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.
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:
How do you interpret the picture?