made an appearance early in that second section and for some reason, as I created him, I knew I was onto something.

Billy is based, by the way, on someone I knew in when I lived in Queenstown (in 1984-5). I won’t mention his name, which might seem odd; I will simply say that he was my age, popular with girls, as tough as nails, a heavy smoker and that–a few years after I left–he died.

Anyway, I fashioned a short story based on that second section, called ‘Breaking In’, in which Billy encounters a newcomer to Queenstown and convinces him to prove his allegiance to Billy by shoplifting some girly magazines from the local newsagent. The wonderful David Owen, then publisher of Island Magazine, published this short story in it–an act of support and encouragement which I have always valued.

After I had completed the 90-page draft, in what would become a pattern throughout the evolution of the book, I left it for a while. I had at that time only recently taken on a key role in the organisation of the annual Tasmanian Poetry Festival, which successfully managed to scare the shit out of me for a while–what on earth did I know about a) poets, b) festivals or c) finding the money to bring these things together? In tandem with this, my son was growing up and I had commenced a new job lecturing in Literacy Education at the University of Tasmania. So I was busy–and life, as it will, swept me away.  But still, distant and determined, there was Billy. He did not go away.

Through the Tasmanian Writers Centre, I applied for a residency which was awarded at the end of 2004. I was given a fortnight’s accommodation at a house owned by Hydro Tasmania, in Wayatinah, a very small town in central Tasmania. During this residency I set about building my 90-page draft into a novel: I added the first suggestions that Billy would be angered by the decision to stop construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, and wrote the scene (which remains in the published version, almost unchanged) in which Billy burns down the Queenstown Football Club rooms. The residency was a splendid experience, and one that I have repeated several times since (though not for as long). The town was very quiet; occasionally I would wander over to the local pub, where there never seemed to be any more than three people. I would write for an hour or so before breakfast and then work in solid two- or three-hour chunks throughout the day, punctuated by the occasional walk and vaguing out in front of the one-day cricket on the small television that had been left in the loungeroom. When I packed up to come home, I had the makings of a novel: importantly, I had some ideas about what still needed to be done. I worked on it over the next twelve months and, towards the end of 2005, submitted it to a publisher for the first time.

Here ends Part One of this behind the scenes tale: Part Two coming soon.