Being Jade, for many reasons, is the most difficult piece of work I’ve ever written. It was a challenge from beginning to end. But it begged to be written, the characters wouldn’t let me be until I had it all down on paper.
In the run up to its release, I thought it might be fun to share some of the ups and downs of my journey with this intriguing story, beginning with the character at its heart – Jade.
Jade began as a writing exercise – a not an uncommon beginning for characters in novels. It was during the very first writing course I took with Writers Victoria in 2009, Year of the Novel. We had to write a new character, capturing some of their distinctive physical attributes.
I keep all my notes from the classes that I’ve done, (you just never know when you might need a thread of gold from a writing exercise), but as I went back last night through pages and pages of notes, I couldn’t find the original hand-written draft of Jade’s character. It had been torn out. Clearly I’d decided she would be of use and in moving her from notebook to notebook I lost her somewhere along the way.
However, I did find a print out of my first rush of the story inspired by that very early exercise. I remember sitting on my bed after dinner, telling my partner to give our daughter a bath because this needed to be written and it needed to be written NOW. Out poured the beginnings of Jade’s character from the point of view of a daughter destined to become Lissy.
I haven’t read this in a long time and was surprised to see, in the handful of paragraphs I’ve transcribed below, a few clusters of words, ideas and phrases that actually made it into the final manuscript. I’ve highlighted a few of them, just to show you how a writer finds pearls among the swine of a first draft. You’ll have to excuse the melo-dramatic tone. All my first drafts suffer shockingly from overwriting. I haven't edited this at all, it appears here as it was first written.
You’ll also notice some other differences. In this passage Jade is fair skinned and has a different Christian name – Xanthea. The change of this character's name is a story I’m saving for next week. For now, without further ado, I give you the first of a few early outtakes from Being Jade.
My mother was vibrant in spite of her penchant for dressing in black. Her hair was black too. It cascaded over her freckled shoulders like a Celtic tattoo. Secretly she loved colour. When she walked we caught a flash of fiery red or magician’s purple beneath the froth of her black skirts. Sometimes she would match the colour in her hair with a strip of bright ribbon or a vivid dye.
People were frightened of the kohl circling her eyes and the wild red of her lips. She was strange, but beautiful. And passionate.
Xanthea was her name, inherited from a distant Greek grandmother. She was stocky and strong and smelled of rain warmed soil. She was a creature of the earth, of darkness, yet she celebrated light. On sunny days all our windows were teased open to let in strands of sunlight and air scented by the gums in our yard. She would almost dance from room to room, breathing in elaborately, calling us to sense the day as it poured in through our windows like mist.
That was on her good days. On her bad days it was as though she was possessed by a herd of untamed horses that galloped in circles inside her, their hooves belting out a rhythm of urgency that sent her senses into a jungle. She would pace the house all day, cursing domestic tasks that bound her, doing her best to mask the strident need within her to break free. When my father came home she would ambush him with bitterness. Shards of it would pierce his peaceful demeanour and she would goad him into arguing with her. The horses would begin to break fee and their pounding would create their own wind, like skyscrapers in a city. It would catch them both up and fling them against each other in violent confrontation.
The argument was exactly the excuse she needed. Indignant and furious, she would slam her way out to the car and screech dramatically out of the driveway. We would be hiding behind our bedroom door, out of the way of the whirlwind, watching them through the crack as they unwound each other with their harsh words. After she left my father would come to our room and cuddle us, reassuring us that everything was alright, she just needed some time to herself and she would soon return feeling herself again
This last statement always made me wonder – what was my mother’s ‘self’? It seemed my father wanted us to believe that she was as calm and stable and normal as the other children’s mothers. But I knew she was not. Other children’s mothers dressed in sensible jeans and jackets or wore lipstick and mascara and pretty things in their hair, my mother wore scarves tied around her head and thick layers of jewellery and wild black skirts with flashes of purple or red beneath them. Other mothers had hair of honey blonde or mousy brown, my mother’s hair was always a striking contrast to her pale, freckled face, highlighted with colour that caught your eye and made you wince with its vividness.
My poor father. She drove him mad. He loved her so deeply, more than she ever understood or appreciated. He was her anchor, the one solid and stable thing in her life, the only reason she could let her wild horses free. Once their vitality was spent he was the only one who could stable them, calming their quivering flanks and brushing their foaming coats to a fine smooth sheen again.
She loved my father in her own fickle way. She needed his permission to be wild. She spent her whole life trying to be more normal, but canvas shoes and button up shirts and committee positions just never suited her. When she returned from a school meeting either furious or in tears, dejected and judged for her unconventional appearance and attitudes, he would soothe her. He would encircle her with his arms and whisper good natured jokes about the small mindedness of the people who had just derided her. She would sink toward him them, a puppy to suckle at a mother’s teat, feasting from his compassion, soaking it in like a sponge until he had renewed her. It was beautiful to behold.
For all her wild ways she loved us, her children, the best. She took a delight in us; in teaching us, in growing with us, in watching us become. She poured all her nurturing into us, fostering our souls with her stark love. She did not live through us. Vicariousness was below her. There was a different quality to the love she gave us to that which she gave my father and the other men in her life. It was boundless and selfless. There were no limits to what she would do or give to us if she knew it would strengthen us in some way. I have heard many mothers claim that they would die for their children, but I only ever believed it when I heard it from my own mother.