I was chronicling political changes that were leading bad places (that we’re experiencing far more fully right now) and I was thinking about how much this links to the personal. This is where The Time of the Ghosts came from. It became an intimate novel, but the politics is still there. The need to not give in to despair and hate. I found a blog post I wrote at that time, when the novel was but a whisper of an idea and some clever notions about translating worlds onto maps to make them easier to be lived. Maybe it explains things more clearly. I knew I was going to write about ghosts. Ghosts had invaded my blog for a year or so, which is usually a clear indication that I’m to be haunted. It was at this moment, however that I crystallised what sort of novel I was entering into.
My mind is dwelling in deep places today. I’m thinking about issues of trust and how far you can let someone into your life before expecting them to take some responsibility for their actions in relation to you. It struck me that this is something I need to write about and it might belong with my ghosts. This is either going to be a very funny novel or a deeply pensive one. It might end up both.
I’ve been on the verge of writing it for over a year. I’ve done most of my worldbuilding (all those map-thoughts for Canberra, exploring cinema food in the 40s – all that stuff) but even when I had a good idea of my characters’ lives, they hadn’t come alive for me. When that happens I sit back and I wait.
The first thing that happened when I sat back this time was that I changed one of the main point of view characters. I need someone with ghosts for a whole part of the narrative stream, otherwise the ghosts my characters meet are only interesting supernatural beings and are in danger of being plot devices. I need ghosts to resonate more deeply than that.
We all carry particular burdens and some people carry the burdens of the deaths of others. I don’t mean that these people are murderers, I mean that they live with a constant feeling of work unfinished, or of missing someone, or of not having done something when the time was right, or of being observers at a time when distance hurt. I think the only ghost I carry of someone who I was able to say a proper goodbye to is that of my father. This is why I want to write about ghosts, to be honest: I need to understand my own.
The trust thing is a different matter, but it is most definitely related to the fears that bring forth ghosts for some people. As you have probably realised, I’ve been thinking for a long time about racism and sexism and how the disabled can be victimised or made helpless, and how people with mental health conditions are often excluded from perfectly normal decision-making and activities. One of the big barriers for any of these groups (and for a bunch of others) is trust. How much can they tell people about who they are, and still be treated as themselves and as full human beings? Think of Showboat, and the complete change to a couple’s existence when the woman has to admit to being of mixed race.
Trust honoured and used well is one of the biggest gifts a human being can give another, and trust abused is one of the most frightening.
That trust abused doesn’t have to be on a grand scale to be frightening. It can be someone making a decision for someone else because of an unexamined assumption that the person isn’t capable because they’re in a wheelchair or on medication. I see that a lot in my work. I get it a bit from my health conditions. At the heart of it is an assumption about what society is and how people ought to work together. When societies become scared, this type of trust is one of the first victims.
One of the reasons I have done the activism thing is, in fact, because of the biggest cause of fear and hurt in society usually being trust abused. I feel very strongly that it’s the responsibility of each and every one of us to find out where we’re going wrong and to deal fairly with others. A higher level of trust in a society means a lower level of fear and hatred. It’s that simple.
There are ways in which abuse can be minimised – through education, through legislation, through enough money to provide neutral assistance for people with physical disabilities so they’re not dependent on friends or neighbours for everyday needs. I know I retired from all this because of my health, but I keep thinking that the issues are too important and that one day I’m going to have to go back. Maybe this novel is the beginning of me going back.
Right now, though, I want to examine those issues at a very personal level. Not my personal: My characters’. What happens after divorce, or instance? Do the changes in life you experience when you retire mean you have to learn how to defend yourself against well-meaning invaders of your quiet places? What happens to a 12 year old girl when she is thrust out of the family circle of caring? When can you admit to being different without friends thrusting you away or making decisions for you or reading the life you’ve always led as suddenly unstable?
Trust issues at a personal level lead to judgements. We all make judgements. How far do we let people into our lives? How far can an individual abuse that acceptance into our lives without doing anything they feel is wrong? I don’t want to go down the heavy racism path. I want to think about less well-trodden ground. I won’t go into it here – I need to work out just how far any character will let anyone else into their life and what the effects are. I feel incredibly mean, because this is going to hurt them. The ghosts are going to be fun and delight by comparison with death by a thousand needling doubts.
So I have my stable of ghosts. And I have some very big issues for my main characters to deal with. Now I have to be patient and let it all come together.
I can’t write until it has all come together. If I do, then the book will be all about issues and not about telling a story. Waiting – for me – is what shines enough light in the deep places so I can find the stories there.