By Peter Papathanasiou
The idea for writing Son of Mine came some 11 years before it was published. But the dream of it was a seed planted 34 years ago as a child.
It was creative writing class in Grade 5 at primary school; the year was 1985. Growing up as an only child, I had immersed myself in books, which became substitute siblings that kept me company when I was lonely. Brimming with imagination and drive, the magic of reading books soon morphed into the idea of writing books. I mean, how hard could it be…? So, I picked up my blue biro and opened my supermarket exercise book with every intention of filling it with words from cover to cover. I fell well short. But where I landed was with a collection of short stories, often describing life on faraway planets or in underground villages. But one story stood out in which I had used my classmates as characters and put them in all manner of situations. My teacher was so impressed that she read it out to the class during story time. It was the first time anything was read out during story time that wasn’t a published book. To this day, I can still remember sitting and watching the expectant faces of my classmates waiting for mention of their name and to hear what crazy situation I’d written them in. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that day was the first time that my classmates had ever appeared in a story. They felt famous, that someone had deemed them important enough to write about. I felt famous too.
Not long after, I went to high school where I gradually stopped creative writing. High school was all about grades and preparing yourself for entry to university. Creative pursuits weren’t going to get you in; more technical subjects like mathematics and biology were. I kept reading, but only for fun.
Fast forward to 1999 and I’d been at university in Australia for six years studying science and law when I decided to do a PhD in genetics. That was around the time my mum sat me down and told me that I was adopted and had two older brothers living in northern Greece. To this day, I still consider it as one of my life’s most significant moments. And the irony of a geneticist finding out his genetics are not as he expected still floors me.
In trying to process the news, I decided to commit my thoughts to the written word. It was only about three pages in length, and was a computer file that sat untouched until 2006. I was now living in the US and enrolled in a writing course at The New School in New York City. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the moment I discovered I was adopted was the piece that my classmates and tutor rated most highly. In 2007, I turned it into a short story, entered it in three competitions, and won two. At this point, I sensed I might have something, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. It wasn’t until 2008 that I decided to write a full-length manuscript. I’d visited Greece by then, met my brothers, and also researched my family history through many conversations with my mum. The manuscript had two narrators, with half the book in my voice and half in my mum’s. Chapters alternated, with the story spanning a hundred years of family history. It was an intense period of writing and editing, but the final product – a manuscript titled Son of Mine – was highly satisfying.
By 2011, I had a polished manuscript of 100,000 words. Filled with optimism, I approached literary agents and a few publishers but received little interest. Feeling slightly disheartened, I put the manuscript, and all those years of work, in a bottom drawer. I decided to consider it my literary apprenticeship – the book I had to write in order to learn how to write a book.
Opening a fresh computer file, I began writing a novel. And when I finished it, I wrote another novel as part of a Master of Arts at City, University of London. With a super-fit writing muscle, I now wrote faster and with more relevance. An Arvon Foundation residential writing retreat in West Yorkshire helped to further hone my writing focus. Finally, in 2018, I decided to return to my memoir. Much had happened in the seven years since I’d finished it – I had returned to Australia, became a father, and lost my own father. Those were deeply emotional years and major life events. Deaths and births always are. But I was now also a better writer.
Reopening my manuscript, I gradually began to reacquaint myself with the words. I was soon seeing holes and deficiencies, but also things I really liked. Slowly, I began editing old chapters and adding new ones. A lot of new and significant life had been lived since 2011, which now also gave my story an ending. The first time I’d written it, I’d been forced to manufacture an ending, which technically made it a work of fiction. But it was all nonfiction now.
Submitting the manuscript to Chris Hamilton-Emery, Publishing Director at Salt, I was thrilled with his immediate and enthusiastic response. Having long admired the quality of Salt’s books, it was truly humbling to be offered the chance to be published by them. A second publisher in Allen & Unwin soon offered to publish my book in Australia. It was a whirlwind year in 2019 to be published in two countries and finally have my story in the hands of readers after first committing to writing it some 11 years earlier. The response has been overwhelming, with the expectant faces of my classmates waiting for mention of their name replaced by messages of praise and gratitude from readers. It’s a feeling that just makes me want to write more.
To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, nothing worth having comes easy. I like to think that most debut authors would agree with this sentiment, and so do I. But what kept me going were the dreams of a little kid with a blue biro, an exercise book, and a burning desire to one day tell a story and write a book. I never lost sight of who he was, and in the end, he carried me across the line.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece. His writing has been published internationally by numerous outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Good Weekend, ABC, SBS, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, Structo, 3:AM Magazine, Elsewhere, Litro, Meanjin, and Overland. He has been reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement in the UK and holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of London.