In 2017, ten years after The House at Riverton was first published in the UK, Pan Macmillan decided to issue a special Tenth Anniversary Edition with a celebratory jacket and a new introduction from me. The House at Riverton (known in Australia as The Shifting Fog) was my first published novel. It was written with very little expectation of publication and certainly with no thought that it would go on to become one of the most successful debut novels in UK history or to sell millions of copies worldwide. I’ve learned a lot about creativity since then (not to mention about writing, publishing, and life itself!); I’ve also had the great good fortune to meet and speak with readers from all over the world; and so, it was extremely satisfying to have the opportunity here to put down some thoughts about writing, reading, and the relationship between the two.
Ten Years; or, Time Capsules, Tapestries and the Art of Learning to Let Go
June 2017 will mark ten years since my first book, The House at Riverton, was published. I’d already finished two manuscripts when I began writing it, but The House at Riverton felt different from the start. I’d given up on publication by then and wrote with no expectations, ignoring questions of genre and markets. I also wrote with a small baby – my first – on my hip. Literally, at times. I wrote for the love of storytelling and wordplay, and the joy of escaping into my own imaginary world.
I’ve learned over the past decade that novels are time capsules of their author’s life. They can’t help but be, for writing is one of the ways in which an author processes the world. It used to trouble me, this idea that a book would be different depending on the year in which it was written. Books are such solid, certain things, with firm covers and printed text and bold, clear titles. They can be quoted from, their pages referenced. They have authority and certainty and fixity. But stories are none of these things. They’re living creatures, with organic, shifting forms. They shimmer in the light and then disappear just as quickly into darkness; they evade capture like fish in a deep, cool stream.
This mutability disturbed me at first. As a reader, I was accustomed to devouring finished novels, and now, finding myself in the Middle of Things, able to choose what happened next and to whom, to decide how an event was described, or whether perhaps it was better that it happened off stage, was liberating. But it was also disquieting. If something I saw while I was wandering through the Paddington Antiques Centre with my mum triggered a thought that gave me an idea for something my character might say in the scene I was writing, I felt glad. But I was also vaguely suspicious. It all seemed so arbitrary. How could I trust that the idea I’d had that day was the right one? What if it wasn’t? What if I’d have had a different – better – idea had I spent the day at home instead? What if I accidentally followed the wrong tangent and took my story in a direction contrary to The One it was meant to follow?
I now know that there’s no such thing as The One. At least, there’s no way of knowing what form The One will take until the published book returns from the printer, a fait accompli. A story is made up of thousands of small ideas – threads that weave together to form the whole – and the tapestry is assembled over a very long period of time. Every image, every spark, every fragmentary concept, filters through the author’s mind, finding expression in the words available to her on a particular day. A writer can plan, of course, but there’s as little hope of anticipating the precise shape a novel will take as there is of predicting the future. Each day’s writing is dependent on conditions in the writer’s life, and life leaves its mark on us all. The author who finishes a book is a different author from the one who started it months or years before.
Oh, how I love that idea now! There’s so much possibility when the ending isn’t written. And no matter how much planning a writer does, the execution can’t help but throw up multiple opportunities. (Complications, too, it must be said.) Ideas are everywhere and they can be spun into useful threads and woven into one’s story whenever and wherever they’re found. There’s truth in that sort of creative process, and vitality and uniqueness – for we are all individuals, with lives and thoughts and influences that combine to make us who we are. A story, then, is like the person who wrote it: varied, problematic, complex, mobile, alive. The tale that is trapped in printer’s text and bound between covers is simply the most recent version of the story at the moment the deadline was called. Rather than moving on with the author, the story becomes a book and is fixed in time.
The House at Riverton, like all of my books, reverberates with the many things I loved and felt and saw and thought and heard while I was writing it. Some ideas were new to me and others I’d carried for years. Looking back at it now is, for me, a bit like watching a home movie I’ve only recently rediscovered, or leafing through an old photo album, or listening to a favourite mix-tape from a long time ago. I see the scenes for what appears on their surface – the story of the Hartford sisters and Grace, the passing of a particular time in English history, the elegant and inevitable decline of Riverton Manor – but I see other, deeper layers, too. Shadow imprints that cast me back precisely to the place I was in, and the person I was, when they first came into my mind.
When I read the name ‘Riverton’ in the pages of my novel, for instance, I am here in the present but I am simultaneously sitting on my bed thirteen years ago with a notepad on my lap, scribbling ideas for a yet unwritten story. I’ve taken a brief break. My baby son is asleep in the room across the hallway of our tiny wooden workers’ cottage in Paddington, and I dial the number of the Queensland Government ‘Riverton’ Child Health Service to ask for advice on when he should be feeding, sleeping, burping. As I speak to the stranger at the other end of the line, as her kind voice tells me I’m doing a good job, that everything will be all right, that my little boy is fine, I think about this wonderful place, this ‘Riverton’, from where advice is dispensed, and I imagine it a beautiful country residence in the middle of serene green grounds; a place where kind women are waiting near antique telephones, ready to allay the fears of nervous new parents. Riverton. I scribble the word in my notebook as we speak and absently sketch a pattern around it. Afterwards, when the call is over and I’ve returned to planning my story, I’ll see the doodle and remember my vision of the place, and know, in a very inauspicious, matter-of-fact way, that the English manor where my characters live will share this lovely name. (Never mind that the Child Health Centre later revealed itself to be a 1970s-era brick office block two suburbs from where I lived.)
If, today, I read a passage in which elderly Grace is treated as if she’s invisible, I am cast back to the morning I watched my grandmother make a purchase from the supermarket near her flat on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. I see the roast chicken she’s bought for our lunch and the stick of butter and the loaf of bread. I see my nana’s enigmatic smile – shy and ladylike, a smile from another era – as she waits with her hand outstretched, her palm ready to receive her change. The purchase isn’t large, but to feed her visiting family is an extravagance for Nana. This day is an occasion. I notice how neatly her lipstick is applied and the way the pearly fabric of her good dress glistens. I see how short she’s become and note the uncomfortable shoes, tight around the toes, which she’ll put away in a cardboard box when we get home. And I still feel a cold whip of quiet rage as the girl behind the checkout flicks the coins across the counter without so much as a glance in my nana’s direction.
When I open the chapter named ‘Waiting for the Recital’ and read about the Hartford children and their Game, I am immediately back in Rosalie Village, in the warm subtropical dusk, walking with my husband on the way to dinner. The horizon hangs before us in pleats of deep mauve and orange, and my mother is at home with our baby boy. It is a rare night out and we’re both looking forward to it. I feel lightened by anticipation. We’re crossing the driveway between the ice-cream shop and an Italian restaurant when the solution to a problem I’ve been worrying at for weeks comes suddenly to mind. I’ve been seeking something to bring the children in my story to life, to bind them together, to convey the secret language that all siblings share. I’ve been thinking, too, about my own childhood – I do that a lot, since becoming a parent myself – and the way my sisters and I seemed to have such long, clear days to play and invent; how jealously we’d guarded the secrets of our childhood world from the adults who moved above us. And suddenly, The Game comes fully formed and with it, a crucial insight into the relationship between the three Hartford children that had heretofore been missing. Picturing the three of them, my thoughts latch onto the concept of a three-sided shape, its strength, and at once I am at a desk on Tamborine Mountain, hunched over a high school textbook as my engineer father explains the mathematical properties of the triangle, how important it is to bridge-builders, how vulnerable to collapse if one side should weaken and fall. And so, two ideas at once.
Reading now about my fictional sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and their proud, well-meaning father, their family stretching back across generations, I am also in a coffee shop on Latrobe Terrace, a concrete car-park in front of me, and my newborn baby in his shiny pram beside me. I’m still learning how to be a mother, how to fill the long days without university and work. I see my baby in his pram, my tiny blue-eyed son (who’s now a teenager, with long skinny legs and a jaw that’s becoming more like a man’s than a boy’s), and I see the notebook spread out on the table in front of me, the family tree I’m sketching, the ideas that come as I scribble, these made-up people who are real to me, and who provide company during the long, strange days. I am one of three sisters, as is my mother; her mother before her was one of seven. I am eager to write about the sibling relationship and I want to write about women. An aspect of my nana’s biography provides the vital plot twist in the story, a narrative turn that underlines its feminine focus and is all the more unexpected for it. She has died since I started writing, my quiet, unassuming nana, and to weave in one of her special talents, a skill that made her modestly proud, pleases me enormously.
Each scene, each page, each thought within the book could tell a similar story. I don’t remember them all. Some inspiration is fleeting. Some ideas barely leave a trace. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the finished book is a time capsule. It is a tapestry of particular threads, discovered along the way and entwined to tell a story that would have been different without any one of them. What’s more, such openness and flexibility is the point. Being receptive to the world and its suggestions, noticing threads wherever they may lie, is how it’s done. It’s impossible to know it all at the beginning of a story, just as one must remain open to possibility in order to lead a rich life.
And what I didn’t realize when I was just beginning, when I was filled with existential worry as to which version of my story was The One, was that even if such a thing could be envisaged from the start, the moment a book is taken from the shop, library or study shelf and opened by a reader, it loses its fixity once more. For the text might be finalized by publication, but the story it describes remains open to interpretation. We all read differently, bringing our experiences to bear. A reader might not see my life experiences underlying the text, but she will certainly overlay her own, converting the text into a living, breathing story that is unique to her.
And this is the magic of fiction. This is its beauty. It is a conversation between two people, a place where two minds meet across time and space. It is alive and it is intimate and it gladdens me enormously to know that a book will tell a different story depending on the day it’s written and the day it’s read; that you will bring my story back to life even as you make it your own.
Kate Morton, London, 2016