I often think of this novel as the one that got away. Rereading it, I find passages that connect back with my imagination exactly as I hope they would. The characters, sights, smells and circumstances, do seem to have lodged on the page. However, when it comes to the story, this is one that didn’t quite work out,and that has a lot to do with the way I went about building it.
Home Boys is the only novel of mine based on a real life story. I interviewed a man who had been sent out to New Zealand from England as a child following World War Two. His tale was one of hardship and exploitation, although remarkably he had risen above it and was able to look back without bitterness or regret. I decided to try to write his story, or more specifically to use the opening of his adventures as the first half of my novel. I would follow his journey from England to New Zealand and on to the farm, from which he would run away, and let my imagination take over from there. In my head I had the vague idea it would morph into a tale of mateship in the wilds, a sort of New Zealand Huckleberry Finn, but I wasn’t too sure of the details.
The first half of the novel therefore came easily. There was an easy sense of character, place and flow, and I became overconfident. Instead of pausing and asking myself, where should this go, what am I trying to do with this story, I began to believe I could simply enjoy the ride. Elements were thrown in as they came to me: a slightly supernatural tinge with Colin’s recurring nightmare visions, a love story testing the limits of mateship, the mysterious reapearance of an Italian prisoner of war, the oddly mythical pull of a cave in the forest.
I can still feel the deep attraction of each of these elements. I wrote them because they fascinated me and I wanted to see how they would come together. I was almost experiencing the story as a reader might, accepting the rising tension of incompatible narrative threads, believing this would only make the pulling together at the end all the more impressive. But, as any alert reader will notice, they don’t come together at all. The cave is a non-event, the Italian’s appearance is just coincidence after all, they were just dreams, not visions, and the girl moves on, as she must, leaving the boys alone on the back of a truck, bouncing into their futures.
None of this is to argue against the method of exploratory writing, just seeing where the story takes you. It’s a potentially wonderful approach, but it does require a certain discipline. At the point where it becomes clear some strands are never going to be adequately woven together, difficult decisions need to be made about which to keep and which to throw away. Home Boys, to me, reads a little like an early draft of what had the potential to develop into my favourite novel. Ultimately, that potential was defeated by the need to move on to the next project. This one required more time and patience than I was prepared to give it.
Against that, it certainly contains some of my favourite passages.