Picking the Bones of “Cocaine, My Sweetheart”

Aged 15 aboard the slow boat to Fitzroy Island (FNQ), 1989

There are many posts blooming across the internet today discussing the process of writing the stories for the EIGHTY NINE anthology. Mine is no different, because for a small window of time during the creation of each Literary Mix Tape, I get to just be a writer. Like everyone else, I got a randomly assigned song, I had to find an event from ’89 to riff off and I needed it all to be spec-fic.

I can’t remember now if there was any one song I desperately wanted from the playlist. All I remember is wanting to bring ideas I had been exploring, of an alternate personal history, to the page. So for the first time ever, I saw the song as complimentary to existing ideas, rather than as the font, from which my story would spring forth.

When I pulled REM’s “Stand” I thought I was on a winner. I love REM, their songs are always thought or emotion provoking… except in this case. I read the small dissertation about “Stand” on Wiki and died creatively.

Michael Stipe has said of the song’s origin:

…he and the other band members were discussing The Banana Splits, The Archies, The Monkees, and similar ’60s pop groups. “They threw these super bubblegummy songs at me, and I said, ‘I’ll raise you and see you one.’ And I wrote the most inane lyrics that I could possibly write.”

While I interpreted the lyrics of “Stand” to be one of disorientation with the world in which you live (which ended up being perfect for the story) the actual kick start for the story came from one of the other songs – 30 Years in a Bathroom and the idea of a woman communing with the spirit of a dead lover who lives in her bath. It revolved around the idea her guilt held him on that physical plane and facing her guilt would be the only way to free him. Somehow the two ideas combined.

What if my character was convinced she didn’t belong in the time she did, that the dead lover in her bath actually lived and she’d done something to bring about this alternate version of their life. And the crushing weight of that guilt. At that point I had no idea what she had done to create this alternate version.

I knew from the outset I wanted to write my story backwards and I wanted to rise to the challenge set in Dan Powell’s Driver and the Beautiful Highway… to write a story as a collection of vignettes.

The opening vignette was rewritten almost a dozen times before I ditched it. I was fixated on the sound of a dripping tap in a full bath and the rising damp drenching the interior of the linen press, where there were no pipes and the woman’s distress at the paranormal world of the dead lover in the bath leaking into her real world. Exploring the line between madness and sanity. As it turned out, it was the wrong scene, the wrong characters – basically the wrong start.

I sat down to try again, completely from scratch and Rebecca Booker walked into the bathroom and took a sachet of cocaine from the pocket of her shirt and suddenly it all made sense. From there the rest of the story literally poured out, with only one slight alteration, the bedroom scene was originally set in the bathroom, and had nothing at all to do with sex!

I took the running of the Melbourne Cup in 1989 as the pivotal point of existing knowledge, from which everything else spins and disintegrates outward from. And I love the Doug Anthony All Stars and could still sing the entire song they song on Melbourne Cup night ’89 – so it had to have a mention in there as well.

Rebecca Booker isn’t me and Toby Rowlands isn’t the boy I was in love with in Year 10– but there are elements of both of us in both those characters. The beach Bec and Toby bunk off to, the room in which they lose their virginity and the bathroom where it all comes unstuck are real places from my adolescence in Far North Queensland, even the uniforms they wear are authentic to that time period. I also confess to weaving snippets of real conversations and true life events into the story because fact is always more shocking and horrifying than fiction. Hopefully I have done my job well and you won’t be able to ascertain fact from fiction.

While I wrote Cocaine, My Sweetheart to explore a different version of my life (in my head it was never going to be as gritty or messy as it became), it ended up becoming an antidote for the longing of a second chance at a missed opportunity. Cocaine, My Sweetheart reminds me that the possession of knowledge closes doors, rather than opens them.

All EIGHTY NINE stories are free for the next 48 hours at the Literary Mix Tapes site.

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