No Alarms was the fourth of my books to be published, despite being written third. I see it as the completion of my stories-in-schools phase. Each of these novels reflected one my first three teaching positions: with the small town school of Lester being very close to Otaki College, Red Cliff’s liberal urban environment drawing directly on my experiences at Onslow College, and No Alarms being very much my Taita College story. Taita is a suburban school, serving a less affluent community.
As with Lester, No Alarms had a previous life. The main character, and some of the key incidents, first saw the light of day in the novel I’m Not, which was never published (for excellent reasons). It was the first time I wrote a story based upon character rather than a situation, theme or concept. When I started I had no idea what would happen, or even what the story would be about. All I knew was I had a girl in my head who was very real to me. She was smart enough, but had no idea how to live in the school environment. Its culture was alien to her, the things it required of her didn’t fit with the life she was forced to leave, with a unreliable mother, an uncertain home and a younger brother to take care of.
I wanted the story to be about the tragedy of wasted potential, both how very hard it is for schools, as we have constructed them, to serve these kids, and how extremely difficult these kids find it to serve our schools, as we require them to do. In lots of ways I knew this sort of story very well, having taught so many students with that profile, but I was also aware that the further I moved away from her school experiences, the more I was having to guess and invent. So the danger of inauthenticity loomed over this project from the outset. That’s how I see the story now, as working well at the level of the school and home experiences, but being much less successful as it moves into the world of crime.
I remember having discussions with my publisher about the ending of this novel. I wanted it to be downbeat. In my experience, mostly these kids did end up seeing their potential wasted. In particular, I thought it was very important not to paint an unrealistic rescue scenario, the white, middle class teacher who cares coming in and providing the way out. Because that’s a fairy tale, and as such it ignores the complexity of the problem. Against that the publisher argued, convincingly, that a story that just paints the situation as hopeless might do little more than reinforce the negative stereotype. My compromise was an ambiguous ending, where we see, in the strength of Sharon’s wits and character, enough to believe a good outcome is at least possible.
Although the story she needed never really developed around her, of all the characters I have created, Sharon might well be my favourite.