After posting about my writing goals on Monday (thanks to everyone that has dropped by to read it), I wanted to start sharing some of the stories behind the book I am currently working on. Thew working title is Daughter of Hanoi, although I have no doubt that will change.
About halfway through last year, I had a great idea for another book. (I should say straight up that it feels a little fraudulent to talk about my second book when my first book is still only 90,000 draft words that haven’t even had the first edit.) This was quite exciting as one of the things that had stopped me from writing in the past was the belief that I didn’t have any good ideas. I was still trying to finish the book I had started during Nanowrimo 2017 but this new idea was so tempting. But I listened to the advice from many experienced writers about finishing my first draft first. I wrote down as much as I could about this new idea and then went back to finishing the first draft. I was actually a great motivator to get the first draft done and when Nanowrimo started on 1 November, I was excited to be let loose on my story.
Sarah is 35 and a political journalist in the Canberra press gallery. The book starts with Sarah coming home to Broken Hill after the break-up of her relationship with a married politician. She finds her father collapsed on the lounge clutching a photo of himself, with a young Vietnamese woman and a baby. Tony is actually being treated for cancer, which Sarah did not know. But this is not the biggest shock. Sarah learns that the woman in the picture is her mother and that she was born in Hanoi when Tony was a diplomat.
Sarah has been brought up by Tony in Broken Hill where he reinvented himself as an artist. Growing up as part of the artist community, Sarah has never really wondered about her mother but Tony explains her mother has recently been in contact and Sarah agrees to go to Hanoi to meet her while Tony finishes his treatment in Australia.
The idea for this story came from listening to a colleague in Hanoi talk about courting his wife during the 80s by cycling around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi. He was one of the first foreigners to be allowed to marry in Hanoi at that time. I liked the idea of Sarah going to Hanoi to uncover more of her father’s story and also learning about Vietnam’s culture and history.
While my posting to Hanoi from 2011-2014 would ultimately mark the end of my diplomatic career, it was a fantastic opportunity and a very special place to live. I still wonder how we survived that first year though – we arrived with a two-year-old and a three and a half-month-old, and after a few weeks language training (to consolidate the year of training I had in Australia), started a job that often involved 10 hour days and lots of travel.
For me, setting a book in Hanoi is an opportunity to relive some of our 3.5 years there. As I write, I get to ‘visit’ my favourite cafes and restaurants. I hadn’t planned for Sarah to end up in Hoi An but I was struggling as to where the story would go once she realised the guy she was seeing was her half-brother – who is not happy learning about a secret half-sister and all but chases her out of Hanoi. Hoi An, with its beautiful beaches and old town, was our happy place in Vietnam and the place we would escape from the pollution of Hanoi and the stress of my job at the Australian Embassy.
I have now been working on it for a bit over two months (although probably only about a month of solid writing) and I am about a third of the way through. Given things are likely to change significantly over the course of writing and editing this book, it is probably not too much of a spoiler to say Sarah travels to Hanoi, visits many of the places Tony and her mother Bich had taken her as a baby (Tony has kept a suitcase hidden of photos and things from Hanoi), meets her mother (who is now a senior government minister) and meets Hai, who she has a brief flirtation with until learning he is her half-brother and escapes Hanoi to Hoi An in the centre of Vietnam with Ben, the much younger son of her father’s old friend Tom. This is where the story is at the moment, with Sarah working at an orphanage, having decided to stay in Vietnam until Tony visits in a few months time.
Unlike my first book, I did not have a plan for how this story would play out. I had an idea and in starting to write, I decided I would write in a more linear fashion (rather than dipping in and out of scenes as I had with my first draft) and I would see where the story went. I am not entirely sure where the story will end up, but I would like her to have a relationship with her mother, without trying to have too much of an ‘everyone lives happily ever after’ type ending.
In 2016, my first Nanowrimo attempt was a memoir of our time in Vietnam, drawing also on a diary I kept during my first visit there in 2003. In telling Sarah’s story, I am drawing on a lot of this information to explore some of the things about Vietnam that I find most interesting – from the role of women and the importance of the extended family unit to the way that Vietnam’s long and often turbulent history informs people’s behaviours. And of course, there is the amazing food, architecture, coffee and landscapes. We were last there for a 10-day visit in mid-2016 and as I write, I am finding myself becoming quite homesick. Of course, one of the key reasons for writing about Vietnam is knowing that if there is a chance of this story ever being published, I will need at least one research visit.
In the coming weeks, I will update you on the story and I’ll also post about some of my favourite places in Vietnam, my favourite foods and places to shop, the history and holidays and my favourite books about Vietnam.
Have you been to Vietnam? Have you read any good books based in Vietnam?