When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to be a writer.
I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, whether I wanted to write. I just wanted to be a writer. I certainly didn’t do any writing when I was a kid, since I went to school in those halcyon days when no one taught ‘narrative writing’. The only story I ever wrote was in Year 8, a school assignment. It was terrible – really, I’ve still got it and it was shockingly bad. Sentimental, twee; about a baby’s first step.
A lot of my writer friends tell me that they always wrote. Ursula Dubosarsky, for example, or Kate Forsyth. So I guess they had about an 15-year head start on me, because the first proper stories I wrote were for my undergraduate degree in Communications. I did ‘professional writing’ as the course was called and wrote not very good stories for it, but I majored in television and film production.
Why not major in writing if that was what I wanted to do? Because by the time I was 15 I’d realised that writing was a haphazard way of making a living. I decided I would work in television for my main income, much to my family’s amusement.
They couldn’t imagine anyone from our circle working in TV, let alone being an author.
The problem was, neither could I.
What held me back from writing as a kid was the deeply held belief that my life, and the life of everyone I knew, was boring. Western suburbs Sydney, ordinary loving family, ordinary life (except for being sick all the time with bronchitis and asthma).
The books I read were full of wonders, thanks to a wonderful local librarian who had a real love of speculative fiction. And I distinctly remember devouring a series of travel books called, ‘Anne and Peter go to Germany’; ‘Anne and Peter go to France’, which I read in a torrent of envy of these kids who got to go all over the world while I was stuck with home, school and going to church. Even the books about ‘ordinary’ people, like Anne of Green Gables, was full of exotic occurrences, like snow.
I was convinced that the only way to become a writer was to Live. To get out of Rydalmere and acquire me some Experience. Television seemed like a pretty good way of doing that.
And it was. And I did start writing and publishing children’s stories while I worked at ABC Kids.
But I find it somewhat ironic that the stories which are inspiring me now, like The Soldier’s Wife, are family stories. Stories I heard about when I was even younger than twelve. One of the books I have planned for next year will be about the courtship between my maternal grandparents, a story my Nanna told me with tears in her eyes, years after my grandfather died.
I realise that the reason I was so passionate about telling The Soldier’s Wife is that, for the first time, I was telling my own story. The story of my people; not just my own family, but the Australian Anglo/Irish culture I grew up in. It’s not a thing I’ve ever done before, although I drew on my very Catholic upbringing to write The Black Dress, which is about Mary MacKillop’s childhood.
So what I would say to my 12-year-old self is: take notes. Listen hard. Because you never know when you might need those stories that the adults are telling over the top of your head, about people you have never met and don’t care about. Slide down under the table so they’ll forget you’re there, and listen. Remember. You’ll thank yourself one day.