I don’t recall exactly when realisation dawned. It will have arrived, I imagine, like that brilliant last line for something or other that you haven’t written yet; and it will have been while I was crossing the road, or drifting off to sleep, or in the middle of a protracted telephone call with a distraught and newly dumped chum. To be dealt with later.
When I had time to look at it straight on, I found, to my bafflement and discomfiture, that almost every novel I’ve published has the same theme: a lost child trying to recover a lost father. The books are set in different periods, from 1642 to an unspecified future, and the dad has gone missing in a variety of ways: he has split up with the mother; he has returned from the war a stranger; his identity has never been known; he has had the temerity to die.
How did I get into this?
My first novel grew out of an interactive theatre piece on child workers in the cotton mills. There was no plot, just a series of grim torments leading to tragedy and rebellion. After I rewrote it as a novel, my publisher suggested that it needed a quest or mystery of some sort to pull in a young reader. Since the characters were mostly workhouse orphans, I fell back on the trope of discovering one’s identity. In this new version, I focused on a secondary character, a bullied girl who travels north to the mills to track down the owner of a mysterious ring. Like Pip in Great Expectations, Evelyn fantasizes that her father/benefactor will turn out to be someone rich and powerful, who will rescue them all. The truth is much darker.
Was I just doing what I assumed was the accepted thing? I had an idea at the time that girls read more than boys, therefore girls should be the protagonists, but I hadn’t read any children’s books since my own childhood. Maybe I should have done some research…
My second novel was based on the Burston School Strike of 1914, and I had more time to think about it, so fewer excuses. There were elderly strikers still living, but I wasn’t able to interview them and I didn’t like to make assumptions about their youthful private lives. I needed to invent a child character who watches from the sidelines, someone in whom I could invest some emotional capital. Dora arrived on the page, a schoolgirl furious with her widowed father, who has remarried.
Researching the Civil War for my book on the Diggers, I came upon the report of a boy tortured by soldiers. This child became Goforth, a male hero by default. Amid momentous events, Goforth is fighting a war of his own — with his father. Perhaps this is the kernel of all these stories. A war within a war.
My futuristic tale of a dystopian society was commissioned by a production company. We sold the film rights for a pound. I live in hope. They gave me a rough plot, a big idea and a female lead; the rest was up to me. Before I could get going, I had to find a reason for large numbers of children being banished into the wilderness… Bingo! Cyndra has been sacrificed by her father for motives of political expediency and is determined to find her way back to have it out with him. This time I had a strong female protagonist who doesn’t go under. I was moving with the times.
Maybe it’s just lazy thinking: all teenagers are at loggerheads with their parents; all young people in children’s novels are wise and all adults infantile (a neat role reversal, like Jeeves and Wooster, if in danger of becoming glib). But while I’m in self-analysis mode, another question presents itself: is it my own father I’m writing about? And if so, why?
There’s no physical resemblance: his face doesn’t come into my mind’s eye if I read the books again, and it didn’t when I wrote them. Yet how like him the men in these stories are! Basically good, flawed but loyal, trying to do their best in circumstances which the kids can’t or won’t appreciate. The father may not be the main character, but he is always a motivating force, even after death. The mothers, on the other hand, are largely offstage. Another puzzle. As a small child, I spent a huge part of every day with Mum. Dad went to work, came home at night, had his tea and read the paper. That’s how things were in the nineteen-fifties.
He did his bit. I remember him teaching me my times tables; I recited them, bouncing up and down on his foot, as he sat with his legs crossed. I was, to be honest, a little jealous of his preference for my older sister, especially when she went to grammar school. He used to make breakfast for her, and they travelled into town on the bus together. By the time I caught up, I already knew the score and didn’t need him. My greater closeness to my mother, who was training me not to develop any of Dad’s perceived faults (sorry, Mum, I got the full set), turned me into a harsh judge in my teenage years. He died before I began writing seriously.
The evidence against me is mounting. I didn’t pay him enough attention in life, I ignored him, and the only way I can apologise is by giving him prominence in my books. Why else choose him over my mother? I was her favourite, and my relationship with her went on longer. It was a relationship more fraught, too, far more worthy of novelisation.
It’s staring me in the face. I wrote about a father because I had already lost mine. I have created fully developed mother characters only since Mum’s death. She is not yet recognisable as any of them, although in one story, I do a cunning swap. Grieving Inez is outraged when Mum resumes an embarrassing acting career; in real life, I was the one with the embarrassing career, the one who suffered intermittent bouts of crippling stage fright.
All my child characters start out as severe judges of their parents. Perhaps their real journeys are towards humility (think of Mark Twain dismissing his father at fourteen and being astonished by the old man’s improvement seven years later). Maybe I am building scenarios which force me to look at my own intolerance and earn some forgiveness, if only from myself.
I became a children’s author by accident and for many years wrote to fit specific commissions. Now that I am at liberty to choose any subject, I feel no urge to write another children’s book. Nevertheless, the characters in my stories and poems are still searching for an identity. The difference now is that the whole family is involved. No one is safe:
Second-best baby grudgingly bred from the second-best hubby in the second-best bed. Knew from the beginning never be no good. Never come to anything. Second-best blood.
In one of my comedy detective stories, a serial killer tracks down her birth parents. They turn out to be four people (you’ll have to read it to find out how that works) and the result is a string of wacky executions. This time, however, the seeker is not the main character. Have I finally shaken off that cliché? Not quite. The lovable hero is the detective (another kind of seeker) who lives with a disreputable and, until recently, absentee dad, who is beginning to show signs of dementia and disappear again. In the novel with which I am currently struggling, an adolescent girl becomes a parent herself. Who’s the daddy? She is astonished and heartbroken when she learns the answer.
Did somebody once say that there are only seven plots? I wish I shared their optimism. Do you think they might help me to find the other six?