Not being George Orwell, I can only tell you why I wrote this book, my novel.
Every writer wants to produce the kind of thing they love to read themselves. I’ve read a lot of great authors, so I had in mind a contemporary novel with flawed characters, dialogue that rings true, a sense of place, and a terrific story-line to pull it all together.
That may well be how I wrote it, but it’s not why.
It began on a plane as my eldest son and I headed for Princeton and my father’s funeral. The 7-hour journey to Newark gave us plenty of time to talk.
Most families are complicated. My father moved out when I was about four. Although my earliest memories go back to my second birthday, all I remembered of my Daddy was trailing around my mother in the too-large flat and asking where he was. “Heliopolis” she said.
Just recently I looked through an ancient photo album. It was a jolt to see evidence of the three of us together, Mum and Dad and myself as a young child.
For years after he left, we had little to do with each other. It was my grandfather I called Papa.
Then came occasional awkward meetings in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The most awkward was an outing to buy a Barbie doll, during which my knicker elastic snapped.
But I was lucky as a teenager and then an adult, because we gradually grew closer despite living on different continents most of the time. Recently we were seeing each other once or twice a year. I’d often go over with my children to spend some time in New Jersey with Dad and the wonderful American woman he’d married when I was about 9 (‘stepmother’ is too Grimm a word).
On flight CO19 Julian and I reminisced. Dad was the archetypal Brit in the USA. Despite having settled there decades before, he was still sustained by Tommy Cooper videos and Harrogate toffees that played havoc with his dentures.
His death was hardly premature, but his last years had been tough, with serious lung disease, spinal stenosis, and a heart attack that made his heart stop twice.
Julian and I talked about the little oxygen cylinder that came with him everywhere. His reluctance to use a disabled badge. His marvel at the benefits of knee exercises (most of my patients hardly bother with them, but Dad was meticulous about his quads regime). His impatience with politics both sides of the Atlantic, yet his infinite patience in his volunteer work for Centurion Ministries, which absorbed him after he retired from decades in life insurance.
At some point Julian slept and I got a gin and tonic. That’s when I started jotting things down on the napkin. Then I asked for another napkin. Julian stirred and wanted to know what I was writing. “Notes for an article” I said, unsure what I had in mind.
The notes developed into a plot about a motley group of singletons (there’s more on the Books page). They are all, not surprisingly, trying to find someone special. I know I was.
I scribbled some more, and a novel developed. The story has nothing to do with my father. Except for this one thing: he’d always wanted to be a writer. When he read my first (non-fiction) book, he never said he was proud of me, but he did say it was a bit like something he’d once written.
Is One Night at the Jacaranda the kind of book he’d have wanted me to write? Absolutely not. I think he’d choke on a toffee if he read it.
I posted this on 27 November 2013 but later decided the topic deserved a page of its own. It may help you if you’re curious to know about my early life, or have similar conflicts in your own family.
By the way, Centurion Ministries is an investigative agency with no religious affiliation. Its mission is to free from prison those innocent individuals who had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to either a life sentence or death.