I’ve always been drawn to stories based on real life events. Fiction can be powerful, emotional and hard-hitting but when a story features something that actually happened, for me at any rate, there is a deeper engagement, a more lasting resonance.
I’d wanted to write a novel for years but that historical impetus had always eluded me. Then one day I heard Gordon Brown's apology to the child migrants from Britain to Australia. I was horrified. These children, some as young as four, had been lured to a land ten thousand miles away, ostensibly to lead a better life, but in reality to satisfy racial governmental agendas. Many were lied to, told they were orphans when their parents were still alive; many were consigned to years of misery and abuse; few were ever to see their parents again.
Was this the story I was looking for? If I could engage my readers in a heart-wrenching tale, perhaps I could increase sympathy for these ex migrants, and imbue people with a sense of outrage on their behalf. News reports such as the one I heard, back in February 2009, had made people aware of these appalling events and The Child Migrant Trust had done an amazing work reuniting families, but fiction can sometimes engage people on a deeper emotional level.
"If I could engage my readers in a heart-wrenching tale, perhaps I could increase sympathy for these ex migrants, and imbue people with a sense of outrage on their behalf."
Yet what right did I have to tell this story? I had no family links with the child migrants, no personal axe to grind. Was I just exploiting their suffering for my own literary ambitions? I thought long and hard about this moral dilemma. In the end, I realised the only way I would know was to ask the very people I wanted to base my novel on. I contacted The Child Migrant Trust who regretted they could not help me with my research but wished me luck in my endeavours. I felt I had their blessing. I managed to track down the editor of an Australian newsletter for ex child migrants and an advert I placed resulted in several people contacting me. I was heartened and humbled by their response: they spoke to me at length about their stories and showed great interest in my novel. Again I felt a confirmation of my intent.
"The only way I would know was to ask the very people I wanted to base my novel on."
These kind people had trusted me with their stories: I owed it to them to produce the best narrative I could. I spent two years reading widely in order to ensure my information was accurate. Then I enrolled on a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. There, my wise tutors and fellow students helped me to realise that readers will only invest in my story if they can engage with my characters. I worked hard to create characters who were believable and endearing. Several more years elapsed whilst I honed the manuscript and sought editorial help. Eventually I felt I’d done the best job I could. To my delight I found an agent who championed my novel and she sold it to Headline in a two-book deal. ‘The Oceans Between Us’ came out this March – nine years after the news story had first touched my heart.
It has received some wonderful, positive reviews, but the thing I am most pleased about is that readers are responding to the cause of child migrants. In the words of one reviewer: ‘This is a story that needed to be told.’ I am honoured and grateful that I am one of the ones allowed to tell it.
Gill Thompson's debut book, The Oceans Between Us, was published by Headline in March 2019. Learn more about Gill and her creative writing workshops here.