Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for September is Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (Fremantle Press), a warm, engaging memoir of travel in Poland and life inside an Australian embassy from the winner of the City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. Read an extract from the book here.
When Jay’s husband lands a diplomatic job in Warsaw, she jumps at the opportunity to escape her predictable life in Canberra for a three-year adventure in the heart of central Europe. Shelving her corporate wardrobe and diving headlong into life as a diplomatic wife, she sets out to get to know quirky, difficult, fascinating Poland. Here, Martin details the process of turning her experiences into a book.
When I started thinking about writing a book about the three years I’d spent in Poland as a diplomat’s wife, I imagined three strands: Poland the country, and the amazing, crazy things that I experienced there; a behind the scenes look at the diplomatic world, with its own affectations, mores and customs; and the story of my relationship and what happened to my husband and I while we were in that world.
For the next two years or so, I wrote many words on each of those themes. My writing time in that period consisted of my daily commute (an hour each way on a bus) during which I could generally write 1000 or so words. It’s probably part of why the book seemed to emerge in a series of vignettes – some days it would be a character, some days an event or activity. But I was also writing about things that had really happened, and I remembered them in the way that memory works – in bits and pieces, rather than a coherent whole.
At the end of that process, I had some 150,000 words, but not yet anything like a book. It was over another two years (by which time I’d moved to a desk) that the story I most wanted to tell emerged.
It could have gone other ways. From time to time as I revised my drafts, I wondered if I could (or should) be writing a different kind of book. I could imagine a work of fiction, a novel just about the diplomatic world, for example. Or more of a travel memoir, focused just on my experiences in central Europe.
I had some 150,000 words, but not yet anything like a book. It was over another two years that the story I most wanted to tell emerged.
In a series of conversations with myself, I decided I wanted the book to focus more on the effect of the material excess I was encountering on the relationships I saw – including my own. This seemed to be the most relevant thing I had to say. And in the background would always be Poland, the country, which had to contribute to this theme.
With that decision, a lot had to go – particularly some of the travel stories I’d written. I’d read a book about memoir writing, which warned against including interesting stories just for the sake of it. Visiting a Welsh village and finding the grave of my great-grandparents, who had sent their children to a gold rush on the other side of the world. Going to Belarus, remarkable mainly for the fact that… I went to Belarus. Alas, it wasn’t enough. They had to go.
The diplomatic and expat tales had to evolve too, beyond simple descriptions of things that happened. They had to contain characters who had more than fleeting cameos, with fully fledged motivations, hopes and fears, so that readers would have some emotional connection when these characters appeared again. Some people – sadly – had to go. Hence my book came to be populated by fewer people, with clearer and more differentiated goals, dreams and personalities.
It wasn’t always obvious which words should stay and which needed to go.
I loved a lot of those words and worked hard on all of them. There were certainly a lot of darlings killed – sometimes gruesomely – through the editing process. Every one of them hurt, and it wasn’t always obvious which words should stay and which needed to go. I’d read the book with them in and then with them out. Which was clearer? Edit, repeat. How about now? When I felt I couldn’t make it better by taking anything out or putting it in, I knew it was done.
Of all the words that went, the ones I miss most came from my observations about what made people tick. I was lucky enough to have a lot to work with: the unreasonable ambassadors, demanding ministers and sundry tantrum-throwers I met seemed to emerge, most fully formed, as characters from a novel.
I tried to portray how much energy and resources – and stress – go into trying to make such people happy. It wasn’t until years into the writing that the realisation dawned on me: I could never make these people happy, because it wasn’t me who had made them unhappy in the first place.
It is a realisation that has been liberating in my own life since. Yet in the end, it didn’t make the cut in my book, because I felt there was only room for one moral and I felt I had others that were better.
Did I make the right call? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Vodka and Apple Juice, like me, exists in the real world. And as such, it feels like it’s no longer for me to say.