I started writing stories and poems as soon as I learned to read and write in English, when I turned seven. Before that, as a Canadian Anglophone child going to school in France, I wrote only in French – my mother still has letters I wrote while she was in hospital – and I wrote only letters. But English was not simply the language we spoke at home, it was the language of stories: both bedtime books, and my father’s crazy made-up
stories. Learning to read in it gave me the freedom to create my own.
What I remember most is not the stories – or poems or plays – themselves, but the act of creating: the taste of the thoughtfully chewed pencil, the sun coming through the window onto my paper, the never being quite comfortable kneeling to work on the coffee table – but most of all, the joy of creating something new. Something I never doubted would be extraordinary, at least until I lost interest in it and moved on to the next piece. (The project to write a poem for every letter of the alphabet fizzled out after Puppies). But some persevered for years. When I visited my parents in Canada after a US tour for the Nim’s Island movie premiere, my mother found the story I’d written at 8 or 9: ‘Spring Island. From the changes in handwriting in the notebooks, we guessed that it covered two school years.
I quite deliberately channeled this story when I was writing Nim’s Island: not so much the story itself – a girl and boy meet after running away from their orphanages, and live alone on an island until they get adopted and get horses. In fact, until I saw the notebooks I’d forgotten that there was a boy in the story, although I then remembered his primary purpose: to kill fish. I identified too strongly with the girl to have her do it. (Don’t condemn me, this was 1963. When Nim needs to eat a fish, she kills it herself.)
Instead, what I drew on was the psyche of the child who wrote the original story. The child who wanted to be competent, adventurous, resourceful, or, as I heard it in my head, ‘who could do stuff.’ (Which was not necessarily me in real life.)
Early on, I started writing poetry to express emotion, a habit I’ve continued till this day.
Stories and plays were written more for fun; for that joy of creating a new world, finding evil villains and, as I got older, handsome heroes. But there was always the drive to find out
more as I explored these worlds, and even when I was revelling in a dramatic adventure or bossing the neighbourhood children into acting or watching my plays, I remember the strong sense of dedication and purpose. At twelve, I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff and started writing my own story of Roman Britain. We were living near the US Air Force Academy in Colorado at the time, so my long-suffering mother used to drive me to the library there to research Roman military history. I still have the notes, a clear image of the protagonist – and the memory of the conviction that I
would become a historical novelist.
Now, a frighteningly long period later, I’ve finally written the sort of book that the thirteen year-old me thought I might grow up to write. Dragonfly Song, to be published with Allen & Unwin in July, is set in on an Aegean island in 1450 BC – a very different setting and roughly fifteen hundred years earlier than the Roman era in Britain. However, I believe that everything we write with care and passion is laid down as a foundation for all the works that come later. The years of private poetry have led me to use sustained verse for the first time – and creating my young centurion’s world, through a mixture of research and imagination, was one of the steps that led me to this new story.