He smiles at me across the twelve-pack of toilet rolls on the checkout conveyor: ‘How are you today?’
‘Hm. Good. You?’ I look away, blushing, suddenly flustered.
The checkout boy is about twenty, fresh-faced, intelligent eyes, and he has no idea I’ve used him as the model for a World War II RAAF flight engineer in my latest manuscript. This boy is younger, possibly still at university, and whenever I see him at the supermarket, I have a compulsion to tell him not to join the air force. A rush of maternal concern: as if I know him.
Somehow, somewhere amid the universal soul soup we’re all adrift within, perhaps I do. All of my characters certainly appear out of it, and often without me knowing at the time. My RAAF man came to me quite unexpectedly in the middle of my chapter three and while he looks very much like checkout boy, in spirit he’s the whispering shadow of a real-life RAAF man. Fred Dennis was his name and, as navigator, with set-square, pencil and stopwatch, he flew in the Battle of Britain, and once flew Winston Churchill himself. He’d have been in his seventies when he stole my heart with his stories. In many ways, he’s nothing like my fictional man – for a start, they’re not even the same nationality – but my imagination, questing through the soup, has sought to honour him and his quiet, melancholy heroism. And I didn’t realise I’d done it until I found myself at the end of my story in tears of recognition: ‘Oh – Fred!’
When I say, as I often do, that all my characters are real people to me, this is what I mean: they are made of fragments of love and wonder at the people around me.
Of course sometimes that wonder explores aspects of humanity that frighten me. Netty Becker in The Blue Mile, for example, is an awful, sniping gossip, amusing on the one hand for her know-all nosiness, but breathtakingly destructive on the other, spreading lies about others for no purpose other than her own gratification. And then there’s Alec Howell, the sadistic, misogynist uncle from Paper Daisies: he is every bully I’ve ever met – and I found a great deal of satisfaction in killing him on the page. It is a bit of screwed-up fun to punish those who’ve punished me in real life in these ways, but generally I don’t do bad guys. I suppose, in my experience, they seem so far in the minority, why give them more attention than they deserve? I’d rather celebrate the strengths and triumphs of those I admire: there is an ever-increasing multitude of them. And, if my stories are my legacy in this life, I want to leave behind me trails of light: kindness, compassion, wisdom.
We’re all miraculous survivors in one way or another. We are stupid, annoying, frustrating, blind to our faults and more, yes, but we’re all amazing, too. As I’ve said elsewhere and several times, if that makes me a sentimentalist – oh well. What did Nietzsche say about playing with monsters and staring too long into the abyss?
I stare into my soup instead and find more interesting depths of reality there, sprinklings of interconnectedness I can’t begin to understand. But I want to.
How is it that in writing The Blue Mile, whose colourful hero Olivia is so much my Nana, I inadvertently discovered one of her most closely held secrets? I gave posh Olivia a convict grandfather in her family closet completely unaware that this was Nana’s truth. It was only during some idle research of her unusual maiden name, Mellish, a year or two after the novel was published that I stumbled upon the facts – and I swear I heard Nana gasp from the stars. Sorry, Nana.
Although I’m not a religious person or in any way into woo-woo, the idea that we’re somehow atomically, interdimensionally entwined is a compelling one for me. Did my convict want me to find him? Did he stare back at me from the soup?
If so, he’s not the first to have done it. When I was madly scrambling at the final, final, last-minute history checks for my first novel, Black Diamonds, before it went to print, I thought I’d just better make sure none of my German-Australian family went to the Western Front during World War I – as does Daniel Ackerman in the story. I searched the Australian War Memorial databases, as I had done several times already – I even remember thinking, ‘Why am I being so neurotic about this? Who cares if there was family there or not?’ – when the name Henry James Schwebel shouted back at me: ‘Here I am!’ One of my Pop’s cousins, as it turned out, and he’d died in Flanders, slaughtered like so many thousands of other Australians there. I hadn’t known he’d existed at all until that moment.
I was suddenly awash with ninety years of untold grief, floods of it, and astonishment that I’d just written a novel that might as well have traced Henry’s path – only Daniel, in the story, makes it home again.
The real-life model for Daniel was a lovely young man not unlike my supermarket checkout boy. He’d gone to school with my own boys, a little older than my eldest. When I first began writing Black Diamonds, I sketched much of its opening chapters in the car while my eldest played cricket on Saturday mornings, and whenever I looked up at the sports field I couldn’t help but notice the boy with dark hair, a glint of auburn in it, who was bigger and more skilled than all the others. The way he moved, so gracefully, and his encouragement of the younger, smaller boys, had me magicking him into a man on my pages. I can’t think about Daniel without thinking about him.
But I can’t name him. Not here. This boy didn’t quite get to become a man. He was killed in a car accident on the highway not far from where we lived a few years after the novel was published. I’d always meant to tell his mother what I’d done, how I’d used her beautiful son, and I couldn’t tell her then. Perhaps I will one day. Or perhaps she’ll read the novel sometime and find a whisper of him there. Either way, he is there and always will be. Really.