the simple gift  - for teachers/students doing the HSC

I get lots of emails about "the simple gift  in regard to the HSC. Unfortunately, I can't answer each email individually, or else I'd never get time to write new books! However, I understand your need for information, so I've listed below, in simple Question & Answer format, my thoughts on "the simple gift".
But first,  one mighty big disclaimer … I'm not a teacher, or a HSC examiner, so what I say may be not what they're after. I'm just the author!!!
Teachers:- I also visit schools to give a short talk on the book, and answer (in more detail) any questions, you may have. To book me, contact my Agent
or phone 02-93321911.

I hope these answers help…

Why did you write "the simple gift"?

I wanted to explore the relationship between a young man and an old man. As adults, we seem to believe that the idea of being an influence works only one way - we adults can influence young people for the better. In the book, I wanted to show it working the other way - that is, young Billy really being the positive influence, in fact,  the catalyst, for Old Bill rejoining the world.
I know my two teenage sons are a wonderful positive influence on my own life. It seems to me that the world of young people is becoming increasingly marginalized by mainstream media. As adults, we need to accept, encourage, and indeed, embrace the world of young people. Letís see the relationship as a priceless two-way street.

How did you start writing this book - did you have a definite plot outline, characters, etc?

No, not really. I've written all my verse-novels for YA in the same way. Firstly, I start with a location. In this case, I remembered staying in a disused railway carriage in Ballarat, Victoria when I was a young person hitching around the country. It was probably the best place I slept - warm and comfortable (and free!). I had a very relaxed teenage life. My parents had no great expectations for me, and they put no pressure whatsoever on me. I spent  time travelling around the country, working as a fruit picker, or in a cannery (like Billy and Old Bill), and I slept and stayed where I could. I felt incredibly lucky.
Once I had this location, it was a relatively simple thing to put my character Billy in the carriage, and see what happened. This is important in my writing… I very rarely have a strong plot outline. I like to create location, then character, and see what happens.

So your characters develop as you write the story?

Once I have a character in my mind, I start to think about the way they would respond to events happening in their life. That is, I give them a set of moral parameters  (for want of a better description) - so in "gift"
* how will Billy respond to help from Ernie, the train-driver?
* how will Billy react to his need for food and shelter now heís left home?
* how will Billy treat the old hobo next door in the train carriage?
I enjoy this aspect of the writing process, because it really is a case of me finding out about the characters as I go. I don't have a particular point in the narrative I want to reach - I'm just happy to go along with Billy, Caitlin, and Old Bill for the ride! This works well for me as a writer, as it means I don't feel like I'm rushing the story - I'm just letting the characters interact, and wander…
There are lots of examples of this throughout the book - one obvious example is the different ways Billy and Caitlin respond to first seeing Old Bill. Or how Old Bill slowly changes as his relationship with Billy grows.

Did you meet someone like Old Bill, or Caitlin when you were travelling?

I did meet lots of down and outs on my travels, but Old Bill is a fictional character. Sadly, so is Caitlin!!! But I did meet lots of people who helped me, and were friendly to me. Ernie, the train-driver, is actually based on a train guard in Queensland, who helped me out of the speedboat I was freezing in (just like "gift"), and let me stay in his warm cabin. This bloke even took me out for lunch when the train arrived in Gladstone. Most of the characters in my novels are fictional, but all the locations are based on places I know well.

What is the theme of "the simple gift"

Authors hate this question!
So, I'm not going to answer it. Ask your teacher!
But, okay, if I'm pushed… I'll give you two hints.
At the time of writing this book, I was listening to a wonderful folk CD by Bruce Springsteen titled the ghost of Tom Joad. On this CD, there are a few songs about middle-aged men who are searching for something to give their life meaning. The word redemption kept rolling around my head when listening to the songs, and writing this book. That word certainly came into play in how I created the character of Old Bill.
The other thing I kept thinking about while writing was the whole notion of gifts - what is valuable in our life? How do we measure what is valuable? The notion of the spiritual versus the material is something that informs a lot of my writing.
You can work it out from there, okay?

Anything else you want to tell us about "gift"

Sure, it's just been published in the UK and USA, which is nice. But, I know that's not what you mean by your question.
One reviewer called Billy an atypical hero, which I thought was interesting. That got me thinking about what is heroic, and how it relates to some of the characters in my other books. I reckon Billy from "gift", Tom from Tom Jones saves the world, Ron and Isabelle from Do-wrong Ron, and Jack and Annabel from A place like this all share a similar trait - within the story they do something of great value, that is a little thing - give friendship and hope to an old hobo; bring a father and grandfather together (in Tom Jones); help an old lady became part of the community (in Ron); encourage a pregnant girl to decide on her future (in A place like this). These simple little things are what I think of as heroic. They are done by ordinary people, in a quiet unobtrusive way, and to commit these acts it requires compassion and love and respect. And they are far more heroic and necessary than any world-record sporting achievement. And they cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

My teacher is always going on about how poets write... how they construct an image. Can you tell us?

The short answer... NO!
The slightly longer answer... I try to inhabit the world of each of my characters. So, in the poem "Cold" p.10, Billy thinks
"the wind and rain
hits you in the face
with the force of a father's punch."

That was a relatively easy image to think of because Billy was escaping the violence of his home life. Maybe the secret to writing an effective and striking image is empathy - putting yourself in the place of each character.
For example, look at the way weather is used in many poems to convey atmosphere; to set the scene.

Yeah, that's fine, but what about BELONGING!!!!

I know, I know. The HSC looms large. I can't claim to have had this theme in mind when I wrote the book. However, I think a closer understanding of the notion of each characters search for an identity and for a place in the community they've constructed would be worthwhile. I also think it's fair to say that a search for an identity can be related to the idea of wanting to "belong" to oneself. That is, the search for a conscience you can live with/inhabit. The use of "interior monologues" throughout "gift" can be seen as "keeping your own community" - the conversation with yourself (which is the essence of an interior monologue) is an attempt to understand how you belong both in this world, but more importantly, to your sense of self.

Copyright Steven Herrick 2009


Notes for
"by the river"

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