A writer writes. Words that are based on ideas or experiences; love, loss, triumph and terror, divided and labelled as fiction and non-fiction before being presented to the world. But what do you say to your readers when years after releasing a fiction novel, you let the truth come out that a scene played out on paper by one of your fictional characters was actually based on your own personal childhood experience? Surely it is not misleading to write a factual account disguised in the form of fiction, as it would be if you tried to pass off something completely made-up as non-fiction? Or is our fascination with fact more interesting than our interest in fiction? Well, let me tell you of the moment I should have died.
It was 1986. I was 14 years old and living in Gosford, New South Wales, about 90 minutes drive north of Sydney, Australia. If it sounds familiar, that's because it is. It was the setting for my first novel The Long Way Home. While the character from my novel, Simon Small, had his own completely fictional story told between the covers of my book, I believe, as I mentioned before, that every writer bases his or her story on ideas or experiences they collect throughout their lives. In the case of what I am about to tell you, a scene from my first novel, (ironically the scene in chapter 14), was actually a real life account of the moment I should have, for all intents and purposes, died.
Like the character Simon in my book, I too had run away. Until now I have never shared this story with anyone but my closest family. But I had just learned that my family were moving interstate to start a new life in Victoria. So let's just say that for a young boy I had my reasons, and a free ride north on a freight train seemed like a good idea at the time.
After waiting for my parents to go to sleep, I silently slipped out of the house and walked the five kilometers from where we lived to the rail line that cut across Brisbane Water, and followed it into Gosford. For the next hour or so, I was unsuccessful in trying to jump aboard each approaching freight train as it slowed for a signal before passing behind the football grounds of what is today Bluetongue Stadium. So I thought I'd got lucky when I saw one train pull to a stop behind the football grandstand. Now I don't know what I was thinking. It was a long time ago. I was only 14, and thought it would be a good idea to climb on top of one of the covered hopper wagons to take a better look. The problem with that idea is that the main northern railway line out of Sydney is electrified by 1500 volt overhead wires. I stood up before I even realised they were there. Luckily my head missed the wire, but then I did something really stupid. I wondered what would happen if I touched it. I held out my outstretched finger, moved my arm towards that thick black cable, and what happened next became the basis for that scene in my book.
I can still remember the colour of the sheet of light that came between me and 1500 volts of pure electricity. It formed a large outline almost the size of a human. Green, like a pale, luminescent emerald. I remember the shock that went through my body. I remember falling backwards. What I don't remember was hitting anything when I fell. I don't know how I got back down from on top of that freight car. I know that I didn't fall from the top of the train, because I was in no way injured. What I do remember is this; my finger coming within an inch or two of making contact and being met by a loud snap and green glow before being thrown backwards. If I close my eyes now, I can still remember that scene in the still of the night. Me, a 14 year old boy, standing alongside the tracks, looking up at the wires that hung above the covered wheat hopper and wondering if I had just been saved by an Angel. That was my first thought, and to this day it is the most plausible explanation I have as to why I didn't die right then and there. I simply looked back up at the wire, and walked away.
I walked the five kilometers back to our home and climbed into bed. No-one knew that I had been gone for half the night. As I lay in my bed, I accepted the fact that I would soon be moving south of the border and starting a new life. The thought no longer bothered me. Metaphorically speaking, my life died that night atop a covered wheat hopper. From that moment on, I feel I can honestly say that I have made the most of my life. Whatever situation life has thrown at me, and it has thrown some doozies in my direction over the years, I've been able to pick myself up, just like that night back in 1986, and still emerge with something to show for it.
Now I may not be a best-selling author like Stephen King, but the fact that I have a book at all with my name on in, I can attribute to one thing. An Angel of green light that came between me and the overhead wires on top of a train. Only weeks later on the evening news, I was shocked to learn that two teenage boys in Sydney had died after coming into contact with overhead train wires. Only then did the thought sink in that it could have been me. I've often thought that people's life stories make for more interesting reading than fiction novels. But those who pen autobiographies are often already famous to begin with, and I am still a relatively unknown writer from Australia. So is it wrong to work elements of real-life experience into fiction? I think not. The whole purpose of my writing is to extract the extraordinary from the ordinary. If I wasn't meant to be doing this, then I could assertively argue that I could have been left to die on top of a train, way back in 1986. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?