The story of my book: Down to the River

26 years ago, a friend told me a detail about their childhood. Simply and without fuss, they described that for a number of years during the winter months they were in charge of lighting the local priest’s fire each morning before school started.

This scenario became a worm in my thoughts. Wriggling its way around my imagination, it multiplied, you could say, until it turned into a can-full, which is perfect if you want to tell a story. All that is required, once the proliferation has occurred and the can is jam-packed, is to open it up.

Perhaps that is why Down to the River has managed, after nearly a quarter of a century, to still be around. From a nub of information, there followed a river of intersecting chain reactions. When, over the years, I would pick up the manuscript and begin to work on it again, I would always revisit my original point of ignition, that of my friend’s experience. It would bring that river back, getting me on board and underway once more.

Of course, for Down to the River to be fully formed, I had to become a writer. Others would say: learn my craft. An original concept is one thing – it may even be necessary for a novel – but, just as a seed falls from the hand to the ground and must have light, moisture, certain temperatures and luck to grow, there are no guarantees that a point of ignition leads to a fully formed narrative.

I had a new baby boy at the time. I was also building a new home, and I had a career as a social worker. These forces, as you might imagine, competed with my ambition to be a writer. And in this context, like no other work I’ve written since, the need for that original vignette to be whole and healthy was vital.

I should also come clean and say that the process wasn’t always pretty. There were times when I had to wrestle with my story: chew on it, sit on it, flip it over, and even spit it out. Because, if a story is to be rich in its telling, it will have many diversions – subtexts and minor plots – a particularly salient point given the novel’s subject matter: that of child sexual abuse.

This meant riding the waves of up-to-date news bulletins, and ever-changing attitudes towards paedophilia. Like turning up the heat, a modern story puts more pressure on an original idea that’s come to mind years ago. And, there has been a lot going on in the last two decades in regard to the novel’s topic.

I wanted, however, the challenge of a contemporary story. So Down to the River is set as if it could be taking place on exactly the day of its launch, March 12, 2015 – or, at least, the winter of the year before.

Importantly, the snippet, told so matter-of-factly by my friend, became a defining reality for the book and my journey with it. That original idea never dimmed. Actually, just the opposite occurred. Down to the River gathered a greater and greater glow about it, growing into a crucial story that would force itself to be told.


S.J. Finn is our writer-in-residence for March. Find out more here.