Robert Olin Butler
talks about "dreaming around your novel," allowing it to well up from within you, meditate on it until you see it all the way through, then write. I've never quite had that resolve — I can't resist the desire to lay out the lines of words as they appear, as Annie Dillard
suggests, securing each sentence before building on it, allowing it to grow "cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop." My new novel, Stray Dog Winter
, unfolded from a dream, the dream was mined from a memory.
My mother had a sister called Ruth whom no one in my family spoke to. She was rumored to have ravished too many young American soldiers on leave during WWII when they were billeted on the family farm in Australia. Aunt Ruth escaped her sisters and traveled all over, visiting her new American friends. She ended up in Kenya, then returned to Australia in the late 60s. I saw her only once — she lay on a chaise and languidly turned to acknowledge me.
"Boy, get me a gin and tonic."
I was six.
My mother's umbrage was obvious, but I also noticed my father's fascination for this glamorous drinking sister-in-law. The following day she was gone.
Decades later, having finished my first novel, The Great Inland Sea, I was lucky enough to be living in Paris on a fellowship from the Australian Literature Fund. There, in my narrow studio bed, I had a dream that Aunt Ruth had a fling with my father and then went away, secretly bearing his daughter. I awoke from my dream on a warm Paris morning and began writing long-hand about this boy called Darcy growing up outside Melbourne, Australia. An aunt he'd only seen in photos arrives in a taxi with a young girl named Fin who transpires to be Darcy's half-sister. The girl is dumped on the drive unannounced as the aunt disappears back towards the city.
Darcy heard tyres on the gravel the afternoon Fin first arrived in Mount Eliza; a taxi edging up the drive. He watched through the sitting room window, from between the high-backed chairs, as a girl emerged in an African print dress. Darcy recognized the woman she was with from photos — Aunt Merran, his mother's younger sister, the one who'd gone back to live on the orange grove near Montecito, somewhere in California, where Darcy's mother grew up.
Out on the drive, where the gumnuts fell on the gravel and you could smell the eucalyptus, Aunt Merran gave Darcy's father a quick peck on the cheek, but his father didn't move his face towards it. The girl observed Darcy in the window, a frozen moment, his feet stuck to the carpet. She looked like him, but her ears were pierced with glinting silver studs — like a gypsy, his mother would have said, but luckily she wasn't home, just the girl presenting his father with a small wooden carving from the pocket of her dress. A gift received awkwardly, his father glancing back at the window, his free hand around the back of his neck as he saw Darcy watching, squinting through the glare.
Aunt Merran kissed the girl's hair and jumped back in the taxi before his father could stop her. She waved through the back window as the girl stood stunned and then came to life, chasing the car to the gate. Darcy's handsome flummoxed father hurried behind her as the taxi turned onto Baden Powell Drive. His father's arm about the girl and then he was kneeling, consoling her, his big hands on her small shoulders, like calipers holding her there.
Aunt Merran's taxi was gone, back to Humphries Road, towards Frankston and the suburbs, a knapsack left in the gravel like a small dead animal. While his father comforted the girl near the gate, Darcy crept out and collected it. The smell was stale and sweet. A pair of sandshoes, washed so the dust had yellowed them, a sweatshirt that had Banana Slugs written across it in yellow and a T-shirt that said Big Sur. In the front pocket was a blue American passport with an eagle in the coat of arms. Los Angeles Passport Agency and a photo of the girl with her hair loose. Finola Bright, the same last name as Darcy's. Born 13 June 1960. A year before him. She was eleven and he was ten. He blinked to himself as the fact of it crystallised in him. Their mothers were sisters. Their father was the same.
As Darcy looked up, he saw the girl's narrow shape at the end of the drive beside his crouching father. The sun was getting red as it lowered in the gum trees behind them. A secret had been delivered.
(excerpted from Stray Dog Winter)
Scenes of these two began to unfold, of them together in Australia and then separated when Fin gets sent away to boarding school. Reunited at university, they rekindle their strange consanguinity, an interest in art and radical politics, and each other. Then, in 1984, Fin unexpectedly receives a fellowship to paint the industrial landscapes of Soviet Moscow, as though people often do that. Darcy, who is the real artist, is suspicious of her disappearance, then he gets a call from Moscow: Fin pleading for him to join her there, to paint. I imagined Darcy traveling from Prague on a train into the Soviet Union (a trip I'd made in the early '80s), and the story of these two in an alien winter emerged, each chapter building on the last, "bole to bough to twig to leaf," until their lust and proclivities revealed them in ways and in places I'd never have imagined had I been a writer who structures a novel consciously.
I had not just a mystery, but a suspense novel on my hands. Stray Dog Winter became the story of what could have become of me had things gone differently when I found myself in Moscow in the 1980s, but I was luckier than Darcy Bright and my half-sister wasn't Fin.
I believe that being an artist means never averting your eyes, writing what you see without telling what you know. I also believe one should turn one's eyes inward, to the shards of memory and to images dreamed, to enter an emotional landscape from where the real story might raise its hand up out of the well.