Friday, 30 October 2009

Facts, Fictions, Dreams & Wishes : Penny Dolan

See this picture? It’s the cover for The Third Elephant, beautifully and atmospherically created by artist Helen Craig, and shows a small carved wooden elephant, who lives on a high shelf in a forgotten room with two grumpy older elephants and a wise grey mouse for occasional company.

The one thing he loves, the one thing that gives him joy and hope, is “a miniature marble palace, whiter than the moonlight that flickered around it. Elegant minarets graced each corner, and the beautiful dome was tipped with gold. It was a palace fit for dreams.” You can see that in the picture too.

But, with the house due for demolition, the room is suddenly stripped of everything, even the beloved palace. That night,“he thought about what the mouse had told him: wish for what you want, wish for what you dream about. “I wish,” he thought, as hard as he could, ”I wish I could see the white palace again.” The moonlight flickered around the room like secret laughter.”

Thrown from the window, he goes on to adventures where he helps three young people as much as they help him. Eventually the small third elephant does get his wish, although it isn’t exactly the miniature white palace. It is more than the miniature model. What the Third Elephant eventually sees is the famous building itself.
Hey! Going a bit heavy on the book promotion here, aren’t you, Penny? That’s perhaps what you’re wondering? No, it’s not that. I’m talking about past and present matching up.

You see, long ago, that miniature white palace really did exist. It was kept in my grandmother’s best room, with other objects from India where she’d lived as army child, wife and mother. Little myself, I would creep into that room when Nanna Rose was too busy to notice and tell me off. Then I would stare at the palace and daydream, because the room felt full of untold stories. My quiet grandmother never ever spoke about her life in India. Was that from sadness, loss, grief, regret, relief? I never knew and by the time I should have been bold and asked, both she and the room had gone.

Years later, when that lost white palace re-appeared in a short scribbled exercise, I seized it, although the writing soon became tough going. I had to know enough to ground my story. So for ages I researched fiction and non-fiction, websites, maps, films, videos, interviews and more. I picked up oddments of information and wove them into a vast nest until the words were so many that the whole thing seemed about to topple over. I hid the wretched weighty unreadable mess away.

Time passed, and then I saw a charming brass statue in a shop: Ganesh! He who makes impossible things possible. He who, with his helpful tusk, is god of writing. Ganesh with his kindly elephant head. It seemed a sign.

I had a few strong words with myself, went home, hauled out that unwieldy manuscript and began again at the beginning. I discarded anything that didn’t help the wooden elephant’s story, or that of Sara, Nita or Jack. A year or so later, The Third Elephant was published, and some people and children read it and liked it. One or two loved it.

I loved it too, although my finances and circumstances had been way too tight for any travel or first hand researching. I slightly regretted that I had made my story largely from dreams and illusions.

However, something wonderful is happening. I have a friend. She is living in India for a while. So, just after my next ABBA post, I will be off on my own small adventure, though I will be too excited to write about all this sensibly by then.

You see, even though it is long past the making of the book, just like the Third Elephant, I will be on my way towards the “beautiful white palace”. At long last, I’m getting my wish, and seeing the Taj Mahal for myself.

Wonder what objects have long inspired your dreams?



Dianne Hofmeyr said...

So you will see the White Palace again! A wonderful adventure, Penny. Maybe you'll be given an inkling of what was in your Nanna Rose's head. Strangely enough my childhood objects were a row of 10 black ebony elephants that walked graded in size across our mantle piece... I've always loved your cover of The Third Elephant.

adele said...

That is fantastic, Penny...what a lovely end to the story .And maybe another book after the trip!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks Adele and Diane! I vaguely think I had one of those long lines of elephants in mind first, but then realised that The Twentieth-Third Elephant might not be so good structurally or as a title - though there was/is a charming Russell Hoban book "The Twenty Elephant Restaurant".

Penny Dolan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stroppy Author said...

That's a wonderful outcome, Penny. I hope you have a fantastic time. (And it's reminded me I need to invite Helen Craig to lunch as I haven't seen her since May!) Will you give us an update when you get back? Please do :-)