Some book ideas bang on the door. Some tap gently. In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert says that when ideas come knocking, they don’t hang around forever – you need to commit to them or they’ll move off and find someone else.
My new novel Sixty Seconds barged in and demanded to be written. I still remember the moment, driving home from Brisbane down the freeway one night. One moment I didn’t have an idea in my head. The next, I knew the subject of the next book I would write.
I didn’t know the form, or what the story was – that came later. But I knew it was about a family whose toddler drowned in their pool. As happened to my family, when my sister Lucie drowned in 1976.
Returning to that painful experience and creating a piece of writing from it was a terrifying prospect. But I wanted to do it. Not just because I knew it would stretch me as a writer, but because some forty years down the track, I felt I had enough perspective to return to that experience and learn something new from it.
I’ve just opened the first document I created, back in 2014. Here are the first words I wrote as I sat down.
Just listen, that’s all. Open your ears and your heart and let me tell you the story.
Because you’re still searching, after all this time. Still wanting to know how it could have happened, what became of her afterwards, and how those who were left ever lived with themselves. You think you’ve buried it, you think it’s done and put to rest, but it lives on inside you, deep down, less visible than it once was.
It’s traced its way through your life ever since, setting the course you’ve chosen, pushing you one way rather than the other, throwing up walls and blind spots so sometimes you’re not even aware of what it’s done.
The choice not to have a child, for example. You thought it was something else, perhaps. Your desire for independence. Your selfishness. Your wish to give yourself to being creative. Your wish not to be tied down.
It may have been all of those things, but don’t you think perhaps this sat at the very heart of that choice?
You find yourself now sitting by a pool of your own, plunging into the water, letting it run over your body, letting it cool you, seduced and entranced by the clear, glistening magic of it. You know it hides something, but whatever it is, is invisible.
Trust me. Let me take you there. There are things you still need to see. I will be with you.
Here is where it begins:
The boy steps into the day like he owns it…
And the opening scene rolled out onto the page, in a form very close to how it appears in the finished book.
Today – Monday 18 September – is publication day and Sixty Seconds sits here on the desk in front of me, ready to make its way in the world. I’m feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness about how it will be received. Will readers trust the book enough to embark on a story about a tragedy, to see where it takes them?
A couple of days ago Royal Life Saving Australia released its Annual Drowning Report. Twenty-nine children under five years old drowned in Australia between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017. Thirteen of those drowned in swimming pools.
To put it another way – somewhere in Australia a child drowned at least every two weeks. And on average, a child drowned in a swimming pool every month.
I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale, although if Sixty Seconds helps raise awareness of the risk of children drowning that will be a bonus.
What I did set out to do was draw on my own experience to write a story about a family’s path to forgiveness, with the perspective of time. I’m someone who reads looking for meaning and redemption. Sixty Seconds is centred on a tragedy, but it’s ultimately a novel about hope and resilience.
Thank you to those who choose to share the journey with me.