Total Immersion

An aerial view of the Bund 1940s Shanghai
An aerial view of the Bund 1940s Shanghai
The busy Bund along the Shanghai waterfront
The busy Bund along the Shanghai waterfront
A Russian lady sitting in a rickshaw, one of the many wealthy foreigners
A Russian lady sitting in a rickshaw, one of the many wealthy foreigners
An aged refugee fighting hunger, sweeps up spilled rice on the railroad station platform. November 1949
An aged refugee fighting hunger, sweeps up spilled rice on the railroad station platform. November 1949
Body of Chinese child killed during Japanese attack is carried like a sack to a common grave; treatment due in no small part to the extremely high numbers of casualties among the Chinese civilian population at the hands of brutal Japanese soldiers. 1937
Body of Chinese child killed during Japanese attack is carried like a sack to a common grave; treatment due in no small part to the extremely high numbers of casualties among the Chinese civilian population at the hands of Japanese soldiers. 1937

Looking through the window

Looking at old black and white photographs is like looking through a window in time. But if you open that window and let your mind wander inside the picture, the whole scene can come alive as if watching a movie. This is what I did when I was researching 1940’s Shanghai for my latest YA novel, Little Paradise. I immersed myself in old photographs. I heard the sounds, breathed the smells, saw the rush, the bustle, and felt the pain of life in that huge crumbling city.

In my first novel, The Garden of Empress Cassia, Mimi draws a garden on the footpath and people walking by are sucked into it. The idea came from an experience I had, and it still creeps me out when I think of it.

I was 19 and staying at my friend’s parents’ holiday house at Sandy Point near Wilson’s Promontory. I drove from Melbourne alone, my friend had gone down earlier that afternoon, and when I arrived at the small shack, I found a note pinned to the door. Gone to the store. Back soon, it read.

I went inside, made myself an instant coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to wait.

It was dark outside by now, the wind howled, rattling the thin panes of glass. As I looked around the small kitchen I noticed a painting on the wall. It was of a country cottage with a thatched roof. A dark forest behind the house made the scene appear ominous but the lady standing at the gate made up for it with her welcoming smile and friendly wave. The thing that interested me most about the painting was that the old lady was alone. Why hadn’t the artist painted anyone else? After all, the lady was waving to someone. Being an artist myself, I thought this was odd.

I stood up to take a closer look.

It was then that I realised the lady was staring straight out of the painting. And, she was staring at me.

Then I heard her speaking. She didn’t move her lips but her words came straight into my head as clearly as if she had.

She said, ‘You have travelled far, my dear. Come, welcome to my home. ‘ I found her invitation strangely compelling. And yet, at the same time, I was stricken with horror. I knew that all I had to do was let my mind go, let it float inside that painting, and I would be trapped there forever.

To my relief, my friend walked in the door, snapping me back to reality.

I didn’t tell her about the painting. She would have called me crazy. I wasn’t a child with a big imagination. I was an adult.

I never told anyone of my experience until I became an author. Funny, but being a writer gives you an excuse for being crazy.

This painting by Van Gogh gives you the feeling of the painting I saw
This painting by Van Gogh gives you the feeling of the painting I saw
Tranquility in the desert
Tranquility in the desert

I have the pictures of my recent desert walk on my desktop, and when my mac is resting, up comes the slide show. I still feel, smell, hear, the desert, feel the peace, see the stars at night. I am still walking its stony paths. It has become a kind of sanctuary, a place to go and meditate if I need to get away from the myriad thoughts and troubles of putting together the biggest, most complicated novel I’ve attempted so far.

The only way to creativity is by allowing the mind to wander.

But watch out for kindly old ladies asking you in for tea.

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