Roopa Farooki: ON WRITING THE GOOD CHILDREN

October 23, 2014

Sometimes the idea for a book just hijacks you, takes you captive, and you know you’re not going to be free again until you’ve written yourself out.

That’s what happened with THE GOOD CHILDREN, when I was working on a quite different book, about an isolated community. It was like a bomb in a box, and there were three separate things that triggered the explosion.

First, I came across the 1960s studies on obedience to authority, including the Milgram experiment, as part of my research.
Next, I found a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in my local library, and was fascinated by the depiction of the mother-monster character. And the monster she created.
And then, my seven year old called me a monster, because I asked him to spend ten minutes on his homework. It was a pretty normal conversation up to that point.

“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will.
“No, I won’t.”
“Um, yeah, you will. It’s not really a choice.”
And then he howled, “You’re a monster, Mummy.”

And I thought, Maybe I am. Maybe we all are. But how has he worked that out, already?
I realised how we’re an open book to our children, to our families. However much you try to hide the terrible things about yourself, they still know. We can’t help it, we give ourselves away.

I put aside the book I’d been working on, and on a clean white page, I wrote, OBEDIENCE.

And underneath it, I wrote, Do good children do what they’re told?

I started writing notes around this idea, and then I heard a conversation, imagined voices in my head, between two brothers at the end of all things, who had taken different paths in life. One was telling off the other for being a coward. The other was stricken, and yelled at his brother, “Stop telling me what to do!” The stricken one seemed to be a big man, from a big country, sleek and successful looking. The other looked like a small man, from a small country, rakishly careless and shabby. It was like they had both won, and they had both lost.

I asked myself, what had driven these men apart, and what would bring them back together? The argument they were having encompassed three generations. Their parents, themselves, their children. I wanted to find out how their story started, and went back to the beginning. The start of all things. I saw them as boys, sharing a room in the same house.

I named my characters, I put faces to the voices. I put Sully in a clean white room in America. I put Jakie in a dark and dirty room in England. And I began to write.

Starting was easy. Finishing was an adrenaline-fuelled rush. But writing this book, page after page, day after day, month after month, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At 171,000 words, in final draft, it was the longest story I’d ever attempted. It was painful and addictive. I couldn’t stop, and never really took a break from it. I had four children aged seven and under, and would get up at 5am every day, and write for three hours. I’d put the children to bed at 8pm, and look at the text I’d written that morning, digging deep into the story unfolding behind the words.

What had caused Sully, so brilliant, to have become so damaged? What had saved Jakie, so irreverent and full of kindness? What had made them pursue their passions and what were they losing along the way? The story slipped forward and back, like doors sliding open, and I stepped through these doorways into the past to answer the questions, and then into the future to look at the consequences. The character of their monstrous mother, the spectre of expectations and education, of dishonour and disobedience, slithered out like snakes from a tree.

I asked myself questions, in this story, that I’d never really had the guts to deal with before. What would I abandon, in the pursuit of passion? I felt uncomfortably close to Sully, I fell madly in love with Jakie. Their sisters, Mae and Lana were like friends I’d always known, who’d seen me at my worst, who loved me despite this. Their voices became stronger in the writing, until I had to step into their shoes and walk with them.

I found it hard to let them go. I wrote beyond the story of the book. I still keep coming back to Sully, Jakie, Mae and Lana, and see the world through their eyes. I wonder about them, and hope they’re doing okay.

This is a book, in the end, about family, and about the love and tragedy that separates us, damages us, but also brings us together, and makes us stronger. It is about four people from the game-changing generation, who broke the rules, and who learned to say No, rather than Yes, when it mattered.

This book taught me a lot. About where I came from. About what we do to our children, in the name of discipline and education, and what they do to us. About life, loss, love, punishment and passion. About the selfish nature of selflessness. The consequences of the decisions we make. I was hard on myself, and hard on my characters. Sometimes it felt that I went into a dark place, but I came out to find the light on the other side. And when I wrote the final lines to THE GOOD CHILDREN, it left me full of hope and heart. I hope my readers feel that too.

THE GOOD CHILDREN by Roopa Farooki is out now in paperback.

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