The small cove is white sand, pink sky, pale grey ocean. The kids spin mad circles, their laughter pitched high. My best friend and I nestle beers in the cooling sand and smile, smug with our choice of beach, plucked at random off a map, far enough up the coast that we can hope for winter sunshine.
At night we bathe the kids in the laundry troughs of the toilet block, then snuggle them into onesies by the smoking fire. When we finally get them down, we drink wine and argue and laugh and it is the kind of time that glows brighter in memory.
Somewhere, between preparing food, wearing out the children, and late arvo G&Ts – we notice the old grave. Harriet’s grave. Then there’s the visit to the ruined lighthouse, the information board, the picture of Harriet, the mention of her best friend Kate, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. The tragedy that befell them.
It’s a good story. Sad. We don’t dwell on it, but at some point it is as though I have breathed it in, or allowed it to eke into my bones. Maybe, in those hours sitting on the sand of the cove watching the kids squeal as they race each other into the water, the story got into the crevices of me – sand particles, that would eventually itch, grab, take hold.
The holiday ends. Later, I find one last photo I snapped on my phone. It’s the grave. As though it is willing me to remember it.
I quietly tell my mother, my sister, my best friend: I think I’m writing a novel.
In an activity in my writing course, the story untucks itself from where it hid and emerges on the page; a glint of something, a hint of what it could be. Late at night in the blue glare of my screen, I find the old newspaper, the report with the elements that hook me and do not let me go: the two friends, the fisherman, the hut.
Inspired by NaNoWriMo, I make a deal with myself. If I write 1000 words a day for the month, I can buy a new laptop. I do it. And then I’ve gone too far to turn back. I quietly tell my mother, my sister, my best friend: I think I’m writing a novel.
It becomes an unwieldy thing. Its voice is insistent, brash sometimes, and obtrusive. Sometimes I don’t know how to handle it. I definitely don’t know how to handle the ideas as they spill into the story, the drafts, my crosses and deletions. Self-doubt hacks across work already done; ego leaves it there untouched. The volume of words helps. I lose my preciousness. I remove great swathes that no longer work. I lose hope. I don’t know why I spend so much time on this great, uncontrollable mess, and yet I don’t know how not to.
I struggle with the ethics of taking history and turning it to fiction; I angst over whether or not I can take this moment of great loss and turn it into a novel. I lose myself in research; I check publication dates and read nineteenth-century fiction to try and get inside my character’s head. I tell my daughters I’m writing a novel. That one day, maybe, there will be a real book they can hold in their hands. They believe me; I don’t.
Before the story is fully formed, I’m inspired to be brave and bold and pitch it to a publisher. She wants it. By turns I feel joyful and terrified, validated and doubtful. Over the next five months I hide away from my family on weekends, during late nights and early mornings, for an entire stolen week at Varuna, and wrestle this story into wholeness. I plunge into research, trundling up and down lighthouse staircases. I’m transported to parlours of young nineteenth-century women through their journals, their spidery handwriting. Back and forth I go with my editor, pushed to make choices, think harder, learn more about myself, my characters, the writing. Some days it feels impossible, like it has no end.
But it ends. A final flurry of edits, panicking that this will be the last chance to make any changes. Cover images, fonts and a whirlwind of marketing and publicity I could never have imagined.
Then I hold my book in my hands. I think of myself as a small girl, face in a book, dreaming of my own name across the cover. Holding it erases all that pain of the writing, the struggling to get the story down on the page just so. But now I feel a wave of new doubt: Will anyone read it? What will they think? Will I be able to write again?
Then I think of that cove. That grave. All the stories, quietly waiting in the earth, to be uncovered, to be told. My fingers itch.
Skylarking is Kill Your Darlings‘ First Book Club pick for August. Kate Mildenhall will be in conversation with KYD publishing director Hannah Kent on Tuesday 23 Augustat Readings Carlton. The event is free, but places are limited – email [email protected] to book. Further details can be found here.