In 2014, I joined the family business. That’s when my father tossed me a sheaf of papers at me across his dining room table. “I’ve started writing about a gentleman convict detective who wins his freedom by solving a murder and has to go from one penal station to the next solving crimes to keep it,” he said. “Why don’t you have a crack?” That conversation led, ultimately, to The Soldier’s Curse, the first book of the Monsarrat series, following the adventures of the gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat and his friend, the intelligent but illiterate housekeeper Hannah Mulrooney.
But the story started a long time before Tom tossed me those first pages. It started in 1827, when a gentleman convict called James Tucker stepped ashore at Sydney Cove. Tucker, who was transported for sending a threatening letter, eventually earned his ticket of leave but was unable to keep his nose clean for long. His second offense, (like our Monsarrat, he visited a woman out of the district he was restricted to) got him sent to Port Macquarie. Tucker reputedly wrote one of Australia’s first novels. Tom was researching Tucker for a history of Australia, while reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Thinking about a gentleman convict and crime fiction at the same time, he started to wonder whether the two would work together.
We are hoping to write twelve Monsarrat books in all – three are written – which will take Monsarrat and Mrs M all over the colony, from outback New South Wales to rugged Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). They’ll be dealing with plotters and poisoners, arsonists and axe murderers, government corruption, political prisoners, fake news, false accusations, and at least one serial killer. In the first book, Monsarrat must solve the murder of an officer’s wife in order to save Mrs Mulrooney from the noose. Before he could get around to that, though, Tom and I had to answer a crucial question – how were we going to work together?
Initially, we planned to write alternating chapters, perhaps weaving in and out between two distinct voices.
But when I started trying to inject my own voice into the 30,000 words Tom had written, I seized up.
What gave me the right, I thought, to change the words of a man with dozens of books and a Booker Prize in his back pocket?
And, because I was tentative, so were the resulting chapters. They had Tom’s strong and recognisable voice, with the faint hum of another consciousness running underneath them.
So we decided to experiment. I would start from scratch using the characters Tom had created and write the first few drafts, with Tom coming in on the rewrites.
And that, as it turned out, was just as consultative as writing together would have been. He was the recipient of daily emails and phone calls. “What kind of shoes would Monsarrat have worn?” “Should we put Hannah in the frame for the murder?” “There’s a lieutenant who’s turning into a psychopath. Are you comfortable with that?”
The guts of the plot came together during countless bushwalks around North Head, one of the cliffs which bracket the entrance to Sydney Harbour, as we stomped our way around deciding who would live and who would die. And they were refined by similar treks along the viciously beautiful coastline of Port Macquarie where the book is set, as we made a nuisance of ourselves with the local historical society.
The rewriting process was a gift, a personal masterclass. You can always pick someone who is completely in command of their skill by how effortless they make it look. Tom can add layers of nuance and meaning with a few slashes of the pen. He would deftly transform a personality quirk into a psychological indicator of a dark past, or raise a minor character from a bit player to a reflector of the broader themes of the book. “It doesn’t take much,” he would say, but to me it seemed divinely inspired.
We get asked, from time to time, whether we argued during the process, and people seem a little skeptical when we say we didn’t. It certainly helps that we have similar temperaments. There were some minor, genial arm-wrestles over relatively inconsequential points and, given Tom’s vastly superior experience, he had, and deserves, the casting vote. But there were no pyrotechnics, no screaming matches, no flung pens or slammed doors.
Tom has been writing since before I was born and, while I have always been around it, I have never been inside it with him. It happened behind his study door and was a country only he could visit. It’s been wonderful be part of the process with him and, with Monsarrat and Mrs M showing no signs of slowing down, it’s an experience I’m looking forward to repeating.
THE SOLDIER’S CURSE by Meg and Tom Keneally is published by Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld on 2 November 2017