A incident always comes to mind when I think of writing Red Cliff. It was January 2007, and I was on a cycling holiday at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. I had begun the story in an exercise book, and had carefully wrapped it in plastic bags before storing it away in my cycling pannier bags. Trouble was, my precautions were no match for the Takaka hill; I descended from the 800m summit in pouring rain and by the time I made it to Pohara camp site my nascent novel was a soggy mess. I remember peeling the pages apart and hanging them in the camp boiler room to dry out. Not the most auspicious of starts.
At this point my previous novel, Lester, had not been accepted for publication, and in that sense I wasn’t thinking in terms of writing a follow up. In my mind I was still working towards the breakthrough, publishable novel. That is the slightly puny excuse I offer for the strong similarities between the first two novels. The new boy to school, a smart-arse outsider, who falls for the alpha-girl and must negotiate the secrets surrounding a world of conservative religion before he can make his mark… yep, pretty much the same book transplanted from the setting of a small rural town (my first teaching stint) to a liberal urban environment (my third).
That’s not all they have in common. Once again, the ending is a little abrupt, and in this case, I think there is evidence of my first attempt to find the ending on the hoof. A number of times, I have set out to write novels without knowing exactly how they would finish, and sad to say never once did I find the completely satisfying ending along the way. There’s also the first sign of me looking for a story structure that would allow me to move through elapsing time as smoothly as possible. I’ve always found this business of leaping forward a week or a month tremendously difficult, I’m not sure why. Sentences of the form, ‘three weeks later, when the bruises had finally begun to fade…’ make me feel as if I am somehow cheating, so contrivances like the switching between two voices employed here, hold more appeal than probably they should. In hindsight, this story would have worked better without the second, diary entry, voice. But that’s how it goes with wrting, we learn from our mistakes and move on to make new ones.
On the upside, this novel, like Lester, represents me as a young school teacher, still in my twenties and not a world away yet from the adolescent life I am writing about. I think that immediacy counts in its favour. I was capable then of writing about the teenage whirl in a way that I can no longer access, a dilemma that every YA writer must face, I think. Ultimately, our writing either evolves, or becomes a sad parody of itself. I’m hoping for option A.