When Carrots and Jaffas first showed their red heads to he public in May last year a man I’ve known for half a century phoned me. Let’s call him Gilbert.
Gilbert: ‘I’m a member of a book club. There are fourteen members, all men, most of us retired recently or nearing retirement. We take turns to host meetings; the host nominates the book, which all members are obliged to purchase and read. My choice is “Carrots and Jaffas” and I’d like you to come along and be part of the evening.’
HG; ‘That sounds great. Yep, I’ll come. When will it be?’
Gilbert: ‘Not until December. It’s not my turn until the end of the year.’
HG (thinks: Fourteen books pre-sold. Terrific!). HG (aloud): ‘Thanks, Gilbert. I’ll be honoured.’
I duly came along on the designated Wednesday, at 8.00pm. Gilbert admitted me to his dining room where seven males sat a table that groaned with enough food for seventy. This looked like a book group I’d enjoy. I knew and liked four of the seven. Gilbert introduced me to the other three.
Male hands shook male hands. They gave their names, which I’ll change to Cadbury, Nestle and Hershey’s.
Cadbury smiled widely, his mouth full of teeth. Hershey’s smiled shyly, without much dental display. Nestle beamed as he pumped my hand, telling me of his work as an outback vet, culling dogs in Arnhem Land. We had worked in the same parts of the Top End. We shared an interest in the wild dogs of those parts. I liked this bloke immediately.
We all sat and I took out my notes. I had prepared remarks. I planned to talk about the background of the book, its gestation and its life since May when it appeared in the shops. But the group had quite different intentions. Cadbury started: Why did you write this book? Big smile, lots of teeth.
I gave my answer.
Cadbury: Yes, but why did you write it this way? The teeth again: I mean if it’s the story of mainstream Australian twins, why is half the book set amongst Aboriginal people in the outback?
I explained that the story was of children stolen from their families. The teeth were not happy. The room hummed with anxiety: was I perhaps feeling ambushed? I reassured the group: I’m well past seeking polite applause. These are fair questions…
The room settled, Cadbury resumed: I mean, there’s a story of a mad woman from Argentina, a lot of detail about the twins as babies, then the kidnapping, then this long excursion to Aboriginal country, there’s a mad doctor, an old lady obsessed with emus and a crazy story about a dog that cures all Aboriginal health problems!
Hershey’s managed to make himself heard: It felt like there were five or maybe seven stories, each one could have been a novel in itself…
Cadbury again: And what’s this story about the attempt on the world land speed record! This last was not a question but a protest – no teeth.
The group rushed to my rescue: It took place on lake Eyre. It’s a whitefella story from the same part of the country. One voice declared emphatically: It’s just about the most thrilling chapter in the book. My heart was thumping.
But I understood Cadbury’s problem. I explained that structure had been my greatest technical challenge.
Who did you show the story to before you published it? Just your family? – Cadbury again.
Well no, three of Melbourne’s finest writers read it and advised me. Also an acclaimed novelist in Brisbane…
Why didn’t you take their advice? Why did you publish it? Cadbury was enjoying his indignation. Why did you rush into print?
I explained that the rush to publish took place over four-and-a-half years. That I had received and taken much detailed advice. That I had thrown out at least thirty drafts. Clearly thirty drafts were one draft too few for Cadbury. Lindt chimed in: We formed a consensus: too much material.
Five faces registered silent dissent from the consensus. Voices rang from other ends of the table: Loved the humour… Yeah, where Bernard’s Dad is assassinated by the KGB… and the story about Luisa writing to Bernard, inviting him to mate with her… I looked up. This last was Cadbury, belly heaving, teeth displayed in innocent mirth. He lapsed into silence, collecting breath.
The group liked Bernard – good bloke… salt of the earth.
They found the doctor – who had caused more anxious re-writing than any other character – entirely convincing.
Cadbury returned to the arena. He held forth on the subject of the loss of a child. He was firm in his generalization: The child doesn’t suffer much. Kids adapt. It’s the parents who suffer.
In the names of the many who have testified so variously to the range of indelible hurts following the loss of a child, I demurred. I spoke with feeling, without heat, choosing my words. I had a special reason for care. I concluded: There’s only one rule: everyone suffers. And the suffering never ends.
The evening closed. My prepared remarks and most of the repast remained untasted. I had learned a good deal.
I surmised that the consensus of two resented paying for and reading a book they did not enjoy.
After the meeting I took one member aside, an old school friend. We had shared experiences over sixty years, all of them happy. Until the most recent, the loss of a child.
Standing with our backs to the others I placed my hand around his shoulder, dropping my voice: How is it for you now?
Bearable. I have my work. It’s easier for me, harder for her: we don’t go anywhere we’ll meet friends… He stopped speaking, looked thoughtful, resumed: You know, when I first saw your book I expected I’d suffer as I read it. I didn’t. I enjoyed reading it, like all your books.
My friend left smiling. So did I.
I thought the Men’s Book Group had delivered its verdict and I understood it. But a few days later, racing through the crush of central Melbourne in its present-buying fever, I nearly collided with Hershey’s. He hailed me as he might a dear friend, smiling: ‘Great book event, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed meeting you and hearing about the writing of the book. Really enjoyed the entire experience.’