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.