Origin of the Writer is a series of essays giving emerging writers the opportunity to share their writing journey so far.
Many years ago, I rang my mother one Saturday morning and without even saying hello, launched into, ‘Say you woke up with a dead man in your bed…’ To her credit, or perhaps knowledge of my somewhat less than stellar or criminal dating history, she didn’t flinch. She may have made a comment about me finally having an interesting Friday night before helpfully providing some medical information on what I could do with my aforementioned corpse. For if you’re going to deal with the deceased, either in fiction or reality, you really should do it right.
Since childhood, when I realised that someone had created the book I held in my hand, I have wanted to write. To create. Perhaps it was reading Little Women and wanting so fiercely for Jo to succeed, to be Jo, to enter the Marsh household and write. Perhaps it was Alice in Wonderland and wanting to throw myself down that rabbit hole. Books were a perfect escape when I was indoors with yet another bout of asthma or bronchitis. They gave me the world. From those tame beginnings to discovering books could not only captivate and inspire me, but thrill me and scare me, keeping me up at night reading under the blankets with a torch. Books introduced me to, and immersed me in, new worlds.
From childhood creative writing classes to a Masters degree, it’s taken many years of experimentation, reworking and reimagining pieces of writing, and learning from others, to have my debut novel, Path to the Night Sea, published in February.
Path to the Night Sea started as a short story in a fiction class with the author, Sue Woolfe. Sue had given the class a selection of photographs and objects to spark our creativity and give us a physical stimulus to write a short fragment. I remember a small glass perfume bottle and a photograph caught my attention. The photo featured a woman in profile, seated at a piano, her hands poised to strike the keys. There was a cat sitting on top of the piano, and I wondered if these were the two most important things in her life – music and her pet. I started to write about this woman who would sit and play, not looking out of the curtained window, but kept her gaze indoors, on that cat. Her face in profile, her ‘good side’… The perfume bottle that perhaps had belonged to a woman who would never get old. A bottle that held scented memories… Ideas and elements came together and what is now a lot of Day One in the novel formed the original short story. Sue read the story, said I had written the start of a wonderful novel, and she had to know what happened to Ellie, my protagonist. I realised I wanted to know too.
The story became darker the more I delved into Ellie’s world. Seven days seemed the fitting structure for Ellie to be introduced to the reader and for her to seek her path, tying in with the religious dogma she’d heard from her Grandmother and Father. Listening to music by Nick Cave and Johnny Cash helped me establish the mood at times and gave me the impetus to embrace the flaws and the darkness. When I was writing the first drafts, I was living near the beach and the waves, particularly during storms, formed a natural soundtrack. If I peered out from my desk, I could catch glimpses of the ocean. By the time editing was underway, I had moved to a house that backed onto the bush and had inherited a cat. Listening to the raucous native birds, possums scurrying up trees and across the roof at night, dealing with the odd snake and lizards, plus watching the cat, heightened those natural elements of the story.
Early drafts saw me heading off on tangents with minor characters and subplots, but judicious readers and editing brought the focus back to Ellie and Arthur, and the confines of restricted world they inhabit.
Coalcliff on the south coast of NSW was the perfect setting for the story as I wanted an atmospheric location. Ellie is trapped physically and psychologically, and with the dramatic backdrop of the escarpment and the proximity to the ocean, I could play with the real life location to reflect the claustrophobic nature of Ellie’s life. Combined with its mining history as a part of the ‘coal coast’, using an actual small coastal town, gave me a literal grounding for the story and my characters.
I had thought of letting the novel go one morning years ago when I woke up and heard the news about Elizabeth Fritzl held captive for 24 years by her father. In my drowsy state listening to the radio, the reality of her situation came crashing in and I wanted to put my humble writings aside. What was fictional pain in the face of such devastating reality? Even last month, news emerged of the thirteen Turpin children trapped at home by their parents, the neighbours unaware. Events like these are not fiction. Path to the Night Sea is my way of using language to explore family dysfunction and abuse, small town horror, and ultimately, hope.
The book was launched on Friday 16 February at Better Read Than Dead bookstore in Newtown and to my absolute delight, it sold out! Writing, editing, finding a publisher, learning about publicity and distribution, have all been part of the journey. It has taken a decade – including having a full time day job, family commitments, and other endeavours – from the initial fragments for a short story to a finished novel. I’m working on the next, enmeshed in a new world and loving it.
What happens while we choose not to see? When we ignore the paper on the windows, the absence of a child, the menace of a neighbour? What happens behind the locked doors, in the overgrown yard, during the passing of the years? What happens in the silence, in the seclusion, in the darkness and the night?
What happened to Ellie?
Alicia Gilmore has had stories published in Phoenix and Cellar Door, and was one of the contributing writers and lead editor of Burbangana. She was the recipient of an Allen & Unwin / Varuna Publishers Fellowship and was awarded a month long residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland. She lives in Sydney, Australia.