Whose story is this, anyway?

I’m 20,000 words deep into a manuscript that I’m pretty sure now will become a young adult novel. It didn’t start this way. It started as the fiction part of an MA. Well, that’s not quite right either, because that tells you the circumstances of its generation, but nothing about the story impetus behind it. The story, or plot, which sparked my interest, goes like this.

There’s a family – Mum, Dad, three kids – living in outer suburban Perth, sometime in the 1960s. The kids go to school, the mum volunteers in the school canteen, the dad works as an electrician. One day the kids come home to find their mother standing outside the smouldering ruins of the family home. The fire brigade has been called, the fire’s out, but the house is unliveable. And their father is nowhere to be seen. As days pass, and he fails to appear, the official line becomes ‘missing, presumed dead’. The family mourn, hold a wake, rebuild their lives, but the only son holds out hope that Dad has escaped. Ten years later, there’s a call from a hospital in Brisbane. Their father, rescued from a shipwreck off the Queensland coast, is calling to make amends and explain away a decade’s absence.

When I starting trying to flesh this out, I wrote a couple of pages describing the father, in the third person. Here’s a snippet:

As he gets closer to work, he can see the light streaming onto the concrete pavement and smell the yeasty aroma escaping. A big, square shamble of a man, as he shoves open the back door, his shoulders graze each doorpost. He ducks his head under the lintel, straightens up to his full six-foot-six and he’s breathing the steamy heat of the kitchen.

This seemed miles away from what grabbed me about the story: the small boy who has to deal with a father who disappeared. So I tried it from the boy’s point of view:

I didn’t really notice how much I needed Dad there til he wasn’t there. I kept looking for him in cracks, sometimes the cracks between the planks on the jetty, sometimes that gap trains make when they pull in to the platform. I use to wedge myself into the gap between the fence and the shed, down the side near Mr Petrie’s chookhouse. There were only feathers and chook poo and once a half-chewed mouse, but if I squinted right on sunny days, I could see him, a comforting presence hovering down there like the Phantom.

This vantage point had a couple of its own problems; one, writing a convincing voice for a ten-year-old is really hard, two, a narrator this close to the story wasn’t going to be able to tell it as the archetypal tale – fire, water, death, rebirth, father, son – that I wanted it to be.

So for the third time I began, this time with a semi-autobiographical narrator, who went to school with this son. Since I was writing about school days, it turned into my school days, and since I went to school in the Blue Mountains I found myself writing about that, and after a number of years, but also before I consciously knew it, I was writing to exorcise my ambivalence about growing up in, and then leaving, this place where, as nature writer and poet Mark Treddinick writes, you live not high, but deep.

The disappearing dad and the bewildered son may yet reappear. If they do, their narrator will tell them in her way, not theirs. So whose story is it, anyway?

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