Monday, May 24, 2010

24. On Dreaming of Amelia/ The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Charlie has a new friend: it’s a baby hyena; it was lying in our backyard; it’s small and round, a lot like a kids’ rubber ball.

‘I wonder if there are any other animals in the backyard,’ he said, and handed me the blue-and-yellow plastic tube - the telescope - to check.

‘There’s a polar bear!’ I said—and he gasped, ‘Really? I love polar bears!,’ and took the telescope from me, looked through it briefly, and at once shook his head. ‘No, that’s just a regular bear, not a polar bear.’ Authoritative. Disappointed. He put the telescope down, and returned to his chat with his hyena.


Amelia/Ghosts started when I was eight months pregnant — just back from Canada, staying with my parents out in Castle Hill, a suburb in the north west of Sydney. The horizon is lined with the Blue Mountains. Often, my mother says, ‘Look how blue the mountains are today! I don’t think I’ve ever seen them quite so blue!’

The idea for the book came from: a teenage couple I saw crossing the road near the Castle Hill cinema; a girl who stopped me in the street one day and said, ‘Excuse me, where is here?’; and the ghosts who live just beyond my parents’ backyard.

I wrote it while I was living in Neutral Bay—it’s a fifteen minute ferry ride from the city, and we moved there just before Charlie was born.

It was a whole different writing experience. Used to be, I’d write for a few minutes then spin my chair away from the computer, get up, and go out for a coffee. Used to be, the plot unfurled while I lay in bed in a half-awake state every morning.

But now there was a baby, and—unexpectedly, from the day that he was four weeks old — just me and the baby. Unexpected! The shock still clatters in my head like the jingle sticks at Charlie’s music class!

Anyway, I wrote it while Charlie was sleeping, or while a babysitter came by for a few hours, three afternoons a week. As soon as I got him to sleep, I ran to my computer to work. As soon as the babysitter arrived, I either ran to the computer, or I ran up the hill to the café to get air, to plot with coloured textas, to read gothic novels, and literature on the gothic, to research convict history, and to read about drumming and woodwork.

These were the smallest spaces I ever had to work in—it felt like reversing into a narrow parking space while traffic is rushing towards you.

Before writing each character, I listened to his or her song. Toby’s song was Closing Time by Leonard Cohen. Lydia’s was Trapeze Swinger by Iron and Wine. I didn’t have a song for Emily, because I didn’t think I’d like her taste in music.


Whenever I had time to think, I tried to gather all the characters and plot strands into my head, and see if I could braid them together. Once, I was walking up the hill to the café, watching the road, mind wandering, and I thought, sternly: Look away from the road. Think about Riley. So I did, I looked away from the road, and thought of Riley, and as I did, I sensed something was wrong — something odd about the road — and just as I turned sideways to look, a cyclist crashed into the side of a taxi cab and flew through the air.

Her collarbone was broken in three places. The taxi driver said it was her fault. She said it was his. I was the only witness. And the facts that mattered — the moment that counted — was the moment I had turned from the road.

I sensed something was wrong, I said in the courtroom, there was an oddness at the edge of my eye. The judge was unimpressed.


It was the best time I ever had writing a novel. I’ve never felt so close to my characters, nor been so excited about the ideas that I wanted to explore. I wanted to write about Amelia and Riley, two new students who have come to Ashbury High. It was my way of putting the ‘bad’ kids from Brookfield in the same room as the ‘lucky’ kids of Ashbury. I wanted to write about the terrible things that can happen to people when other people, misguidedly, try to help them; the fact that no ‘troubled’ person will ever be the passive, grateful recipient of charity that the idealistic want them to be; that people are always complex and active with plans of their own.

I loved the first person accounts I was reading of Australian and Irish history; I loved the mischievous drift of gothic literature from solemn to self-parody and back again; I loved the idea of a spectrum of flawed motherhood, and of truth, of past falling into future, of hope blending with imagination; a spectrum of betrayal and forgiveness — the things you can forgive, the things you can’t.
And also I wanted to write about ghosts.


Mostly though, I liked the way my days worked when I was writing this book.
I spent mornings playing with Charlie in parks or at the beach; and most afternoons, writing. In the café, I drank fruits-of-the-forest tea and ate dark chocolate rocky road.

There were difficult days — days when he wouldn’t sleep and he’d call from his cot, and I’d call back, ‘You have to sleep! I have to pay the rent!’ — and days when I was too tired to write or think; and the whole three years that I was writing the book were shadowed with the shock of that loss.

But, also — at the exact same time — the three years were alight with happiness and wonder; a baby turning into a person.

Writing while a baby is sleeping in the next room — or while he is playing downstairs with a babysitter — is the happiest writing I have done.
I've been very, very lucky with babysitters, and in a way, the story of the writing of Amelia/Ghosts is the story of them. So this is where I'll finish.

There was A, the original lovely babysitter, an English girl with a gentle voice, who rugged him up in blankets, and pushed his pram up the hill; when she flew away we met E, who became more than ‘babysitter,’ she’s a part of the family, and has been with us ever since — a finance student with a perfect instinct for children and what they need, she takes him to the soccer field to kick the ball around; she gave him gum boots so on rainy days they go on long puddle walks; she noticed that the wheels of his trike were on back-to-front and, the following week, arrived with a wrench, and fixed them for him.

Along the way, there has also been C, a New Zealand opera singer, who filled the house with her rendition of the Hokey-Pokey (it was around this time that Charlie started getting a confused, discontented look on his face whenever I sang, and eventually asked me to stop), and took him on ‘adventures’ to find motorbikes, spiders, and boats. There was also T, the only boy, who had imaginary sword fights with him; another C, who let him dig in her garden, and pick cherry tomatoes from her vine; G, who makes caterpillars out of egg cartons; and M, who arrives with charcoal, paper, and giant coffee-table art books.


One of my favourite memories is this: I was in my study working on Amelia/Ghosts; my study window overlooks the backyard. Charlie was sitting on the back patio with his opera-singer babysitter, and I could hear the murmur of their voices. I had just been downstairs to get a cup of tea, so I knew what they were doing out there. They were rescuing a beetle: a beetle cocooned so tightly and comprehensively in a spider’s web, that you couldn’t tell it was a beetle at all. They were slowly, methodically, untangling it. In the end, they set it free.