All Our Secrets was conceived when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Tess. She turned eleven this February, so to say it’s been a long journey is an understatement of monumental proportions.
All Our Secrets began as a short story about, coincidentally, a birth. In developing a backdrop for the birth, I created a fictional New South Wales town (Coongahoola) that grew much bigger than its original purpose, and stuck around for the next ten years. But while Coogahoola and its characters lived on, the short story itself only survived as a backstory for the narrator:
Standing at the 10 Items or Less counter, Martha never let me slip past without winking and nodding towards the Pasta, Rice and Sauce aisle, the aisle in which I was nearly born (Mum’d been buying the ingredients for spaghetti bolognaise when I decided to make my entry into the world).
Fearing a fate similar to the one I’d inflicted on my narrator’s mum, I’d arranged to start my maternity leave four weeks before my due date. I’d imagined my waters breaking mid-meeting in dramatic fiction-style fashion, and the baby introducing itself (Tess was still an ‘it’ back then, having stubbornly crossed her legs throughout the 20-week scan) to my workmates seconds before an ambulance came to my rescue.
As it turned out, life didn’t imitate fiction; my baby wasn’t much of a drama queen. Nor was she in much of a hurry. Instead, I finished work with my dignity (and my waters) intact and devoted each morning to writing for three or four luxurious hours, my growing stomach pushing me further away from my desk each day.
Over the weeks, that short story grew into one, two, three chapters. I didn’t have a plot in mind, I hadn’t written a chapter plan or anything sensible like that; the story just evolved. This is why, before I knew it, a religious cult had drifted in and taken over Coongahoola. It took me a while to realise where I’d stolen that idea from.
When I was around 15, there was a ‘sighting’ of the Virgin Mary at a river, not far from our favourite swimming hole. Soon after, a religious cult set up a camp nearby and we were warned to keep our distance. Not wanting to give up our swimming hole, we’d race past the camp on our bikes, pedalling a million miles an hour, in fear of being stoned to death (that was my fear anyway, I’ve no idea what it was based on).*
Apart from this cult and some of its questionable goings-on, I can safely say that the rest of All Our Secrets and its characters are mostly fictional. In fact, due to my own mum’s paranoia that my fictional mums are based on her, I deliberately made this one – ‘Nell’ – as different from her as humanly possible:
Not even three simultaneous screams had been enough to wake Mum. I found her lying flat on her back on top of the worn-out green bedspread, one arm flopped over the edge of the bed, an almost-empty glass bottle poking out from under the blankets. She was snoring louder than Grandma Bett snored when she had the flu, and her breath stank like one of the sprays she cleaned the bathroom with. I shook her until her red eyes blinked open and stared at me. Her hair was a tangle of knots and blue eyeliner snaked down her cheek…
Happy, Mum? Your hair is never knotty and you don’t wear eye-liner.
Talking of mums, I was about to be one! Where was that baby? When the due date passed just like any other day, I struggled to focus. I closed novel.doc, opened a new page, and wrote a piece of non-fiction – So… Where’s the Baby? When the Due Date Comes and Goes – later published in Sydney’s Child and Wild Space magazine. (You can read it here.)
As panicked as I was, I was lucky that Tess was late. Never before (or since) had I enjoyed so much time to write, and in the months that followed, having a shower was considered a significant achievement; writing didn’t even make it onto my daily try-to-do list. I’d only completed a few chapters, but I had a quirky town, a crazy cult and a dysfunctional family, all of which would come in handy when I heard about New Zealand Book Month’s Six Pack writing competition a year later. But I’ll save that for next time. It took me ten years to get around to writing this, so what’s the hurry?
*The name of the cult will remain anonymous (in case my fears were founded, and my next trip to Australia comes to an abrupt end with my stoning).