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