Should have posted this yesterday, but I’ve been tied up reading my new book so that I can remember what I did to write it. (One of many great tips from my publicist of the late 90s: read your book before you start the tour. Not much looks worse than an author who blanks out when asked a totally reasonable question about their own book.)
This is not a novel, and it didn’t start in the way novels tend to. It started with me attempting to pull off an act of supreme laziness, and failing.
But it started even before then. Years ago, when I moved from Penguin to Random House, I left a lot of books behind. Over time, as their retail presence faded, it made sense to both Penguin and me for them to no longer hit the reprint button and to give me the rights back. At that time, Random House was interested in picking them up. Then hello GFC and the perfect storm for Australian publishing (consumer belt-tightening, Amazon, ebooks and more – I’m not going to try to do justice to that topic today).
One of my ideas was to take a bunch of the short stories from my 1999 collection Headgames and add them to the stories I’d written for anthologies since then. That was the act of laziness, but I didn’t think it was an unreasonable one. I regularly get people asking about Headgames, and it would be good to put those stories out there, and in a new way.
Once The True Story of Butterfish was published in July 09, I started talking to Random House about where we might go next. I ended up proposing a deal made up of two unwritten novels (The Fix was the first), with the short story compilation in between. They came back saying yes to the novels and could we wait and see on the stories. I checked my birth certificate and, having not been born the day before, decided not to sign up for that. A ‘wait and see’ does not a contract make, and I wanted something solid. What they wanted – and I do get it – was to see if either of the novels could be some kind of hit or if something else might happen to make a book of old stories look vaguely commercially viable.
But I’d noticed something when I looked at the stories. Quite a few of them looked like a good fit with Headgames, but a couple that I liked the most looked like the start of something else. So I cut 18 of the 20 stories and kept just them. And then I got some kind of vision of the kind of book I might write with those two stories in it.
What I liked about them was the subtext. I had a story ticking along on the surface and it looked like normal life but, just like normal life, the real story was often below the surface and showing glimpses of itself from time to time. Those stories had a voice and sometimes they even had subtlety (not something I’ve always been known for, I admit).
At the same time, I got myself a much better broadband connection. I played around on Google Earth. I chased obscure factoids around the webiverse for my own amusement and called it ‘research’. And then I realised it was research. Suddenly I had this powerful tool I hadn’t had before, and I could send my characters down streets I’d never been on and see everything they would see (or might have seen, on the particular day when the Google car passed by). More often that not, I would take them from here, displace them to there and watch their real story take shape beneath the surface of whatever journey I’d sent them on. So, they end up going to Taipei or Spain in some stories, and in others they do no more than cross Brisbane.
But before I’d taken it quite that far, I went back to Random House. I think I had two more new stories then, and maybe 25,000 words or so in total. I told them that I now wanted to sell them two novels and a new book of shorter pieces, and here was 1/3 of it. They bought it. And I went off to find 2/3 of a book.
Along the way, amidst small ideas that I thought had the makings of something and a lot of time cruising around online, I started thinking about titles. I thought there was a town in the US called Normal – and there is – and I liked the sound of Welcome to Normal. I would be writing normal people in the best way I could and in a way I hoped would make their ‘normal’ something a reader would feel a need to watch.
For months ‘welcome to normal’ hung around on a scrap of paper. At one stage I made some notes about a honeymoon couple from Brisbane driving through the US in a convertible. I wondered what I’d find about them that could fit with and defy the title, and would be new ground and worth writing about. I had a character (two in fact) and a situation, which I believe Stephen King says is all you need. But my characters were sketchy and my situation wasn’t really a situation yet.
Then I happened to talk to Kate Miller-Heidke over email. She was touring the US with Ben Folds and they were playing at Indiana University Auditorium. When I saw the name in the email, I could picture the place. I realised I’d been there, in 1990, and I emailed her back and told her about it. I was there with a Brisbane show producer and we’d just put on a show at the world Lions’ convention in St Louis. Brisbane was to host the next one, in 1992, and we were part of the entertainment package aiming to lure US Lions to visit.
I can’t really remember the show we put on, but I can remember my time at a Qantas function taking my turn hunched up in the Qantas koala costume, looking down at a tiny patch of floor through gauze in the koala’s nostrils while a bunch of Ohio Lions patted me on the head and said, ‘Oh, cute, a little bear.’
After St Louis we had a meeting in Chicago, and that called for a roadtrip taking in several places and people of significance to the producer, including Bloomington Indiana, where he’d studied percussion.
I told Kate something of the trip, and she told me to write about it. But I’d already done my person-stuffed-into-creature story with World of Chickens, and I wasn’t sure how to make the producer fictional enough and still get the most out of the story.
Cue light bulb going on over my head. Here was Welcome to Normal. It wasn’t a honeymoon couple at all. Here was a young guy in 1990 on a US roadtrip with his boss. They’d be engineers, mining engineers. They’d be buying equipment. And Caterpillar turned out to be a short drive from Normal, Illinois. This was the couple I’d be sending past the Welcome to Normal sign on the way into town – one to reminisce and one to suffer through it while at the same time driving through a world he’s only seen in movies, and watching it turn out to be made up of things no bigger or grander than home. Watching normal play itself out in Normal.
As I tunnelled into the history of Normal and drove its streets on Google Earth, one of the first things I learned was that it’s part of a conurbation with a different Bloomington (like Springfields, there are plenty of them).
When the story was done, I emailed Kate and told her, and I mentioned that, oddly, another Bloomington had come into the frame. She emailed me back with something odder – a link to Ben Folds’ Effington, which is possibly the only song to namecheck Normal, Illinois.
So, I had my title story, I had the tone and feel and sense of direction I needed, and I had a selection of small ideas I was desperate to go to work on to make the rest of the book. I had an article on Reapers and Predators that I’d torn out of the paper, I had my parents’ trip to Spain and my Dad’s story of the Battle of Teba, I had an idea for a scientist grandfather who hovered on the edges of Big Science in the 50s and whose impact was being felt in the next two generations (though he wouldn’t even be in the country for the story).
I tracked their movements, I accumulated more than the necessary bits and pieces, I worked out what my stories would be and I wrote. Welcome to Normal is the book that came of it, and it’s been at large in Australia and NZ since yesterday. The title story will be out everywhere else as a stand-alone ebook this month, as will the other stories in time (some already are, eg, Grass valley, The Magnificent Amberson).
And that plan involving Headgames and more recent stories may yet become something. I haven’t filed that one away for good either. But, for now, I’ve got the new book that plan lead to and it’s hard to imagine that it might never have been written if times in publishing were easier and Random House had just said Yes to my lazy idea.