Somewhere in the dim, dark, past of the very late twentieth century, two books, I read and loved, had an influence on the development of one of my own: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Mario Vargos Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The former for a great page one. Browsing bookshops has always been one of my favourite pastimes; and that means reading a lot of page ones. A good opening page, a good opening paragraph, can grab you; it can be the best marketing tool ever, and Irving’s is one of the best openings, rivalling, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love as THE best. At about this time I was dabbling with writing an autobiographical fiction and I got it in my head that the opening paragraph had to be a doosy. I had a name for my fictional me: my father, who died, when I was five wanted to call me Johann Wilhelm, he lost out. This would become the name of my hero. I first began an investigation, that continues today, into truth v’s fiction when I heard that the Australian commentator and writer, Clive James, had written something autobiographical. His Unreliable Memoirs were published in 1980. I found the title confusing, a contradiction, but as my reading education continued and as I discovered that my recollections of my own past differed from those who were also there, I developed a concept of fictional truth: every time we speak about the past something in the telling changes depending on who is listening AND the more we tell it the firmer those changes become part of our believed past. We are creatures whose desires, dreams, and fantasies can take root, grow, and evolve under favourable conditions, like mould, into memories. (Oo! That’s good. I might use that). Now I am of the view that anything that is written cannot be true: what is true is that we are looking at little black markings on a white page, or screen, and those markings, although we all share a common pool of meaning regarding those markings, the different arrangement of those markings can signify different meanings for different people.
LLosa’s great book I cherish, among many things, for its great title. The title of a book, the title for any piece of literature, needs to be specific, not general. Had Tolstoy consulted me about titles I would’ve said “Yes” to Anna Karenina, but “No” to War and Peace. I also would’ve poo-poohed Lawrence for Sons and Lovers. Oh well, I still like a specific title, like, The Prince of Norwood, and The Lavender-Hill Mob. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is very specific (it’s about an aunt called Julia and a man who writes TV scripts – how specific can you get?) but also intriguing: ‘Aunt Julia’ is familial, ‘Scriptwriter’ is vocational. There’s a mismatch that leads you to mentally ask a lot of questions: it sparks curiosity. I like that in a title. I worked for months on my biographical piece on my very first lap-top; but then in the late 1990s – it must have been after 1997 because I was living in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney – my computer blew-up. Clouds of smoke, SMOKE! began billowing from the thing and my computer repair man, in a back lane off Bourke Street, just, school-m’amishly, shook his little head, at me. He was no use at all. Fifty thousand words gone! I had backed everything up but not on a different device. Well, actually, not completely gone. I had worked on the opening so much I had memorised the opening sentence. It was all I had. I remember it now. Here it is.
“If at any time you had grabbed him by the shoulders, made him sit, looked him in the eye, and asked the right questions, even he would have to admit that it was not possible for him to have killed his step-father three times.”
This was, is, my killer opening and so, finally, last week, after nearly two decades, (and with my sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, Veronica Spreads It Around, at the proof-reader’s) I started anew and so Johnny William and the Cameraman rides again.