The Next Big Thing!

 A WORK IN PROGRESS – GHOSTS OF GALLIPOLI

A fellow author   invited me to share some information about my current work-in-progress in an author ‘interview’ called The Next Big Thing!  You may expect me to talk about The Water Doctor’s Daughters, or All Along the River; Tales From the Thames, but as soon as these books were  published  my thoughts  turned to my next  project…..inspired by the terrible events at Gallipoli in 1915.

What is the working title of the book?

A Butterfly On His Shoulder.

Where did the idea for the book originate?

When I was researching my family history some years ago I remembered snippets of information about my great-uncle, Arthur Singleton. There was  a story  that he had been awarded the Military Medal after serving in Gallipoli with the Tasmanian 12th Battalion, but also that he became terrifyingly mad and a danger to society. During my childhood he was never spoken of by his sister (my grandmother) and I mistakenly thought he was dead.  My father was born in 1917 and  christened Arthur  in honour of his heroic  uncle .  But   in my memory Dad was never referred to by that  name.

Can you provide a brief synopsis of the book?

Well it is the story of Arthur’s life, and that of his two daughters, but also the parallel story of a  charismatic doctor  from a neighbouring town. The pair had served together in the volunteer forces and  both enlisted  the day after war was declared in August 1914.  Dr Victor Ratten became Regimental Medical Officer to the 12th Battalion. He sailed to Egypt with the battalion, but returned home very soon and did not participate in the Gallipoli conflict.. He was  medically discharged in dubious circumstances. In 1917, he  become Superintendent of the Hobart General Hospital, even though his medical  qualifications proved to be completely bogus.  Really the book  is a tale of terrible injustice, but also (at least for Arthur)  of redemption.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in writing it ?

To tell my great uncle’s story with love and respect, even while revealing the most private and painful details of his life.

What made you decide  to write about such a dark aspect of your family history?

In a way it was the generosity of the Tasmanian Health Department. Free of charge they provided me with every document relating to Arthur’s  long years  at  the New Norfolk mental asylum, from the 1920’s  until 1966, the year of his death.   Included were not just medical records but family letters, some written by Arthur himself.  To me this wonderful act of grace was a sign that his story should be told. I want to portray him in his true light, as a  hero rather than a broken, criminally insane mental patient.

 

Part of the old asylum at New Norfolk (now closed)

What other avenues did you pursue during your research?

Well of course WWI service files were invaluable, as were the records of the  Tasmanian orphanage where Arthur’s children were placed at a very  early age.  Their story is also very powerful.  Additionally  I was  fortunate enough  to have many conversations with Arthur’s niece, who is now 100.  She is the only living person who knew him before his mental health collapsed.

Have you completed your first draft?

No, not quite. I allowed other projects to intervene. In retrospect I suspect this was my way of coping with the intense emotional impact the story had on me.  Even now I often find myself in tears as I write and I’m certainly   not a  soppy kind of person.

What else might pique the reader’s interest?

Oh my goodness, the extraordinary life  of Dr Victor Ratten! It definitely fulfills the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

When do you hope to finish the book?

I haven’t set myself a strict deadline. Next year I will be spending a lot of time in the UK, promoting The Water Doctor’s Daughters and All Along the River. However, I would like to see it  published in the lead up to the centenary of the outbreak of WWI.  Arthur was one of the first ashore at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915. He fought in the battle of Lone Pine and subsequently  in France.

How do you think your family will react?

Oh dear, I think it may cause problems among my extended family in particular but I hope everyone will understand my motives.  Shellshock, or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is still a huge problem

POSTSCRIPT  –  If you read the comments below you see that my explanation of the title ‘A Butterfly On His Shoulder’,  inspired my  Canadian artist friend Diane Smith  to create this moving  image of Arthur  (or perhaps his spirit)  on the battlefield:

A Butterfly On His Shoulder

 

How do you interpret the picture?

 

34 Comments
  1. A Butterfly On His Shoulder sounds fascinating. An interesting and unique story. I can’t wait to read it. I love that you’re going to entwine the two character’s stories.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Maddie, sorry for deviating from the prescribed questions but some of them just didn’t seem to fit. Arthur’s story and that of his daughters was very distressing and I hope Doctor Ratten’s bizarre life will provide some relief. Mind you, the stark contrast between the lot of Dr Ratten and that of Arthur Singleton was upsetting in itself.

      • With this amazing story, I don’t think you could have stuck to the original questions. I’m not sure you have to anyway. Besides, your questions were much more interesting. It is an amazing story, but I can see how it will upset you once you get down to the research.

  2. I am loving all these Next Big Thing posts 🙂

    Sounds really interesting Pauline! I LOVE the title!

    Good luck with it 🙂

    Xx

    • But oh dear Vikki, I wrote it at 2.00am after a horrendous day and completely deviated from the proper questions! I thought Maddie had added the film bit due to her acting background so promptly made up some of my own! By the way, I love your post and will comment on it in a minute.

      The butterfly title comes from the fact that asylum staff said Arthur was always talking about them.I took them as a symbol of freedom and remembered the old saying that you can chase a butterfly all over a field and never catch it, but if you sit quietly it will come and sit on your shoulder. In the end he did find freedom (nearly crying into my breakfast here). And oddly enough his physical war wound was a broken shoulder that troubled him all his life.

      • He he he, don’t worry Pauline, some rules are just begging to be broken 😉

        Awwwww, that’s lovely 🙂 I hope you can get that in, what you’ve just said about the title.

        Xx

        • Pauline

          Yes, all the bit about the butterflies is in the book. And do you know what? My lovely Canadian artist friend Diane read the blog this morning and created a most wonderful picture of Arthur on a battlefield with butterflies flying over his shoulder! Of course I cried again at the very
          sight of it. I’ll ask her if I can post it, although she says she might do some more work on it.

          Vikki, I read all those comments on your blog with utter fascination as I’m sure you did. Whatever are you going to do? Talk about a huge challenge if you go ahead.. even more daunting than my Arthur story and that’s scary enough. Anyway you are in a position to do something pretty extraordinary right now. xx

      • That part about the butterflies is beautiful – what a wonderful image. And how lovely to have an artist portray it!

        • Pauline

          Yes Ann, it means so much to me that Diane has responded to poor old Arthur, he was so utterly abandoned for so long.

  3. Pauline, I’m so glad you contacted me.
    Your blog for The Next Big Thing touched on so many of the reasons why I started writing. I have explored those reasons in my memoir (‘A WRITER’S TALE of Life, Love, Luck & Coincidence’) which will be published next year.
    In short, I found a diary written by my great-uncle – mainly in 1916 – while he was serving with the 8th Battalion Anzac forces. He – like Arthur – was also one of the first ashore at Gallipoli on April 25th 1915. He was killed just outside Ypres in Sept 1917.
    This diary prompted me – many years after its discovery – to write his story (LIAM’S STORY pub 1991, & shortly to be ebook) but in doing the research, I knew I had to write his parents’ story first. (LOUISA ELLIOTT is currently being re-edited for ebook.)
    But I really identified with your feelings about Arthur – and, because of the subject matter of my novel (illegitimacy) I too worried about what my extended family would think.
    The point is that your reasons for writing your book are honourable ones. There will always be different versions of any true story. And as Hilary Mantel, winner of the Booker Prize, has just said about Thomas Cromwell, there are ‘versions behind versions, behind versions’ of history.
    And truth (as in the case of Dr Victor Ratten) is so often stranger than fiction!
    But all we can do is present our view – and hopefully make our readers think a little more deeply about what went on in the past.
    You say you’ve been finding it emotionally challenging to research and write this story. I agree – I found it difficult too. And when it’s done, it will probably be years before you can think about it again. But so worthwhile – oh, yes, very much worth the journey, no matter how hard the road!
    I look forward to reading it.

    • Pauline

      My goodness Ann, what strange similarities exist in our writing lives…and how extraordinary that your great- uncle was also at the Gallipoli landing on April 25th. Was he an Australian?

      Naturally I am even more keen to read Liam’s story now, and also your memoir.

      My first book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters, is also about injustice and the often dark aspects of family relationships. I felt very close to the young girls in the WDD, but it is an entirely different matter to write about a member of one’s own family.

  4. A Butterfly on His Shoulder, sounds like a very brave story to write. I suffer from post traumatic stress disorder resulting from my years working as a police officer and I am sure the soldiers who fought in WWI saw things hundreds of times worse that I did. I can understand how writing your uncle’s story would make you emotional. It is why I write fiction.

    Good luck with finalising the book. I think 2014 would make an excellent time for the release of a story like this, with the spotlight on the centenary of the start of WWI.

    Jeff

    • Pauline

      Hi Jeff
      You are certainly in a unique position when it comes to understanding the terrible stresses on our service people, whether from the military, the police force, or the medical profession. I was really moved that local police officers went out of their way to assist Arthur, his family and the small Tasmanian community he lived in during some truly terrible times.

      I know that your warmth and humanity (and artistic ability) are represented in Paper Magic and I’m sure it will be a great success.

  5. Pauline

    What a wonderful thing to do. It pains me that we, in this world, are always very quick to judge. Acceptance is very hard for we humans, but with it we would be so much more at peace. To accept someone and understand why they do what they do, act how they act, see how they see is something that is difficult but possible.

    I have really started to see things from a whole new perspective myself. Just thinking about writing my husband’s story has humbled me more.

    And … it’s OK to cry. It helps we ladies balance our emotions out.

    Thank you for being such an open-minded and wonderful person.

    🙂
    Sarah

    • Pauline

      Hello Sarah
      Thank you so much for you lovely message, I really appreciate it. I sense that telling your husband’s story will be challenging and my thoughts are with you. It is a great privilege to share another person’s story, especially someone as close as a partner. Please stay in touch and let me know how the journey progresses.

  6. What a wonderful response you’ve had, Pauline. Knowing how busy you are, I was worried I’d put too much pressure on you. But, not a bit of it. I’m so pleased. I knew you’d blow us away with your Next Big Thing. You’re a star!

    • Pauline

      Hello Sweet Maddie

      In this case I think it is already Arthur who is the star, and isn’t that wonderful? It validates my decision to tell his story, difficult as it will be. And thank you for thinking of me my friend. The pressure was my own doing but (cliche alert) all’s well that ends well.xx

  7. Would LOVE to see the picture Pauline 🙂

    I’m going to go ahead with it….but, be very sensitive, that’s all I can do really isn’t it 😉

    Xx

    • Pauline

      Have just posted Diane’s picture at the end of the blog Vikki.
      As to your decision…well done, I’m sure you will handle it superbly. We will have to swap notes occasionally.
      BTW, I have a slightly disturbing little September 11th connection myself which I will talk about on here soon.

  8. I went straight through hitting the reply button so didn’t see it…..have now though WOW!!!!!!! That would make a fantastic book cover wouldn’t it 😉

    Yes, definitely! 🙂

    Oh, I hope it wasn’t too bad for you.

    Xx

    • Pauline

      Yes, and it really spurs me on. Once the editing of All Along The River is finished (and the wretched index) I’ll have to get going with it. Trouble is we will be off to England for 4 months in Feb. And then again August/September.

      No no, the Sept. 11 tragedy didn’t affect me personally only..well, you’ll see.

  9. How clever your friend is. The picture is wonderful It says so much about so many of our grandfather’s who fought in that wicked and unnecessary war. Truly moving.

    • Pauline

      It’s a very special tribute isn’t it? And the poor fellow certainly didn’t receive many tributes in life.

  10. Oooooo, looking forward to it 🙂

    Xx

  11. You have done a wonderful job (as usual) Interesting, heartfelt,heroic and sad. You know I can not wait for this story to be finished. You are a remarkable writer. If it made you cry, I will need a box of tissues!

  12. Oh my gosh!! I will have to read this book as soon as it comes out because I can so identify with your situation. I also have a beloved uncle who died in a Veteran’s Hospitaly for the Mentally Insane. He was my very, favorite uncle, so much fun, always laughing and joking. A farmer by heart and inclination he also served in the war and came back a changed man.

    Over the years he slowly but steadily lost his grip on sanity as he lost his farm and then lost his family with even his two sons refusing to have anything to do with him.

    I wasn’t able to attend his funeral, something which I dearly regret, but I have never forgotten him. May he rest in the peace he never found in life.

    Nancy

    • Pauline

      Well, this is amazing Nancy,

      What a sad and incredible coincidence that your lovely uncle, just like Arthur, was a farmer who also lost his family. I so hope I can do justice to their sacrifice, which in a way was as great as if they died in combat.

  13. Pauline

    Thank you Patricia
    I know nothing can change the horrors that Arthur and those like him went through but somehow the fact that people may ultimately cry for him is at least a gesture of sympathy and understanding… and balm to my own heart.

  14. Very strange. His name was Caeser Mannia, and he owned a chicken farm just north of San Fransisco. We called him Uncle Chester because it was more American than his given Italian name. My mom and dad did a lot to help him, giving him a home when he couldn’t support himself. Unfortunately, he would get well on the meds, then think he didn’t need them anymore and quit taking them. Each time this happened, he would get worse than the previous time. Eventually, they refused to let him out at all. So very sad.

    • Pauline

      Chester’s story is sadly similar to Arthur’s, from around 1937 until his death in 1966 he was never allowed out..although he escaped on several notable occasions! In all that time records show he had a single visitor on a single occasion. I’m so glad your Chester had the support of your parents, even if they were unable to help him as much as they would have wished.

  15. I would say it shows the still existing innocence of the soldier, prepared to face battle and yet hoping for life. The butterfly to me is like a ray of light.
    Your story makes me want to know more.

    • Pauline

      Thank you Sabina
      Arthur Singleton was certainly an innocent young man when he set out in 1914. I am hoping to concentrate on A Butterfly on his Shoulder now that my Thames book is finished.

      • can’t wait to read more. I found your website via Diane Smith’s blog – a friend of mine and found it so intriguing that I had to find yours.
        I can’t wait to read more.
        Hugs.

        • Pauline

          Diane has become a friend of mine too, and I just love her work. Everyone was really moved by the image she created of Arthur on the battlefield with the butterflies.

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