High Probability of Coincidence and the Secret Life of the Story Teller
I wrote my first novel just in time for my 30th birthday. It was one long SOB. Near enough 200,000 words. Too many words for a sane person to remember them all.
That’s how come I fell apart over the book. I couldn’t remember all the stuff that had happened and was happening. I couldn’t juggle it all in mid air in front of my brain.
No matter what I tried my brain couldn’t wrap itself around the story.
I finished it, but it wasn’t really finished. There were some really cool passages, some great little chapters. But the glue that tied everything together became this evil dark force that haunted my days and made me wake up in cold sweats every night of the week. Then I would smoke a few cigarettes, stare out the window at the traffic lights blinking amber off in the distance and wonder what the hell I had done with my life to think I could write a novel.
The writing of it had taken me prisoner over Christmas, new years. Then January had trudged by, all steam and sweat and broiling summer days in Brisbane, and the cold sweats and cigarettes by night. Then February rolled around uninvited. Then it was time to enrol for the new semester at UQ. I had only the one semester left. February through June. But I couldn’t get my ass to a class.
It started crumbling before my eyes. The whole bachelors degree thing. It lost its appeal, it’s texture, its colour. It became a stain on my eyeballs and every morning I rubbed it a little more out.
I didn’t attend tutorials. I didn’t hand in weekly assignments. I didn’t go to lectures, to meetings, not even to the student union building except once.
I was so deep in the novel. The book. I couldn’t do two things at once. Couldn’t study journalism, history, philosophy and also write a novel. The novel pushed everything else out of the way with a great and brutal heave. The one time I went in to the student union building was to hand in a piece of fiction writing. A short piece of maybe 600 words, to be published in the student magazine Sempter Floreat.
It was published, and they sent me a cheque for 25 dollars in the mail. Four packs of cigarettes.
The rest of the time I worked on my novel. Night times I went in to the state mail centre and worked my graveyard shifts, Monday through Friday, 7pm til 1.21am. On Friday nights we finished at midnight so I would walk the couple of blocks to the centre of town, to the Mall, and play street music til 3am. I loved it, playing music and singing for people. No PA required. No microphone, no gadgets. Just me and the guitar. Happy times.
I made 208 dollars a week working my 28 hours at the post office. Playing street music late late on a Friday night I would make 70 or 80 bucks for two hours of fun. People would also buy me food from Hungry Jacks or MacDonalds, buy me drinks, cigarettes, and would just give me stuff in general. I got bracelets, T-shirts, mugs, balloons, jackets. Lots of stuff. Once a young woman offered her entire being to me.
She was in love with me, she said.
“You don’t even know me,” I said, smiling from ear to ear.
She said “We’re already married, dummy….”
She was a nutter. Beautiful, but a nutter. I hate that word, nutter. But at the time it seemed like the nicest, cutest way of saying “psychologically impaired”.
As I sang and played guitar she danced all around me. She came up close and kissed me on the lips while I had my eyes closed, singing. Scared the living shit out of me.
Then she threw her head back and laughed and danced in wild circles of abandonment up and down the shopping strip with a gentle rain falling on her shoulders and in her hair.
She was determined I had to come home with her because we were already married. She gave me a look that seemed mad, yes, but there was something serious underneath it. An added layer.
Instead of going home with her or inviting her back to my place I took her to an all night cafe over on George Street where the prostitutes and their pimps used to hang out all the time. Me and the crazy girl sat drinking coffee and eating sandwiches until the sun came up. Turned out she was afraid of her boyfriend.
Her real boyfriend. At one point we were just sitting there talking and then the next second she jumped up and out of the booth and ran outside into the street, hailed a taxi and then disappeared into the dawn drizzle.
So by late April, when the mid-term papers were due, I realised my chances in life were diminishing with every passing day. All on account of my stupid novel.
I went to see the head of department at UQ. I told him my dilemma. He said he wanted to know the truth.
So I made up a story.
I said: “I’ve been out bush to visit with family. We lost the farm in the floods and it’s been all hands on deck since January. I just got back two days ago. Yesterday I slept all day cos I was exhausted with all that happened, you know. So now I still need to finish my degree, to graduate, and I haven’t done a scrap of work in any of my subjects all semester.”
“Hmmmm. I see,” said the professor.
He suggested I go talk to all the lecturers and professors in charge of my subjects individually. This I did. One of them was cool. The philosophy head. He was always cool with everything I did, with everything anyone did. “Just get your assigned work in by the end of June and you’ll be sweet,” he said, slapping his hand on my shoulder.
“How much livestock did you lose?” He said.
“Oh…. about two hundred head,” I said.
He whistled through his teeth. “That’s too bad. Too bad.”
The Journalism lecturer was less than impressed with my story, my excuse. He said it was highly unusual and suggested that I had probably already failed excepting some miracle.
I had bought all my journalism weekly assignments with me to the meeting. I was holding them in a stack.
“Look,” I said. “I can’t make you read them or mark them. But at least here they are so you’ll know I’ve done the work. It’s up to you what you do with them.”
Then I got up and left.
I kept working on the novel but I also finished all my required work for university.
In early May I sent out my novel manuscript to two well known book publishers down south, Pan McMillan and Penguin. At the end of June I sat my final exams.
Then I waited for the results to come in.
My method of waiting was to write a second novel. Now that university was finished with, and I had quit my job at the post office, I had all the time in the world to write.
I finished it in a month. By the end of July I had 40,000 words. I entered it into a young novelists competition. That second book was called “Unplugged” and was a story based on a man who had been stalking and raping female students at the university for the past year or so. I based the main protagonist, the stalker/rapist in the book on one of the regular characters who lived in my neighbourhood. He also was a nutter.
He had orange hair and milky white skin covered in freckles. He always carried a radio up to his ear wherever he went. I called the character based on him ‘Ted Jones’.
Some time early August I was getting ready to go to the Queensland Writers’ Centre to listen to a couple of authors talk about novel writing.
Before I left my flat that day I checked the mail. There were two envelopes in my letter box. One was a letter from Pan MacMillan to say my novel wasn’t suitable for them, but suggesting I try another publisher. The other envelope was my university results. Two credits and a pass. The novel had flopped, but at least I had my degree.
At the Writers’ Centre the first speaker talked about all things literary for an hour or so and then we all broke for a bite to eat. Outside on the landing they had a buffet and people lined up with plates in hand to serve up their own portions.
In the line up I struck up a conversation with a beautiful young woman, also a budding writer, and we swapped funny anecdotes about our authorial trials and tribulations.
As I was telling her all about “Unplugged” she asked what name I’d given the main character.
I told her. She thought it a simple and anonymous name and found it perfectly suitable for the character.
Just then I looked to my right and butting in to the line was the nutter I had based the main character on. There he was with his orange hair and his milky skin and his radio.
I whispered to the beautiful writer: “That’s him! The guy I based Ted Jones on!”
Her jaw dropped. “Oh my God!” she whispered. When she said that I thought “I’m gonna get lucky tonight.”
Then I turned to the guy with the orange hair and said hello and introduced myself.
He looked at me and stopped for a moment. He stared. Then his face relaxed. He seemed to be honing in, somehow.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“Ted,” he said. “Ted Jones.”