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.

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