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…

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