I have a long standing debt, and one that can’t ever be repaid, to a local govt librarian, and, because of her the pattern of my entire life was determined. This librarian, whose name I don’t know, suggested to my parents in Narrogin in 1962 that I might like to read The Secret Seven. I loved it even before I’d finished the first page and for the first time realised books could be funny and not just about learning to read. It was not only the funniest thing I had come across but also the most exciting and I spend the next several years desperately wanting to own a Cub cap and belted gabardine raincoat and be the eighth member of their secret society. (Can you just picture that scene…in Narrogin in summer). After that I decided I rather be just like Enid Blyton, instead, so that I could create the adventures myself but not have to wear the silly cap and the thick pommy raincoat like the migrant kids in our town did for the first few weeks after they arrived.
You may have noticed middle-aged men love giving advice. As a kid I too sat and listened, all the time thinking, silly old fool, what could he know about the modern world and how tough it was. And I agree, how can I know about modern kids’ lives? I live in a writer’s fantasy world where I can alter the fates of characters and countries at a whim for God’s sake. And I do. I’m the last person who should be giving advice. I can invent a whole fictional society, but me ask to pay the phone bill and I’ll go looking in the file under F. In spite of that, people have paid money for my observations, much to my enormous surprise, and one idea I often try to get across is that people don’t actually change that much change from generation to generation, and what’s really important doesn’t change either. Over and over I hear that family is the most dear to almost everybody. No one on their death bed ever says, “I wish I spent more time at the office, or I wish we’d had a bigger fridge.” What they talk about and what they remember are their family members.
The most important event of the entire 60s took place 40 year ago while I was at school – The Beatles split up, and also, man landed the moon. July 20th, 1969 320 kids crowded into Music Room at Kalamunda District High School to see it and it was like something from the Black Hole of Calcutta. Health and Safety officers would be going demented these days. I was quite short in year 9 so I climbed up on a desk at the back with several other kids to see the flickering TV. At the exact moment Neil took one giant leap for mankind on the moon surface, the desk toppled over and I took one giant leap into the air, and fell off. So I missed it. The whole thing. The most important moment in history. Then a teacher bellowed, “If you lot don’t know how to behave then you can damn well go outside.” And so I got sent outside. I wonder if that set the pattern for the rest of my life.
The main piece of advice you always hear from writers is to write about what you know. Can I also suggest that if you are looking for a subject to write about, you look to your parents and grandparents. My grandparents who were as born in Kalgoorlie in 1904 and 1906 and my parents were both born during the Great Depression. They had to survive the 20th century, not such an easy thing to do before penicillin and medical advances, not to mention World War I, The Spanish Flu Epidemic, The Great Depression, World War II, the Atomic age, polio, terrorism, plane crashes, asbestos and all the other dangers out to get you. They are survivors. Survivors who ended up leading good and productive lives and raised their families and just got on with it without complaining. Not a bad way to go. And if you can’t find a rollicking good story among their experiences then I’ll be surprised. Sometimes you just need to ask them.
It’s incredibly tough getting published, especially for the first time. Manuscripts are often not even read before they are returned. But as Winston Churchill said, “Neva give in! Neva give in! Neva give in!” The manuscript of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings filled a tea chest and was rejected by 15 different publishers. My favourite, John Steinbeck, wrote for years and years with little success. He kept at it, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize for Of Mice and Men. Dubliners – James Joyce would not allow any changes to be made in his book of 15 short stories which depict Dublin in its most sordid light. After rejections from 22 different publishers it was finally published in 1914 by Grant Richards. On the first release, the entire run was bought by one individual who detested it so much he promptly had them all burnt – an exercise in burning a heretic? Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach was deemed unpromising by 18 publishers, ( I agree) the first issue in 1970 of 7500 copies snowballed into sales of over 7 million in the US alone by 1975. Back in 1869 Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore received 18 rejections before finally being printed and has since remained in print ever since. History is full of people giving up just metres from the finish. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter had 16 rejects and she is now the richest woman in the world, and probably the happiest, as she can also exist in the fictional world of her head. Her only danger is falling off her pile of money. Stay true to yourself and believe in what you have written, even if like James Joyce, you get sent into exile. You never know, you could also have JK’s problem one day.