On writing Dust
The first was that I was the only one of his seven kids to pay him back for the car that he had helped each of us to buy. It wasn’t true, but my reaction, ricocheting between outrage and amusement, delighted the old stirrer.
Then, amidst the grim tangle of tubes and drips, bandages and blood, he gave me a final piece of advice: “Don’t die without doing what you were meant to do, without being what you were meant to be.”
His words still have the power to make my chest ache. I had reached a halfway point in life. A busy career as a broadcast journalist, PR practitioner and lobbyist, had segued into home-based work and children. I had been paid to write professionally for most of my adult life, yet I rarely wrote creatively: I was afraid to expose the limits of my talent to a more critical audience, which included myself. It seemed far easier and safer, to hide behind the mask of my professional persona.
After my father’s death, fear of failure seemed nothing compared to the cowardice implicit in a failure to even try.
I began to write creatively, but without any clear intent; with only a vague sense of wanting to recreate a time and a place where my father was young and powerful and, of course, alive. It disturbed me that I found him an elusive character to capture on the page, while a most insistent, bolshy little voice kept writing itself into page after page.
“Listen to your characters,” counsels Veny Armanno. “The ones that write themselves are trying to tell you something.”
After a couple of false starts, I discovered that I wasn’t writing my Dad’s story; I wasn’t even writing my own. The bolshy little character who became Cecilia Maria or Sis for short, had her own story to tell: a story born of ignorance, trailing a lingering regret.
Her story was inspired by events surrounding a family who lived briefly in the district in which I grew up and where Dust is set. They dwelt in the shadows of my childhood and I knew I had to go into the shadows to find them, to give them fictional life.
The story that became Dust found me the moment I typed the words: “Sis, you’ve got Aileen Kapernicky’s germs!”
It brought back with stunning clarity the shadow of a lonely child in the playground, the outcast, the “other” onto whom in our ruthless innocence we projected our own dark and frightful fears: “They had fat sandwiches for lunch. Hardly any meat on them at all. Just fat. And Aileen kills flies-”
Recognise it? We all do. I haven’t yet met a single individual who couldn’t tell me the full name – christian name and surname – of that archetypal child, lonely and despised, who inhabited the landscape of their youth.
They are unforgettable because they personify our fears about everything we don’t want to be and because later, too late to make a difference, we can see from the lofty heights of adulthood, how we in our innocence and ignorance betrayed them, sometimes by our actions, more often by simple inaction: sins of omission rather than commission.
It wasn’t until I finished writing Dust, that I finally understood what my father had tried to tell me about myself before he died.
It took me four years to pay him back for the 1985 Diahatsu Charade that he had helped me to buy. It took me just as long to finish my first novel manuscript.
Prodded into exploring my latent talents, I realised what a determined little cuss I have always been: I finish what I start and I always pay my debts.
For more than 30 years I have owed something to a memory of two little girls in a dusty playground: one clutching a daisy-covered notebook filled with stories, the other, a shadowy figure, standing alone, at the edge of the play.
With the publication of Dust, that long-standing debt will finally be repaid.
copyright Christine Bongers 2008