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Roderic Grigson: My Long Journey to Fiction

March 14, 2014

Excerpts from the speech made at the launch of his  first novel, Sacred Tears:
Read first chapters of Sacred Tears.

Sacred Tears Book Cover

Sacred Tears Book Cover

It’s been a long journey to get here. Never having written a book before, I had no idea what writing one would involve. I remember reading of a famous author having once said that ‘writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing’.
Never having been in that position myself, I can say from observing the entire process, it seems a little bit like that. A lot of screaming and tears. Thankfully not a lot of blood.

The big difference is that producing a baby takes nine months. But writing a book takes much longer. It took me a total of two years to get to where I am today! One year to learn how to be a creative writer and another year to actually write and publish the book.

My Scottish grandfather introduced me to reading at a very young age not far from here. He would borrow books from his old friend Mr. Lanerolle who owned a bookshop in Bambalapitiya, bringing them home for us to read, before returning them to be sold in the bookshop. He was truly a miserly Scot!

Being a prolific reader, I had always wanted to write a book. I read my first Wilbur Smith novel which was set in Africa, in the late 60s and I was hooked. I wanted to write adventure stories set in an exotic place like Africa. Wilbur Smith went onto write many books and at 81 is still writing today.

Wilbur Smith came to Australia often and in a TV interview once said ‘write about things you know well, and write for yourself. Not for your publisher or for some imagined reader. Dedicate yourself to your calling, but read widely and look at the world around you, travel and live your life to the full, so that you will always have something fresh to write about.’

It was advice I have taken very much to heart. Getting close to an age that people around me were talking about what they would be doing after retirement, I decided to do what I had dreamt about most of my adult life, to become a published author.
The makings of the story I wanted to write was already there in the back of my mind. When I was serving with the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Lebanon in the late seventies, I met a young Sri Lankan man who told me an incredible story of how he had ended in that country.

You often hear it being said that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ and in this case, what I was hearing made me realize how true that saying was. When I sat down to write the book in early 2012 I used this young man’s incredible story as the basis for the narrative.

The story is set in Lebanon and Sri Lanka, both very exotic places, around real events that happened in the two countries in the early eighties. It was the very beginning of the civil war in this country which many people have either forgotten about, or having been born later, were never aware of.

The book is written from the perspective of the two smallest minority groups on the island, the Moors and the Burghers, and how the war affected their lives.

I spent 3-months writing about 300 pages. During that time, always in the back of my mind was this nagging doubt whether I had it in me to be a successful writer.

I decided to get a professional editor to review what I had written and my journey to become a published author started from that point. I was directed to a literary editor by someone here today whom I will acknowledge shortly. The result was a comprehensive review of the narrative, and of my writing.

The lady whose name was Diana Giese, wrote that the subjects I was writing about were topical and very interesting and would attract many readers. But Diana’s conclusion was that I was not a creative writer. She said that I was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and if I wanted to be a successful writer of fiction I needed to ‘show’ the reader what was happening in the narrative and allow the reader to create a picture in their mind.

Diana suggested that I write factual short stories and picked out a list of around twenty topics I could write about which she had picked from the pages she had reviewed, or, she said, do a creative writing course and learn the skill.

Frankly, I was not surprised by her assessment. I had come from a technical product marketing background having told customers most of my corporate life how these products worked and how they would help them in their businesses.

Writing short stories did not interest me so I decided to do a creative writing course. Not happy with the courses being offered at various institutes and universities in Melbourne, I stumbled across an online creative writing course offered by a lady living in Byron Bay. To those of you who don’t know where that is, it’s a beautiful little town on the NSW side of the border with QLD which is well known as an artist colony.

Sarah Armstrong was an award winning radio and TV journalist who had wanted, like me, to become a creative writer. She realized that being a journalist was not the best occupation to be in when trying to be creative so she quit her job in Sydney, moved to Byron Bay and wrote a critically acclaimed novel called ‘Salt Rain’. She started a creative writing school with her husband Alan Close, who was an author himself, offering creative writing courses online.

To cut a long story short, I contacted her and signed up for a six-month creative writing course. After about 5-months of weekly exercises, she told me that my writing had ‘improved out of sight’ and she was confident that I was ready to start my new career as a creative writer.

When I first contacted Sarah, I found out that when she was working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the late 90’s she had spent 3-months producing a documentary on the civil war in this country. This was a moment of serendipity for me and throughout the course I toyed with the idea of asking her to be my editor. I popped the question when she told me I was ready and to my great delight she accepted. We worked together for the next 8-9 months on the book, the result of which we are celebrating her today.
The reason I am telling you this is that you never write a book alone. I could never have done it without the people who helped me emotionally, intellectually and by just being supportive during this period. A few of them are in the audience tonight.
Just yesterday a gentleman asked me whether I consider myself an author. I said that if he had asked me that question a year ago I would have said no. But today, maybe!
‘Why only maybe’, he asked. ‘After all you have written and published a book?’
The reality is that I have a lot more to learn and a long way to go before becoming a really good writer. I have lots of stories to tell but that alone is not enough.
But after reading the generous comments and reviews left by readers on the Sacred Tears website and on Amazon and other online bookstores, maybe, just maybe I can call myself an author.
I would like to acknowledge the presence of Professor Yasmine Gooneratne, a Doctor of Letters and holder of a Personal Chair at Macquarie University in New South Wales Australia. Yasmine is also an Officer of the Order of Australia.
Yasmine, an acclaimed author in her own right who has published a number of books over the years, was the person who guided me at the beginning of my writing journey.
It is fitting that she is here at the launch of Sacred Tears, at the symbolic end of my writing journey. I present a copy of the book to her with my grateful thanks.

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