Like many, perhaps most, scribblers who’ve been at it a long time, I have written books that will never be published. Generally speaking, this is a good thing for the writer and readers. Nothing of Hemingway’s published posthumously enhanced his reputation and the story Dashiell Hammett worked at and abandoned, ‘Tulip’, published after his death, shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Indeed, late-life productions by old writers are problematical. No one would argue that Graham Greene’s Don Quixote was anywhere near his best. Raymond Chandler’s oeuvre would be shorter, but look better, without Playback.
In my case, there are four pieces of work best left where they are – that is, lost, mouldering in my filing cabinet or neatly boxed deep in the New South Wales State Library’s archives. The oldest and probably worst of these is a long story I wrote when I returned from doctoral fieldwork in the Solomon Islands. It was a Maugham-ish piece which I showed to Bill Pearson, a New Zealand novelist then a visitor in the Department of Pacific History at the ANU. He was polite. The manuscript has been lost.
Still trying to turn history into fiction, I wrote a novel called Brown Sugar about the Melanesian labour trade to the Queensland sugar plantations in the 19th century. It started, ‘Damnit, I need those Kanakas,’ said James Strong, and it didn’t get any better. More than a dozen publishers rejected it, for which I am truly grateful. A yellowed Xeroxed copy is in the filing cabinet somewhere.
Later, as an established author, I tried my hand at fantasy fiction, of which two of my daughters were, and are, addicts. As a former historian, I thought this would be easy enough – simply write a swords and staves medieval adventure and fill it with witches and magic. Avoid excessive use of archaisms and give the sex a more or less modern feel. I had fun writing it. My agent showed it to her assistant, who was another devotee of the genre – it got a decisive thumbs-down.
Years passed. A psychologist I consulted told me that some emotional problems I was having could be due to the influence of one of my previous lives and offered to explore the matter through hypnosis. I declined, but the idea struck a chord and I wrote a long novel with the title The Past Lives of Griffith Wintergreene.
The details are vague now, but the story was about a troubled character being taken back through earlier incarnations as a sixteenth-century hangman, as an eighteenth-century pirate, as a nineteenth-century Confederate soldier and as Lord Lucan.
Lord Lucan was probably a step too far. From memory, I had him murdered by the man he’d hired to kill his wife and buried under drainage works near a coastal beach. At least I provided a solution to the disappearance of ‘Lucky’ Lucan.
No one liked it and I never submitted it for publication. It lies with unproduced film scripts somewhere in the archives, a manuscript festooned with adverse editorial comments. I still think it was a good title.