THE HAND OF PUBLISHING FATE

I was very pleased to be asked by UK author Jenny Kane to write a guest post for her blog. I wrote a post about the strange coincidence of fate:

My first book has just been published by Accent Press – ‘Fifteen Postcards’. A novel traversing three continents and two centuries. A blend of ‘The Far Pavilions’, with a touch of ‘The Time Travelers Wife’, rolled together with a smidgeon of the ‘Antique’s Roadshow’. If it wasn’t for my father dying, it would never have been written.

I had a pretty standard upbringing in New Zealand in the 70s. Dad had his own business – an antique shop, and worked long hours. Mum raised my younger brother and I. She was the one who went on all the school trips, picked us up after school, and took us to our after school activities. In the school holidays, my ideal day was helping Dad at the shop, Antique Alley – a literal treasure trove, and described as an Auckland icon. A shop heaving with stock, which invariably overflowed onto the floor, and filled the corridors, very much like how I described ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in ‘Fifteen Postcards’.

Initially I was allowed to sit in the corner and sell postcards. As I got older I was promoted to serving behind the counter, helping customers choose gold bracelets for gifts, or give advice about which dinner service looked better. I worked off and on at the shop, and at antique fairs up and down the country, right through school and university. By osmosis I picked up a small amount of knowledge about a lot of things.

Then in 2005 Dad died.

My brother and I both quit our jobs (I was a Customs Officer), and started working at the shop. Ostensibly to provide our mother with an income, but it was also a job I had once loved, and although I’d never pursued it, I was more than happy to stand behind the shop counter and carry on where I’d left off in my late teens.

Working at the shop was a way to reconnect with my father. Antique Alley was such a part of his personality that walking into the shop became a way to keep his memory alive. Even today, nine years after his death, when I unlock the front door, and close the world off behind me as I sprint inside to turn off the alarm, I’ll murmur “Hello Dad”. Often followed by a little “Let this be a good day Dad!”. That may make me sound slightly nutty, but it gives me a sense of connectivity with my father, whom I miss everyday.

Writing ‘Fifteen Postcards’ in 2013 was part homage to my father, and part the realisation of a long held desire to write a book. Scattered throughout the book are snippets of his life and his quirks. My parents really did live above the shop before I came onto the scene, just like ‘Sarah’s parents in the book. My grandmother papered the lounge room upstairs in an appalling mixture of prints and floral paper (as described in the book), which Mum still detests to this day (there’s so much stock in that room now that it would be a marathon effort to strip it all back!). It was amusing remembering all of Dad’s foibles and fantastic sayings, weaving them into a plot worthy of his knowledge and expertise in the antique industry. It also became abundantly clear that my ‘small amount of knowledge about a lot of things’ wasn’t at all sufficient for a historical fiction novel, but that’s the basis of another blog post!

They say finding a publisher is one of the hardest parts of writing a book. I had rejections, five to be precise, but one of the publishers I submitted to, Accent Press, offered me a publishing contract. Which I signed. Why did I submit my manuscript to them? That was partly to do with Dad. He was born in Wales, moving to New Zealand when he was three. As an adult he returned to Wales to work and to reconnect with his extended family. I like to think Dad had a small part to play in me choosing Accent Press, who are based in Wales, and in them choosing me.

This is where it starts getting slightly more ‘Twilight Zone’. Bear with me as I talk you through it… David Powell was the incredible editor who worked on ‘Fifteen Postcards’. Without him, my book wouldn’t be anywhere near as awesome as it is. Weirdly, my father’s name was David. Fate? Coincidence? It keeps going. Accent Press released my book on the 21st of May, Mum’s birthday. Yes, yes, a strange collection of coincidences, but as someone still living with the grief of losing my father unexpectedly, these coincidences have given me some measure of solace, a belief that there has been a higher power at work, helping and guiding me.

The only time I haven’t felt Dad’s presence at work, was when I was held up at gunpoint in 2009. With a gun to my head, I was forced to sit on the ground whilst two men stole the jewellery from our cabinets. When Dad was alive, he’d always counseled that nothing in the shop was worth my life, and if anyone tried to rob the shop, I wasn’t to fight back. With that counsel firmly imprinted in my brain, I did just that. I sat there. I screamed a few times, hoping to attract the attention of someone outside, but stopped when they told me to stop screaming or they’d shoot me. I shut up after that. The armed robbery also made it into the pages of ‘Fifteen Postcards’. Writing that part of the manuscript was more difficult than I initially imagined, but also cathartic. I’ve never watched the CCTV footage of the robbery although I can give you a frame by frame playback, as the memory is still so vivid. Putting it down on paper has helped me get over it. Many, many bottles of red wine have also helped…

I am in the wonderful position of loving my job, as my father did, selling other people’s treasures. Everything in the shop was once loved and desired, all just waiting for their new home. It’s the ultimate in recycling. But isn’t that what writing is? The recycling of memories?

The writing of ‘Fifteen Postcards’ has captured some of my memories, hidden amongst the fictional plot and a cast of nefarious characters. And for that I am truly grateful to the hand of fate, or the confluence of coincidences.

22 July 2015

WHAT TO DO WHEN A GUN IS POINTED AT YOUR HEAD

How many bottles of red wine does it take to get over an armed robbery? I’ll let you know when I’ve finished drinking them.

On a September morning six years ago, I was at work in my antique shop on Dominion Road when a well-spoken young man entered the store, lifted the corner of his T-shirt, and took out a black pistol from the waistband of his trousers. He pointed it at my head, and ordered me to the ground. I was holding a handful of wristwatches in various states of repair. A customer was looking around down the back of the shop.

I said to the gunman, “You’ve got to be joking.”

He wasn’t joking.

When the police asked me how long the gunman and his accomplice were in the shop, I estimated four to five minutes. CCTV told a different story: 50 seconds. I’d had a gun pointed at my head for 50 seconds while another man helped himself to our antique jewellery, stuffing trays of gold rings into a bubblegum pink sports bag. I recall screaming at him not to take the men’s rings. Men’s rings were always so hard to get.

The last words the gunman spoke to me were, “You’re okay now.” Then he ran out of the shop. I ran out behind him, calling the police, the wristwatches still in one hand.

My memory is a little hazy after that. The neighbouring shopkeepers, undoubtedly alerted by my screaming, came out to help. It’d be interesting to hear the recording of my 111 call. I remember asking the woman from the Vodafone shop to check that the customer I’d left in the shop wasn’t stealing anything.

Hours later – after I’d relived the robbery second by second with the police – I was delivered home into the waiting arms of my first bottle of red wine. Victim Support rang to offer their assistance, but I had my mother, my husband, and my wine. I was fine.

Fine apart from the fact that after the robbery I never – and I mean never – sat down at work anymore. I was constantly on edge every time a customer entered the shop. I was always up and about, hovering by the newly installed panic button, calculating the intentions of everyone entering the shop.

I never watched the CCTV footage of the robbery. I didn’t need to. It played in technicolor glory over and over in my mind.

After my youngest daughter started school, I decided to write a book. They say write what you know, so I did. I wrote Fifteen Postcards, a novel about a girl who works in an antique shop. You could almost describe it as the back story behind the antiques in the shop – the journey those antiques had been on before languishing on the shelves. Before I knew it, without planning it, my protagonist was looking up the barrel of a gun.

I knew guns. I’d had a fair bit to do with rifles through the Air Training Corps – the Lee Enfield No 8 to be precise – and then the much lesser quality Norincos. I’d even passed my range safety officers course through the New Zealand Defence Force, and I’d qualified for my marksman badge. I used to seize the things when I worked for the New Zealand Customs Service. When I looked at the end of the gun pointing at me, I wondered whether it was real or a replica. But regardless of how familiar you are with weapons, when your whole world shrinks to the size of the barrel of a gun, you’re simply not in any position to make a rational judgement.

Writing about a traumatic experience can go two ways. It can act as a trigger to something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Or – and this was my experience – it can be cathartic. By writing about the robbery, it’s mostly ceased to be the big scary bogeyman that I’d allowed it to become since it happened. I allowed my protagonist to escape from the hold-up when I wrote about it in Fifteen Postcards, and it was as if I’d escaped too.

Trust me, though, when I say I much prefer my fictional ending. It remains the single most traumatic experience I’ve ever had.

As a tribute to my Welsh father, who started Antique Alley in 1971, Fifteen Postcards was published by Accent Press, based in Wales. Having the book published has done more for my recovery than the New Zealand Pinot Noir industry – although credit where credit’s due, their grape also helped immensely.

Note: This post first appeared on The Spinoff : http://thespinoff.co.nz/

29 September 2015