A Way with Words

David Hill looks back at the ori­gins and en­dur­ing life of his first pub­lished book.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - David Hill

Aquar­ter of a cen­tury ago, I sat blub­ber­ing over a man­u­script. It was my first novel. My first pub­lished novel, sorry: the pre­vi­ous two had gath­ered re­jec­tion slips from three con­ti­nents. Twenty-five years on, it’s still in print – and I apol­o­gise for that vaunt­ing sen­tence.

It’s called See Ya, Si­mon. I be­gan it af­ter one of our daugh­ter’s friends died. He had Duchenne mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy, and He­len had seen him go from crutches to wheel­chair to hos­pi­tal. He died aged 15, near their prize­giv­ing week. She wept for days.

The book is about her as much as her friend, even if I did turn her into a boy called Nathan. I wanted to record her courage – and her fear. A friend had died. Sud­denly, noth­ing in the world was safe.

The way I wrote See Ya, Si­mon was ut­terly dif­fer­ent from the ways I try to write now. I read books about MD – you re­alise we’re talk­ing pre-in­ter­net days here? I jot­ted down ideas. But ba­si­cally, I be­gan with a scene in a high school like the one I’d taught at and made events up as I went along. I formed friend­ships with my char­ac­ters, which is one of writ­ing’s great plea­sures.

Then I had to leave home. We were hav­ing ren­o­va­tions done; ev­ery time I went down­town, my wife, Beth, got an­other in­te­rior wall knocked out. So I trot­ted along to a friends’ house and wrote at their din­ing room ta­ble.

As I reached the scenes of the boy’s death, some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened. I be­gan weep­ing. I’d sit sniv­el­ling and drip­ping on the pa­per, while the house’s old labrador, con­cerned at my gulp­ing noises, came and rested his head on my thigh.

I fin­ished the first draft, re­vised it, re­vised it again, typed it on my elec­tric type­writer. I looked up “pub­lish­ers” in the Yel­low Pages (true!) and posted it off. I heard noth­ing for five months.

Fi­nally, I phoned. They’d get back to me soon, the pub­lish­ers promised. They did: they re­jected it two days later.

I don’t blame them. Un­known au­thor, boy in wheel­chair, blah blah … But then I re­mem­bered Ann Mallinson of Mallinson Ren­del. A year be­fore, I’d sent Mallinson some short sto­ries, which she de­clined with a note so cour­te­ous and sup­port­ive I felt it was worth­while car­ry­ing on writ­ing. I re­posted the man­u­script on Mon­day morn­ing. On Thurs­day evening, she rang and said she wanted to pub­lish it. I stood with the phone in my left hand, punch­ing the air with my right.

I’m telling you this be­cause such mo­ments are rare for any au­thor. They

keep you go­ing. This one helped com­pen­sate for the fact that the next novel I wrote took three years and six re­jec­tions to make it into print.

SYS still sells enough copies each year in New Zealand to pay a sum­mer month’s power bill. Oc­ca­sional sums from over­seas some­times pay for a win­ter month.

Since it ap­peared in 1992, it’s been trans­lated into sev­eral lan­guages. The Amer­i­cans changed “foot­path” to “side­walk” and “lift” to “el­e­va­tor”. The Kore­ans gave it a cover ap­par­ently fea­tur­ing Justin Bieber. The Dutch … pause to draw breath.

There’s a scene in SYS where the teenage nar­ra­tor buys his ir­ri­tat­ing small sis­ter a birth­day present, a “rubber shaped like a dog”. No, I wouldn’t use “rubber” these days. As I leafed through the Dutch trans­la­tion, out leapt the word “con­dom”. What must they think of us in Amsterdam? And what breed of dog did they pic­ture?

I still get let­ters from classes ask­ing why I made Si­mon die. Be­cause he did, I say. Be­cause the hon­esties of life and fic­tion de­mand it.

Why tell you all this? Well, I love the sto­ries be­hind sto­ries, and I hope you do too. I also be­lieve fic­tion has the po­ten­tial to make us more aware, more gen­er­ous, and I hope See Ya, Si­mon says some­thing about friend­ship, the hero­ism and sto­icism of or­di­nary kids, the twin­ing of cel­e­bra­tion and mourn­ing.

I was lucky to re­ceive the story. I feel pleased I wrote it; may I say that? In

Ian McEwan’s daz­zling, chill­ing words, “You’re born. You make some­thing. You die.” I’m priv­i­leged to have recorded the teenage boy who knew all those three.

I be­lieve fic­tion has the po­ten­tial to make us more aware, more gen­er­ous.

David Hill: a pub­lisher’s “yes” is a rare and air­punch-wor­thy event.

Be­low left, var­i­ous edi­tions of See Ya, Si­mon.

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