Guest blogger Tilly Mainwaring recalls the Sydney launch of All Our Secrets, albeit briefly and without even mentioning the author’s dress. (Her recollections morph into a book review before coming to a sudden end but, hey, she’s 10 and she’s got better things to do than her mum’s homework.)
Mum’s book launch, by Tilly
I remember walking in to a big room filled with paintings, sculptures and mirrors. It was such a blast of colour, a sight that thrills the eyes. Damien was setting up for his amazing music performance. His poor partner Nicole was meant to perform with him, like she did at the launch in NZ, but she sadly caught tonsillitis and couldn’t come.
Soon after we arrived, the guests started to arrive too. Mum actually hadn’t actually seen the real book or met her publisher in person yet so we all said hello and introduced ourselves.
Anthony was the MC so after his speech I was called up to do my speech. It was really good and I barely stammered over any words. And then Lindy (Mum’s publisher) spoke. And finally, Mum spoke and read from the book. She dedicated the Australian version to Nan.
There was food, book signing and lots of chatter.
Soon after, I read the book and I was amazed. My own mother came up with these scenarios and every word of the book. I couldn’t put it down for the few days in which I crammed every moment of spare time into reading it. I know I am only 10 years old but even though this is a crime fiction I really enjoyed it. Until I actually read it I didn’t see why it was such a big deal, but now I think that this is one of the many topics I would be very happy to grab a cup of tea and discuss. Also, after being in Cambewarra, which is what Coongahoola is meant to be like, I can connect with the book lot more than I would without being there.
Words by Tilly. Punctuation and emoticon-deletion by me.
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to experience WORD Christchurch. The Ngaio Marsh Awards ceremony was part of the festival and the finalists were invited to read from their books in Murder in the Chamber. I jumped at the chance to escape for a weekend, meet the other finalists, be inspired by other writers, and get out of doing the weekly grocery shopping. I wasn’t expecting to win.
My hotel was next to the Piano Bar (home of most WORD events), which was fantastic for a couple of reasons: 1. I didn’t need to rely on the Google Maps lady to find the Piano Bar. 2. Most of the festival’s writers were also staying there, so I felt like part of the scene. Every time I caught the lift or passed through reception, I saw someone I ‘knew’. They just didn’t know me.
Because I was part of the festival, I scored a writer’s pass, which meant not only did I have an important-looking ‘Writer’ lanyard to hang around my neck (though I kept it in my bag – I’m not a show off) – I was entitled to free entry to events. Helen Clark’s Women, Equality, Power event and her rockstar reception was a highlight, as was Motherhood, a conversation between Catherine Robertson, Emily Writes and Hollie McNish over the cries and gurgles of countless babies.
On the day of the awards, after sharing the hotel gym with a Booker Prize winner (sorry, had to squeeze that in – I won’t mention his name, but he was very polite, even apologising for his squeaky treadmill), I met my publisher, Penelope Todd. This in itself was a momentous event: our first proper face to face meeting after ‘kind of’ knowing each other – through emails and the occasional Skype – for several years. Penelope has invested so much time and energy into All Our Secrets she deserves a multitude of awards herself. My win that evening was twice as rewarding with Penelope there to share it.
Next up was a Masterclass with award-winning Glaswegian crime writer, Denise Mina, whose book, The Long Drop, was the only upside of having spent the early hours of that morning propped up against one of my hotel bed’s seven enormous pillows (its size not only prevented me from sleeping, but forced me to question, for the first time ever, the length of my neck). The Long Drop (which is also, ultimately, about a neck, not an outside loo) is a gripping read. Denise’s course, too, was captivating and inspiring. Even though I was up for a crime fiction award I still felt like an imposter in a crime writing workshop, but Denise assured us that lots of authors write crime novels by ‘accident’.
Then, somehow, it was 5pm and time to meet the other finalists. We gathered in a room I can only recall as being green (and probably only because someone called it the ‘green room’). It was a huge buzz meeting people whose faces and books I recognised from social media, and to hear that many of us will get to hang out together at the inaugural Rotorua Noir festival next year.
In Murder in the Chamber I read about the first death in All Our Secrets – of Sebastian, the kitten – the most ‘crimey’ part of my book that didn’t give anything away (apart from, of course, poor Sebastian’s life).
Then, the awards ceremony: a happy blur, partly attributed to excitement, and partly to the pre and post-Murder in the Chamber pinot noir. Awards judge, Vanda Symons kicked off proceedings before inviting A J Finn (aka Daniel Malory) to present the award for the Best First Novel. I confess I didn’t know who A J Finn was; I just thought he was a hot American guy who must’ve written something. I now know that his book, The Woman in the Window, is the biggest selling book in the world this year!
Anyway, the hot American guy announced… “the Winner of the Ngaio Marsh First Novel Award is….All Our Secrets by Jennifer Lane.” I know these were his words because he later gave me the envelope that contained them. As for what I said when he handed me the microphone, I’m not entirely sure. I hadn’t wanted to jinx my chances by preparing a speech.
Denise Mina then declared Alan Carter the winner of the other, bigger, Ngaio Marsh Award (Best Crime Novel). We posed for photos, signed a stack of books, hugged everyone in sight, and I enjoyed a celebratory dinner with Penelope and her husband. It was a truly memorable night!
My only responsibility for Sunday was to meet Vanda and Alan at the Radio NZ studio for an interview with Lynn Freeman. Easier said than done. I got lost wandering through the construction site that is Christchurch’s CBD, even with the Google Maps lady bossing me around. Once I finally found the others, we realised we had the wrong address, so had to race a couple of kilometres back in the direction from which I’d wandered (despite Google Maps lady’s protests – she was ready to strangle me by then), but made it just in time. I find radio interviews slightly terrifying, and this one was live! Fortunately Vanda and Alan had plenty to say.
And that ended my magic weekend. Oh yeah, there were a few All Blacks at Christchurch airport. I only knew who they were because they were being accosted for photos (though their All Blacks outfits should’ve been a giveaway). I’d spent my weekend among celebrities – the night before I was practically one myself – so I wasn’t at all fazed. Though, I confess, I did take a discrete photo, just to pass the time. The photo was blurry (such was my discretion) and I think the friend I sent it to was equally unfazed.
It was then time to fly back to reality, motherhood and grocery shopping, but also to a normal-sized pillow, and with a very special souvenir squeezed into my suitcase:
I’m writing this from my childhood home of Cambewarra*, where I’m spending a couple of weeks with my mum, working on my second novel (slowly), and trying not to think about the odds that the giant huntsman spider I spotted outside the front door yesterday managed to make its way inside overnight…
Another reason I’m in Cambewarra (no, not to avoid the school holidays – that’s just a coincidence) is because I’m kind of on ‘exchange’ with my younger brother Damien, who usually lives nearby but is currently in… Hollywood! He’s one of the 12 film and TV music composers from around the world selected to take part in the acclaimed ASCAP Film scoring workshop, under the guidance of Emmy-award winning composer, Richard Bellis. It’s an incredible opportunity and I’m very excited for him.
But enough about him. I’ve got news!
Firstly, All Our Secrets made Australia’s Ned Kelly Awards longlist – for Best First Crime! My publisher, Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira Books, is now busy looking at options for making All Our Secrets more widely available in Australia, something I’ve long hoped for (especially given its strong Australian setting). At the moment it’s only available as an ebook (apart from via this website). Fingers crossed this is about to change.
Then, within a week of the Ned Kellys announcement, the New Zealand equivalent – the Ngaio Marsh Awards – revealed All Our Secrets as a finalist for Best First Novel! One of the judges commented, ‘A very assured debut with some wonderfully drawn characters. This pulled me in right from the beginning.’ The winners of both awards will be announced early September.
A few other writerly things have happened since my last post (thankfully, since it was around six months ago), starting with a writing retreat on the Kapiti Coast, an indulgent weekend of workshops and discussions with a fabulous mix of writers. Inspired by the experience, Janis Freegard and myself decided to reform our writing group which, for numerous reasons, had fizzled out over the past few years. We’ve since expanded and are meeting regularly, which has been hugely motivating – and has resulted in some new writing I’m relatively happy with.
In May I braved Wellington’s ‘Murder in the library’, along with Annaleese Jochams (author of Baby) with Brannavan Gnanalingam (author of Sodden Downstream, among others) as the interrogator (pictured below).
I survived the grilling, and a few weeks later, enjoyed the chance to ‘pitch’ All Our Secrets to other writers at the New Zealand Society of Author’s Pipitea Book Pitch. The same week I was a guest speaker at the Flash Fiction Awards in Wellington, along with Janis Freegard and Tim Jones, and chaired by Constance Talbot. It was a fun night of discussion (somehow Cambewarra got a mention!) and listening to local finalists read their stories. To me, 1,000 words is short, so I’m full of admiration for writers who can tell a great story in 300 (or less).
I’m now looking forward to reading at the WORD Christchurch writers & readers festival in September, where the winners of the Ngaio Marsh Awards will be announced, and taking part in Rotorua Noir, New Zealand’s first-ever crime and thriller writing festival, next January.
Hopefully, I’ll have more to update you on before then…
*Cambewarra, aboriginal for ‘mountain fire’, is on the South Coast of NSW, has a population of 238 (probably including the aforementioned huntsman spider), and just got its first ever mention in the American VARIETY magazine (thanks to Damien).
Now that I’ve been back in New Zealand for nearly two weeks, my slight holiday tan having all but disappeared (despite Wellington’s decent crack at having a summer), it’s time I started on my ‘MUST do on holiday’ list. Number 1 is “Write blog post”, so here goes:
I’m happy to say that ALL OUR SECRETS is continuing to do well, thanks to many fabulous friends spreading the word and a few generous reviews in national media.
Andrew Laxon of the New Zealand Herald reviewed the novel alongside books by Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, Robert Harris and John Le Carre, describing it as “a hugely enjoyable mash-up of small town horror and coming-of-age story, with plenty of quirky and sometimes downright weird humour thrown in.” He says some OK stuff about the other books too!
In the NZ Listener, Catherine Robertson says, “Lane pulls off two ambitious feats: creating a child narrator who is authentically pre-teen but who can hold adult reader interest and integrating a well-plotted mystery that keeps tension high and readers guessing…Highly recommended.” Thank you, Catherine!
Bookseller NZ’s Sarah Forster also highly recommends ALL OUR SECRETS “as a summer read for age 13+” and Karen Chisholm of AustCrimeFiction calls it “an absolute gem”. I couldn’t ask for more.
The Sapling published an extract (Gracie’s “unmerry Christmas”), and my voice assaulted the ears of listeners nationwide via interviews with Lynn Freeman on Radio NZ and Morrin Rout on Plains FM. No one arrested me after I was on air though, so perhaps I didn’t torment everyone else’s ears as much as I did mine.
Just as encouraging as the reviews were the many messages I received from readers. (By the way, I’m amazed by the number of people who only find time to read during the holidays. Am I the only one who prioritises reading over housework/sleep/life 365 days a year?) It’s hugely rewarding to hear that so many of my friends and family enjoyed ALL OUR SECRETS (the rest of the world would just be a bonus), so thanks to those who have said so. And if you thought the book was a load of crap and kept that to yourself, I appreciate that too!
But, sadly, the news hasn’t all been good. Two people who played a part in helping me bring ALL OUR SECRETS into the world passed away in December.
Firstly, Paul Greenberg. Paul took on the job of getting ALL OUR SECRETS into shops around New Zealand, a challenging task (I discovered) for a novel written by an unknown “New Zealand” author, especially a novel set in Australia. Paul worked in the industry for 50 years and was described as the “greatest salesman in the history of New Zealand publishing”. I never met or worked with him directly, but Penelope Todd (ALL OUR SECRETS’ publisher) says he was a delight to deal with. ALL OUR SECRETS was possibly the last book he represented.
Then there was the death of my friend and fellow writer, Sarah Anderson. During the more than ten years we were in a writing group together, we read and critiqued many of each other’s stories, including the first draft of ALL OUR SECRETS. Sarah was the most prolific writer in our group, having published a number of fiction and non-fiction collections as well as a magazine, VIOLA BEADLETON’S COMPENDIUM OF SERIOUSLY SILLY AND AMAZINGLY ASTOUNDING STORIES. She was also a talented artist and my daughter Tess was lucky enough to be tutored by her in art last year. We will miss Sarah greatly, and we’re lucky she left behind many stories, poems and artworks to remember her by. Here’s a poem she wrote about summer:
Hot so hot In Summer I used to love you Summer Sirus the cat would sit on my lap In the summer My girlfriend and I would seek the sun when we lived in cold dark Vivian Street and got no afternoon sun but we could see it shine on the hills at Mt Vic In the summer We would play as children by rivers and run through the woods while the men played cricket in the backyard In summer The sky was so blue and the cicadas sang so loud, everything was alright because it was Summer.
Thursday, 19 October was a memorable day. Winston Peters surprised New Zealand by announcing a change of government. A friend (the same age as me) became a grandmother. It was sunny in Wellington. And All Our Secrets was finally released into the world.
Luckily, the launch turned out to be nothing like the dream version I’d had a couple of nights earlier. In my dream, a friend arrived at 6pm to find the entire venue – a grim, grotty student flat, don’t ask me why – empty apart from several drunk people comatose in the corners.
In the real version everyone showed up*, the venue was Meow (as planned), and instead of drunks, the corners were occupied by stuffed kangaroos, fitting décor for the launch of a novel with a distinctly Australian setting. The evening was unseasonably warm (also fitting), and the buzz of Winston’s impending announcement added to the atmosphere. Just as with a wedding, all the dramas of the lead-up, including a passport going AWOL and a last-minute flight change, were soon forgotten.
Sixty-five or so wonderful people filled the venue, including our wedding celebrant, come to think of it, and friends from everywhere I’ve worked in Wellington, probably excited by the prospect of me writing about something more compelling than income protection insurance or a proven treatment for mastitis in cows. My mum, aunty and cousin had travelled from Australia as had my brothers and sister-not-quite-in-law. Even my former writers group was there, reunited for the first time in five years, and better still, making plans to reform.
The evening’s soundtrack was provided by my brother Damien and his partner Nicole (of the missing passport), with a special live performance I wish I could have paid more attention to. In homage to the Bagooli River, which runs through All Our Secrets’ fictional town of Coongahoola, they based their playlist around a river theme, playing classics like Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren and PJ Harvey’s Down by the Water.
My other brother Anthony (whose last-minute flight wasn’t delayed by fog, earthquake, or locusts, all possibilities I’d considered) did a great job MCing and speaking on behalf of publisher, Penelope Todd; Catherine Robertson delivered a very flattering speech (thank you again, Catherine); and I read from All Our Secrets without tripping over the words or the stage.
I spent the rest of the evening sitting alongside the two friendly Unity Books sales girls, signing books (in my terrible childish scrawl, sorry) for those who bought one (and, in my daughter’s case, those who didn’t. Tess snuck along her own copy from home, just so she could join the book-signing queue.)
A couple of weeks have passed since that night, but the excitement has continued with a constant stream of messages from people who are reading the book. A friend’s 13-year-old daughter even wrote a report about All Our Secrets for English, concluding “I recommend All Our Secrets to people who are interested in a murder mystery or just because you need a good book to read”. Thank you, Emily!
Thanks, too, to everyone who joined me at Meow and made the launch so memorable, to anyone who has shared their thoughts on All Our Secrets, and to those who bought a copy and helped push it up to number 2 on the NZ fiction bestsellers’ list last week.
I guess I’d better get cracking on the next one…
* Except Sean O. He waited to hear Winston Peters’ announcement before rocking up, bursting with excitement, around 7pm.
It’s been an exciting few weeks – holding the novel for the first time (a real book, not just a wad of double-spaced A4 pages splattered with ink from our ageing printer), being interviewed by Lynn Freeman at Radio NZ, Unity Books saying they’ll sell at the launch, hearing that All Our Secrets will be reviewed in The Listener…. And then, last week, turning on my radio, out of the blue, just in time to catch the book’s first ever review (listen to it here).
And with only five days to go, I’m now nearing the end of my pre-launch to-do list (getting dangerously close to ‘clean the house!’ – the exclamation mark emphasising how desperately this needs doing before my family arrives from Oz).
But before I do anything drastic like the vacuuming, I need to mention another important part of my long journey: the Wellington Writers Group. I’m pretty sure there’s another group with the same name now, but Wellington Writers Group was what we called ourselves without knowing (or caring) whether another more official group existed.
We met once a month to say (mostly) nice things about each other’s work, and once a year we headed up the coast for a weekend retreat. We’d explore the beach, cook feasts, drink wine, let off fireworks (not because we were pyromaniacs, but because our inaugural retreat was on Guy Fawkes night) and, if there were a few spare minutes between unpacking and heading home, we’d write.
Our meetings were a big source of inspiration, a monthly deadline hugely motivating, and I really valued the feedback of everyone in the group. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with this novel if it wasn’t for their encouragement and support.
The photo below is the Wellington Writers Group in its original form – Janis, Sarah, me, Chris, Niamh and Mark – at our first retreat in Foxton, late 2005 or whenever flarey jeans were last in. Although we definitely devoted more time to eating than writing, I’d like to point out that I was pregnant at the time, not full from lunch.
I won’t get around to posting again before the launch, so I hope to see you there…
I was born in the wrong era. Once upon a time publishers bought manuscripts for ludicrous sums and paid equally ludicrous advances. Why can’t I have launched my writing career in those days? Even if I was forced to wear a corset while writing and had to publish under the pseudonym ‘George’, at least the publishing industry was thriving and companies welcomed new authors. (Well, at least this is my impression of those days.)
One good thing about today’s era is Google. Given that my novel is set in a fictional Australian town, it seemed logical to try my luck in my motherland first. A few hours’ googling taught me:
Many publishers won’t stoop to considering your manuscript if you don’t have an agent.
Many agents won’t stoop to considering new authors.
I soldiered on nonetheless and eventually, hooray, found an agent in Melbourne who did take on new authors. Even better, she was willing to accept me – on the provision that I reworked my novel to make it more ‘young adult’. So after a few deep breaths and a lot of swearing, I began work on another, more young-adulty draft under the guidance of an amazingly talented person known only to me then as The Reader (she later revealed herself as the young adult fiction writer, Emily Gale. Fortunately, I was happy with the results – and so was the agent.
The moment the agent offered me a contract was one of extreme excitement. My jump of jubilation caused my daughters, who were downstairs from me at that moment, to drop into ‘turtle position’ (something they’re well rehearsed in doing in the event of an earthquake). I finally had an agent! The hard work was over. My novel was in a professional’s capable hands now. All I had to do was wait….
I received a lot of positive feedback, but sadly, no takers. ‘Young adult fiction’ publishers thought the novel wasn’t ‘YA enough’. So the agent focussed on ‘Adult fiction’ publishers. Nope. It’s ‘more of a YA novel’. Aghhhh!
After two up-and-down years (during which I started and completed the first draft of my second novel), I stopped crossing my fingers. Once again, I turned to my NZSA mentor, Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira Books, for advice. She came to the rescue by reinstating her offer of publication, later going one step further by offering to bring out a hard copy version as well as an ebook.
So that’s how I got to where I am today. It’s been a heartbreaking process, but I’ve learned a lot along the way – from Penelope and Emily (and Google) – and believe that my manuscript is better because of it. Is it ‘young adult’ or ‘adult’ fiction? I don’t know. All I know is I wrote what I wanted to write (albeit several times) and if someone enjoys reading it, the long long journey will have been worthwhile.
I lost count of the months I devoted to the first draft as I drifted in and out of my early-motherhood haze, but I eventually produced something that vaguely resembled a novel. A beginning, a middle and even, amazingly enough, an end. Even so, I knew the beast wasn’t finished.
As well as several plot holes (I didn’t get around to creating a chapter plan, so the story at the end was quite different to the one at the start), the narrator’s voice was inconsistent (I struggled to settle on her age). Even the narrator’s name was inconsistent. In Chapter 1, Draft 1, I christened her Evie. But halfway through, I fell in love with the name Gracie. I thought bestowing the name on my narrator would remove the temptation to have a third child (back in the real world) for the sole purpose of calling her (or, as luck would have it, him) Gracie. It worked! Tess and Matilda remain our only children. It took a while to weed all the Evies out of the manuscript though.
By this time I felt that if I laboured over the novel any longer, I’d lose either my mind or the will to live, possibly both. So it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) mentorship programme saved my life.
The mentorship included a full manuscript appraisal as well as guidance – a total of 20 hours’ mentoring from an experienced New Zealand author. For free! I joined the NZSA, laboured over an application (devoting only slightly less time to it as I did to my manuscript), and was lucky enough to secure a mentorship with Dunedin author, Penelope Todd, now of Rosa Mira Books.
It was a fantastic experience – and one I couldn’t recommend more highly. After working in isolation for so long, it felt indulgent to have someone get to know my characters as well as I did – questioning their motives as if they were real people, actually caring about what they did and said. I had a whole world – well, a whole fictional town – living (and dying!) inside my head. To have someone else spend time in Coongahoola, my town, was exhilarating.
More than anything I valued Penelope’s encouragement. She went beyond her role as mentor and offered me publishing advice – even going so far as offering to publish the manuscript herself (as an ebook) under her brand, Rosa Mira Books. It was a very exciting offer, and one I would later grab. But at that stage, I was still attached to the idea of a traditional book, so I was keen to pursue the traditional publishing route.
I now had something that didn’t just resemble a novel. It was a novel! I had around 80,000 words, in a logical order! ‘All Our Secrets’ was ready for a publisher to snap up and unleash to the world…
I’ve won few competitions in my life. So few that I can still remember winning St Michael’s School’s Christmas raffle when I was in kindergarten (and my prize: a plastic nativity scene, silver glitter snow shining on the stable’s roof). As for writing competitions, my story Dominic finds a way scored me first prize in Year 6 (I took home a hardback copy of Anne of Green Gables) and Jude topped Salient’s short story competition in the late 90s. But that’s about it. So when I heard about NZ Book Month’s Six Pack competition, I didn’t race out and buy a bottle of Moët in anticipation of my success.
Entries could be either a short story or an extract from a novel, and the six winners would be published in the Six Pack book. I combined two chapters of a novel I’d started writing, turned them into a story (Scout’s Honour) and sent my entry in, feeling satisfied that I’d accomplished something more than helping my baby get a greater amount of pumpkin in her mouth than on my face, though not expecting to hear back.
I wrote the following blog post about what happened next (for the NZ Book Month website):
For me, it all began when an email with the subject NZ BOOK MONTH/SIX PACK COMPETITION/SHORTLIST magically appeared in my inbox. I clicked on it, and as I waited, waited, waited (we had dial-up back then), two possibilities wrestled in my head:
It was an email to all entrants announcing the shortlist (none of the names bearing even a close resemblance to mine), praising the high standard of entries, congratulating the rest of us and urging us to try again next year.
It was an email informing me that I’d made the cut.
I can’t describe how I felt when I discovered the latter was true. Had I not been a responsible (and breastfeeding) mother, I would’ve headed straight to the nearest bar (some distance away since I’m a responsible mother who now lives in the burbs) and celebrated in a way DBC Pierre would’ve been proud of.
That was back in May and as the months dragged by, the possibility of being a Six Pack winner was always on my mind. On hearing I was a winner, I once again had to limit my celebrating, this time to just an extra cup of green tea, having just discovered I was soon to be a responsible mother of two.
Unlike the dreams I’d had leading up to the launch of the Six Pack book, I didn’t turn up at the wrong place, my name was on the winners’ list, and the $5000 cheque was of a standard size, not a really big one like in TV game shows. It was a day of surreal experiences: reading an extract from my story on a marae, introducing my mum to Elizabeth Smither, and of course, seeing my story in a book, alongside some of the best writers in NZ. All this was a week ago now and I’m still buzzing…
At that moment anything seemed possible. I was practically a novelist. It didn’t matter that I’d only written four chapters (and actually had no idea of how the story was going to end). 5000 words of it had already won a prize; I assumed publication would be a given. It was only after I’d finished one, two, three, four drafts, under the guidance of first a mentor, and then an agent, that I understood that writing is the easy part. Getting published is a completely different story.
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).