On the making of Nine Hours North

Nine Years Later
(originally published in Viewpoint, Winter 2006)

It’s a page-turner, people say to me in a tone of disbelief, and I understand where they’re coming from. I couldn’t put it down. It’s almost an accusation. I mean I am one of those weirdos who reads poetry for pleasure, but I fully understand their reservations. A novel, in verse? That’s going to be kind of obscure, right? Something you read because you feel obliged to improve yourself. Definitely hard to get into. Definitely not for pleasure…

Nine years ago, in the year I decided it was time to ‘get serious’ about writing, all these poems came pouring out. It surprised me. I’d been expecting short stories, as that was mainly what I’d written in the sporadic years since teachers had stopped setting assignments. But the poetry came. I came to it. I started reading more, having grown up in a school system that hardly encouraged this pursuit, and stumbled upon Neruda’s poem “Poetry”. And it was at that age… Poetry arrived / in search of me. The literary precedent had been set, I decided. I’d better follow.

I kept writing poetry, loving the inherently experimental nature of it, the way you could make words do things they hadn’t been designed to do, testing their limits and the rules we’d imposed upon them, testing their relationships with other words. I loved the snapshot effect too, the way you could focus in on one tiny incident; focus the reader’s attention on something they otherwise might not see. Or the way this tiny thing could come to represent so much more than what it was. (I should point out that at this stage most of this wonder was at the possibilities of the form. My own abilities hadn’t quite caught up yet, but the possibilities… man…)

It wasn’t until I chanced across Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask (serendipity helping me out of my ignorance again) that I realised I’d been missing narrative. That deadly, beautiful hook. Anthropologists theorise that humans are hardwired for story. It’s one of the most basic of the human creative urges, almost up there with the procreative. And after all, what do we do to get into a situation where procreation might be possible, but tell stories about ourselves? We narrativise. Turn our disparate and often mundane collection of facts into a story with rhythm and flow and purpose. And that’s what I’d been missing.

Not that poetry has never involved narrative. The earliest language made stories, and stories made songs, where the poetic form functioned as a mnemonic device as much as anything. For if we are hardwired for story, we are even more deeply programmed for rhythm and rhyme. It’s in our genes. Shift forward through the years to the epics of Egypt, Greece, China, Persia, Japan. Jump again and you have Shakespeare saying everything under the sun in verse. Coleridge. Banjo Paterson, if you must. Stories in verse.

But The Monkey’s Mask was a contemporary novel in the way that these narratives weren’t. It had everything that a novel had, expressed in about twenty percent of the words. It was a novel. It was more. It was less which was more, more, more. I loved it. I came to love skinny so much that I thought I’d done with fat books forever until years later when I came to love Murakami’s fat masterpiece The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

One of the main things that The Monkey’s Mask did to me was to make me want to copy. Inspiration, people call that. Monkey see, monkey do. I wanted to, and I thought I actually had a story, too. This was going to be the big one. This was it.

I made a false start or two. I stopped. I went away, I came back. After a year or two of this I made an uncharacteristically sensible decision and put it all in a box and left it alone. I just didn’t have the technical ability. And, I realised years later, I didn’t have the story. Had to have a few more disparate and mundane things happen to me for it all to come together.

GAVNIn the meantime, I continued to play with words, with individual poems. The polish, the way they fit together. The stories that they told became less abstract. I enrolled in the University of Adelaide’s MA in Creative Writing. For the deadline. A two year course, with the first spent reveling in other writers’ words, and the second spent on our own major project. The verse novel that had been bothering me, in my own case. By the beginning of that second year, I was as ready as I was going to be, and more importantly, that deadline was looming. Love deadlines.

Digging back through the box, I could really start to see which bits might work, and which bits were never going to. Most importantly though, I could see the characters starting to emerge from the sketches, the bits and pieces cohering in three dimensions. Most of what I’d written previously were journal-type stories from my own life in Japan, or the lives of my friends living there with me. What started to emerge this time, though, was a main character who shared some of these stories, but who had his own way of dealing with the things I’d dealt with, his own take on the world. I could see the beginning of his story, and it was curious enough to make me want to follow it. It was enormously exciting.

So that was the story, and the characters. The poetry, though, the form – that was something else, but something I would never separate entirely from the story. I can’t possibly judge, but a friend recently told me that they couldn’t imagine Nine Hours North told in any other way, and that was extremely gratifying to hear. From the beginning this was suppposed to be a verse novel, and I was not going to give up on that idea. I stumbled around somewhere in the middle of the story, writing a few sections here and there, before working out that fifty percent of writing a novel is being a good bookkeeper, and got my thoughts a bit more in order. And by a month or two into all this I’d organically developed a way of working that saw me through until the end of the year, and the end of the first draft.

Supposedly, the great Zen Haijin (Haiku masters) would spend all day in preparation – organising their brushes, cleaning their workrooms, making tea – before sitting down to write just one haiku. With the absolute luxury of time that I had doing this MA, I developed a similar, if not quite so spiritual, routine. Days spent walking, doing chores, eating, drinking coffee. Nights, once the combination of adrenalin, caffeine, endorphins and sunset had settled into place in my system, were for writing. (You will sense that I am mythologizing this time. My current “real world” involves full-time work. Ah well. But really, it did happen kinda like this…)

These nights, once I had established my pattern, once I had got myself organised, were for piling up mountains of words, or for slashing and burning the last night’s outpouring. The pruning was always the best part. Night one I would start with a section that I knew had to happen next. I would write it, straight onto the computer, blindfolded sometimes so I couldn’t go back, just letting it all come out. Thousands of words. Finding out what happened in this section I had sketched out. Night two I would take the good bits. Bend them into shape, twist them around one another, sculpt a poem. So good to be able to discard words. So much like finding the figure in the block of stone. Less is more, more, more.

The finished novel has just over 18,000 words, less than your average novella. I’d like to think they’re mostly the right ones. I’d like to hope they keep you turning the pages…