ONE THING FOR ANOTHER

Now that all the dust has settled, so to speak, on my first book, The Ottoman Motel, I have moved on to writing the next one, about which I can only say that it is about a man falling off a mountain (I know, great, right?), but what I want to talk about is the things I’ve come to realise only after answering endless questions about the book. Now over the numerous interviews I’ve done I have tried desperately never to duplicate an answer, preferring instead to reward anyone masochistic enough to read more than one Ottoman Motel interview with at least originality.

What the interviews have given me (apart from a bunch of embarrassing quotes cached forever on various websites) is a really interesting set of themes. As is often the case after I finish a long piece of fiction, the themes that I have been manfully working towards have disappeared, and others seem to emerge quite on their own. In this case, after being forced to actually think about the book (while I wasn’t in the act of writing it), I realised that this book wasn’t about disappearance (despite the conceit about two people disappearing) but instead about replacement.

Recently, while waiting at an airport for a flight, I wandered into a bookshop/newsagent (to first check if they had my book. They didn’t. Thanks, Brisbane airport!) to buy something to read on the plane. What I really wanted was a magazine which told me about the new Assassin’s Creed videogame, but what I bought instead was an issue of Harper’s Magazine. Some $18 later, I had in my hand a barely readable smart person’s magazine, which I was forced to flick through while waiting for the plane to taxi out to the runway. One article, however, took my eye. “Video ergo sum” is based around an interview with the wonderful Oliver Sacks, and deals with “the plasticity of perception”, i.e. the way our often mind often physically and psychologically adjusts itself to what we “see”. This particular quote took my eye:

In the eighteenth century, Swiss scientist Charles Bonnet described certain individuals with a partial loss of vision in which the gaps (holes or scotoma) in their visual fields were filled by so-called Lilliputians—little people, little birds, and little animals. These apparent hallucinations are of neurological origin, and are fundamentally a manifestation of the same perceptual function all human brains perform: the invention of a stable environment. (Israel Rosenfield, Video Ergo Sum: Oliver Sacks and the Plasticity of Perception, Harper’s Magazine, April, 2011, p. 82)

In The Ottoman Motel, one of the main things I wanted to explore was not “What has happened to these characters who have disappeared” as much as “What effect does this disappearance have to the people they leave behind?”. My main character Simon, an eleven year-old boy, must adjust and adapt his mind to the sudden disappearance of his parents. His view of the world has almost instantaneously had to flip from the comfortable confines of his childhood imagination into the “reality” of an adult world, where the “untruth” of imagination is replaced by something far more layered: the hypocrisy, irony and falseness of what happens when adult humans interact. Simon himself sees Lilliputians (tiny figures in a carved table) and hears his mother’s voice out of nowhere while searching for them at the lake where his parents supposedly disappeared. These, I suppose, are examples of a young boy’s brain trying to “right the balance” in his newly skewed world. And yet I did not write these scenes with any theme in mind.

This does feel a little bit “20/20 in Hindsight”, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s nice to be able to trust your judgement that all these words you’re stringing together to form a narrative add up to something else as well, that apart from telling a simple story it carries with it other meanings, ideas that can be teased out and thought of after the last page has turned. And for as long as the world continues to be unpredictable, this will keep being a really awesome thing.

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