I have always loved reading and creating, with words, with paint and pencils, from joining a Creative Writing class as a child – as an asthmatic and more than a little uncoordinated, team sports were never my forte – to studying art and then writing at university. Since childhood, when I realised that someone had created the book I held in my hand, I have wanted to write. To create. Perhaps it was reading Little Women and wanting so fiercely for Jo to succeed, to be Jo, or alternatively her sisters and enter the Marsh household. Perhaps it was Alice in Wonderland and wanting to throw myself down that rabbit hole. Books were a perfect escape when I was indoors with another bout of bronchitis. They gave me the world. From those tame beginnings to discovering books could not only captivate and inspire me, but thrill me and scare me, keeping me up at night reading under the blankets with a torch. Books introduced me and immersed me in new worlds.
Looking at art, being captivated by passages of paint, the use of light and shadow, thinking how did the artist do that? Reading novels and admiring the skill, the clever hints and clues, the beautiful play of words, wondering how did the author conceive of that? How did they do that? There have been more than a few false starts, a multitude of drafts, dreadful poems and sketches that will never see anyone else’s eyes but I love the process, being swept away into another space, another moment, when reality (and the day job and all the ordinary, everyday concerns) subside.
Path to the Night Sea started as a short story in a fiction class with Sue Woolfe. Sue had given the class a selection of photographs and objects to spark our creativity and give us a physical stimulus to write a short fragment. I remember a small glass perfume bottle and a photograph caught my attention. The photo featured a woman in profile, seated at a piano, her hands poised to strike the keys. There was a cat sitting on top of the piano, and I wondered if these were the two most important things in her life – music and her pet. I started to write about this woman who would sit and play, not looking out of the curtained window, but indoors with her cat. Her face in profile, her ‘good side’… The perfume bottle that perhaps had belonged to a woman who would never get hold. A bottle that held scented memories… Ideas and elements came together and what is now a lot of Day One in the novel formed the original short story. Sue read the story, said I had written the start of a wonderful novel and she had to know what happened to Ellie. I realised so I wanted to know too.
The story became darker the more I delved into Ellie’s world. Seven days seemed the fitting structure for Ellie to be introduced to the reader and for her to seek her path, tying in with the religious dogma she’d heard from her Grandmother and Father. Listening to music by Nick Cave and Johnny Cash helped me establish the mood at times and gave me the impetus to embrace the flaws and the darkness. When I was writing the first drafts, I was living near the beach and the waves, particularly during storms, formed a natural soundtrack. If I peered out from my desk, I could catch glimpses of the ocean. By the time editing was underway, I had moved to a house that backed onto the bush and had inherited a cat. Listening to the raucous native birds, possums scurrying up trees and across the roof at night, dealing with the odd snake and lizards, plus watching the cat, heightened those natural elements of the story.
I was concerned about and for my characters. I needed to ensure that Arthur in particular had moments, however fleeting, when he was ‘human’, and that Ellie, despite her circumstances, not be passive. I found myself going off in tangents in early drafts with minor characters and subplots but judicious readers and editing brought the focus back to Ellie and Arthur, and the confines of restricted world they inhabit.
I had thought of letting Ellie go one morning years ago when I woke up and heard the news about Elizabeth Fritzl kidnapped and abused by her father. In my drowsy state listening to the radio, the reality of her situation came crashing in and I wanted to put my humble writings aside. What was fictional pain in the face of such devastating reality? Even in 2018, the newsfeed this week is full of children being trapped at home by their parents, the neighbours unaware. Path to the Night Sea is my way of using language to explore familial dysfunction, small town horror, and ultimately, hope.
Alicia Gilmore lives in New South Wales, Australia. Her debut, Path to the Night Sea, is a contemporary gothic novel exploring the dark secrets hidden within an otherwise idyllic coastal setting. Alicia has had short stories published in Phoenix and Cellar Door. In 2012, she was a contributing writer and lead editor of Burbangana. In 2009, Alicia received an Allen & Unwin / Varuna Publishers Fellowship that included a residency at Varuna, the NSW Writers’ Centre.