All Those Ways of Leaving – The Story Behind the Story

All Those Ways of Leaving began with a pathology specimen pot at med school in the 80s. The Pathology Museum at the UQ Med School was, and probably still is, a remarkable place, though we were rarely able to appreciate that, since fourth year required us to end up on first-name terms with all of its 3000 specimens. I can still visualise some of them now.

A lot of the rare conditions had Latin names, or the names of long-departed European anatomists or pathologists, but one had a name from a fairytale.

Years later, it found its way into a story. It was the late 90s and I was putting Headgames together and using it as a chance to turn some odd smaller-than-novel-sized ideas into short stories. I had the name of the syndrome on a scrap* of paper. A syndrome name isn’t a story though, and a story had to come along to go with it.

It did, and it had comic moments to it, though as I was writing it I also knew it was maybe the saddest thing I’d written. The central character was young and dying, and the story was her feisty management of her last days and the care she was putting into preparing others for her own end. She’s tired, she’s sore, she’s charming and funny and crass when she feels she needs to be to give people a shake.

A few years ago, the Southern Cross Soloists approached me about setting it to music. I said yes for some of the usual range of reasons – they’re nice people, they’re good at what they do and I was up for the adventure. It was to involve me reading the story, with them playing the Stuart Greenbaum piece commissioned for the occasion.

It was only after saying yes that I reread the story, and wondered how I was going to make it through the performance. Even reading it by myself and without saying a word aloud, I was pretty choked up. I had to remind myself that, not only was it fiction, it was my fiction – it just shouldn’t be able to work that way. But I was committed by then, Stuart was hard at work and the concert date was booked.

We made a couple of small edits – there was one piece of supreme crassness I couldn’t see myself being brazen enough to make work live, and the Soloists were happy to take it out, having quietly feared the palpitations it might cause in their audience – but all the tough stuff had to stay.

I just had to read it and read it and read it until I’d anaesthetised myself enough to think I might get through it. We performed it twice, and it was quite an undertaking. It’s over 7000 words, which meant 45 minutes of reading, along with 25 minutes of music, culminating in 42 bars of words and music together. Those last few minutes were among the more demanding of my career. It’s the climax of the story, the emotional stakes are about as high as I can make them, the audience is being put through the ringer, and I have to count bars of piano music and pay attention to marginal notes that say things like ‘mezzo forte’. Most of that is not part of the novelist’s skill set. All the more reason to do it.

I can’t say if it’ll ever happen live again, but I’m glad the story’s back. Exciting Press has just published it as an ebook in Europe and North America. Here it is in Amazon’s Kindle Store and it’s also available in ePub. I’m planning for it to have a new life in ANZ soon too.

* Originally this was inadvertently published as ‘a crap of paper’, which defies spell checking and explains why authors are usually edited. I changed it (thanks for pointing it out, Cally), just to stop ‘crap of paper’ from breaking up the flow. But then I put in an asterisk which, if it diverted you here, broke the flow anyway. My apologies. The 14-year-old in me didn’t want ‘crap of paper’ to vanish without trace.

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12 Responses to All Those Ways of Leaving – The Story Behind the Story

  1. That would have been an incredibly difficult performance. Wish I’d seen it. I bet there were some tears in the audience.

  2. Nick, I think 45 minutes of reciting would’ve destroyed me; I start conking out after about 10! Congrats on the achievement – what we writers put ourselves through. I’ll go over and download the story (or what ever it is one does).
    Best to you,
    Danielle

  3. Kate says:

    Wish I’d heard the music.

    Pathology pots still alive (well, sort of) and well. I suspect I know the one you mean also. Path museum is now housed in the new building at the RBH. I’m sure you were concerned about the fate of the Path pots so I thought I would mention them. Now, if you ever feel like it, you can go say hi.

    Some of those examples of what I like to call “badness” will haunt me for life also. Can’t imagine giving them a soundtrack.

    There was a short period toward the end of second year where my cardiologist was investigating me for familial arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. I was all cool and calm in the consult but horrified when I walked out as that definitely sounded like a path-pot-type problem. Turned out to be something utterly mundane in comparison. But I added it to my list of negative life ambitions: Do not develop anything worthy of immortalising in formulin.

    • nickearls says:

      I’d hoped you’d be able to confirm the pots still existed. With cadaver dissection gone, I wasn’t confident that they hadn’t been replaced by holograms or something. I can live with them moving a few hundred metres. That disease sounds totally like a flabby heart in a pot, rather than something mundane.

      • Kate says:

        Oh the disease is a flabby heart in a pot, I just don’t have it 🙂 I did get to have a functional MRI though…which was a bit cool, but also not, because it was rhythm-gated and I was just hanging out in bigeminy most of the time back then – 1 hour and 45 minutes later, Kate climbs out of the tunnel. I have respect for interventional cardiology.

        It still seems like a bit of a twilight zone experience. Particularly because I was super tired, but also nerdishly interested in my wacky pulse, postural hypotension and presyncope. Evidently so, as I apparently have a hard time not talking about it when given the opportunity – which has now extended to the internet. Sigh.

        Do you still have science nerd moments?

      • Kate says:

        Oh the disease is a flabby heart in a pot, I just don’t have it 🙂 I did get to have a functional MRI though…which was a bit cool, but also not, because it was rhythm-gated and I was just hanging out in bigeminy most of the time back then – 1 hour and 45 minutes later, Kate climbs out of the tunnel. I have respect for interventional cardiology.

        It still seems like a bit of a twilight zone experience. Particularly because I was super tired, but also nerdishly interested in my wacky pulse, postural hypotension and presyncope. Evidently so, as I apparently have a hard time not talking about it when given the opportunity – which has now extended to the internet. Sigh.

        Do you still have science nerd moments?

        Meanwhile, don’t joke about hologram pots. Between the digital projection of gross anatomy from the virtual human project and the teleconferenced and voice-over-powerpoint lectures…I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Bizarrely though, the pathology lecturers were some of the most enthusiastic classroom teachers around!

  4. Oh serendipity! Dear Nick Earls (because you are an author and, like people in the grades above me in primary school, therefore have two names), I read this story many years ago in a medical anthology and loved it so much that I used to carry around a photocopy of it everywhere (okay, secretly – still do!). I’m still trying to come up with a story as brilliant from my own pathology pot days (maybe the teratoma that terrorised the world?)…

  5. Erm, so question: I would like a copy of this story (remember: photocopy = pre internet). But I do not have a Kindle reader. (Update: there is a Kindle Mac app!) (Update #2: The story is not available…)

  6. Nick, I want to buy the story, it looks good – but at present, there’s no price on it, and my dirt poor Irish ancestors won’t let me click on something with no published price 🙂 Will you put up a comment or something on this thread so I’ll know when the price is set?
    Many thanks. (It looks great. Does the designer work freelance, do you know?)

    • nickearls says:

      Surely your family’s fortunes changed when one of you became President?

      I hadn’t yet thought to put it down to my Irish ancestory, but I wouldn’t buy anything with no price on it either. In this case, it’s likely no price is showing because it’s not available where you are. If that’s Australia or New Zealand, it may be some time but I’m working on it (my publishing arrangements are different in ANZ). If it’s somewhere else, it’s a glitch. If that’s the case, let me know which country and I’m sure my publisher will be keen to fix it.

      The designer is the publisher, and he’ll be very pleased to hear that about the way it looks. This is our 12th title together, and I think he’s come up with a great look for them.

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