Paula Hayes shares her inspiration from the back room of the past

My omnibus (best word ever), The Vexatious Haunting of Lily Griffin grew out of my first middle reader novel Lily in the Mirror (CBCA Notable 2017 – just saying). Lily is a character that appeared one day and spoke to me, I felt like she was whispering in my ear. Don’t judge. Then she wrapped herself around my heart, and I could not (will not) let her go. Miss Lily Marigold Griffin, the youngest of four is an eleven-year-old word nerd introvert who belongs to a busy and mostly functional family. Although she doesn’t live in a cupboard under the stairs, she feels she is destined for magical experiences because Lily has two very special gifts – intuition and imagination. Armed with an insightful precious wit – mayhem, magic and the supernatural find her when she enters her grandfather’s old family home in the country.

Why is Lily so important to me?

I think Lily, the Rosy Room and her beloved grandfather were subconsciously based on my grandmother and her old house in Bayswater. Built in the early 1910s, the home was full of children, relatives and animals. And all the ups and downs that go with that. The house had a certain stillness and quirkiness that got me thinking perhaps the fae and the travelling dead may take refuge in the musty old back rooms or at the very least between ancient roses.

My grandmother’s house was full to the brim of the cheap remnants of a life lived well.

It was a small life with a large legacy of love. As a child, I went looking for fairies and secrets in cordoned-off rooms but found top quality vintage crap  – yellow papered books, tools, sewing machines, kitchen appliances, fabrics, jewellery, shoes, beaded handbags, vintage clothes, chocolate tins full of blue tissue letters and cards, and inexplicable fluorescent coloured coral, so much coloured coral. Dean Martin played on the Fidelity, a wood-veneered, handy-table sized radio and record player. Tucked away in drawers were magazines showcasing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip’s radiant wedding photos and other moments that had little to do with day-to-day living in Perth but gave it a shine, a hint of inspiration. The benefits of diversity and multiculturalism were little seeds growing but the apron strings of the mother country were still tight and unknotting.

The house was a time capsule of life in suburban Perth, circa 1940s to 1990s. Don’t get me started on the stuff stored under the house – a happy cross between Help Me I’m a Hoarder and The Antiques Road Show.

I would revel in it all and as I touched the back of the wardrobe, I didn’t find Narnia, but I found my place in the world and where I came from. Part of me felt sad for what I had missed. I would have really suited victory rolls in my hair and dark red lipstick. My nanna would stand in the crooked doorway, smile kindly (possibly wryly) and say, ‘Take off that miniskirt love, be careful with the poncho; don’t get your head stuck again. Are you wearing a petticoat for a veil? Love, we don’t wear horseshoes on a ribbon around our neck now, let’s wipe the green sparkly eyeshadow off your eyes and … cheeks and shirt?  Your mum is due home from work in a minute.’  Lowkey, no fuss, with a cupcake in her hand.

My grandmother Alice was an inspiration.

She was a writer, a thinker, a reader and a nurturer. She sent a story to a publisher about a red kite that flew away into the evening skies only to receive a leaden rejection letter. Being a pragmatist, that was the end of that, but her love of words never left her. I was in awe of her effort. There she was in suburbia walking swiftly between the soapy steam of the copper and the acrid smoke of the incinerator, with five kids toddling and hanging off her, and she’d found the time and inspiration to write about the glimmer of imminent escape. Perhaps with a baby on her hip, poking rubbish into the incinerator, my grandmother looked up to clouds and imagined for a fleeting second that she could grab hold of the wooden spool of twine and fly away. I am struck by Nanna’s imagination and her desire to escape even momentarily – perhaps the peeling of potatoes for seven – her reality.

Lily and her hilarious entourage provide escape and comfort from the relentlessness of daily life and the issues children face.

Young Lily’s  house didn’t blow away in a tornado, squashing a wicked witch and she is not in the slightest bit cursed needing to escape death. Lily is a dag, Lily is a nerd and if we spoke confidentially to her special therapist, we would learn that it is highly likely she has GAD, Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Lily is the girl who drops her violin as she picks up her hat while enduring the taunts of a brother who makes Voldemort seem like a humanist. Lily is loved but lost in the chaos of family life. She deals with life through reading and writing in her journal. She is faced with bullies, dementia, death and never-ending identity crises. Just a few of the fun things life is guaranteed to throw at us. There are a great many Lily Griffins in the world in my experience, looking to the sky for the tail of a red kite, needing the chance to escape, be inspired and bloom.

This is why Lily is special to me. She is one of us. And we all need a Rosy Room to escape to.

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