The story behind ‘Their Cruel Routines’

There are two mother-son relationships within ‘Their Cruel Routines’, the opening story in Broken Rules and Other Stories: that between the fictional mother and her adult son, and that between my own mother and myself. The latter was the spark or inspiration for the story.

A few years ago, I went to stay with my mother at her house in the north of England to help look after her while she was unwell. I would be there for some months, so I set up a work station at the kitchen table, where I was able to write each day. It was springtime, an English summer ahead, and was, in spite of the health circumstances, an idyllic time.

One rainy afternoon, we were having a cup of tea in the living room, much like the characters in the story. I looked out of the window at the overcast northern sky and began to wonder what it would be like if this – the ticking of the clock upon the piano, the steaming tea, conversations with an elderly mother – were to become my life.

I began the writing that evening while preparing dinner. I allowed the fictional characters that had emerged from my meanderings to develop and test the limits of where human beings go in their relationships with one another. Perhaps there are secrets, deliberate dishonesties, or other damaging features; these might ferment and intensify over time.

I can’t recall how long it took to complete an initial draft. I do know that a few years elapsed from the day I began to a finished version. Along the way, I submitted the piece to various publications and competitions. I kept returning to three elements: the title, the nature of the opening recollection, and the story’s ending. One of the first titles was ‘Too Early for Candles’. When the final title arrived out of the blue one day, I knew it was the one, because it encapsulates the destructive behaviours that drive the narrative. I continued to work on the story, and in 2015 it won the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize. It appears in Overland 221.

When I read the story now, I struggle to see my own mother in there, just as I struggle to see myself in the character of the adult son. I changed the name of the son from Peter to Steven during the editing process for the collection, in keeping with the character continuity linking the stories. I debated the name change for a long time, as this character’s life had taken a very different turn to the Steven in the other stories. I felt that in some ways this version of Steven had failed to explore the potential within his own life. That he had, perhaps, let the character down. But Steven he became, eventually and after exhaustive deliberation.

9 thoughts on “The story behind ‘Their Cruel Routines’

  1. Dear Barry, this is so good. I love. your explorations of how things might have been. And I love your final comments where you say, ‘I struggle to see my own mother in there …’ . I guess this is the point at which it truly does become fiction.

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  2. This is fascinating Barry – the way you allowed your imagination to take you to pondering on relationships and how they might ‘ferment and intensify over time’. And – later, you couldn’t recognise your mother in the character. This is often how I write poetry – a personal response to something leads me to wonder how it would be if it went in another, or even extreme, direction. Please keep sharing!

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  3. Fascinating Barry — and so true — how everything starts with real life no matter that it may change in a radical way during the creative process. I guess you’ll never be totally satisfied with Steven being Steven rather than Peter… Who knows when Peter will find his way back into a story. I look forward very much to the remaining posts…

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