Life is a weird ride, isn’t it? Fifteen years ago, I had just under $17 in my bank account and a badly shattered heart. I was caught in an anxiety spin-cycle so crippling I couldn’t celebrate the publication of my first novel with a launch. Or even dinner up the road. I could barely leave the house. I thought I’d ruined everything, and could only ever ruin everything.
Luck and love have done a job on me since then. I’m not rich these days, but I’m a long way from poor. My children, now men, and whom I’d thought I’d especially ruined, are both flourishing with all kinds of beauty. I’ve seen twelve novels published, and have more or less got used to the idea that if I don’t make an effort to celebrate them, it’s unlikely that anyone else will feel inclined to, either.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about achievements and the many things they can mean to us. At a bookish lunch a few weeks ago, I was reminded by a lovely reader of a story I’d come across when I was researching that first novel, Black Diamonds. It was a transcription of an oral history in which an old coalminer from Mount Kembla was asked to name his greatest achievement.
Having begun work as a teen around 1910, you’d think it would be achievement enough for this man to have survived into old age after decades of bare-chested, lung-dusted mining, never mind that this one interrupted his time at the coalface with five years in the infantry during World War One, from Gallipoli to Flanders. But, despite all this, he answered that his greatest achievement was maintaining his hire-purchase payments on the family piano throughout the Great Depression. His wife liked to play, you see.
Asked for his fondest memory, he answered just as succinctly: that it was picking blackberries on the mountain with his sister when he was a little boy.
When I’m eighty, if I’m lucky enough to live that long, I hope my fondest memory is as sweet. But as for achievements, I’m not sure.
Children are their own creations in the end; lovers are two at a tango. Making it to the supermarket and getting out the other side with everything checked off your list might be Everest some days, but those days are too exhausting for congratulation. And no one can score any sort of material goal in Australia without the taint of theft, or, in my family at least, without long moments of introspection on the very material fact that, under capitalism, your gain necessarily means someone else’s loss.
Subtract all that and all I have left is my words.
Craving to know more of why and what I write, I went back to university last year to scribble something under the supervision of a personal hero. I pressed down my terror and wrote her novel about all my everythings. I was desperately desperate to impress, and I got a very nice mark for it. In fact, I smashed it into the stands so spectacularly, my muse de bloke Deano has taken to chanting ‘Number One’ at me whenever I enter a room. That’s sweet.
And that’s all a me thing. Runs scored against myself and my fear of not being good enough or respectable enough. For what or whom? Really? I don’t know. Anxiety is always light on specifics. And logic: the house will burn down if I don’t turn off the power points, finish the next chapter, get a high distinction, oh my god I haven’t fed the cats – and there you go, proof that I’m a bad person.
Yesterday, procrasti-freaking over a speech I need to write for an event this week, I was straight back at the asking: why the hell do I write anything? There’s no doubt that I dream up novels in order to clear paths through the mayhem in here. But I think perhaps I write novels in order to feel here. Somehow make sense of how it is I am here. I write novels for the people who made me, that’s certain. For my parents and grandparents; for those who washed up on the shores of Australia leaving little trace as to their reasons. They came with no bank accounts, and left no trail of blog posts.
At the event, I’ll be spruiking the latest book – The Rat Catcher: A Love Story. Beneath its whimsy and cheek, and all its dreadful Irish jokes, it’s a tale that emerges from the unwritten poverty my maternal grandmother, Nin, would have seen and known in Sydney in the early 1900s.
The event will be held at New South Wales Parliament House, and it’s a fundraising do. All my betters will be there, at this place of power. And yet, small me, with all my fears and my too-tender heart, will carry my grandmother into that room with me. I will wear an A-line skirt and a loud blouse strewn with pink and orange daisies in her honour. I will be there, in that place, not ruining anything.
I’ll be delivering a brief, bright story. Making something out of the love and luck that made me. That’s got to be an achievement, hasn’t it?
In celebration, I’m giving away one lovely, lucky copy of The Rat Catcher. To go into the draw, just ‘follow’ my blog, if you haven’t already, and like this post. The winner will be chosen at random, 5pm, Sunday, 24 July 2022 and announced in a subsequent post. Australian addresses only, though, please.
EDIT: And the winner is…. helenfrances3. Please get in touch via the contact page, Helen. And thanks, everyone, for playing along.
Find out more about The Rat Catcher here.