Initially I spoke for around forty-five minutes, discussing how I got started with writing and then moving into the process of writing my first novel, the cornerstone of which was that second draft I had handed Tom. That day seemed so long ago now.
Given time, and with guidance from both him and Bill, I had finally managed to put something together which they had thought worthy of taking to first an agent, and then a publisher. I could see that my dreams were really beginning to take shape now, but I was quickly brought back down to earth with the receipt of my first rejection notice. I still have that, by the way, framed and hanging on the wall of my office. It is a constant reminder to me of where I began and what I must always strive to avoid.
At the completion of the first session we stopped for a break, with tea and coffee and biscuits being served, while everyone mingled and chatted. I made a point of going straight to Megan O’Reilly, one of my old comrades in arms, and giving her a kiss on the cheek, before we sat down in some chairs a little away from where the refreshments were being served, so we could catch up on old times.
She would be in her fifties, at least, and was one of those participants who fell into the category of bored housewife; someone who was looking to escape reality for just a short time each week. As I recall she wrote quite well, but had no ambitions to ever be published. This was simply her outlet, where she got to be someone else for a little while and live in another world, free of the drudgery of a husband and children, although I suspected that the children would have long since flown the nest by now anyhow.
‘So, you’re still at it then?’ I asked her.
‘Of course dear,’ she replied. ‘What ever else would I do with my Wednesdays? I mean, this is so much more, what’s the word . . . genteel, than playing tennis or golf, or anything else that the other ladies I know get up to.’
‘I guess it is,’ I chuckled.
‘You’ve made us all so proud, you know. Just to think that we all used to sit in the same classroom as Tony Scott and discuss our stories and ideas with you, and actually be involved in what you were writing then. We knew you would make it . . . you were head and shoulders above the rest of us, even if, at the time, you were just another dreamer, like us. I guess we just didn’t realise exactly how far you would go. It has certainly been a spectacular start to your career.’
‘You are far too kind, Megan. As I recall, I think we all had a lot of fun delving into those stories and coming up with new characters, as well as new twists and turns to the various plots. What we didn’t realise at the time was that old Bill was actually putting us to work, getting our imaginations going and trying to get us thinking about what we were doing. I even think it may have worked.’
‘I just reckon it might have,’ she replied, while giving me a knowing smile.
‘And what of all the others from back then?’ I asked.
‘Oh, faces came and went. I think the only two that have stuck around are myself and Rita Donaldson. She’s off on some cruise at the moment, so she will be royally pissed when she finds out you were here!’
I laughed, then asked, ‘Did any of the others do anything serious with their writing?’
‘There was one who became a newspaper reporter. Now, what was his name? David something-or-other.’
‘Yes, that’s him. Nice chap. University student wasn’t he?’
‘I think you could be right there.’ All I could remember was his beard. He was only in his early twenties, but for as long as I knew him he had this absurd, thick, black beard. I seriously doubted he had ever shaved in his life.
‘Oh, and Carmen . . . errr . . .’
‘Yes. She put out a children’s book. I don’t think it did very well, but I remember we were all invited to the launch. It was held at the child care centre where she took her children.’
* * *
When the morning tea was over we assumed our positions, then once everyone had settled back in Anne took charge once more, now seated on another stool beside me.
‘Okay then,’ she began. ‘So this morning, Tony, you discussed with us how you got started. So what about the next step? Can we talk a little about the writing process now? Are there any golden rules you follow? Are there any secrets you would like to share? Are there any pitfalls our prospective writers should be aware of?’
‘Oh, boy. You don’t want very much,’ I joked, which brought the response it deserved.
‘Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Can you tell us just where the inspiration for your first novel came from? What planted the seed in your mind that you then nurtured and lovingly nursed into becoming your novel?’
For a moment I looked into my hands as I gathered my thoughts.
‘I guess, in part at least, it was semi-autobiographical,’ I began. ‘It was the story of someone just like me, and many others just like me, who were forced out into a world they weren’t ready for. They had to build their own lives, with little or no assistance, the foundations of which were, at best, often quite unstable. As you know, however, my characters were a resilient bunch, and despite the constant setbacks they were able to build worthwhile lives for themselves.’
‘Does it really happen like that? Are there really youth out there who are struggling in the way you describe? And do they finally manage to succeed in life?’
‘The answer to all three of those questions is; absolutely. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t read about, or hear about, someone struggling because of things like their sexuality, their dependencies, their family situations, or about kids being bullied in school because they look or act differently in some way. There also hardly seems to be a day that goes by when I don’t hear of someone, somewhere around the world, taking his own life because of the situations they have found themselves in. It is everywhere around us, and it is something I am passionate about. These kids need our help, and for me at least, Shifting Sands was just one small way of being able to bring attention to their plight.
‘I feel like crying every time I hear of some young person taking his own life, because they were bullied over their sexuality, or their body image, or because they are different in some way. We don’t hear about every sad case, that would be far too distressing, but there are people who do hear about them all. The people I take my hat off to are those who are dealing with these kids on a day to day basis. Organisations like the Smith Family, and in particular, Father Chris Riley and the Youth Off The Streets program. They all do amazing work and I just wish that more people and organisations would get behind them and help them out.’
‘Oh dear,’ Anne said. ‘I really had no idea.’
‘Sadly, there are too many people who can say exactly the same thing.’
‘So, ummm, is it fair to say that Shifting Sands was a reflection of, and was inspired by, your own experiences?’
‘Yes,’ I quietly said.
‘And do you think that using your own experiences has helped to make you a better writer?’
‘I wouldn’t say it helped make me a better writer, but because I was already familiar with my topic, it certainly made it easier for me to write about it. As I said earlier, life experiences can help you. Don’t they always say, write what you know about, or some such?
‘One of my favourite quotes is from Mark Twain, who said; Don’t look at the world with your hands in your pockets. To write about it you have to reach out and touch it.’
‘That is so very true,’ Anne replied. ‘And what about the writing itself? You’ve written three novels now, counting the new one which is about to be released. Has writing them become any easier as you’ve proceeded?’
‘Actually, I feel as if I’m still learning about this whole writing caper. There is so much to learn, and every day brings something new, so, no, I don’t believe it has gotten any easier. If anything, it may have even become a little harder than I first thought it would be, as I try to weave all the rules and tips and tricks I’ve been shown into the story.’
‘Tips and tricks?’
‘Yes,’ I chuckled. ‘I’ve picked up a few little things over the years that I think have helped me out a little.’
I was getting the distinct impression that Anne was beginning to enjoy this little interrogation.
‘Well, the first two things are that you’ve got to read, then you’ve got to write,’ I said.
‘Now that might sound absurd to some people, as writing is the whole point, and reading is the end result of what we do. What I mean, however, is you have to really work at both things. You have to read every day, you have to look at how others write, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent; then, you have to figure out what you like about it, or what you don’t like, and what can and can’t help you.
‘You also have to write every day. It doesn’t matter if what you are writing is your first novel, or a shopping list, but you need to keep writing, to get into the rhythm of writing and to establish your own voice.’
‘Okay, so about writing every day,’ Anne enquired, ‘How long for? And what do you write about? Do you set yourself a target, in terms of words? Is it all about concentrating on your current project, or do you let your mind wander?’
‘Unless there is a specific deadline to be met, which is only because a publisher needs something in order to go to print, I try to never set a time or target, it just depends on how you feel on the day. As far as the subject, well, that can be just about anything. If I’m working on a story or an article, then usually I try to concentrate just on that. If I can’t do that then I often write about my day, or my surroundings, or whatever is going on in the world around me. I quite often find some of that stuff useful later on when I’m actually working on a story, as these reflections very often even become scenes in my stories.
‘If I’m on a deadline, or I’m working on a major project, then I might try and set myself a target, usually of about one thousand words a day. Sometimes I may not quite reach that target, while on other days I might get on a roll and double it, or even triple it. After a year you can find yourself with quite a decent sized manuscript if you work on that principle.’
‘And are you working on anything now?
‘Actually, I’ve just started something new, but it will be a little while before I know if I have anything worthwhile.’
‘That sounds wonderful. And what about reading? Is there anything you are reading at the moment?’
‘Yes. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which I’m finding quite interesting, even though it’s an older book. I picked it up because of the movie having come out.’
‘Yes, I found it to be enthralling; funny, yet very poignant. And do you think we could tempt you to read to us? Perhaps something from Shifting Sands?’
‘I’d be delighted.’
I was soon presented with an obviously well-loved copy of the novel and I flicked through it until I found the chapter I thought best fitted what I had been talking about earlier.
“It was late in the day when the Greyhound bus finally pulled in at Summerville, and from his seat by the window Dane was soon wondering whether his choice of sanctuary had been a wise one after all. The joint looked like a dump, the buildings in the main street looked run down, there were hardly any people around, or even any cars on the street, while the gloom brought on by the heavy clouds and drizzle outside did little to make the place appear any more enticing.
The old couple who had been sitting near the back of the bus shuffled down the aisle past him. Glancing in his direction briefly the man frowned slightly, but said nothing.
For a moment he thought they may have seen his bruises or something. But what did it matter anyhow.
‘Are you gettin’ off, kid?’ the driver called out. Being the smart-arse that he had always been, he quickly thought of a comment that he felt like throwing back at the driver, but at the last moment he thought better of it.
Looking forward and up at the mirror above the driver, he saw the round face with narrowed eyes looking back at him.
‘Yeah, mister. I guess I am,’ Dane replied, then picking up his back-pack off the seat beside him, which contained all of his worldly possessions, he stood up and made his way down the aisle.
‘Are you okay, kid?’ the driver asked just as he went to take the few short steps down onto ground level. ‘You look like you’ve been in a bit of a scrap or something.’
‘I’ll be fine, I reckon. Thanks,’ Dane replied, while pausing briefly at the top of the steps, then turning his back on the driver he stepped out into the place he had chosen to be his new home.
The moment he set foot on the sidewalk he stood there for a minute, just looking about, taking in the gloominess and the run-down appearance of the town and wondering once more if he had made the right choice. Or if he had even come to the right place.
At least now the drizzle had stopped.
When he heard a noise behind him and turned he noticed the bus driver also coming down the steps, so he moved aside, allowing the man room to pass him, before then walking along the side of the bus. Dane watched as the driver stopped and opened up the huge doors of the luggage compartment, which was beneath the floor of where they had just been sitting. The old couple were also there, waiting patiently for their luggage, and when the driver pulled it from the depths of the compartment and set their two bags on the ground beside them they thanked him, just before a woman came running up to them and throwing her arms around both of them.
Dane watched them embrace and felt a sadness wash over him, emanating from somewhere deep inside his body. He wondered if he would ever get to experience anything like that again; the joy of having someone hold him, and love him, and want him.
Giving them one last look he hitched his back-pack up over his shoulder and set off down the road. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he hoped he would find someplace where he could buy something to eat, then afterwards find somewhere dry to sleep for the night.
It was right at that moment when there was a break in the clouds and the sun came shining through. In an instant the whole scene changed, with the gloom dissipating into thin air. A whole new world emerged, bright and lush and colourful and green.
Dane stopped and looked about him in wonder, seeing the sparking blue waters of the nearby river, the emerald green of the forest running down to its far bank, and the brilliant whites and yellows and reds of the boats and pleasure craft bobbing on the waves.
Things were starting to look a little better, he thought, and he knew that tomorrow would be another day.”
I stopped and looked up at the audience, then slowly closed the book. Applause broke out, quiet and subdued, not raucous and loud, as was befitting any book reading. This wasn’t a rock concert, where the louder the better was always the order of the day; after all it was, as Megan had put it, a genteel gathering.
I felt a hand come to rest on my arm and looked across at Anne, sitting beside me and smiling.
‘That was wonderful, Tony,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’
* * *
For the next hour I sat there and answered question after question, trying to give the audience an insight into just what being a writer entailed. I still didn’t feel as if I qualified as being the expert they thought I was, but if just one of those people in the room went away from there with something embedded in their mind about the writing process that helped them become a real writer, then the day would have been worth it, for them, and for me.
At some stage through that hour I noticed someone else come into the room and quietly take a seat in the back row. I looked up and smiled at him and he smiled back.
Then, before we knew it, our time was almost up and Anne was saying, ‘Just one last question, I think, then hopefully we can convince Tony to read us another excerpt from his novel.’
I nodded my agreement, then she turned back toward the audience.
A young guy sitting in the second row, who looked to no more than eighteen or nineteen, put his hand up. Anne pointed at him and said, ‘Yes, James, we’ll finish with you, I think.’
James stood up and cleared his throat. ‘Mr Scott, if there is one piece of advice that you can give us today that you would like us to take with us today and remember, what would that be?’
‘Have you heard of Lewis Carroll, James?’ I asked. When he nodded and said, ‘Yes, of course. Who hasn’t?’ I continued.
‘Well, Lewis Carroll once said, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” I think that applies to everything we do in life, but for what we do, reading and writing, it is especially applicable.’
While the audience took that in, some laughing, some smiling, some appearing to be deep in thought, I picked up the copy of Shifting Sands once more and opened to the last page, then once they had quieted again, I started to read.
“As the palms swayed, in a summer breeze which softly kissed their naked, sweat coated bodies, the two became as one. One with each other. One with the world around them. Silently they joined together, moving in a rhythm which matched that of the waves rolling onto the nearby beach, or that of the palm fronds, rocking back and forth above them. Moving smoothly, each knowing that they had found the one person in this world who had been made for the other.
From this point forth, theirs would be a union that would last. Built not on the shifting sands of the dunes on which they lived, but on something more solid, something more permanent, like the headland on which was built the lighthouse that stood as a guardian over all it surveyed.
Nothing short of an earthquake or tsunami would ever tear this union down. This time, it was forever.”
As I read the passage I glanced up, continuing to speak, but no longer needing the printed words. I knew it by heart. I had written that passage for one person, and for one person only, and as I reached the final sentence I saw him there, sitting in the back of the room, the sunlight from the nearby window highlighting the trail left by a single tear which had rolled down his cheek.
I know that our own relationship hadn’t survived that initial earthquake, but we were now rebuilding, and this time, I felt sure that our foundations would be solid.
When I had finished speaking the small crowd broke out in gentle applause, bringing my attention back to the present. I looked around and saw Anne coming toward me, smiling, while Bill was nodding his approval from his seat.
Anne was carrying something in her hands. Something that looked suspiciously like a small gift, wrapped in shining paper, purple in colour, and encircled with a gold ribbon.
‘Oh Tony, that was wonderful,’ she cooed as she reached me and planted a kiss on my cheek.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just grinned at her and said, ‘Thank you.’ I don’t suppose much else needed to be said.
When I glanced once more toward the back of the room I noticed the door was closing and there was no sign of Aaron. He had slipped away, obviously not wanting to be noticed, or caught up in the scene. He knew I had spotted him there though, and it meant the world to me that he had come, even if only for a short while.
‘Now, now people,’ Anne said as she motioned for everyone to quiet down. ‘I think you will all agree that that was a beautiful reading from Shifting Sands, and Tony, we thank you so much for giving us the great pleasure of hearing you read.’
‘You’re most welcome,’ I replied.
‘It has certainly been a great privilege having you back here today, and we hope that we will be able to entice you to return again at some stage in the future.’
‘The honour has been all mine,’ I replied. ‘And of course, I’d love to come back again as often as my schedule permits. As I said earlier, this writer’s centre, and in particular Bill Joyce, are the main reasons why I managed to become who I am today, so if I can give a little back and encourage the next generation of writers as they set out on the journey, then I’m only too happy to do that.’
‘Thank you, Tony. That sounds wonderful. I’ll have our people talk to your people and we’ll see what we can do about your schedule, then?’ she joked.
‘I’ll let Shi-Anne know that she can expect a call!’
‘Very good. Now, it is usually customary for our visiting writers to receive a small token of our appreciation at the end of these sessions, and more often than not that usually comes from the local tourist information centre, in the shape of something reminiscent of the local area.’
A murmur seemed to travel through the small audience.
‘As you’re more or less a local, however, we didn’t think that would be entirely appropriate, as you’ve probably seen all the tourist spots of note around here, anyhow. A couple of little birdies came to our rescue, though, and told us that there was something that you didn’t have in your collection, and they knew just where we could get our hands on a copy. So, as a small gesture of our thanks to you for your coming today, we would just like to present you with this small gift.’
Stepping closer to me once more, she handed me the package and shook my hand.
‘I’m very touched. Thank you Anne.’
It was a book, I could tell that much. A hard cover book to be more precise.
‘They’ll be disappointed if you don’t open it,’ Anne whispered.
‘Of course,’ I replied, so, starting at one end, I opened the package, then ran my fingers down the long side and slipped open the wrapping, trying to do something of a dignified job of it, at least. Putting my hand inside the wrapping I took hold of the book and pulled it free.
When I took a look at the cover I was taken aback.
It was a hardcover edition of George Johnston’s A Cartload of Clay, the third in the Meredith trilogy that had begun with My Brother Jack. Quickly I opened the cover and inspected the title page. It was actually a first edition, having been first published in 1971.
I was stunned.
‘I . . . I don’t know what to say,’ I exclaimed. ‘But thank you.’
‘You’re most welcome. But it is we who would like to thank you,’ Anne replied. ‘Now, everyone, that brings us to the conclusion of today’s event. I think you will all agree that it has been a most enlightening morning with Tony as our guest and I would like you all to join me in thanking him.’
The room quickly filled with the sound of applause, then once it had died down some of the participants started to come forward to shake my hand and thank me personally. I chatted briefly with all of them, thanking them for coming and saying that I hoped they had enjoyed the event, before they would move off.
After the room had thinned out I looked around and found Cressida and her friend, the two girls I had met on Friday when I had arrived in town, still there. She was grinning.
I walked over to where they were standing. ‘Was this your idea?’ I asked, holding up the book.
‘I really can’t accept this. It’s a first edition.’
‘Of course you can, Cressida says. My father actually had two copies . . . and both first editions . . . so we couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than you to have one of them. We both knew that it would be appreciated.’
‘Why two copies?’
‘One for each of us, but as he is now getting on, and I will eventually inherit his collection, there doesn’t seem to be any need for two copies. I actually started reading it after we met on Friday and am rather enjoying it. I won’t spoil it for you though, you can finally read it for yourself.’
‘And I intend to. Thank you very much!’
‘I just wish that we could have had at least one of our copies signed, that would have been nice.’
‘Yes, nice, but impossible,’ I replied.
‘Old George died before he had ever finished it, so that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been intrigued by it . . . to see how they managed to complete it and publish it.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’
‘But thank you so much for this. I shall treasure it.’
‘You are most welcome,’ she replied.
After I said farewell to them and they had gone it only left Anne and Bill and me in the room.
‘What were you so worried about?’ Bill said to me. ‘You handled that well.’
‘You think so? Maybe it was just nerves or something.’
‘It gets easier with practice, although you were a bit lucky this time, as everyone was on your side. It can be a bit different if there are people present who only come along just to heckle, or give you a hard time, but this lot were in adoration of you.’
‘True fans, eh?’
‘Something like that,’ he offered, with both a twinkle in his eye and amusement in his tone.
* * *
I said a fond farewell to them shortly after that, promising to be in touch again soon, then headed out into the afternoon.
Pulling my phone from my pocket I pressed the speed dial number for Aaron’s phone.
He answered after the first ring. ‘Hey babe.’
‘Hey yourself,’ I replied. ‘You didn’t tell me you were coming into town today.’
‘Last minute thing. One of the mowers shat itself this morning and I needed some parts.’
‘Damn. So, where are you now? Have you had lunch yet?’
‘Still in town. Have you finished?’
‘It was . . . beautiful,’ he added after just a short pause. ‘I haven’t really heard you do that before.’
‘I’m glad you liked it.’
‘Would you . . . ummm . . .’
‘Would you read it for me some time?’
‘I couldn’t think of anyone better to read for.’
To be continued . . .