Anyone who knows me will know I alternate between two social personalities when it comes to my writing. The first is a chatterbox who will go into exquisite (and sometimes exquisitely painful) detail about whichever piece of my writing I am chattering about. The other is a secretive scribe who resists efforts at engagement by family, friends and co-workers because I don’t want to bore people (which is what the chatterbox sometimes does).
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone when I say I am a writer for a reason and one of those reasons is because sometimes when I talk, stupid silly faux-pas things come out of my mouth (my Twitter follows have heard this before). I am also often prone to TMI – too much information. The one thing in my favour is I usually am able to restrict myself to outbursts of TMI only when I am taking about my writing.
The man sitting in the cubicle next to me at my recently completed consulting role asked what I’m sure is a common question for writers and the chatterbox emerged to answer it: where do I get my inspiration from? He probably regretted letting the words out of his mouth as I gave him an earful in response. But my answer was essentially this: my inspiration comes from the things I see around me every day with the addition of one question – what if?
My entire theory of plot development is based around an unending series of questions and answers like a toddler continually asking, “Why?” Thankfully, these question and answer sessions mostly take place in my head where the world is shielded from it, only revealed when some poor unsuspecting person trying to be polite takes an interest unleashing it from my interior monologue and it comes spewing forth.
In 2012, I was watching a documentary about the attacks in 2011 at the Workers’ Youth League-run summer camp on the island of Utøya in Norway. A number of survivors were recounting their recollections of that horrific day to an unseen reporter. My first “What if?” moment came as a result of an assumption I made – Anders Behring Breivik probably wanted to kill everyone on that island. What if, instead of being many survivors (which there thankfully were), there was only one?
As I continued watching, the next “What if?” moment happened. If there had been only one survivor, the media intensity focused on that one person would have been phenomenal. So intense perhaps that the sole survivor, undoubtedly traumatised, might be inclined to change their name, alter their appearance and hide from the world at large. And having done that in an effort to avoid unwanted attention, the thing that survivor would fear most of all would be to have their new identity uncovered by a nosy journalist.
Thus the character of Prudence Butters was born. Prudence is the thirty-year-old sole survivor of a fictional Utøya-style attack fifteen years ago. She has been in and out of psychiatric facilities as she struggled to recover from the post-traumatic stress disorder being the only survivor had induced. She has changed her name (although neither Prudence nor Butters were her choice), altered her appearance and relocated to a small country town to avoid crowds – which upset her – and reporters – who are still all these years later intent on getting the holy grail of reporting: an interview with her.
For three years she has coped (if not exactly thrived) by living a reclusive life in a sparse wooden cabin on the outskirts of the also fictional Hope Springs. Until one day a reporter arrives to announce he knows who she really is and that he won’t be going anywhere until she gives him what he wants, which is an exclusive interview.
I’m currently one-third of the way through writing Trine so Prudence’s story is currently incomplete and I’m certainly enjoying writing what I am describing as a literary crime novel. You can read the first chapter in two days when I post it right here on my blog.
I’ve spoken briefly about the genesis of Enemies Closer, my debut novel, in other places but I’ll go into a little more detail here. In 2004, I read an unpublished manuscript belonging to a friend of mine. It was a fairly traditional action adventure novel, which as a general rule I have no problems with.
Then I got to the scene in which the hero and his sidekick save two random girls on the street from a violent attack, who then reward the hero and his sidekick by going home with them and having sex. I’m pleased to say this scene was rewritten in the final published version to eliminate the sex. But it was the first of many more stereotypical depictions of omen than remained in the final published version, the worst of which are giggling girls in bikinis whose only function is to sexually satisfy the villain.
My friend could have, in one fell swoop, if not rectified these stereotypes then evened them out a little by modifying the ending to have one of these girls in bikinis playing a pivotal role in the villain’s demise. But, as is absolutely his right as the author and is traditional in this genre of book, he wanted his hero to save the day (which he did by allowing a female hostage to die).
The book is a perfectly good book and my friend has become quite successful, publishing several series of action adventure and young adult novels. But I wanted to prove that women in action adventure novels could be more than victims, hostages and sexual partners.
Thus the premise of Enemies Closer was dreamt up. There is a pretty even split of female and male characters but the main players are a female weapons engineer and former US Marine, a female CIA agent, a female villain with two male sidekicks, and a female scientist, as well as a male current US Marine, a male FBI agent and a male novel writer/journalist. And it works. Not a bikini or outbreak of giggling in sight and definitely no sex scenes, especially not involving the villain – I mean, come on, who has the time when you’re on a mission to destroy (or alternately save) the world?
You can read the prologue and first chapter of Enemies Closer on this blog (prologue posted on 15 February 2015 and chapter one posted on 16 February 2015) and see the female scientist and the female villain (as well as one of her male sidekicks) to judge for yourself how successful I’ve been. Because as much as I wanted to make a statement about the portrayal of women in action adventure fiction, I ultimately also wanted to write a ripping good story.
I don’t write nearly as much poetry these days as I used to so most of what you see published on this blog can be anything up to fifteen years old. Many of the poems were the result of the poetry classes I took in 1998 and 1999 as I studied for my Advanced Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing. The poetry teachers (Alan Wearne in 1998 and Kristin Henry in 1999, both reasonably well known and respected Australian poets) would give us a topic and say, “Write!”
One class the proposed topic was spring, which I immediately struggled with because the basis for my poetry tends to be rather odd or unusual things and situations (such as suicide notes, being the last person left on earth, being unable to write poetry about my poetry and then proving myself wrong, a photograph of my sister and me at my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary party).
I started thinking about things that happen in spring and what immediately came to mind was the annual AFL grand final parties my dad and his former State Bank (now long merged with the Commonwealth Bank) colleagues would have every year. The previous year during the half-time break, we’d all abandoned the television and moved outside for a quick game of cricket. My dad was fielding in the slips but still clutching a can beer. I was batting and I nicked one straight to him, which he caught one handed without spilling a single drop of beer. Now that was a uniquely Australian moment in time (cricket and AFL no less!) I was interested in capturing so that’s what I wrote about.
To tie it back to the intended theme, the last line of the poem was, “No one thinks about the fact that it is spring.” I was (at least I thought I was at the time) such a writing rebel because I never wanted to write about the topics that were proposed and always sought to subvert them in some way. But I remember those days fondly now because it was certainly the most prolific period for poetry in my life given how many poems those subverted suggested topics actually produced.
You can read the poem “1997 AFL Grand Final Party” when I post it in a few days’ time.