On writing Dust

As he lay dying, my father told me two things that seemed unrelated at the time.

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.

Christine Bongers

Christine Bongers

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

  1. Beautifully written, Chris. You left me with a little ache in my heart too cause I can remember that child in the playground too, out in dusty old Hughenden.
    Your father would be filled with pride!

  2. […] down and believe I can do as she and many others have done.  After reading her blog about her motivation to write Dust the dedication in the front of her book speaks volumes, and are words that inspire and move me as […]

  3. Julie says:

    Hi Christine!
    What an extraordinary experience, to read your novel and know all the places. I was heartbroken with the outcome to the Kapernicky girls, knowing that many of your characters were loosely based on locals. I guess I do not want to think that that happened, back in the day when we were all kids in that area.
    Congratulations on the release of the book, I am sure your Dad, whom I remember well, would be very proud of you.
    Julie Giovannini (nee Kenny whoops Clair!)

  4. Jill Dempsey says:

    Hi Chris,
    I love your writing, but this quote
    “fear of failure seemed nothing compared to the cowardice implicit in a failure to even try”
    bit the heart and echoes every time I try to give up
    thank you

  5. Sandy says:

    Hi Christine, I was given Dust by a friend a few weeks ago and after reading and then re-reading I really needed to tell you how much your book touched me.

    My mother came over on a ship from England when she was four and often told me stories about the early years in Australia. She had had three brothers and a sister and your story mirrored my mothers in so many ways it brought tears to my eyes (she passed from Cancer just over a year ago).

    Thank you so much for sharing this story and I wish you every success in your future writing.

  6. chrisbongers says:

    Thanks for getting in touch, Sandy. It means a lot to me when readers let me know how they feel about my books, particularly when they are moved by things that have moved me too. I see you too are a writer, so good luck with your writing and enjoy the journey. 🙂

  7. Hi Christine, Dust was one of my favourite books this year. Am loving your writing and your blog. In fact have just nominated you for the Versatile Bloggers Award. All the best for 2012. Nicole xx

  8. Majella Steedman (nee Stapleton) says:

    It was great to meet you in May, Christine, and even better when I finally read your book on the weekend. I’d no sooner finished it then I started it again, a truly amazing, straight back to childhood, hit in the chest book. Thank you so much for the journey, and I look forward to future creations.
    Take care.
    Majella (Charleville)

    • chrisbongers says:

      Aw, thanks Majella! Michael and I loved our Charleville trip, and I really appreciate you taking the time to contact me. Dust is close to my heart, so it is special to hear when it touches others’ hearts too. I have a new teen novel coming out in June next year, and will be announcing details very soon. You take care too, and keep up the poetry! C

  9. […] and Illuminating the Shadow : a novel manuscript and exegesis | QUT ePrint and on my website On writing Dust | Christine Bongers. 8 You said at Somerset that having brothers gave you room to dream. Did they support your goals […]

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