In 1977, I returned to sea going after an eight-year stint ashore, having sold two short stories to now-defunct men’s magazines. A writer’s life beckoned, but an engineering background, a well-paid career and three school-age children demanded caution.
The first step was to determine if I could write book-length publishable fiction so I went looking for a story to write, something that I knew well enough to write without too much research. An obvious choice was life in the Australian Coastal Shipping Industry, which was deep in transition between its past and a sustainable future.
The first problem was a main character who would note the things most seamen don’t even notice, yet seem to be fascinating to their shore-bound contemporaries. A newcomer was a possibility, but finding one whose background was different enough to provide the necessary contrast and with the intelligence to analyse what they saw understandably was not easy.
Then, one night in Port Kembla, on night duty, a young woman came to the door of the duty mess while I was having a late supper. Her interest in what I was eating suggested hunger so I invited her to join me, then watched with amusement as the supplies the Chief Steward had left for my use disappeared, cold meats, tinned foods, left-over desserts all vanishing down her throat. With time on my hands, we chatted. She’d dropped out of university at the end of the previous year and was bumming her way around Australia, doing whatever she needed to survive and I had my main character for the story.
In the year that followed, I wrote my story, beginning with a first draft around one hundred thousand words, peopled with character not drawn from any individual, but from composites, and chronicling real events altered enough to be unrecognizable to anyone not directly involved. A traumatic incident I considered a failure became part of it as I dealt with the nightmares it left in its wake. In all, I finished with ten complete copies of the story, each a little different as I learned more about story telling, all typed on a portable typewriter perched on my knee during engine room watches.
At the end, I examined what I’d produced critically and decided the risk of a writing career was too great for my family’s welfare and put it aside to concentrate on a career for which I was professionally qualified.
By 1997, I’d scaled the heights, progressing beyond my qualifications to positions of responsibility and well-earned rewards. Our children were independent and fresh challenges were few, so I stepped aside and became a writer. Since then, I’ve had fifteen stories published as Amy Gallow and two under my real name, The Alliance being the most recent.
About a year ago, my eldest daughter pulled from the top shelf of my office the ten lever-arch files containing the ten versions of my original story. She’d read it in her late teens and it was still her favourite story of mine. (She saw echoes of herself in the heroine.) It was time, she decided, for me to write this properly.
I read the ten versions with more nostalgia than real interest and then shared them with a friend whose professional career had paralleled mine. “You told it as it was,” he commented. “I think I recognised some of the people.” It was his compliment to my skill at capturing types rather than individuals.
Two months ago, I settled down to seriously tell the tale anew, immersing myself in 1975 where it is set, and using the skills developed over the last fourteen years to flesh out the characters and give them life. I’m fifty thousand words into it, the traumatic incident has gone with the nightmares (I’ve long accepted that the failure was not mine. I’d sustained life long enough for people better qualified than me to decide a recovery was not possible.)
It’s a fascinating journey, viewing things from a perspective not possible at the time and understanding the writing process better. I hope my eldest daughter will be as fond of the result as she is of the original...