Let me set the scene: the bathroom features chewing-gum pink 1970s wall tiles and a big old bathtub. Inside this, sits a diminutive, fluffy-haired toddler wearing nothing but a smear of bubbles on her chin and a determined expression. Bath time is over, there’s nothing left to clean and the water is getting cold, but the little girl wants none of it. Being in the water with the ducky and the sloppy-slappy washcloth is the BEST THING EVER. Her exhausted parents have learned that the only way to extract this small person from the bath is to say: “once upon a time…” and then pause. In her eagerness to hear the rest of the story, the child rises out from the water like an avenging sea monster, and is out of the bath, into her towel and pulling on her pjs before they can blink.
I suppose it’s not surprising that someone who was so in love with stories as a kid grew up wanting to be a story-teller herself, but more than that, the anecdote about ‘getting baby Miranda out of the bath’ became a story in and of itself, retold throughout my childhood, richer with each telling, becoming another thread in the tapestry of tales that made up our family identity.
Take a step back and you’ll also probably find that it’s these shared stories that nourish the various 'group identities' that we carry throughout our lives. For example, if you were there, it’s impossible not to feel the connection with all of those who also stood in the voting queues in South Africa on the 27th of April, 1994. Or how about the shared memory of that particular ‘buzzy-bee’ sound of vuvuzelas in the streets and stadiums during the 2010 Fifa World Cup? OK, here’s one: when I visited the UK as a child in the ‘80s, there was an ad on TV for Club biscuits, and the jingle has stuck in my head ever since. If you can also remember the tune to: “if you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club!” then we share a story already. We were both there; we had this experience together even though we’ve never met. It’s powerful, this story stuff.
My fascination with the way stories bind us together was a definite starting point when writing Black Dog Summer. In the book, Sally’s contented rural life rehabilitating animals in the African bush is brought to an abrupt end when she is murdered one Sunday afternoon. But she finds that instead of passing on to whatever we’re supposed to pass on to, she’s trapped inside a ‘story-space’ that appears to be woven up out of all the stories ever told in South Africa, all the lives lived. Sally is especially held captive by her own story, which continues to unfold in the lives of her living relatives: her estranged sister, and her teenage daughter, and she’s drawn in as their lives begin to unravel in the wake of her death.
In the Black Dog Summer, I made this ‘story space’ into something a little magical, a sort of mystical bridge linking this world and the one that comes after. And why not? Where else, but in fiction, can we experiment with such ideas about 'what happens next'?
This brings me to the next chapter in today's tale. Brace yourself for an epic saga complete with rivers of blood, splatters of gore, hideous dragons and sacrifice and doubt. I'm talking, of course, about the actual task of opening up the document (with its taunting little cursor blinking) and trying to make the story come out in ordered words, one after the other. So that other people can read it.
You know, writing.
There have been times that I've sat in front of a computer screen and asked (or screamed, really, whilst wailing and rocking and wrenching the hair from my head): 'why is this so DIFFICULT?' I love stories, they're clamouring inside me, dying to be told. Why is it so hard to get them out?
I don't know, I probably never will, but I do know that the struggle is worth it. Now that I’m done, there’s one more story out there for people to lose themselves in, to share, to be united by, one more thread in the tapestry of human experience that we’re all trying to figure out.
I’m working on a new book at the moment, and have to report that doing so hurts just as much. There are still dragons, there are rivers of gore; but I’ll keep plowing through, and I won’t give up. How can I? There are stories I want to tell.
Miranda Sherry is the author of Black Dog Summer, a haunting, lyrical story about the power of a mother's love for her daughter.