Recently I was asked to give a talk, but first I had to offer a title. I called it: Climbing up, falling off the edge and climbing back up the cliff. Or something like that. The title is not anywhere near as important as the content, and neither should it be.
It was all about my three books, the Jack Muir trilogy, “One Boy’s Journey to Man”, based on my life. Not all of it, of course, but some of it. The bits that helped the story threads, those issues I wished to emphasise.
The first book, Boy on a Wire, I had realised was about a kind of climb, up a sort of hill. The beginnings of a boy, how he is set up to become a man. In Muir’s case, not very well. He seems surrounded by incompetence, or, at least, people who do not get him, understand him, or know that to do with him because it was important for adults to do things with, and to, their children.
He is a boy who lives inside his own head and, as author, writing in the first person, I had to remain inside his head, trapped, could know nothing that I, author, knew, or that he, Muir, would know as an adult.
Very early on we learn that he is an intensely religious boy and is often puzzled by those around him, who seem to miss the points that Jesus seemed to make, that we should look after those not as fortunate as ourselves, that we should not lie, or cheat, or steal.
The people who rule Muir’s life do not take him seriously, or make much of an effort to understand him, and so he grows distant from them. It all ends badly. He fails his final exams and leaves school in disgrace.
The next journey as explored in To the Highlands, sees a troubled, confused and depressed Muir transferred in his employment to a Pacific Island, unnamed in the book, but based on my year in Papua New Guinea working for the Bank of New South Wales
This is where Muir gets it all wrong, mixes, mostly, with people living well outside of his moral code, yet he manages to fall in love, including one true, unfulfilled love and one kind of lusty love. He drinks too much, fights too much, rails with bitter anger against the endemic racism inherent in any colonial society and, as a result, suffers a mental collapse, and falls off the cliff face.
Very tough to write, this book, as if the first was not hard enough. Imagine dredging all the misery of your personal life, a life that while you lived it often had no meaning, no purpose, and in writing you have to work hard to find meaningful threads and ways to make the story palatable for a reader. And, of course, you want it to be entertaining without diminishing it’s importance.
The final book, Return Ticket, was such a relief, because here the author was allowed to know as much as an enquiring adult could know because the tenses shift between present and past, and the author get to play god by flipping between third and first person. That is the great joy of third person, being god, but I stuck with first person exclusively with the first two books because I wanted to own my journey, at least the likeness to my journey and to acknowledge that some of Jack came from some of me and that he and I were twin brothers. Although not identical.
Lately there has been another question asked of me: Why did you write these works? The answer is easy – compulsion. Let us work through all three.
Boy on a Wire – compelled. I had read Catcher in the Rye and Tom Brown’s Schooldays but nothing set in an Australian boarding school, nothing about the brutality and intensity of the privileged private boys school in the early 1960s. I had to write it.
To the Highlands – compelled. I had read many fictional works set on Pacific islands and most were nice and twee and about how kind we how were as colonials, apart from two, one book of short stories by Trevor Shearston, Something in the Blood, and another by Randolph Stowe, Visitants, but nothing of the colonial experience in the late 1960s, just before independence, when things were shifting. I had to write it. And in writing it, there were two other books firm in my mind – another by Randolph Stowe, To the Islands, and the Joseph Conrad classic, Heart of Darkness.
Return Ticket – compelled. I had read a number of novels and short story collections set in Israel, either partly or wholly set on kibbutzim, including Exodus, by Leon Uris and a number by perhaps the most famous of Israeli writers, Amos Oz, including Elsewhere Perhaps and Where the Jackals Howl. There was also Batya Gur’s Murder on a Kibbutz. Once again, there was nothing written by an Australian author exploring his or her experiences on kibbutz in the heady days of the socialist experiment and, while in that Middle Eastern setting, reflecting on their Antipodean lives and the complexities and contradictions within the State of Israel and it’s occupied territories. I had to write it. In writing this novel, I was inspired by George Johnston who wrote an Australian classic, My Brother Jack. But it was a lesser known work that had a greater impact, Clean Straw for Nothing.
Compulsion, of course, is not enough, the author has to have an ability, some literary skill, and this I honed by writing all my life – letters, a journal, diary – and by working in print journalism for over twenty years.
Compulsion, skills, even these are not enough. The aspiring writer, I believe, must also read. Read. And read again. And that’s just the book that grabs, yes, at least three times, read.