From the moment we knew what the plot of The Pact was going to be, there was only one option for our lead actor.
I’ve known Rose Flanagan since we were both regularly on stage together in high school theatre. In fact, on some level I think Rose is at least partly responsible for my giving up on chasing the dream of being an actor – when you’re performing opposite someone as gifted as her, your own shortcomings as a prospective thespian become all too clear. Rose’s talent is formidable and, to paraphrase Jon Favreau speaking about Don Cheadle, I believe that if you can have Rose Flanagan in your project, have Rose Flanagan in your project.
Rose has appeared in a couple of Bitten By shows, directed last year’s production of The Critic and as of very recently is a newly minted member of the Bitten By Productions committee. She also had a leading role in the largely improvised web series Bogan Book Club that I was part of back in my podcasting days. In 2016 she featured in another web series pilot I wrote that, despite high production values never went any further than one episode. I’ve worked with Rose a lot and yet I’ve always felt like she naturally gets pushed into the funny roles. Which makes sense; Rose is hilarious, but like most gifted comics she’s a fantastic dramatic actor as well, something I’ve always wanted to capitalise on. The Pact, then, felt like the perfect opportunity.
I wanted to move quickly on filming. Already other creators were making and releasing isolation series, and while ours would not be set in the time of Covid, I was adamant that we wanted to release as soon as possible to capitalise at least somewhat on the fact that this was made entirely remotely by Melbourne artists during a particularly trying period for the industry. Once we knew what the full arc was going to be and once the scripts for the first couple of episodes were at a high enough standard, I figured it was time to get the show on the road.
Casting too was yet to be completed, but we had a few actors locked in, and with Chris Farrell (who played Bruce in my play Springsteen) on board as protagonist Morgan’s estranged brother, we could get the first episode together and, if nothing else, at least get a sense for what we had on our hands.
John and I went through a couple of options for what the best way to film would be. Recording an actual Zoom call was considered – the app even alternates between who is speaking at any given time, which in theory suited our purposes, but there were so many variables. A dodgy internet connection could scupper an episode. Plus, while doing it this way would be the most realistic, the show still had to be watchable. Blurry footage and laggy exchanges of dialogue would not make for an especially appealing viewing experience.
This, by the way, would become the biggest point of discussion in the early stages of The Pact – where to draw the line between reality and entertainment. While naturally entertainment would always come first, given that the concept of the series was based around only video calls we had to maintain at least a foundational amount of fidelity to the form.
My pitch for how to film was to get the actors to call each other on speakerphone with headphones in, but record directly into their webcams. This way they would look on screen like they were responding to each other, the recordings would be clear, and the actors would be able to react, if only to a voice. In the end, however, the consensus was that the actors wanted to see each other, and so more or less the same principal was used except the calls would be actual video calls allowing them to best bounce off each other.
Practice recordings of the first episode seemed to indicate that this would work. By not recording the calls themselves but rather just each actor’s individual side, the quality remained relatively high. Going forward however, we would find that with vastly divergent equipment available to each actor, the filming process would differ depending on the circumstances.
So we set a date to shoot episode one. It felt premature and a little thrilling – like, were we just allowed to go ahead and make this without some higher up calling the shots? I brushed those feelings off. We were going into uncharted territory here. Feeling a bit uncertain wasn’t indicative of anything other than the fact that we were trying something new, and that was inherently exciting.
You might be wondering, around this point, why I haven’t mentioned a director. If so, you’re smarter than I was. Because, in an act of blinkered naivety on my part that I still can’t believe I was stupid enough to allow after years of working in theatre, I figured we didn’t really need one.
Yeah. Any guess why we faced challenges early on?
I think I was just so carried away by the idea of the whole project, by a brazen sense that we were making something simple, that I didn’t give enough thought to the fact that the series needed a single voice to guide it. I mean, in theory at that point I was that voice – I was editing every script as it came in, taking calls with the actors and handling some of the production stuff, but a showrunner is a different job to director. Which didn’t stop me doing what I felt was enough ‘directing’ to keep the series on track. Before the shoot of episode one I sat in on a read with Rose and Chris, gave them some notes, then logged off to let them film. Piece of cake.
John soon came back with two different versions of the first episode. One, shot on the actors’ phones in high definition, felt slow and baggy. The second, using webcams, felt warmer, livelier, but it was by no means a stunning vindication of the whole concept. John and I discussed and agreed version two was preferable, but should we have been shooting in high-def?
It was a difficult question without a clear answer. Comparisons to other series that used the same form indicated that we should have been. Love In Lockdown, for example, looks very slick – although to be fair Gristmill has a lot more money than us. But even so, if we wanted to be a contender in the growing field of isolation made entertainment, we had to at least look as professional as possible.
In the end, John and I agreed that the high definition version looked too sharp, not at all like an actual video call. For the gritty, downbeat sensibilities of The Pact, filming with standard definition webcams ultimately suited our purposes better. If I’m honest, I still have my doubts about this choice, but it was a choice and in the end the series’ future does not rest on the quality of the footage, but on the quality of the content.
On which front we were faced with some problems. I sent the episode around to a few people for feedback and for the most part received muted positivity. It was when I sent it to a friend of mine who works as a filmmaker in a different state, who knew nobody involved except for me, that I finally received a serve of brutal, if kindly phrased, honesty. He liked the story and the concept, but he felt that the episode as it stood just fundamentally did not work. He didn’t believe the performances and didn’t find it especially attention grabbing. Which was going to be a problem if it was supposed to launch a fourteen-part series.
It left me at a crossroads. Of course I could choose to ignore him. Nobody else had reacted so negatively. But crucially, nobody else was as unbiased as him. In his reaction I saw the potential reaction of not only the audience we wanted to capture, but the industry at large.
I also didn’t want to reshoot. Nobody was getting paid for the project and everybody had already given up a lot of time. There was only so much I could expect of people. But as I watched the episode again and again, the truth became clear. We could not start a series with this. Not one that had any chance of being taken seriously. And that not only meant a reshoot, it meant a rethink of the project across the board.
Rose and Chris are two of the best actors I know. But for a story that was becoming increasingly complex and challenging, they couldn’t be expected to fly blind. And while I was cautious of how much I could ask of everyone, I was also aware that to not make the project to the highest standard possible was to do the team a massive disservice, to create a scenario in which the brilliance of the people involved would not be evident. Which would render the whole project pointless.
I called John and, tentatively, asked how he would feel about starting episode one from scratch. With the saintly patience that he would demonstrate again and again in the weeks to come, he agreed it was the best option. I apologised for wasting his time, but he simply replied with something that has stuck with me – ‘that’s creativity, man. Trial and error.’
So far what we had made looked a little too much like an error. Which meant a new approach. Namely, that we needed a director and fast.
So, Covid happens and suddenly all the things you would usually do with your time fly out the window. You can’t leave the house and everyone’s on Zoom calls. The internet is full of condescending posts about how productive X was during the Y pandemic of Z year. And while those posts are annoying, they’re at least a break from the endless conspiracy theories, finger wagging and politicising of mask wearing.
With the possible exception of the book industry, the arts, at least as a viable form of moneymaking, begin to collapse. You can’t put on plays or make movies. But as the weeks wear on, you find yourself wanting to make something. If only to keep occupied.
So what are your options?
The idea for an isolation web series started with hearing the news that several famous actors were going to make a TV show that was entirely based around video calls, about an agency of agoraphobic detectives. Of course they weren’t the only ones; in Australia we’ve seen the release of shows like Love In Lockdown and Retrograde turn the era of Covid into the contemporaneous setting for brand new comedies, while in the States Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock returned for special, video call based reunions.
But what stood out about The Agoraphobics Detective Society was the fact that it isn’t about Covid. Yes, it’s made during quarantine and a product of very specific circumstances, but one that found a different and valid reason to tell its story through video calls than the obvious. Without seeing the show it’s hard to know how well it works, but I liked the fact that it wouldn’t feel dated in a (theoretical) post coronavirus world.
So I started thinking and the more I thought the more excited I got. Making a web series with video calls would be easy, right? After all, everyone has a smartphone. Actors could film their parts in isolation, we could edit the footage together and that would be that (that would not be that, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
I decided a mystery would be the most exciting framework for this story, and from there the early pieces fell quickly into place. Six or so episodes, I figured, about a young woman living in Germany whose ex-boyfriend back home in Australia has vanished. Separate from all the people who might know something, her only recourse is to one by one call figures from her shady past in an attempt to shed light on what exactly happened to him – in the process bringing her face to face with the ugly truth behind what made her leave in the first place.
The first person I called about the project was Kashmir Sinnamon, a fellow Bitten By Productions member. Tripping over myself, I filled him in on my disparate episode ideas and the writers I wanted to get on board. I asked Kash to assemble his dream cast and we would create characters around them.
Next I did something sneaky. I called my good mate John Erasmus, who directed Bitten By’s 2018 horror show Dead Air but also is a very in demand full time editor who has worked on a lot of high-profile projects. I pitched him the idea without ever directly asking if he’d be willing to edit it despite that being exactly what I was hoping for. John, of course, figured it out pretty quickly and luckily mirrored both my enthusiasm and delusion; “should be pretty easy”.
In my head, we would get the series written, filmed and edited in about three weeks. Six five-minute episodes – how hard could it be?
At this point, unquestionably carried away and wanting nothing more than to dive right in, I wrote a pilot. Morgan, the troubled protagonist, receives a phone call out of nowhere from her estranged half brother Tim. They exchange awkward small talk then Tim reveals his reason for calling; that Morgan’s ex Brett has vanished. He urges Morgan not to look into it, not to ‘dig that shit up again’ but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.
For the record, I had no idea when I wrote it where Brett was. I didn’t know why things between Morgan and Tim were so fraught. Or what ‘that shit’ referred to. I had no idea. I wrote it, then I sent it to Kath Atkins and Damian Robb, two writer friends, and asked them what they thought happened next.
From there, we started a writer’s room. I sat down with Kath, Damo and ideas were thrown around, including notions of how to proceed. The suggestion was raised that we should set it during Covid, but I was certain the series would work better if it found a different reason to be all through video calls – i.e. the protagonist being overseas and wanting to see the faces of the people she calls to gauge whether they’re lying or not. Plus, thematically, it felt like there was something nice about the video call format, about the characters only showing what suits their agendas.
Quickly it became clear that six episodes wouldn’t be enough. As we explored, found answers to our mysteries, and in line with Kash’s suggestions crafted the characters we would need to arrive at those answers, our episode count ballooned to sixteen (later it would go down to fourteen, but it was still way more than John signed up for – sorry man). And while this would naturally mean more work, it also offered the opportunity to bring more people on board. I wanted to keep the story outlining team contained to Kath, Damo and myself in order to ensure we avoided a too many cooks situation, but once the major beats of what had to happen in each episode were worked out, then I wanted to involve as many writers as feasible. After all, half the point of the project was giving creatives something to do.
As showrunner, I would be writing the first episode and the finale, but I really wanted episode seven as well, the episode where Morgan comes face to face with her father, who may or may not be responsible for Brett’s disappearance. Damo and Kath were going to write three episodes each, but as we shuffled things around Kath went down to two – although one of those is the climax of the series, and as you’ll know when you see it, the hardest to pull off. For the record, she nailed it.
Episode two went to Karl Sarsfield, a recent VCA grad who had acted in a couple of my plays. Episode three to Bonnie McRae, who I work with at Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio and is one of the writers on the still gestating web series version of Heroes. For episode four I recruited Kate Murfett, an old school friend and terrifyingly brilliant writer – her episode would prove to be a particularly special one, but we’ll get to that. Five, six and seven were written by Kath, Damo and myself, while for episode eight John proved that not only is he a magnificent editor, but a fantastic writer as well. Damo wrote nine, and Kashmir, whose recently completed first play Old Gods will hit the stage the moment we’re allowed, wrote the absolutely pivotal episode ten. Eli Landes, who also studied at VCA and works at MYWS, turned what could have been a purely functional episode eleven into a funny, tender and deeply moving calm before the final three-episode storm, written by Kath, Damo and myself.
What wowed me the most about the work that every writer – a lot for what ultimately amounts to about eighty minutes of content – did, was how they managed to each bring so much to the series while maintaining a consistent tone and quality. Watching the finished episodes back to back, you can both identify each person’s individual talents, but they never distract from the whole. It feels cohesive, and that to me speaks to what has been my favourite thing about this project; how it was enriched by the many voices involved, all of whom came together to make something unique and singular.
Of course, I’ve written this whole post without mentioning two of the most important voices involved in the whole series. But we’ll get to that. After all, this has been a big, complicated, challenging production on a lot of levels, and the relative ease of the early development was not indicative of how things would go the moment filming started.
Back during my first year of uni I excitedly took a class called ‘Writing Your Own Life’. At the time I was in the middle of writing a kind of narrative autobiography, something that I can’t quite explain the reasoning behind apart from to say it was a particularly self-indulgent time in my life. Basically, I had happened on the flimsy notion that my teenage years were so fundamentally interesting that I simply had to write them as a novel, a project that at the time I was convinced would be my best and most unique work.
The first glimmers of doubt about the project probably started to creep in during this class. Because while I was very interested in studying what went into writing memoir, the stories that my classmates wrote were uniformly tedious depictions of everyday minutiae with no real drama. And while it took me a little longer to realise that was more or less the case with my own attempt, that class did make me start to consider whether anyone finds our lives as interesting as we do ourselves.
While I did eventually end up shelving that project, I don’t regret the time I spent on it. Because what I now have is a fairly detailed account of my teenage years written in very close proximity to them, something I can look back on in the same way you might an old diary. Naturally it’s melodramatic and at times atrociously written, but it’s also more or less an accurate albeit highly subjective recounting of my experiences and from a nostalgic standpoint that’s a nice thing to have. I’m no longer under the illusion that it would have any value to anyone apart from myself, but I’m comfortable with that.
The other night, walking back from an old friend’s place after a night of beer and reminiscing, I thought, idly, about the prospect of continuing it. Wouldn’t it be cool, in theory, to have so much of your life documented for yourself in a style designed to be read and enjoyed rather than a dry listing of events?
I wasn’t, in the end, seriously considering it. I knew pretty quickly that it wouldn’t happen. Partly it’s a practical thing; to pick up from where I left off would mean covering a decade, and frankly even I don’t think enough of serious interest happened in those years to be worth the time and energy. I also tend to think writers are self-obsessed enough and an undertaking like this one encourages that ugly trait.
But ultimately, I think what made me drop the semi-formed idea was the dawning understanding of how redundant it would actually be. Because in many ways I have chronicled the last few years of my life. Not in the same way, chronologically and without embellishment, but I have written plays, short stories and even a six-part TV show draft that to varying degrees take real events and turn them into narratives.
It’s a spectrum of course. Something like Three Eulogies For Tyson Miller is an essentially accurate depiction of a real friendship albeit with the names changed and an altered outcome. We Are Adults, the aforementioned TV thing, is basically a remix of events from my early twenties in the guise of a kooky comedy (I know that every young male screenwriter under the sun has tried to write something like this, leave me alone). Plays like Regression or The Critic take particular emotions or experiences that are absolutely rooted in reality and explore them through the prism of made up characters or scenarios. Nothing I’ve done since that autobiographical project has been quite as pure in terms of truthfulness, but these other works have essentially continued the essence. Because to write is to be in conversation with your own life, to examine the things you’ve been through and find new perspectives on them through proxy characters, to try and make the personal and painful interesting to an external audience. It’s exactly why that ‘Writing Your Own Life’ class was so appealing to so many people. But the truth is, unless you’ve had a really unique one your life is rarely all that different from anyone else’s. We all have our demons, our regrets and our lessons learned and writers in particular tend to want to share and examine them. But the answer is seldom through direct autobiography. Because the truth, weirdly, can be constraining.
When Nelson and the Gallagher sold to HarperCollins, my publisher asked two questions. The first was whether the book was autobiographical. Yeah, I admitted. While it’s heavily embellished the basic setting and events of the narrative were lifted from a particular time in my life. The second question cut to the core of the book in a way that I had not yet managed. ‘Are the things the main character learns in this book the things you wished you had learned earlier?’
I was floored. Because I hadn’t thought about it and suddenly it made the whole book that much clearer. I had used real events but in building a fictional narrative around them I was given the freedom to allow my self-based protagonist to discover the things it took me years to. Which, in a weird way, makes Nelson and the Gallagher a truer work of self-expression that a verbatim retelling of the actual events could ever be. Because the significance of an experience is never really clear in the moment. In fiction, however, it can be.
What I will say is this; you surprised the hell out of me. I knew you’d be tough. I knew you’d be cool. I didn’t realise you would be so… you. My first clear image of you, the first glimpse I had in my head, was of a young woman in a car, covered in blood, fire behind her, screaming as she tore away from unseen attackers. I thought, then, that the scream was one of fear and relief at having escaped. I didn’t realise that it was the clearest encapsulation of who you were, a roar of animalistic rage, defiance and maybe something else, something more dangerous and terrifying than either. It took a while for the true meaning of that scream to become clear and by the time it did the fact that I was going to be strapped down in that car with you for the foreseeable future had become all too clear.
But it wasn’t supposed to be that way, was it? You were a supporting character, in place to help make the story happen, not to become the story. To be fair, I didn’t realise then that you were going to do and be exactly what you wanted and there was precious little I could enact to change that. And true to your very distinctive form, that realisation came slowly. That awful anecdote you always hear about a frog sitting in slowly heating water, not realising he’s being boiled alive until it’s too late – that was, basically, me when it came to you. I remember the moment I did finally understand. I was walking to catch up with friends at the pub, thinking about the short story I was working on, but those thoughts soon honed in on you and then I started grinning. I’m ashamed to admit it, but at the time I was listening to Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl. Like it or not, that song always reminds me of you. As does the one that followed it that night, one that’s only a little more fitting; Rod Stewart’s Maggie May.
Except neither song is as incongruous as people might assume. Both are about being swept up against your intentions by a mysterious woman. One celebrates it, one laments it.
I doubt I’ll ever lament you coming into my life, but there are times you’ve given me pause. Time when you’ve done things that left me needing to get away from you for a bit. Times when it became evident that you don’t really have limits, that you will do what others might balk at and do it without hesitation or questioning. Maybe I sound like I’m being overdramatic, but you can be scary. Your presence isn’t always a comfortable one.
I think what fascinates and terrifies me about you is ultimately the same thing. It’s that, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t fully understand you yet. There’s so much about who you are and what you’ve been through that remains shrouded and secret. It makes me feel like I’m flying blind, like I’m irresponsible to put your story out in the world without fully comprehending the depths of it. But I want to know more, I want to understand you and the only way that will happen is if I stay in that car, holding on for dear life, smelling the blood and smoke and wondering how the hell I ended up here.
We’ve already been on a few trips together. Every time, a little more of you becomes clear. I think I know where we’re going. But I also know that my best laid plans don’t mean very much to you, just like I know that getting in that car with you changed my life forever. That’s not hyperbole. Whatever happens next, nothing will ever be the same as it was. That’s thanks to you. So in the end, I guess I’m obliged to trust you even if I’m not totally sure I should.
I suspect, although I could be wrong, that for all you are dangerous you are ultimately good. You are damaged and angry and ruthless, but you always come through. You know what it is to be abandoned and unloved, and that’s something that I think you want to protect people from. I don’t think you’re any kind of sentimental hero. I don’t think you concern yourself with the things that aren’t directly ahead of you. But where you can, you help. You save people. And while I’ve never said this before, out loud or in text, that’s what you did for me. At a time when I felt lost and defeated, you stepped on the accelerator and took me far away from that place.
We’re not always going to travel together. But what I know for sure is that every time you pull up in that car, I’ll get in. I owe you that much, and apart from anything else, I just want to see where you take me next.
Other people have already met you, but from tomorrow anyone who wants to will be able to get into the car with us. Some of them are going to jump out. That’s fair enough. To those who stay, I can’t promise anything. But I reckon it’ll be worth the ride. It sure as hell has been for me.
The final season of Scrubs – the real final season, season eight – aired during my last year of high school. It’s impossible to divorce my feelings about that final run of episodes from the time in which I viewed them, although that’s basically the case with all of Scrubs. A few years ago I tweeted a list of my favourite TV shows, including Scrubs, and a couple of friends reacted with incredulity. But any kind of media attains personal significance based less on its own merits and more on what it means to you, and Scrubs meant a huge amount to me growing up. It was the first TV show I fell truly in love with. I started watching it in 2006 and Scrubs, in a lot of ways, ran parallel to my coming-of-age. Saying goodbye to the show in 2009, then, became inextricably linked with saying goodbye to the last chapter of my pre-adult life. When I’ve looked back on Scrubs in the years since, it has always remained shrouded in a golden glow of nostalgia, forever tied to my adolescence.
I’ve mentioned in other blogs how much I’ve been enjoying the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast hosted by Zach Braff and Donald Faison; it’s the reason I’m thinking about Scrubs at all at the moment, as I’m re-watching the show along with every new podcast episode. But if I’m really honest I’ve found that in the years since the aforementioned tweet Scrubs has slipped in estimation for me. That doesn’t for a second mean I love it less or anything, just that I’ve come to understand that stubbornly insisting it is one of my top five favourite ever TV shows becomes a harder stance to maintain when my tastes have changed so much since I first discovered it. On reflection, the glib goofiness of the show is something I would struggle to get past nowadays, an element that on re-watch I find myself cringing at if anyone apart from myself is in the room.
For years, my Top Five movies and TV shows remained the same. I would proudly reel them off in any film-centric conversation, tweet them in response to prompts to name favourites. But to rigidly maintain the notion that your personal creative canon should always be these few things is to try and deny your own development as a human being.
Some properties have retained their place of significance for me. Jaws and Psycho remain at the top of my lists because those films have withstood shifting perspectives. Nostalgia is a key part of why I love them, but my relationship with them has grown over the years. I find new reasons to love them with every revisit. Scrubs? I’m not so sure anymore. I still think that Scrubs taught me early on that humour and heartbreak aren’t mutually exclusive in storytelling, that they’re both essential parts of the human experience and that a good story can include both and far more besides. The ambition of Scrubs to be gutsy and real even as it got increasingly silly remains, I believe, laudable. But twenty-eight-year-old me has found that as far as TV comedies go it’s shows like Community, shows that go deeper and darker and weirder, that hold more inspiration and emotional impact. Shows that, by the way, I think Scrubs partly paved the way for. Just like it paved the way for so much of my own creative sensibility.
It’s okay to know that you’ve moved beyond something but still love it for what it once meant for you. Ultimately, I think it underlines what I’ve suspected for a while; that set in stone ‘all time favourites’ are stupid. They don’t account for the different ways you can love something. Circa 2020 I love Community more than Scrubs, but the former wasn’t there when I was growing up and rightly or not that makes a big difference. Inglourious Basterds, for a long time loudly touted as my favourite ever movie, probably wouldn’t crack the top five anymore but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. I never got to see Jaws or Psycho on the big screen until I’d already watched them countless times alone at home, and even seeing them at the movies felt in the end more like a novelty. The thrill of discovery, unlike Inglourious Basterds, was never really a factor there. That’s not nothing.
I suspect that re-watching Scrubs has basically plunged a stake through the heart of my categorising favourites into lists. You can love something without having to explain where it ranks and why. You can also change your mind about something (I did in the case of Community). As human beings we’re not fixed in who we are. Our relationships with the media that helped shape us shouldn’t be either.
Note: if you’re just looking to read the novella, it’s at the bottom of the page, but please do bear with me while I provide a bit of context to exactly what this is and how it should be read.
If you’ve followed any of my blog posts about the writing and publishing process of the Boone Shepard Trilogy then you’ll know what this is. Written in 2013, The Broken Record is a 28,000-word novella that was originally designed as the first instalment in a theoretical five book Boone Shepard series. It was a reworking of a bizarre draft I wrote in high school, intended as a fun little mystery that would serve to both introduce Boone as a character and establish the bigger questions that would drive the remainder of the series.
Obviously that did not happen. I was, at the time, proud of The Broken Record but it was met with a collective shrug from publishers and agents. When the series was eventually picked up by Bell Frog Books the mutual decision was made to skip The Broken Record and redevelop part two, then called Darkening Ventures, into the first instalment, retitled Boone Shepard.
Reading over The Broken Record again underlined for me that this was the right decision. There’s an inessential quality to it that, weirdly, was at least partly by design. Read in isolation you wouldn’t even know the series was supposed to be about time travel until the last page – intended as a mind-blowing twist, in execution more of a ‘Huh? What?’ moment that theoretical readers might not even have gotten to given that The Broken Record as book one in a series isn’t an especially compelling beginning. The mystery is easy to work out, the humour could and should be funnier, and Boone as a character comes off as pretty flat. Even my beloved Promethia Peters, who meets Boone for the first time in a brief subplot, here reads more as an unpleasant annoyance than the equal sparring partner she would be in the later books. I was lucky to get a book two after the first published Boone Shepard; had that been The Broken Record, even the best of luck wouldn’t have been enough.
This all probably makes it sound like I don’t like The Broken Record, which isn’t the case. On a personal level it’s a nostalgic read, taking me back to a time in my life when writing was what I did in stolen minutes between uni and working long hours at Dracula’s. The frenetic pace of the thing reflects how it was written; in a flurry of clacking keys at a time when I was so, so excited about the prospect of telling this story. My excitement, in this case, probably exceeded my ability, but I’m okay with that. It’s almost like I had to get this out of the way to write the better books that would become the published trilogy.
And it’s not like The Broken Record has nothing to recommend it, at least in my opinion. It’s a fleet, fast read, never lingering too long in any one place. There are lines and moments that make me smile, and a couple of clever little reversals that I’m prouder of than I thought I would be. In its best moments it reflects what I always saw the Boone Shepard series as; a story of fundamental optimism about finding the joy and the funny side in the darkest of circumstances.
Tonally it’s closest to Boone Shepard’s American Adventure; light, frothy with beats of melancholy among the absurdity. In fact, if you know the series reasonably well you’ll see how American Adventure in many ways works as a sequel to The Broken Record, as several major plot points in that book tie in fairly closely to the central mystery of this novella.
Which brings me to how I’d advise you look at the manuscript. It is by no means a polished product; apart from a couple of cosmetic tweaks, this is basically the same text I wrote in 2013, and as such it’s very much the work of a developing writer. I’d ask you to bear that in mind if you plan on reading it. Had The Broken Record been officially published and gone through rigorous editing it would likely look very different to this version. As such, while I doubt anyone would, I don’t recommend reading it if you’re not already interested in or a fan of the Boone Shepard books. Ultimately there’s a good reason it was not the story I chose to start Boone’s adventures with, despite it being the first written.
But for all intents and purposes this remains a key part of Boone’s journey, a missing piece of the series that I am glad to be able to share with the world now, even if only as a curiosity. It is both canon and prototype; the Boone Shepard of the trilogy absolutely went through the events of The Broken Record before readers first met him hanging off the side of a speeding train, but maybe think of this as Boone at a time in his life where he wasn’t quite sure of who he was, a time post-Marbier and pre-Promethia where he was struggling a bit to find his voice and regain his passion. The Broken Record, then, is the story of how both Boone and his author found what they needed to go on to the bigger, better adventures soon to come.
Despite my criticisms I do think it’s pretty readable and even enjoyable at parts, and hope that if you like the Boone books you’ll get something out of this. Just, you know, don’t judge it too harshly. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, and the Boone Shepard I grew to know and love started here.
I’ve written before about my feeble attempt at rebelliousness when I first started at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2014. In fact, even referring to it as such gives the whole thing more credit than it deserves.
The reason for it, as is the reason for most petulant behaviour, was insecurity. At the time I started at VCA I’d been writing for a few years, since early high school, and I had learned a lot of bad habits that I mistook for being my ‘process’. Learning concepts of structure and theme, of midpoints and reversals, harshly illuminated potential shortcomings in my own writing to the extent that I adopted the perspective that to subscribe to any theory about the ‘rules’ of storytelling was to be a hack who wrote by numbers. Writing, I believed, should a natural process stemming from the emotional truth of the author, something that unfolds organically without being hampered by concern over arbitrary rules dictated by screenwriting gurus.
The thing is, that philosophy is partly right. I’ve read that many stories that faithfully follow every rule taught at a place like VCA and yet they don’t work in the slightest because there’s no soul to them, nothing that the writer was aching to say. They’re technical exercises, not stories. But to assume that personal truth is enough to make a story work is limiting. My belief now is that the ‘rules’ are helpful tools to make your story as strong and engaging as possible, but in and of themselves not enough.
It’s funny how time and perspective has shone a light on truths I was too pigheaded to accept back then. At VCA I used to smugly cite Richard Linklater’s almost entirely conversational Before Trilogy as an example of films that didn’t follow traditional structure, ergo I shouldn’t have to either. After all, they were just people talking, right?
Well, if you think that I suggest watching this video, which beautifully articulates how wrong I now know I was. The Before films work because, apart from being heartfelt emotional powerhouses, they meticulously employ structure to ensure that they are always moving, even when they seem to just be meandering conversation. Seeing that video for the first time, my immediate response upon finishing it was to announce (maybe sounding a little choked up) ‘God I love that film’. Because revealing just how perfectly it follows the ‘rules’ to me has helped shine a light on why it works as damn well as it does. On why it’s such an incredible example of the craft of storytelling. Understanding its mechanics has made me like it more, not write it off as a by-the-numbers technical exercise.
Recently I’ve been really enjoying the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast, in which Zach Braff and Donald Faison re-watch every episode of Scrubs and reminisce on the making of a TV show that was maybe the first I ever truly loved. Before each new podcast I watch the episode they’re discussing, and it’s funny how my perspective has now changed on a show I thought I knew intimately. Years of studying story means that the curtain is lifted a bit. I recognise the reversals, the turning points, the moments that hit with precision every beat VCA tried to teach me was necessary. And like Before Sunset, it makes me like Scrubs more. Because I recognise how structure provides the framework to convey the sort of emotional truths that always made it work just a little bit better than your average goofy sitcom. The things that made me love it so dearly when I was a teenager.
One thing that always stuck with me from VCA was a tutor telling us that for every ‘rule’ of storytelling, we would be able to point to five classics that break it. This, to me, is because the ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re more like guidelines. Helpful, worth knowing, but not essential. Even when employed to perfection, they should be almost invisible, employed quietly to keep your story moving but never drawing attention to the ways in which they’re being used (like in Before Sunset).
So I guess my perspective has changed but not completely. When I see the mechanics of storytelling done well, I appreciate the craftmanship in a way I never could have before VCA. Not much gives me as big of a thrill as when I can recognise just how well a writer has manipulated me, using techniques that I recognise. But when all is said and done? I couldn’t give a shit about the rules.
Years ago I got into an argument with a deeply stupid person who tried to tell me Breaking Bad was an objectively terrible TV show, not because they didn’t enjoy it or it wasn’t to their taste but because some episodes didn’t have A, B and C stories – a classic tenet of broadcast television. Which, like, what? Who cares? If the story is engaging the story is engaging. Not following the rules doesn’t preclude something from being good, just like following the rules to a T isn’t a default defence from being bad.
Personally, since my education I don’t write all that differently from the way I always did. I let the story reveal itself to me and when I feel ready I put it on paper. Sometimes, accidentally, I’ll find it fits classic three act structure perfectly. Other times it doesn’t. If that’s the case, I consider whether I would be better served going about things more traditionally, but I certainly don’t write the story off as a failure. I make a judgement call on whether or not I think it works, based on advice and feedback from people I trust, and often I’ll employ some of what we learned at VCA to help tidy up the parts that aren’t working.
Don’t get me wrong; I credit my time at VCA with providing foundations that I absolutely needed to hone my understanding of story. But most of what I know comes from experience. And in my experience, most audience members couldn’t care less if your midpoint is in the right place or if your inciting incident and first act turning point have the right proximity from each other. They care if your story is good. How you ensure that happens, ultimately, is up to you.
So I guess I’m blogging about isolation. Which I didn’t especially want to do given it’s all anyone is talking about, but as it’s about the only thing anyone can talk about right now I’ll forgive myself.
It’s been a weird time. I mean, on a purely personal level not that weird as I predominantly work from home anyway, but the lack of any ability to go write in a pub, or do anything more involving outdoors than taking my dog for a walk is definitely strange. I’m keenly aware that ’m one of the very, very lucky ones in terms of the lack of overt impact it’s had – so many of my friends and family members are struggling, and the sooner this whole thing comes to an end the better. Because no matter what your situation, being stuck inside is not a healthy way to live.
It’s no surprise that several of my projects have been impacted by this worldwide debacle. The Lucas Betrayal’s radio play release and live reading managed to get through right before everything was shut down, but the physical release of The Hunted has been pushed back until August. Which is a bit of a shame in that I was and remain so keen to hold a final copy of my book, but at least the eBook and audio versions will still be out on May 18 and in the grand scheme of things the wait hasn’t been extended all that much. Meanwhile the film continues development, about which I can’t say too much except for that the casting conversations are giddily exciting. Hopefully I’ll have some good news to share on that front very soon, but we’ll see.
In general, my main focus has been staying productive and staying active. I’ve written up a fairly rigid daily schedule that I’m making myself stick to and that seems to be helping. Maintaining even a limited routine that ensures I do at least something of value every day has helped me retain a sense of usefulness that I think is key to not descending into glazed over video game playing inanity. Although let’s be real, I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas over the last week.
I’ve also been writing. Not as much as I’d probably like to be doing, but enough to ensure that all this indoor time will not be wasted. Predominantly I’ve been alternating between two manuscripts; The Lonely Grave Outside Glenrowan and Madison’s Masterpiece.
Lonely Grave is, in theory, the third in the series that The Hunted starts – a book I should stipulate that I am currently not contracted to be writing (please buy The Hunted when it comes out). In concept, it is one of the wildest, most ambitious things I’ve ever written; a murder mystery told through three alternating timelines over a hundred and forty years. Unsurprisingly, it has come with some big challenges. Finding the way to organically merge a thriller framework evocative of The Hunted’s pace with what is, in many ways, a deep dive into Australian history and the events that I believe fundamentally shaped our culture is a huge task that I’m still not entirely sure I’m up to, or should even be attempted at all. But I’ve been clear since the start that I don’t want this series to just be a succession of interchangeable action thrillers and I do believe that thematically this builds on the ideas that The Hunted establishes. In the end if it doesn’t work it won’t come out, but I’d rather go for the big swing and miss than safe repetition. That said, I’ve found myself having to take several breaks, in part because the many, many threads of the central mystery combined with the different timelines are enough to stretch anyone’s brain and while the story is revealing itself in ways that make me believe it’s worth pursuing, it’s not always easy.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece, which I sort of am contracted for – or at least I am contracted for a second YA book after Nelson and the Gallagher that I’m pretty sure will be this one. Late last year I posted about how I felt I had finally cracked what Madison needed to be, which turned out to be enormously premature. So I won’t say that I’ve finally got it as it remains too early to tell, but what I do have feels like the best approach I’ve yet had for this story.
It's been a unique challenge on a couple of levels. As I discussed in the aforementioned blog post, the idea is that Nelson and the Gallagher and Madison’s Masterpiece will be the first two books in a series all set in the same high school, with each installment being from the perspective of a different character. I really believe this idea has enormous potential; I love the notion of exploring what it is to grow up in a small town from several vastly different viewpoints, and I’m always a sucker for fictional universes explored from various angles through many diverse voices.
But I dunno, I guess part of me wonders if I really want to write Madison’s Masterpiece or if I just love the concept of the series as a whole and see this as a necessary step along the way. One of the big issues with this book as opposed to its ostensible predecessor is that Nelson and the Gallagher, written initially without any real consideration toward starting a series, is a deeply personal work based explicitly on events from my own life. About 60% of what transpires in the manuscript, especially the setting and background to the main plot, is lifted directly from personal experience. And of course, protagonist Nelson is very much an author surrogate, albeit a far kinder and more emotionally intelligent kid than I was at fourteen. As such, Nelson was a pretty easy story to write, fueled at least partly by a sense of nostalgia.
Madison’s Masterpiece simply can’t have that same intimate quality, because while Nelson does appear in a supporting role, the book isn’t about him and as such isn’t about me in the same way. While elements of the book are absolutely based on real life (about 30% as opposed to Nelson's 60), the very concept of differing perspectives means that Madison has to be utterly distinct from Nelson, which in turn means that the connection I have to her isn’t the same. Nor should it be. Therefore I’ve had to really interrogate why I want to tell this story and whether I have enough to say to make it as good as Nelson.
It reminds me in some ways of writing Windmills, my first ever novel which I self-published in 2012 (and went on to rewrite again and again and again in many different forms). In its early, first person versions, Windmills alternated between three different voices and by far the most challenging for me was that of Ed Johnson, the hedonistic, witty, but deeply damaged best friend of story instigator Leo Grey. Leo’s voice came easily. Ed’s, not so much. I remember always struggling to find him in every draft. I remember constantly wondering if what I was writing was wrong. But, in every single form Windmills took, Ed was the character people responded to the most. Sometimes the stuff that isn’t so natural, the stuff that’s a little more hard earned, is the stuff that really speaks to an audience.
Which isn’t to say I’m having the exact same experience with Madison or that the outcome will be comparable, but rather it serves as a gentle reminder that something being difficult doesn’t mean its not worth pursuing. The more time I’ve spent with Madison’s Masterpiece the more I’ve found in the character and narrative that is personal and worth exploring. I’ve also borrowed a lot from the structure of Lovesick, one of my favourite ever TV shows, to make the unfolding story of the book more of a fractured mystery in a way that, without spoilers, I think perfectly suits the themes that I’m setting out to examine. Add to this a couple of recent character revelations and slowly but surely I’m becoming steady in my belief that this story will be fantastic. But as always, we’ll see.
It’s slow going on both books, if I’m being honest. There are days I write nothing at all, and while my instinct is always to beat myself up about a perceived lack of productivity, it’s not like enforced indoor time immediately equals boundless creativity. It’s hard to feel especially inspired when the majority of what you’re seeing is the inside of your house and maybe a local walking route or supermarket.
It breeds a certain resentment towards all of those cloying, condescending “in quarantine X wrote Y so do the same!” posts that started cropping up only to be swiftly superseded by the equally irritating faux-sympathetic “it’s okay if you don’t write King Lear while in isolation”. I mean, yeah, obviously.
There are no rules or expectations regarding how to approach something as unprecedented as this, so don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with this time. Figure out what works for you and go with that. If you want to write, write, if you don’t, don’t. If you want to play a bunch of San Andreas, absolutely do. Personally I’m going with a mix of the above and so far am getting by.
Keep safe, keep sane and tell anyone trying to smugly dictate how to use your time to shut up. I'll see you on the other side.
Monday night’s live performance of The Lucas Betrayal and the simultaneous release of the radio play adaptation officially marked the 20th Bitten By Productions show. Seven years, twenty shows. Looking at the collage image I made yesterday of all our cast shots, it’s kind of staggering. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was stumbling on stage, about to collapse with nervousness, to deliver the first line of our first production, Reunion. Which was, somewhat fittingly, ‘who the fuck thought this would be a good idea?’
Enough people to reach this point, apparently. And while not every show was an outright winner and the journey has been far from a smooth one, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride at the milestone. Most independent theatre companies don’t get past one show. Some manage a couple before fizzling out. But I can say with absolute confidence that it’s the rare company on our small-scale level who, without any external funding, hit twenty shows.
There’s an argument to be made that the designation of twenty shows isn’t quite correct. After all, two of those shows were remounts of earlier productions, but I would rebut that the second iterations of both We Can Work It Out and The Critic were so vastly different to their previous incarnations that it would be doing the cast, directors and shows themselves a massive disservice to claim they were in any way the same production as the earlier one. Also The Lucas Betrayal, at least as it currently stands, is a staged reading and radio play – not a full season. But such has been the response to that show that we’re in the early stages of changing that, so very soon The Lucas Betrayal will absolutely have earned its place in that collage, if it hadn’t already.
So where does this leave us? An independent company, twenty shows and many more lessons in? In some ways, not much has changed. In other ways, the company couldn’t be more different to what it was in 2013. And while I’m not about to go through what worked and didn’t about each individual show (I’ve done that before), it’s worth considering how far we’ve come from humble beginnings.
When I wrote (and directed and produced and starred in) Reunion seven years ago, I wasn’t looking to start a company. I wasn’t looking to do anything other than tell a story that meant a lot to me. And with nobody seemingly taking that story very seriously, I figured I might as well take the experience I’d gained from my central involvement in two youth theatre companies and use it to produce a show all my own.
Understand; it really wasn’t a vanity thing. It couldn’t have been, given how cripplingly insecure I was about corralling friends into helping make something that I was pretty sure mattered only to me. I didn’t write Reunion as a star vehicle for my limited acting prowess. I performed in it because I couldn’t find anyone else to take that role. And even referring to myself as the director of the play feels a bit rich, given my ‘direction’ largely consisted of trying not to upset anyone and hoping that none of the cast hated the script that much.
I think the key moment in that production came towards the end. After one rehearsal Finn, who played my character’s sardonic best mate and who had the most professional theatre experience of any of us, flicked through the script and blithely asked me why anyone should care about our characters.
I think I literally answered ‘they shouldn’t’ because the question cut to the core of my worries about the play and I didn’t have a proper response. That worry stayed with me up until the week before we opened. Then, on a long train ride, I sat and I re-read the script. And as I did something weird happened. I remembered why I wanted to tell this story and why I thought it might matter to more than just me. This play, about a particular kind of painful, gnawing longing for a time when you thought you were happier, was not depicting an isolated experience. I believed that others would understand and so I told my cast exactly why I thought people should care. Because maybe they’d see themselves in the characters and maybe they’d know then they weren’t alone. And while that potential remained a maybe, to me it was reason enough to give it a shot.
Whether or not it worked, I don’t know. Reunion was no insightful masterpiece. The staging was clumsy, the dialogue was variable, the characters slight and the quality of the jokes mixed. But in the grand scheme of things none of that really matters. What matters is the feeling I had standing in the empty theatre after the final show. The feeling that we had managed to pull this off meaning it wasn’t so crazy to think about doing it again.
Over the following years, despite most of the shows being written by me, our output was fairly diverse. There was the post-apocalyptic noir of the Babylon Trilogy. There was the fast talking no-budget comedy stylings of We Can Work It Out, The Critic and The Lucas Conundrum – plays I considered a sort of thematic trilogy until I stuffed it all up by writing a direct sequel to Conundrum. There were outliers like the deeply melancholic (and deeply personal) Regression, the two-person psychological thriller Heroes, the fractured biopic Springsteen, the dark drama of The Commune, the philosophical back-and-forth of The Trial of Dorian Gray and our one and (so far) only musical Moonlite. Then of course there were the plays that weren’t mine, the ones that in some ways I’m the most proud of because they represent my dream for Bitten By; a company that can provide a platform for emerging writers to tell their stories with the help and support of an experienced team. I still hope that in time the likes of Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, Dead Air and Eyes Wide Woke become the norm for us; interesting and diverse works by different writers.
And naturally there was A Good German, the catastrophic failure of an attempt to tell a story about The Holocaust that I won’t dwell on because I’ve written about it way too much, but bears mentioning because there it remains the work that I’ve learned the most from, precisely because of what an utter mess it was.
German remains indicative of a fundamental truth I’ve come to understand over the years of this company, which is that you always learn more from your failures than your successes. And while no other failure was as complete as that of A Good German, there were plenty of smaller ones that marred otherwise strong shows. Bad casting choices that caused problems both on and off stage. Scripts that needed more development to truly find their potential. Problematic venues that compromised shows for any number of reasons – from poor soundproofing to dodgy air conditioning to shocking organisation. Communication issues making things harder than they had to be.
I don’t need to trawl through specifics or dredge up past dramas but broadly speaking they matter because they become learning experiences that, hopefully, make it just a little easier to not do the same thing again. There has not been a single show of ours that didn’t have some kind of problem behind the scenes (or during them) but frankly that’s the nature of the beast. What I firmly believe is that with every passing show we’ve learned a little more and gotten a little better. Being twenty shows deep and still having incredible people wanting to work with us suggests that we’re not totally on the wrong track.
One of the really staggering things about looking at that collage was seeing in one place an indication of how many inspiring people we’ve worked with over the past seven years. And that photo can’t even encapsulate them all, because to make even the smallest play happen requires behind the scenes efforts that those cast photos just can’t capture. To think back to Reunion and then to consider the teams we’ve managed to assemble on plays since is discombobulating. I won’t name names because there are so many of them, and so many of them I want to celebrate but don’t have room for.
What I do have room for, though, is the people who make up our central committee. The people who are Bitten By Productions. It started with Justin Anderson and Ashley Tardy, back when we sank beers after a shift at the old theatre restaurant Dracula’s and mused aloud about starting a production company. The three of us used Reunion as a starting point before stumbling through a succession of shows that weren’t all great but allowed us to meet several wonderful people we’ve worked with every since. A few joined and left the committee in the intervening years, but Kashmir Sinnamon and Alicia Beckhurst stayed the distance, moving from appearing in our shows to helping see them realised, in the process bringing our company to a place where the term ‘well oiled machine’ wasn’t entirely off base. Together, the five of us have built this little idea into something that has lasted and looks to keep doing so, something that has entertained thousands and slowly established a reputation and a lasting place in the Melbourne theatre scene.
There will always be stuff to learn from and areas to improve. That much is inevitable, especially when you’re talking about a bunch of creatives trying to run something like a functioning business. But looking at The Lucas Betrayal the other night, performed in a swanky venue with a cast of four enviable actors and an audience who came out to have a laugh with us despite the constant current fearmongering surrounding a certain virus, it was hard not to think about how different everything is now to the nervous, uncertain days of Reunion. And, knowing what we’ve got up our sleeve for the next year and beyond, it’s hard not to imagine with excitement just how different things could look around the corner.
On February 17 2020, my Oma, Anna Bergmoser, turned 90. In many ways it snuck up on us. My grandparents, despite living on the other side of the world, were regular presences when we were growing up; their visits always the thing we looked forward to the most, their departures occupied by tears and begging for them to stay. They are lively, funny and loving people, and in my head they have always been the relatively energetic, sixty-something figures of my childhood.
My grandparents remain healthy and active. They walk every morning, they ride their bikes, they come for lunches and dinners with their family. But turning 90 makes the ticking clock that’s always been there a lot more obvious. And having not seen them in almost a decade, Oma’s 90th seemed the opportune time to go back to Austria. Understand, I’ve wanted to visit for years. But it’s only been recently that finances have allowed, and even once they did time quickly became a problem. I only booked this trip a month ago, capitalising on a three-week period between commitments. The only time I could fit it in, a time that happened to line up with Oma’s birthday.
Once the tickets were actually booked, a vague, creeping fear started to set in. What if Oma and Opa weren’t how I remembered them? What if they were disappointed by my terrible German? I knew it was irrational; my grandparents, who don’t speak a word of English, have been tolerating the broken German of the Australian side of the family for years, and both my parents and brother had reported on how they remain more or less the same as ever. But ten years is the kind of time that creates a feeling of pressure, pressure that made me almost dread walking up the stairs of their home.
I had a good week to get ready, even once the trip had begun. With the HarperCollins Literary Bites launch taking place the night before we flew, Molly and I arranged to go from Sydney – the trip kicking off with the wonderful whirlwind of the launch then a day spent wandering the city, having a slightly boozy (technically business related) lunch with the inestimable Tony Cavanaugh and Louise Lee Mei from Beyond Armana and then finally heading to the airport for our late night flight. Bad sleep, plane food, a stopover in the eerie early morning version of Doha airport and then we were in Vienna.
We only had one full day there and grappling with jetlag it probably wasn’t enough to fully appreciate a famously beautiful city. We got lost and separated in the enormous Natural History Museum (I reached what I thought was the end after a couple of hours only to realise there was a whole second floor) before heading to the Belvedere Palace, now a gallery home to several famous pieces of art. By that point, however, I was starting to flag, and so we had the obligatory schnitzel dinner then went straight to bed.
I was confronted with the limitations of my fractured German as I tried to order food and coffee from the quickly frustrated lady running the bakery up the road from our AirBNB (“um… spreche sie English?” “No.”). Molly, however, turned out to be basically fluent, which didn’t exactly help the growing panic over to what degree I would be able to speak to my family.
From Vienna we got the train to Salzburg. If you’ve ever caught one of these long-haul European trains you’ll know how great they are – comfortable chairs, tables (like the one I’m writing this at now) and beer (like the one I’m drinking now). Not to mention the stunning scenery as, in our case, we crossed into the more striking, mountainous part of Austria.
Salzburg, if you’ve never been, is a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful city. Ancient buildings surround a long, winding river, cobblestoned alleys, strange little boutique-y stores, overflowing cafes, expansive public squares, towering cathedrals and overlooking it all a sprawling mountaintop castle, striking against the expanse of snow-caps. We had three days there, spent with Molly’s friend Lenya from Germany, before heading on to my family’s hometown of Frankenmarkt. So we explored. Molly and Lenya went hunting Sound of Music locations while I went hunting a great European bar to write in. In the centre of a touristy city this did not prove easy; my broken German and attempts to make a joke out of it were largely met with unimpressed silences that left me a little resentful towards compulsory tipping. Still, on our second afternoon there we had a drink up at the castle, and in that moment everything became beautiful; the clouds cleared and we looked out over the city expanse and gleam of snow capped mountains under a sunny sky that, to me, so perfectly encapsulates Austria.
It’s hard to be in a place like Salzburg without ending up pretty inspired. A book that was previously eluding me seemed to become instantly clear in those surrounds and despite the unfriendly bar staff I furiously tapped away in spare minutes, finding Alpine Austria weirdly conducive to writing a story set in rural Australia.
On our last night in Salzburg we went to a brewery recommended by my parents. I say brewery but I’m not sure what the right word for it is – I’m not sure there is a right word for this place. It’s like an old monastery and seems as much when you enter it; all statues of saints and an eerie silence. Then you go through a door, take a left turn and suddenly you’re met with a succession of packed out beer halls and deli type stores for you to get whatever Austrian food you want. This, followed by a dingy dive bar that was basically exactly the place I’d been looking for, capped off our Salzburg trip with a feeling of real authenticity and beyond that, a feeling that I really wanted to return as soon as possible and really get to know this city.
But the next morning it was time to head to Frankemarkt and see the family. My cousin Nico picked us up early and we were on the way. As we drove and I watched the green hills, smatterings of villages and towering churches out the window, that vague sense of fear sharpened. I felt shaky and too warm. Passing the sign that welcomed us to Frankemarkt, I could barely speak. Ten years since I’d last been here. Now I was back and I couldn’t shake this terrible false sense that maybe I’d come too late.
My family live about five minutes outside of the town of Frankenmarkt. If you’re ever in the area you’ll immediately know where they are from the spread of greenhouses on a hill overlooking the town itself. The family business, Blumen Bergmoser, is floristry, with my Dad being the only one of Oma and Opa’s children who did not go into working with flowers somehow. His older brother Dietmar now runs the business, and he lives there in a large house behind the greenhouses, directly across from Oma and Opa.
It is, in the most traditional sense, the family home. Outside of when I was too small to remember it, I had been there twice before; in 2010 and 2003. But of course it has always remained clear in my head, and as always there was no overwhelming sense of nostalgia upon pulling up there again, just a quiet feeling of ‘there it is.’ The moment I got out of the car I ran straight up the stairs to Oma and Opa’s house.
I should never have worried. My Oma remains astounding. Even seeing her then, the day of her 90th birthday, it really struck me how little she has changed. How little she ever does. She walks easily and without assistance, she laughs and jokes and waves her hands around when she gets excited. She overflows with love for all of her now huge family. Nico told me she was worried that she wouldn’t make it to ninety, that she would miss seeing everyone. Well I can tell you, if you met this woman you’d have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll make a hundred at a canter. When I told her she had not changed in ten years she laughed me off, before going into the next room and proudly reporting to Opa what I’d said.
Opa has maybe changed more. He’s always been the more active of the two and that remains so, but at 86 he’s a little quieter now, a little more withdrawn. But he remains a wry, warm, always smiling presence, a man of many hobbies and eccentricities. His study is absolutely coated in photos of the family from all times and places. He makes things with his hands, feathers on rocks creating little birds, Edelweiss flowers glued to stones that look like mountains. His Wintergarten boasts part of his massive collection of stones and gems, along with handmade murals of every branch of the Bergmoser family’s lives; homes, partners, pets, everything. In the centre of the Wintergarten is a huge, painted image of Australia, with photos of all of us attached to the places where we live. The pride in where we have all gone and what he have done permeates all of my grandparents’ home.
It’s always the way with these things that immediately it becomes as though you never left. And while my German isn’t great, it was enough. Walking with my Opa in the forest that fringes the family home, I was able to tell him about what I’ve done and what I’m working on, knowing from his small smiles that he understood. He showed me through the greenhouses, naming for me the different trees and flowers growing there. That fear might as well have never been present. All I felt, those first few days there, was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I could be here now, that I could share these moments, that I had reached a place in my life where this was all possible.
Routine formed quickly. A walk in the forest every morning, followed by a couple of hours writing in the Wintergarten then lunch with Dietmar and his wife Gabi before, usually, an adventure of some kind in the afternoon. We’d go to neighbouring towns, walk the sides of lakes, and then go to either Dietmar’s or the nearby home of Sylvia, my aunt with whom my brother Tristan and his partner were staying while we were there. Inevitably, beers would be had along with a schnapps or two, then a lot of shared stories and big laughs, alternating between German and English. The sense that I was in the middle of the best holiday of my life began to grow in those times.
The big official lunch for Oma’s birthday was that Saturday, at a hilltop Gasthouse. Lots of Austrian food and a huge family photo against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains; a perfect celebration of why we were all there, and Oma humble and smiling at the centre of it all, matter of factly treating it like none of it was a big deal.
The next day Molly headed back to Australia, as she needed to be home for work a week before me, and so the last week was spent in relative laziness, maintaining this newfound routine with only a couple of breaks; the traditional Fasching carnival through the centre of Frankemarkt (a carnival characterised by floats throwing sweets and colourfully dressed people coming up and offering you schnapps that makes you feel as though your throat is on fire) and, on that last Tuesday, a day spent skiing.
Tristan and I went with Sylvia, her husband Wolfgang and Nico. They commented several times on how bad the snow was, but for us it was perfect. Long runs that take half an hour to get to the bottom of, the constant view of all the surrounding mountains, the regular slope-side places to stop for a hot chocolate, a strudel, a beer or a schnitzel. My skiing experience in Australia looked very limited indeed after that.
Slowly, over the last couple of days, that vague fear began to creep back in a different way. Because the reality is this; for all that they remain healthy and independent, my grandparents are not getting any younger and they live on the other side of the world. And while I am now in a position where further trips to Austria relatively soon are not some far-flung pipe dream, it’s still a lot of money and a long way. At this stage, due to book stuff it looks like I will likely be able to come back in July but still. Time is moving on and I don’t know what things will look like a year, two, or three from now.
I grappled with this gnawing feeling for the last few days, somewhere between wanting to be sick and wanting to burst into tears. I told Oma and Opa several times I would see them in July, but I was just as much saying it to myself. And I did say it to myself; over and over as the end got near. I told myself not to get upset, not to treat this like the last time because it wouldn’t be the last time and after seeing them so healthy I had good reason to believe that.
How do you approach a goodbye that you don’t want to be a final goodbye, that likely won’t be a final goodbye, but might be? The truth, in the end, is that there is no right way to do this. As so as the hours crept towards the time I had to get in Dietmar’s car to head to the train station, I fluctuated between relaxed and smiling, on edge, and seconds from tears. And when the moment came, it went fast. I hugged my Opa, gripped his shoulder and, voice cracking, told him I would see him in July. I kissed my Oma on the cheek, told her how wonderful it was to see her, and that I would be back soon. And as I walked out of the house I caught the eyes of my family members; red rimmed because they knew.
Driving to the train station I played out those last exchanges in my head, over and over. I started to worry that it hadn’t been enough. I hadn’t wanted to draw it out, but at the same time – what if those brief goodbyes were the last time I saw them?
I messaged Tristan and Molly to share how I felt, and they told me exactly what I needed to hear. Tristan explained how the last time he’d been over, two years ago, he had been overwhelmed by the goodbye. But he realised that for Oma and Opa, quicker was better. There are so many family members and for every goodbye to be treated like it might be the last is just too much.
What Molly said followed on from this perfectly. That what mattered was not the goodbye, but the time spent. The mornings writing there while Oma made sure I had enough coffee and pastries. The afternoons on the couch with Opa, reading our respective books. The walks in the forest. The conversations, of which there were many, only slightly inhibited by my clumsy grasp of the language.
At this, I found myself thinking of a quote from Lord of the Rings, a quote that originated in a very different context, but summed up exactly what I felt.
“If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
I believe I will see my grandparents again. I believe when I do it will be wonderful. But if I don’t, this was a time worthy of remembrance. A time I know with quiet certainty that I will treasure forever. A time I’m so glad I had.
Writing words about writing words.