A Book of Ideas
Authors draw inspiration from many different places. Some build a story around a character, others begin with a striking landscape. My writing always starts with an idea.
Truth be told, I tend to pile too many ideas into my books … but that is maybe a conversation for another time.
The writing of The Slipping Place began with some horrifying and appalling stories in the news. It was one of those times when there seemed to be many similar stories – when you find yourself saying, “What is going on? What’s wrong with the world?” On this occasion it was a series of reports of children being hurt, and in places where they should have been safe: in their own homes.
Maybe it wasn’t really an unusual number of cases. Maybe sometimes you just get sensitised to a certain thing and then you see incidences of it that you would normally miss. Either way, I read some appalling and disturbing stories about the physical abuse of very young children and they were preying on my mind … and then I started thinking about my own response to them.
A story like this is intolerable. It is unthinkable and dreadful and it rocks our view of the world. We are sickened and horrified. Then we turn the page and say ‘please pass the salt’. We close the computer and get on with our day.
How? Why can we do that? A small child having bones broken, cigarette burns. Somewhere in our city. This completely abhorrent. And yet, we put it aside. What do we say to ourselves that enables us to do that?
Child abuse cases raise the largest of moral and ethical dilemmas. I do not have answers to these. The Slipping Place poses questions.
Maybe the important word in the above paragraph is ‘unthinkable’. When something is truly abhorrent – a child being thrown into a wall, being bashed with a stick, a baby being shaken – it is simply impossible to absorb fully the reality of something like that. It would take time and work to picture clearly the events we have read about. And we don’t want to do that. We don’t make the effort, or take the time. We protect ourselves from the awfulness of it. Which, when you say it baldly like that –“we protect ourselves” – ourselves – it seems impossible to justify.
Maybe we have to do it. I don’t know. The world is full of dreadful things. If we fully absorbed them all, maybe nothing would function.
I don’t know.
“You draw a line. You decide what’s yours.”
I began thinking about distance. If a child was hurt right in front of us, if we were in the room, we would be traumatised forever. We would fly in and intervene. We would put ourselves at risk. But when it happens some distance away, we dissociate, we put it aside and get on with our lives.
How far? What distance is required? How do we decide?
There is a point in The Slipping Place where Veronica explains to a younger person:
“You can’t fix everything. You draw a line around things. You decide what’s yours.”
She wants to tell her son:
“Roland Roland Widdershins. You can’t save them all.”
That is one of the central ideas in the novel. I examine that process of drawing a line around what’s yours. The novel doesn’t not take a clear moral stance about it. I don’t think there is a clear answer. This is a story about a woman whose life is essentially comfortable. Some terrible things happen, at a distance from her, and gradually these are brought closer.
A related idea is the definition of family. A young person says to Veronica:
“The actual blood ties aren’t the most important thing are they?’
And she instinctively answers, ‘Yes.’
But as the story goes on, her position is challenged.
The second main inspiration for The Slipping Place was my love of Hobart and my yearning to return. I have lived on the mainland for over forty years, but for the whole of that time I have come back two or three times a year for weeks at a time. It was only as I got older that I started to realise that Hobart still felt like home.
That is a simple phrase and quick to say, but it’s a very large statement. It’s complex and deep. It refers to what kind of landscape we find comfortable and beautiful, but it is also more than that. It is something about deep understanding.
I grew up on Hobart’s eastern shore, looking across at the mountain, Cornelian Bay and the Botanical Gardens, then under the bridge to the city, and out to Storm Bay. It was only after I had lived on the mainland for some years that I started to appreciate what an extraordinary outlook that was. As I grew older I would find myself at different places, and people would say the view was beautiful, and I remember feeling bewildered – cold, and unsettled.
Of course, I could see what they meant. Of course, I can recognise all kinds of beauty in all kinds of places. But what I feel in other places is a kind of disconnection. At some deep level I don’t understand other landscapes. To quote from the TV series Westworld, the feeling was, “That doesn’t look like anything to me.”