Around 1987 I'd written a poem, "The Lucky Women of the Lady Shore", which came out of an anecdote in Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, about an all-female convict ship bound for Botany Bay on which the crew mutinied "in the name of France" and sailed instead to Montevideo, where the convict women eventually became serving-women for wealthy Uruguayan families.
I was interested in the notion of one's destiny being so fundamentally changed by a single act. That's something that happens all the time, of course, every instant of every day; but Hughes had touched on a particularly vivid instance.
At the beginning of the poem I placed an epigraph by the French philosopher Paul Virilio that I'd jotted down in a notebook some years earlier, and that seemed apt. It read: "An aesthetic of disappearance that is probably all of history."
Jump forward six years: in 1993 my book of poetry Absolute Event Horizon (1994) was soon to be published, and my publishers were asking for more Virilio details so that they could get copyright clearance. At this point I no longer had any idea where I had found the Virilio quote that I had noted down years earlier; thus began a trawl through all his works, looking for that single line, quite a needle-in-a-haystack task. Virilio had even written a book called The Aesthetics of Disappearance, in 1991, but since my quote came from the eighties, that couldn't have been it.
I never found the line, and in the end the publishers didn't include it in the published book. (Many years later, going through a box of old stuff, I found it, in a small piece by Virilio published in an obscure and long-defunct magazine that came out of Sydney University, circa 1983, called Frogger.)
But through all the 1993 trawling for the quote I came across Virilio's writing about Howard Hughes. Virilio was interested in the speed of light, global communications, power, speed, and what he saw as Hughes' "polar inertia". All of this somehow struck a chord with me. I knew the basics about Hughes, the broad brush-stroke stuff about the eccentric billionaire. But until I read Virilio in my search for a missing quote for another book, I hadn't realized Hughes was a drug addict. It was something of a light-bulb moment. My own experience of addiction made me understand, at some profound level, that Hughes' obsessive and compulsive neuroses were not after all so strange when viewed through the prism of his addiction.
Thus began a decade of obsessive research. I immediately knew I had a novel. I wrote a couple of chapters in '94: Hughes breaking (or rather, creating) the round-the-world record in 1938; his spectacular plane crash in the streets of Beverly Hills in 1946, and an imagined piece of what went through Hughes' mind another time, as he switched off the engines and masturbated in the cockpit, hurtling towards the ocean. (Fourteen years later these embryonic pieces found their way, in different forms, into the finished novel.)
I also knew immediately that this was a "big" book. Coming out of poetry, I had a very vivid sense of being on my "L" plates as a novelist. And Candy was the L-plates book that was looming by 1994, that was demanding it be written. I consciously put Howard Hughes on hold. I told myself I'd write it after Candy. Then Isabelle the Navigator pushed into the queue; it seemed the proper book to write as the "P" plates novel.
These delays, operating largely at subconscious levels, were the best thing I could have done. God of Speed was always going to need the "full" rather than the Learner's or Provisional license, novelistically speaking; as well as, ultimately, the permit to operate heavy machinery.
I needed to write Candy and Isabelle before I could make sense of Howard. I wrote more books of poetry, and the whole Candy film process took up a few years, and all the while I learnt more and more about Hughes.
Around 2003 I experienced a clear sense of "now is the time", and I plunged deeper than ever before. I had a messy draft by 2004; then Candy shot in 2005 and I had time to get some selective feedback on just how messy "messy" was. Hughes' mind was chaotic; I had to somehow convey that, without the narrative itself being genuinely chaotic. ("Controlled chaos" became my motto.) 2006 and 2007 were fairly obsessively about reworking and redrafting, trusting my instincts about what was and wasn't working, and trusting also the relentlessly perfectionist feedback and criticism of the wonderful editor I was working with, Alice Truax in New York.
During this couple of years I learnt not to listen to that inner voice that says, "Close enough. That will do." This voice comes from exhaustion, and expresses the sincere desire to rest, or move on. But it is the voice of sabotage, creatively speaking. It's important to tune in to a voice happening at a deeper level that says, however wearily, "Miles to go before I sleep."
I always knew what the book would feel like, in an overall sense. But you have to write it to know what it should look like and be like. I don't expect that any other book I ever write will have a fourteen-year history from gestation to completion. But when I look back at the whole process now, every step taken seems one of absolute necessity: not an event out of place. "Impatience is the only sin," the Buddha said, or so I've heard.