At the age of seventy-five, my grandmother died on the way to her second wedding.
Although shocking at the time, I now think of her death as beautifully poignant. For years, I imagined writing a story with this as the ending but the hurly-burly of family life and demanding careers combined with the certainty that I could never be a writer meant that this notion collected nothing but dust like university mementos tucked away in the attic. However, in 2004, fate intervened with a move to Hong Kong.
Living as an expat is both exhilarating and depressing. My husband traveled constantly throughout Asia. I knew no one and had no job; our children – one working, one in university – remained in Canada. For several months I flapped about like a bird with broken wings until one day Grandma’s story beckoned. What if I could write it? I thought. At the very least, the effort would keep me busy.
I bought a book titled The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules by Steven Taylor Goldsberry (difficult to find books about writing in a city where Cantonese dominates). I reread the notes my mother had drafted about her family. On a trip home, I found old family photos and information about my grandfather’s WWI war service. And with no idea what I was doing, I plunged right in.
Writing gave me a sense of purpose. Every morning, armed with a cup of coffee, I fired up my computer. Some days were filled with research, on other days I crafted sentences, struggling to make the words convey what my senses imagined and to flow with enticing rhythm. Looking back, these early efforts remind me of a child’s crude stick drawings produced with great concentration and displayed at home with pride. When I needed a break, I walked the streets of Hong Kong through wet markets and crowded corners, past the flower sellers and lunch-time noodle shops, through antique stores and galleries dominating an area called Soho, up the hill to the top of Victoria Peak where stunning views of the harbour surrounded by skyscrapers reminded me of my good fortune to be in Asia at a time of incredible change.
That was eight years ago and now I write full time. Unravelled is the product of those early efforts and along the way I wrote Lies Told in Silence (a WWI story set in France that is currently with my agent) and Blind Regret ( a dual time period novel with a hint of mystery). I’ve also become obsessed not only with writing but also with exploring the consequences of war.
By the way, Unravelled ends before my grandmother dies. Perhaps there’ll be a sequel?
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Great post! I do agree. I found that, in my expat days, carrying along my own (literary) world helped the real world seem less foreign.
How interesting to see a parallel experience. Where were you living, Jessica?
Scotland, so I at least didn’t have a language barrier adding to the transition! I did find that writing helped in meeting people, at least when it came to other writers. Though some aspects of culture or custom might be different, the pull of the muse is universal.
Oh, I could definitely enjoy Scotland for a while! An interesting thought about meeting people. Most of the women I met in Hong Kong were content to shop and lunch and go for manicures or travel along with their husbands to exotic places where they could shop, go for lunch and have manicures. Can you tell they weren’t my type?
What an encouragement to keep going. Thank you. I’m writing up family history into a novel at the moment so it definitely encourages me. As an expat you might like to read Sue Cross’s book ‘Tea at Sam’s’, written from an expat’s point of view.
Thanks for your comment … a caution and a suggestion (1) when I looked for an agent I made the mistake of saying that my novel was inspired by the lives of my grandparents and was told by a couple of agents that memoirs like that aren’t marketable. They wouldn’t even look at it. (2) as you write, free yourself from the truth. I found that the truth held my back and compromised the story that a reader would really want to read.
Details! Details! I feel as if I’ve been given a hook without a book.
Your comment has made me smile, Carmel. The story I’ve actually written – Unravelled is its third title – can be encapsulated by ‘two wars; two affairs; one marriage’. At this point, it bears very little resemblance to my grandparents lives except for some of the basic details like my grandfather and the male protagonist were in Signals in WWI, fought at Vimy Ridge, worked for the telephone company, did some secret work during WWII and so on. The story ends in 1944 and since my grandmother passed away in 1977, she had 33 more years to live. So the punchline has to wait for another time. I’m going to self-publish Unravelled sometime in the next 4 to 6 months and will be looking for readers prior to launch. I would be delighted if you are interested in being one of those. All best.
I would love to read Unravelled when you’re ready!
Thank you so much for your essay and how your writing started. I am waiting for the first verdict on my sixth book and my daughter said this morning: “Why don’t you just give up. It’s too hard!”
Yes it is hard but giving up is not a choice for me. I just can’t. I love the thought of your grandmother never giving up on love either! I would be happy to read Unravelled but it would have to be soon before I start my new novel lol.
Let me know!
Debbie – many thanks for your offer to read Unravelled. I’ll be in touch very soon.
Thanks Mary. Perhaps we could do a a reciprocal edit. I need another pair of eyes on The Grey Silk Purse. Let me know what you think!
Mary, what a heartfelt story! I love to hear how other writers started down this sometimes lonely path. I feel you were kept company by the love of your grandmother and it clearly has sustained you. (I love how you describe your initial efforts in writing!)
Many thanks for your comment, Judith. I had not thought of it that way but you’re right. As I created Unravelled I often thought of my grandparents, how my grandfather arched his eyebrows to indicate annoyance, my grandmother’s laugh, reading Winnie the Pooh with Grandpa, going to the cottage, occasional sharp words between them and so on. They were in my head all that time. A gift, to be sure, one to be treasured.