I wasn’t intending to write a novel. True, I had finally put fingers to keyboard again after many long years away, and I was throwing myself into a writing course while juggling two kids under three, telling myself, and anyone who would listen, that I was really only doing it so that I could find some freelance editing work around looking after the kids. (One never tells the shameful secret – that what they really want to do is write fiction.)
And then, I literally stumbled upon a story. A story that would get under my skin and obsess me. A story that would, two years later, be published as Skylarking – my precious, first novel.
It happened during a camping trip on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, nearly three years ago now. My family are devout campers and we take off with our tents and some of our best mates, whenever we can. It was a fabulous holiday – sunshine, dolphins frolicking, G & T’s by the fire once the kids were in bed. So entranced was I by the sun, the sand and the sea, that I nearly didn’t notice the grave. It was tucked away in a little fenced off area. When I finally took a proper look, I read that the grave belonged to Harriet Parker who lived on the coast there, at the Cape St George lighthouse. When we explored the ruins of the lighthouse, there were more mentions of Harriet, and a terrible event that had occurred, one that involved her best friend, Kate, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter.
I love a good story. Since Mrs Mullins in Grade One told my parents that what I needed was a basketball, instead of any more books, I have been a voracious reader. And a writer. Of terrible poetry and fairy tales and all sorts of stories that my mother has dutifully kept in folders and returns to me every now and again.
This story – Kate and Harriet’s – a remote lighthouse, a fisherman’s hut, a terrible event – it had all the elements. And when I got home, I did a little Googling, and during a writing class, Kate’s voice just came spewing forth on the page. Up until that point, I’d only ever written short stories, or long, tortured essays. So when I stumbled over the 4000 word mark, I wrote in my journal – ‘this might be a thing.’
I must have had about 5000 words as November approached that first year when a writing friend mentioned NaNoWriMo, where writers sign up to write a novel in a month. I joined but made a modification, and a pact with myself. I only had to write 1000 words a day – 30000 words by the end of the month, and if I did, I could buy myself a new laptop. I did it. And it was messy and strange and exhilarating but the story began to form itself into something.
Had I not done that insane month, it may never have got anywhere. I might have headed into summer and camping and lost the momentum, and it might have stayed a little folder of randomly named documents on my computer. I still shudder to think.
Over the next ten months, as the story took shape, I traipsed up and down lighthouses, I sat in the heritage reading room at the State Library poring over young women’s diaries from the 1880s, and I searched and searched through Births, Deaths and Marriages to see if I could unearth the hidden fragments of the story I was chasing. After one traumatic evening on Google where I came across a ghastly (and completely wrong) description of Kate’s death, I realised that I needed to untether myself from the weight of historical fact, and give myself freedom to imagine in the gaps that were there. The writing became more urgent.
I had been told all the rules about waiting until the manuscript was truly ready before approaching a publisher, but being the somewhat impatient person I am, this didn’t stop me trying an awkward and unpolished pitch on a publisher at an event in Melbourne. All I had was an unfinished 50 000 word mess, but to my utter delight the publisher, Aviva Tuffield, asked me to send her a sample, and then the whole thing, and within a month I had a contract.
In everything that has come since – the hard slog of the editing process, the deadlines, the anxiety of making public what has been so intimately private, the glorious highlights of seeing the cover for the first time, of holding the precious thing in my hands, what I never predicted was the joy of interacting with readers. What it feels like to get an email, or a message, or to be approached by a reader at a festival, and you realise that the story has moved somebody, made them sad or angry or nostalgic or thoughtful. Made them feel. During a recent school visit where I was discussing the book with Year 11 Literature students, one girl said, ‘At one point, I was so angry, I threw your book across the room’.
I replied, delighted, “Oh, I’m so glad!’
A month or so back, on my way to a writer’s retreat to work on my next book, I drove back to the campsite, underneath the towering eucalypts, and stood at Harriet’s grave. It seemed impossible, what had transpired in the three years since I had last stood there, that I was now a proper published writer, that my life had changed in extraordinary ways, and that this grave, and Kate and Harriet’s story, was at the very heart of it. I had a couple of quiet tears, bowed my head in gratitude and vowed to keep paying attention, to notice all the little things. You never know where a story lies in wait for you.
Kate and Harriet are best friends growing up together on an isolated Australian cape. As the daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community.
When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. An innocent moment in McPhail’s hut then occurs that threatens to tear their peaceful community apart.
Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a spellbinding tale of friendship and desire, memory and truth, which questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.
Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall is published by Legend Press.
Order your copy online here.