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“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.” –Terry Pratchett
The first thing I usually do upon finishing a draft of one manuscript is to start thinking about what to write next. I have notebooks full of half-baked ideas and infant plot-lines, but the challenge when beginning a story–short- or long-form–is to judge whether or not it’s worth telling. And one thing I’ve come to terms with–as both a reader and a writer–is that not all stories are worth telling. And even if they are worth telling, they shouldn’t all be told the same way.
I like to think of a story as a house. In the simplest sense, a house has four walls and a roof. Similarly, a story must meet some bare structural specification before it can even qualify as a story: some semblance of a plot, perhaps a character or two, maybe some dialogue. (James Joyce might argue that this is not the case, but let’s leave him out of it for now). But beyond those basics, a lot of variation is possible. How the story is created–what devices and structures are employed–that’s what makes the house a home, so to speak. Just as there are log cabins and chateaus and open-plan lofts, so there are a thousand and one ways a story may grow into something unique and compelling.
In the early 1950’s, a young boy raised in Sri Lanka boards a massive ocean liner bound for London–a ‘castle that was to cross the sea.’ At mealtimes, Michael is placed at the dining table farthest from the captain’s, nicknamed ‘the Cat’s Table’ by the eccentric group of adults he dines with. Michael soon builds friendships on the Oronsay with two other young boys; weak, philosophical Ramadhin, and tough, betel-chewing Cassius. Although initially wary of each other, the boys soon band into a gang, roaming unsupervised around the liner, slipping in and out of strange and dangerous situations, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury.’ As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and onwards towards Europe, the boys find themselves entangled in the eclectic lives of the grownups they observe from their vantage points of youthful invisibility.