My father died when I was twenty-three. For years afterwards I hated the annual roll-around of Father’s Day. I put my head down, closed my ears and ignored it, apart from extending an ultra-gentle hand to my mother on those days, as I did on all his birthdays and the anniversaries of his death for the next twenty-three years that she outlived him.
When I first began to write, I wrote a fictional version of the story of my father’s ancestors and why they left England to live on a farm in Africa. The day I physically posted that heavy manuscript off to a local writing competition, I felt elation and relief in my car on the way back to work. Suddenly my joy gave way to tears, because I could imagine how proud my father would have been if only he had been alive to know what I had done, but he had been dead for twenty-two years by then – almost half of my lifetime.
A few days later my mother asked if she could read my novel. I was hesitant at first, but almost immediately I knew that I wanted to give her the opportunity that my father would never have – to read a book I had written. I printed out a copy for her, and I’m so glad I gave it to her to read, because little did I know that just over a year later she would be dead too. She never got to read any of my later novels, but she did read most of my early short stories. Five days before she died I sent off my second novel to another competition, and the following day I got the call to rush to her bedside because the end was near.
Neither of those novels ever went any further, but the year following my mother’s death I enrolled in the creative writing module of the honours course at my local university, and began a completely new work as my course writing project.
This later became From Daisy with Love, the novella that told the love story of my father’s parents and how they made it through the First World War. My father’s mother was orphaned young, and so was my own mother. Parents don’t feature much in my novels, especially not my parents. Most of my novels have a female protagonist who has been orphaned a long time before the novel begins. It seems that I want heroines who stand on their own and are able to travel far and wide in search of love and adventure.
But perhaps there’s another reason I seldom write about my parents or use them as models for the parents of any of my fictional characters.
This morning I read an excellent blog post by Vaughn Roycroft on Writer Unboxed. It was a Father’s Day tribute to his father, and both the post and many of the comments opened my eyes to several things. It’s a beautiful post and I strongly urge you to read it because he puts things way better than I can explain.
Part of me doesn’t want to share my parents with the world. They are now in my private memory and the memories of the people who knew them, and surely that’s no business of anyone else’s?
I never met my mother’s mother, I don’t remember much of my father’s parents, and the only grandparent I do remember died when I was ten. He was great fun, but like my parents, my mother’s father is now part of my private memory. I don’t want anything to interfere with the memories I have of any of those whom I knew.
However, the ones I never knew can become fair game in my writing because I don’t know what they were really like, so I can only imagine them anyway. Daisy and her boyfriend have become more real to me since I created an imagined life for them as youngsters during the First World War. I met my grandfather with new eyes when I read his war diaries and turned a page to see the words written in his small, neat handwriting, announcing that he was in the German South West African desert and it was his 21st birthday, only there was no one to help him celebrate it properly because all those he loved were far away.
I was forty-two when I read that – twice the age he was when he wrote it. To say that it fired up my imagination would be an understatement indeed.
And yet, perhaps all my loved ones are there in my writing, as Roycroft’s Writer Unboxed post points out. It all has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?
In The Epidaurus Inheritance Zander speaks of his late parents with great fondness, and he has become a father figure to a younger cousin who rides a motorbike and occasionally stays over in Zander’s Athens apartment when he is too drunk to drive home safely.
There is a kindly old rascal of an uncle in Benicio’s Bequest who more than resembles my own rascally old grandfather who used to drive a steam train and get into all sorts of trouble and nonsense in his youth. The two brothers in that same novel are five years apart in age, and the story involves the younger one. Likewise, there are two brothers in Oxford Baggage, my current WIP, also born five years apart, and that story is also about the younger one.
My own father was the younger of two brothers, born five years apart. They were very different and they didn’t always get on, but a shared history between siblings can go a long way to smoothing that out.
My father was seven years older than my mother, as are the two main characters in Oxford Baggage. My parents married in the 1950s which is the era in which I have set this new work. I can’t help wondering how much more of them I’m going to find in my novel when I’ve finished writing it.
My modern-day protagonists in The Trojan Legacy are also six or seven years apart in age, and I wrote a glorious Christmas day celebration for them which included her parents and grandparents. Sadly I edited it out in the final draft because even though I loved the scene, it added nothing to the story and slowed down the pace going into the last quarter of the book. Such is the life of a writer…
To all readers out there who might no longer have parents with them, and who have mixed feelings about the celebration of days like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, I hope you are able to use these days to reflect positively on the lives of the generations before us, and the vast legacy of memories left to us.