How do I write about my parents, Jock and Bess’, lives when they are no longer here, ethically, with credibility? How do I use their stories to examine universal issues such as the futility of war, post-traumatic stress disorder and generational trauma without exploiting their lives? And how do I bring them, and the world they inhabited decades before I was born, to life? These were the quandaries I faced when I began writing my debut memoir, Two Generations, which tells the story of my father’s war experience during Japan’s systematic bombing of Darwin, and the impact his trauma had on me.
I wanted to be as real as possible in the writing, so I spent a lot of time trying to get the facts right. I researched as much as I could my parents’ lives, the Second World War in Australia and Lae, New Guinea, where Jock also served as a soldier. I used this research to suggest likely possibilities. Where there were outright gaps and silences where I couldn’t find anything to work from, I chose to fictionalise some scenes, but all the time with the facts about the era I’d gathered as my guide. In this way, the book became part memoir, part fiction and part non-fiction.
While my goal was to tell the story of Jock and Bess with respect and delicacy, I also wanted to portray them as honestly as I could. Like all of us, they were multi-faceted, complex human beings. They were not perfect, but they tried their best with what life had dealt them.
I began with what I knew.
During my growing years, my mother often talked about her childhood spent on a farm with her parents and siblings; riding horses from the age of six and milking cows before school. She spoke about her courtship with my father, how they went to dances and the pictures, played tennis with friends and went for walks along Geelong’s Eastern Beach. These anecdotes were gold, rich with meaning and nuance, and they came alive when I began writing about my parents’ early life together. But they were just the bones. The next step was to put meat on the skeleton.
For that, I needed to make my characters believable, to enter their minds, imagining how they thought, acted and spoke in the years before I was born. This wasn’t difficult with Jock and Bess, as I knew them – their personalities, values, beliefs, habits – well enough for their thoughts and words to come easily. Perhaps their personalities were different as young people, when they courted, married and began their life together, to the people who became my parents. I worked on the belief that the essence of who they were had remained unchanged, which meant I had a beginning from which to build their younger characters. Trusting my intuition, I embellished what I knew with imagination and research from the time; political climate, language, clothes, house designs, food, gender roles. I’m a visual person, pictures began to form in my mind and scenes followed.
The war scenes I based on facts. I used anecdotes from my conversations with veterans and the children of veterans. I travelled to Darwin three times, spent two days in the NT Archival Centre reading excerpts from diary entries, letters and the transcripts from interviews with people who had lived in the dusty frontier town prior to and during the bombings. I also spent time at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, reading diaries and Army records. Some of the scenes in my book were written directly from these investigations.
Ultimately, though, despite all that research, Two Generations is an exploration of one soldier’s war experience and in turn the impact that experience had on his loved ones. It is not a definitive history of the Second World War in Darwin and Lae, New Guinea, or Jock and Bess’ lives at the time. It is a subjective take on the war and I tried to write the emotional truth as well as I could. Did I succeed? I don’t know. I will never know how close I got to the truth.
One reviewer called me part biographer, part novelist, part historian and part detective. For me, this is what it took to tease out memory and history, to hopefully bring an intimacy between the reader and the singular story of my family.
Anne Connor is an award-winning Melbourne writer. For over two decades she has worked in the writing space, with articles appearing in The Age, Business Review Weekly, and various lifestyle and industry magazines. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and received awards in short story competitions. Anne headed up a marketing and communications consultancy for nine years, and has studied creative writing at Deakin and the University of Oxford. Two Generations is her debut memoir.