Our compulsion to make meaning of traumatic events through the reflective process of writing fiction and creative non-fiction fascinates me as a reader, and as a novelist. The reasons for the latter are multi-faceted and depend on the project. In my second novel, for example, I combined an interest in nurses who served overseas in the First World War with memories of a Southern New Zealand childhood and family stories about my maternal grandmother who ran a private nursing home in Riverton and said ‘Where’s your grit?’ if anyone complained of hardship. She had no time for wimps. Her generation had intimate knowledge of loves and lives lost in the 1914-1918 slaughter.
My parent’s generation were caught up in the Second World War. Their offspring, especially those of us born in the mid to late 1940s, were raised in its shadow. Alliances with Great Britain meant many of our country’s able-bodied men had fought in both wars. Army, air force or naval uniforms hung at the back of wardrobes in our childhood homes. We flicked through photographs taken in exotic places, polished medals for parades, and knew men who had been detained in prisoner of war camps, blinded in air fights or maimed on battlefields. The presence of these returned servicemen in our families and neighbourhoods fuelled our imagination, as did regular outings to Saturday matinee action films. Eager for more adventures ourselves, we devised potentially dangerous outdoor games such as tunnelling into sandy banks and firing homemade arrows at each other. When the weather kept us indoors, we turned to books.
I was drawn as a reader to works that explored the emotional impact on people whose lives were disrupted by military interventions. Collectively known as ‘Literature of Crisis’, this type of writing was prevalent in the early twentieth century. Loss, resilience, empathy and friendship lie at the heart of such books.
Similar themes appear in my own writing. My novel Lives We Leave Behind (Penguin, NZ, 2012: PRISMA Editions, France, 2013), written as the creative component of a PhD titled Memoirs of First World War Nurses: Making Meaning of Traumatic Experiences, focuses on the emotional legacies of this catastrophe on military nurses.
Ideas for a novel with connections to Southland began to form. My first task was to create a set of characters able to carry what I had in mind on to the page. I travelled south to the small towns of Riverton and Tuatapere, familiar territory to my grandmother. Whilst walking along a stretch of wind-lashed coastline I picked up stones, eleven in all, not consciously aware at the time that each would eventually represent a character. A dark green one with a subtle sheen became Sister Addie Harrington. Another, foetus-shaped with golden hues and a quirky texture, fitted my vision for Sister Meg Dutton. Charismatic but flawed surgeon Wallace Madison’s stone is the colour of burnished bronze and heart-shaped with an irregular fracture down the centre.
On my return to Dunedin I placed these stones on my desk at home as members of the cast. The initial writing phase proved challenging. Although reading the published memoirs of nurses gave me valuable historical context and period details, I struggled to fully bridge the gap between ‘imagined’ and ‘lived’ ordeals when I wrote from my fictional characters’ points of view in third person, past tense. My initial efforts were too removed from their everyday realities. On this occasion, for this particular book, research and imagination were not sufficient.
I overcame the obstacle by writing a full draft in first person, present tense. This shift in perspective brought me closer to my nurse-characters as they performed gruelling tasks in makeshift huts, converted schools and hotels, and sweltering canvas operating theatres where orderlies performed fly-swatting duties. From this position I could also better imagine them developing friendships and enjoying lighter moments. The deeper I got into the creative process the more I dreamed myself into their storylines. Some mornings I woke knowing what they had been doing overnight because I had in a sense entered their ‘warscape’. Only after I had become ‘one of them’ could I withdraw from the frontline and return to writing in third person, past tense.
As a novelist I sought to offer readers an authentic yet engaging account of nurses at work in various war zones. On a personal level I hoped to gain further insight into themes that reappear in my writing. I accepted long ago that loss was an inevitable part of being human. However, while reflecting on the making of Lives We Leave Behind, I thought at length about my approach to writing fiction that draws on real historical events. Firstly, I realised that developing empathetic fictional characters relies as much on narrative perspective as it does on narrative imagination. Secondly, tracing the emotional consequences for actual and fictional nurses who served in this crisis created openings for me to make sense of the circumstances and events that have shaped me. As a result, I developed a deeper understanding of myself as a woman and a writer and I gained insights into the ways in which family, upbringing and place fosters resilience.
Maxine Alterio is a novelist, short story writer and an academic mentor. She has an MA (Otago) and a PhD (Victoria). She co-authored Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education: Using Reflection & Experience to Improve Learning (RoutledgeFalmer, UK and USA, 2003), recognised internationally as the first text to link the art of storytelling with reflective learning.