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  • Rachael Preston

Rescuing Old Ladies, or Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

My friend Lynda Simmons tells people she gets her story ideas from a guy in Hamilton who sells them out of the back of his truck, her tongue-in-cheek response to the question most asked of writers. I used to tell my creative writing students to comb newspapers and eavesdrop, mine their experiences and ask probing questions of their family. Ideas can be had from most anywhere. The idea for Tent of Blue, my first novel, came from an experience I had while living in an old house than had been carved into several apartments. The separating walls were thin and across the hall lived a woman and her mother who was confined to a wheelchair. A set of stone steps led to the front door of the house. No ramp. No wheelchair access. The old lady was trapped. So was her daughter.

It was the daughter I heard most, shouting, haranguing, the rise and fall of her frustration, the grammar of anger tattooed on the kitchen cupboard doors. The old lady was mostly silent. Once in a while I’d catch a muffled response. Every day I sat at the dining table in front of the window, working on my novel Aurora (which resides happily in the bottom drawer), staring at the traffic and the Wimpy’s across the road and feeling alternately frustrated, anxious and at times downright sick. I never saw inside the apartment across the way. She never left her door open the way I did sometimes to stir up the air. Apart from the yelling—and for the six months we lived there there was a lot of yelling—I have no idea what transpired between those walls. I never heard a normal conversation. It was yelling or nothing.

One hot sticky night I propped open the front door to the building to let in the lakeshore breeze. Next morning I found the door closed and a note taped to the inside. I don’t remember the exact wording, other than it was rude and declarative. I wasn’t to leave the door open at night it proclaimed. No salutation, no please or thank you. Who was she, the door police? Shaking with fury I flipped the note and scribbled on the back, “Stop yelling at your mother day and night!!”

Okay, I overreacted. She never spoke to me again, though as we’d never really spoken before things weren’t a lot different. Certainly, she never looked me in the eye again. She also never stopped yelling at her mother, and the feeling grew in me that I had to do something—but what? Call the police? Bang on her door and get into a slanging match? Or worse? There had to be some way I could rescue the old lady from her bad-tempered daughter. Break into her apartment and make off with her, wheelchair and all. But what about all those damn steps outside? And where would I take her? How could I stop her from freaking out? I’d have to get to know her first.

And thus the idea for Tent of Blue was born—with the urge to rescue an old woman I had never seen. I turned the rescuer into a young boy. He had to be old enough and strong enough to plausibly carry out such a feat, while at the same time young enough to believably harbour such notions. So, a boy who hadn’t been well socialized, who was naïve and a dreamer, but not a Forrest Gump character. I needed an illness that meant he’d spent long stretches of his childhood in hospital, something that would have shaped his character, but not left him physically or mentally weak. And after discarding several ideas and reading Dudley Moore’s heartbreaking autobiography I choose clubfoot. And Anton’s mother, Yvonne? She just walked into my head one day and wouldn’t leave.

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