Forty years ago this winter, I wrote my first novel.
I was teaching in Taranaki, and trying to write part-time. I'd managed a few short stories in the Listener and on Radio NZ, some poems, a bit of book reviewing.
But I could write only for an hour in the evenings or at weekends. Did I dare go full-time? Our kids were just 11 and 6. It would be irresponsible and feckless. Yet I was starting to feel that if I didn't try, I'd wonder for the rest of my life what I'd missed.
Then some men gave me money. At that time, the New Zealand division of pharmaceutical titan ICI sponsored an annual bursary for "emerging writers". (The phrase still makes me picture a small, timorous creature peeping from its burrow.)
The bursary was worth $3000. In 1980, when two litres of milk cost about 15c and a loaf of bread wasn't much more, that was enough to make you need a little lie-down.
I applied. I won. I exclaimed "Bloody hell!" and ran around the living room. When Inglewood High School's deputy principal announced it to the school assembly, he told them I'd won "the CIA Bursary", which must have been a surprise to that admirable espionage bureau.
I went down to Wellington. At a reception at the Beehive, a shy, important man with a sulky young wife shook my hand, passed over an envelope, murmured, "The cheque's not there, David. It'll be in the mail."
It arrived three days later. I know this, because I counted the number of times I went out to the letterbox.
In my application, I'd declared that I was going to write a novel for adults. That sentence may well have been my most daring work of fiction up till then. But I drew deep breaths, took a year off teaching and, through the winter of 1981, I tried to turn declaration into deed.
I wrote a ramshackle, lolloping story, where a high school principal is found dead in a creek during the cross-country.
The protagonists were an obese English teacher who could recite nearly all of Paradise Lost and a police sergeant who read Dostoevsky. It lurched towards an ending so predictable that I yawned while I wrote it.
The setting and a few characters had some connection with life, but plot, supporting cast, style, were inventions plucked from nowhere, and the novel shrank accordingly.
I'd never written anything 80,000 words long before and I had no idea how to go about it. Then, a few months before starting, I heard Auckland writer Graeme Lay talk about first drafts. "Just chuck everything down," he said, "worry about shape and focus later." Graeme, mate, you'll never know how much that heartened me.
So I chucked everything down. I worked on it a certain number of hours each day, letting the clock decide whether I'd done enough.
I wrote it in longhand, as I still do with nearly everything. I left what's become my habitual wide margin, where I scribble notes to myself: "Wednesday or Thursday? ... Was Todd in last scene? ... Cut This!!" I wrote in black ballpoint one day, blue the next day. It helped me track changes.
I finished and revised it. I revised it again. And again, till the pages resembled those 18th century letters cross-hatched with lines reading left-to-right and then up-and-down.
I typed it out on my noisy, electric, black-and-red-ribbon typewriter, swearing and dabbing on Twink erasing fluid every time I hit the wrong key. I posted it off – in brown paper, with stamps on the front.
Publisher 1 (Wellington) rejected it instantly. Publisher 2 (Auckland) ditto. Publisher 3 (Hamilton) took four months – I suspect it got mislaid on a shelf – which gave me a gleam of hope, then copied Nos 1 and 2.
Publisher 6 (sic) was in the UK. The manuscript was looking pretty tatty by this time, even after I ran a steam iron over the more dog-eared pages. But I put still more stamps on it, mailed it, and never heard back.
For a few years, I kept an eye and both ears open for news of "UNIDENTIFIED WORK OF GENIUS FOUND BEHIND PUBLISHER'S RADIATOR", but must have missed the bulletin.
Okay, I'd learned a few things about writing a long work. I'd gained ideas on structure, contrast, characters, movement. I'd realised it involved a form of triage: do this now; fix that later.
But I wasn't going to write another novel. Too much labour and disappointment.
My ICI year of 1981 wasn't a total waste. I'd also managed to produce a couple of one-act plays for teenagers. (They still get performed occasionally, bringing me royalties of $21.50 or $17.70.)
But another novel? Nah.
I left teaching, went full-time writing. I worked on radio scripts, reviews, travel articles, quite a lot of short stories, a fair few pieces in The School Journal. But definitely not another novel.
Then, soon after she began high school, one of our daughter Helen's friends died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The poignancy of the young life ended so soon, plus the courage with which Helen faced her loss, made me realise I had to try and write something about it.
So another couple of years on, I braced myself and produced a Young Adult novel. It was totally different from my first, appalling effort, though it borrowed some of the techniques I'd used while writing that. People and events were fuelled by reality and reflection, instead of third-hand genre tropes. I listened to teenage dialogue; tried to respect and reproduce it.
I called the book See Ya, Simon. It got published - and it changed my writing life forever.