Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Burden of Dreams

Werner Herzog has achieved notoriety in the movie industry as someone who makes films that would be almost impossible for any other director to make. Audiences who have seen his film, Fitzcarraldo, will never forget seeing a real steamship pulled over a muddy hillside in Peru using no special effects, only brute force.

But that brain-searing scene only happened because Herzog refused to simulate a 320-ton steamship pulled overland. Despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulties it presented, he refused to give up on his dream of moving a ship over a hill because he did not want to fake it. When the investors backing Fitzcarraldo found out that it was proving impossible, they asked Herzog if it might be wiser to abandon the film and write off the huge pre-production losses. He was outraged. “How can you ask this question?” he replied. “If I abandon this project, I will be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that.”

Living with a cherished, but unrealised, dream is hard on the soul. It's like dragging a boat up a 40-degree slope. I should know, having spent years writing a book I thought would never be finished. Now that it's finally out, it's a relief, a joy and a sadness, all at the same time.

I started on The Double Happiness Company many years ago. It was a book I never wanted to write because I knew how hard it would be to write convincingly about a young girl with a dream so big that it almost kills her. But the themes and the characters kept nipping at my heels. The first draft was written in the first person from the point of view of Katie Rivers, the novel’s teenage protagonist. My writing group kept telling me it wasn’t working because it was bathetic and the main character was weak, irritating and unsympathetic. But by the time I realised they were right, the manuscript was already 140,000 words long.

So I started from scratch, writing it from in the third person from Katie’s point of view to gain more objectivity. I added two other narrators: Katie's brother, Rhett, and their mother, Lola, in an effort to make the narrative more balanced. The manuscript was slowly getting better, but I still had not fully resolved the book's many flaws.

Depressed and defeated, I shoved the bulging typescript in a drawer. For a long, long time. Seven years to be precise. But even hidden away, the novel would not leave me alone. I would have abandoned the manuscript forever, except that I knew the technical problems I had to solve would never go away until I faced them. That even if I did start a new novel, the same problems would surface in another form to haunt me. Then I read this by Robert Moss: “Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.”

I knew I couldn't give up because I was being stalked by some of my best material so I finally surrendered and let myself be “caught”. I cut and cut and cut. I added missing scenes. I deepened the main characters by exploring, then revealing their motives. By pushing through the many problems in The Double Happiness Company, I was finally able to finish it to my satisfaction. And not only to my satisfaction, it would seem. Almost without exception, people have found the book gripping. Some have read it one long sitting. Others have purposely read at a snail's pace so it wouldn't be over so quickly. One mother of young children cursed me because she found The Double Happiness Company so engrossing she didn't get to bed until 4.00AM on Christmas morning, only to have to get up a few hours later to look after a sniffly little one. Surely the loveliest “curse” I've received from anyone.

Do I regret starting the novel? I do not any more than, I suspect, Werner Herzog regrets the madness and the folly of moving his steamship through a jungle for Fitzcarraldo. That is the price you must willingly pay for the burden of a dream.

Stay tuned . . .

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