Writing Fiction

By July 8, 2020Other

I started writing fiction as a teenager, as seems to be the case for many writers. In those juvenile years I also wrote a newspaper (one issue, and one reader, my father), and tried my hand at short stories. I only ever found the skill and nerve to write two poems. One was good, I think, but I’ve mislaid it as well as the other one. No matter. A. D. Hope wrote a little book about writing poetry (The New Cratylus, I think, I no longer have my copy), whose message was that the idea for the poems might come to you unaided, but then you had to work hard on the idea, and work really hard. The first part of that advice applies to my writing fiction.

People like me with a real interest in literature and history find that pursuing their interests at university involves their writing what seem like endless essays and tutorial papers. If they go on to postgraduate study they then write theses, book-length essays involving original research that for the PhD requires an important and original contribution to human knowledge. Then they boil the thesis down to journal articles, perhaps even a book. By now they are writers, for a particular and rather small readership, other academics and students of their special interest. 

I was saved from that fate through accepting an offer to write book reviews for newspapers, and a political review for The Australian Quarterly. After a few of those reviews had appeared I was offered the opportunity to write the Monday leader for The Canberra Times. In time that led me to write a weekly column for the same newspaper. In the 1970s I moved to Sydney and my column moved to the new National Times. I began to appear on television as a talking head and delivered frequent talks on radio too. There was a certain amount of stiffiness and stuffiness in my universities about all this media work. Real academics, I was told, got on with their major work, a book that would change the world. Fortunately I managed to publish a few books as well, though if they changed the world for anybody I was never told about it.

The point of all this reminiscence is that by the time I was ready to write a proper novel, a real work of fiction, I was 38 years old, and could write quickly and well. I had learned the writer’s craft, and was able to speak to a wide readership, not just an academic one. I had carried the idea of The Second Chair in my head for a few years. It was, of course, about me and my life and experience. I knew about universities and about politics and government, and that is what my first novel was about. It took me three months of mornings in my one year of sabbatical leave in London in 1975, and was written in the first person, though I was not really its protagonist. 

I set the book in an Australia ten years earlier, but then I knew about the 1960s rather well, having lived through it. The novel was published by Angus and Robertson and received a respectful reception. By the time I finished it I realised that it needed at least two sequels, and I plotted them out. But the termination of the Whitlam Government led to an almost trebling of my politics enrolments at Macquarie University, and writing fiction had to give way to the basic work of an academic, teaching. Over the next decade I produced a few more academic books and scores of articles and chapters, then became an administrator. Running and chairing things continued for ten years after I retired as a vice-chancellor, though I wrote a book about what had happened to Australia in my working life, based on what had happened to my high school leaving class (What Was It All For. The Reshaping of Australia, 2005), and a memoir of my parents (Edna and Alec, 2006). But the urge to write fiction again grew stronger and stronger. 

At last, in 2013, I returned to the sequels to The Second Chair and polished them off, Turning Point in 2015 and Nobody’s Hero in 2016. By now I was hooked. Ideas for new work came to me out of the blue. The one problem was that the global financial crisis had overturned the old predictable Australian publishing industry. Those managing what was left of it didn’t want what I had to offer. Indeed, if it wasn’t about vampires nobody wanted anything. I wrote a set of little stories about accountants and their love lives, if only to show that accountants were people too, and made it a Christmas present to my wife (The Canonbury Tales, 2015).

I love writing fiction. It satisfies my imagination. I like the development of character. I like the really difficult business of plotting. Alec Hope was right. You have to work hard at it. The setting has to be convincing, as do the characters. You can’t give too much responsibility to coincidence. The story has to evolve. You will know how it ends, but the reader needs to want to keep turning the pages to find out. At the end he or she needs to feel satisfied, and wants to tell someone else about it. I seem to have had that good fortune.

Back to the GFC. No one wanted my sequels, but I wanted to write and produce more novels. So I became a self-publisher, and for a few years that worked quite well. It was hard work, and had me in the car going around bookshops, finding their counterparts in other cities, and sending invoices. I became experienced in book-launches. You always live in some fear of what your launchers will say, but to hear Chris Uhlmann tell the audience the The Innings Biography was not just a great thriller but a really important novel about postwar Australian life almost had me cry. A writer is never sure about the quality of what he or she has done, and anxiously awaits reviews. Mine have been quite satisfactory, thank you. I am a storyteller, not someone who wants to write the great Australian novel about important existential themes. I find Patrick White’s novels thick and over-written, for the most part. Tom Keneally is much better.

Moving On in 2016 had started while I was a vice-chancellor, prompted in part by The Bridges of Madison County. I too  wanted to write a novella, a tiny novel. Mine was originally called The Contract, and the half-dozen women I showed the text too all loved it. But one of my male readers, himself a publisher, hated it. So I put it away, disappointed, but fiddled with it from time to time. It grew and grew, and was finally a novella no longer, but a much better story in consequence. It is not my favourite, exactly, but a lot of hard work went into it (Alec Hope again).

The Innings Biography came to me as a challenge. Could I write a mystery/thriller? I greatly enjoyed reading Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, particularly Macdonald’s capacity to bring the past into the present. Readers thought I could and did, as Chris Uhlmann said in his launch speech. Harry’s Choice (2019) probably came from going to see ‘Cinema Paradiso’, whenever that was. Lovers part and meet a long time later. Much water has passed under the bridge. What do they do about it? Persistence, which came out last week, started in 2000 in longhand (I don’t do that any more) as a story of young people searching for clues as to what happened to the father of the girl on the Castle (west of Milton, NSW) many years before. So it too is a mystery/thriller, with some romance thrown in. All my novels have a love theme, because I think it is arguably the most important aspect of our lives.

I was diagnosed with a nasty cancer in 2018, and was pretty sick for quite a while.  That ended my new career as a publisher, but afterwards writing became, if anything, even more important to me. It gave me something to do, something that used my intellectual and trade skills. I could think and write and use my imagination. Go on doing it! So I do. My next book, Hugh Flavus, knight, will come out, all being well, at the end of the year. Hugh is a 12thcentury French knight who gets caught up in space travel. Unlikely? Of course, but great fun, and that book commences a trilogy of which the second novel is ready and the third half done. That’s next year’s printing and publishing agenda. What’s  next? I have a comedy about politics in New South Wales on the back-burner.

I no longer make any attempt to sell my novels. I still have them professionally designed, and get enough printed to be able to give copies to close friends and family.  The point is to write them and keep my mind and body active and alert. But if any reader has a yen to read one of the later books not on my list, then send an email to donaitkin@grapevine.com.au and $30 will get you a copy, post and packaging included. I don’t want to be deluged, for there are only a few left of Harry’s Choice and The Innings Biography. Persistence is well supplied at the moment. Summaries of these books are on an adjoining post.

I won’t write non-fiction again. It’s too much hard work and not enough fun. But I did write a sort of history/politics book with a good deal of autobiography in it. That was Critical Mass. How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities (2017),which dealt with enough of my life to satisfy me. The rest can be found, if I look hard enough, in my fictional writing, though usually not in a direct way. And of course I write a weekly essay here, and that is certainly not fiction!

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Stu says:

    Chris Uhlmann was on the money. I agree that “The Innings biography” is a great story, well worth reading. Keep up the good work Don and good luck with the next project.

  • david purcell says:

    A life well lived Don!

    There should be plenty of material for your comedy about politics in NSW (or any other State for that matter !).

  • Peter E says:

    I found this most interesting because fiction is the highest of callings. It can capture a time and a place better than any other writing and reveal the human heart, its feelings, its values, its morality. The best novels have you turning the pages, eager to find the outcome of the dilemmas of the characters. They can make you laugh and make you cry and leave you at the end feeling that you have learned something of great value. There are countless imagined novels that never see the light of day. I once heard Morris West say that novels ‘must be written,’ meaning that the impulse, the imagined story must be committed to the words, the chapters, the beginning and the end or they remain but dreams. That is the hard part. That separates the novelist from the would-be, so congratulations are due to you for your output. Of those I have read, my favourite would be ‘Harry’s Choice’, a page-turner if ever there were one, with interesting characters, a romantic theme, a recognisably Australian setting and a satisfying conclusion. I’ve written three books, all concerned with World War I but in writing them I kept the novelist’s craft in mind, character and plot, scene and setting and not forgetting the weather, so what you are doing is of interest to me. Having threaded your way through the perils of your illnesses, may you continue to let us have your fiction for years to come.

  • Boambee John says:

    I suspect that many readers get more actual history from reading fiction these days, than reading the work of “professional” historians. Too many of the latter seem to devote their efforts to bending the events of decades or even centuries ago to push a current agenda (or anarrative”, to use the modern jargon).

    Good work with your novels, keep writing, even if only your family sees your work.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    From the other side of the fence. I wrote my PhD at the age of 30, and have since written hundreds of grant applications, most unsuccessful, so I have a track record as a writer of fiction. Sometimes, I got paid (the grant was successful), and I got published.
    Writing is hard work, and I more than earned my retirement. My point is that most people (at least those educated in my era) have the technical ability to write, and to write well. What I lack, and I freely admit it, is imagination. Analytical ability (Poirot) is fine, but even science fiction (Asimov) and the refinements of historical romances (Heyer), although they may have fascinated and amused me, were beyond my creative talents. I am not, and have never been, ‘a novelist’.
    So, I congratulate, but do not envy you. For a man of mild ambition, I have achieved everything I wanted in my professional life, and bid it farewell without regret. If you are creative, and enjoy creating, fine. I have little sympathy for people who think they can do more.
    As the US Presidential election demonstrates, old age dispels most illusions.

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