(Design: Tina Tiller)
(Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksOctober 25, 2020

David Hill on the story that started it all

(Design: Tina Tiller)
(Design: Tina Tiller)

David Hill’s beloved junior fiction book See Ya, Simon is 28 years old. The boy who inspired it died in his first year of high school. That backstory is well known but now, Hill fills in the detail, including the obligation he felt to his daughter, and the grief that kept him company as he wrote.

Bernard Beckett, outlining his junior novel The Tunnel of Dreams, notes “If I don’t know the ending … before I start writing, I’m much less likely to develop a coherent narrative”.

When I began my first kids’ novel, I also knew what the ending would be. But I wasn’t ready for certain things that happened on the way there.

In her first year at high school, our daughter Helen was part of a likeable, tractable group of both genders. There were little flirtations, besties, fallings-out and reconciliations. The usual roadmarks of adolescence.

One of the boys was in a wheelchair. In the novel I eventually wrote, I called him Simon. (His real name was Nick.)

Nick had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. We’re talking the early 1990s, when the severe form from which he suffered was almost inevitably fatal.

By adolescence, he was in a wheelchair, legs unable to support him. He dipped in and out of hospital as the disease progressed. For afflicted kids, the time usually came when the diaphragm muscles that managed breathing began to fail. In a strangely merciful end, those with Duchenne MD nearly always died without any pain.

During their first high school year, Nick joked, bickered, moved through days with the others. I’m sure Helen and her group all had fantasies where a miracle cure was found, with someone riding up on a white horse to hand it over.

Nick seemed to be holding his own. “We all want to do things for him,” Helen told me. “He just makes jokes about it. Typical boy!”

The decline was precipitous. Increased weakness. Another bout in hospital. A flicker of recovery, which must have been worst of all for his brave, exhausted parents. Systems collapse and death.

Helen was distraught. Not just for Nick, but also because nothing was safe any longer. A friend had died. The world was insecure, inimical.

I remember looking at her, thinking “You brave kid”. I didn’t consider writing about it then; it would have been too much of an exploitation. But Nick and his friends hung around in my mind, till a few years later, I knew I needed to do something about them.

So I researched, which at that time still meant books from the library and talks with relevant parties. I began the opening pages.

A few months before starting, I’d heard Graeme Lay talk about first drafts. You just chuck everything down, he said; worry about shape and focus later. Graeme, you’ll never know how much that heartened me.

I started chucking everything down. I wrote it longhand; still do for all first drafts. Longhand is the perfect speed for me – slow. I left what’s become my habitual margin, where I scribble notes to myself “Wed or Thurs?… In previous scene?… TRIM!” I wrote in black ballpoint one day; blue the next. It helped me track changes.

I’d got 8000 words into the story before I realised my major blunder. I’d begun with the afflicted boy Simon as narrator, yet he was going to die at the end. OK, it could be done, but it would be grotesquely stagey, plus (I felt) an affront to the real Nick. So how was I going to reach that end?

In desperation, I invented the character I called Nathan, Simon’s best friend. He’s a sort of Everyboy: idealistic, hormonal, loyal, a mixture of kids I’d taught, our own son Pete, a morsel of myself. It seemed to work. Under various names and hairstyles, a Nathan-like figure has underpinned nearly every one of my young adult and children’s novels since.

As I drew near the final chapters, where Simon dies – and he was always going to die; as I say, I knew the ending before I began – something else happened that I hadn’t anticipated. I began to weep.

I’d been writing in a neighbour’s house. We were having our dining-cum-writing-room reshaped, so each morning, my pile of pages and I trekked 20 metres up the street to work.

I wept as Simon goes into hospital again, and his friends realise he’ll die soon. As Nathan comes home from school to find his mother back early, and understands as soon as she says “Nathan, love, I’m sorry”.

Our friends had an old black labrador, who snored under the table as I wrote. During the book’s final sections, obviously concerned at my blubbering, he creaked out and leaned his heavy warm head on my knee.

I finished the first draft. I edited, edited, edited, which for me has always meant cut, cut, cut. I found that Sadie had become Brady, and decided the latter sounded better. I typed it out, on my noisy yellow electric typewriter with two-level, black-and-red ribbon, and wondered what to do with it.

I looked up “PUBLISHERS” in the Yellow Pages (I did!) I parcelled up the manuscript and sent it off – hard copy, in an envelope, SAE included, via NZ Post. I waited.

A month. Three … five months. Not unusual now, but not usual then. I took deep breaths and rang. “We’ll let you know soon,” a pleasant person said. They did. The manuscript and rejection letter were in the post three days later.

I suspect they hadn’t read it. I’m not offering that as a silly-fools-didn’t-know-what-they-were-missing reflex. I mean – unsolicited manuscript, author with no track record in longer fiction, boy in wheelchair, cliched, probably derivative, blah blah.

But the thing still nagged at me. Was it really that hopeless?

Then I remembered a friend mentioning Mallinson Rendel in Wellington. I posted off the novel a second time, and put an arterial clamp on my hopes. Inside 72 hours, the heavy, black, landline phone rang. Ann Mallinson wanted to publish.

“Oh, Ann!” I heard myself blaring. “I’m so bloody pleased you like it!” I saw that my left hand was punching the air.

See Ya, Simon became the template for every young adult and children’s novel I’ve tried since. Like Beckett, I always know what their endings will be.  Also like him, I’m challenged, startled, elated to find what’s involved in getting there. It’s one of the great joys of the job.

See Ya, Simon by David Hill (Penguin, $19.99) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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