When you get to read your book—your actual hard copy book—it’s a completely different experience to that of reading the pile of A4 pages it has been for so many iterations prior. More authoritative, somehow. As if the story was never anything other than this. So, with that weightiness of Ripiro Beach in my lap as I type, I return to the beginning, to remind myself how the original embryonic Word documents compare to the final volume.
There are dozens of versions of Ripiro Beach, the first of which, begun in 2016, didn’t even have a name, just ‘Current.doc’. It’s a collage of notes and sections of ramshackle prose. A list, too:
2011: Hazel’s birth. Looking through the window as a ghost.
2012: Tramadol. Back pain. Surgery.
2013: Cox’s bay / Linette.
2014: Dad’s adoption records. Archives New Zealand. DYING IN PRISON!
2015: Meeting Steven Stanaway. Dad’s medical records.
2016: Alone in my dead grandmother’s house. Caro.
Even so, right at the beginning there exists the concept of the gold-tinged past, and the flat, grey present. There are the bones of Chapter 6 in which I recount the day of my father’s fatal heart attack. There is the hideous rage and sense of brain fog that I do not understand. Above one section of prose I’ve typed: MAKE THE TONE MORE, YA KNOW, BEAUTIFUL.
But wait. 2016 wasn’t the very beginning, I’m sure of it. I dive back into my files. Ah, there. From September 2013, I’d kept notes, scraps of writing about things as they happened. A journal of sorts. My discoveries at Archives New Zealand. Finding out I was Māori. Walking Cox’s Bay to find the place my birth grandmother leaped to her death.
To put this into perspective, I’d begun writing what became Ripiro Beach a full two years before starting the Masters of Creative Writing with Paula Morris. During that 2015 masters, the memoir fell away as I attempted to drape those traumatic family stories in a korowai of fiction. I wasn’t ready to be that brave. Instead, I wrote an imagined tale of my birth grandparents meeting, and my father’s birth and adoption, set in Auckland’s giddy World War Two party time, when the Americans were in town. That manuscript remains in my drawer, but will find its place one day.
After completing the masters, a force began pressing upon me. I knew it was driving me to write the truth, but I didn’t know how to. So, I started where I always start. On a chair, in front of a screen, seeing what might happen next.
And here’s the extraordinary thing. There came a time when writing Ripiro Beach, that the timeline caught up with itself and I was writing in real time. I remember it so clearly—it was the weekend in May 2017 that I went solo up to Ripiro / Baylys in search of my great-great-great grandfather’s grave at Tokatoka. From that point, the story tumbled forth, taking me to a place I could never have anticipated. I never intended to write about the effects of uncovering all those tragic family secrets, or going to therapy to figure out why I was so broken. It just happened.
And hand in hand with that was my burgeoning love affair with Ripiro, and the family history I found there. ‘How could it be?’ I write in Chapter 25. ‘How could I have been drawn back to a place I’d never known, which turns out to be the place of my ancestors? How could there be a plumb line from ancestors to heart to earth, pulling me to Baylys Beach, tethering past to present?’
The last third of the book (covering May 2017 to May 2018) is written in real time. What’s more, I thought Chapter 42 was my last. But no. Then there was the University of Auckland master class with Karl Ove Knausgård, hosted by Paula Morris. There, he told me this: ‘Remember, the closer you go to yourself, the more universal it becomes.’ I was floored. That spawned an epilogue, and yet another draft where I banished the final remnants of self-consciousness, and wrote the story that I’d been trying to write for years.
Caroline Barron is an Auckland writer and editor. Her debut, Ripiro Beach: A Memoir of Life After Near Death (Bateman, June 2020), is in bookstores now. Or, you can get your signed, inscribed copy (with free shipping) from www.carolinebarronauthor.com