I began writing Farewell, Mr. Tilbey somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6-and-a-half years ago. The prologue came to me in a flash of inspiration when my mom received her terminal cancer diagnosis. Over the remaining 4-and-a-half years of her life, I would write most of the story, and share it with her periodically, reading her my progress and getting her feedback – bright spots in a decidedly dark time.
In fact, one of the last lucid conversations I was able to have with my mom before sitting with her as she died was telling her about what would happen to the character in the story whom I’d based on her: my main character’s mother, Lynn Barber. A bad-ass self-sufficient warrior-type, who stands tall no matter what she’s lost, and always rides off into the sunset on her own terms. The master of her life and fate, as much as she’s capable of being.
As a story of a collective brush with fiery demise, and the hilarity, chaos, pain, and brilliance that comes from confronting your own very definite and inescapable mortality, it was very much a product of the countdown my siblings and I all faced with the rest of the family while mom was dying, and an attempt to capture what she faced as best I could from an outside perspective. I think however that it accidentally also became a product of the uncertainty for time: I had desperately hoped to finish writing it while she was still here, and rushed everywhere I could to get the story down, wanting to be able to show her where it all ended up, wanting to have this finished thing to share with her.
When she died just before Christmas 2019, the story was unfinished. And it’s remained that way ever since, caught in an in-between of edits, and with a few last holes remaining in what would become of the story’s main character, and those surrounding him.
As a writer and an enthusiast for reading into everything (both in life and in the fiction I consume), I’m painfully aware of my habit of searching out hidden meaning just about everywhere. I don’t think though that it’s much of a stretch to see the meaning here: I had attached so much hope to writing it for her that when she died, the momentum behind the story I tried to share with her withered. Without the audience that it was initially being written for, the story felt cold and lonely to write.
The time has come to just get it done. Not because it’s going to be groundbreaking literature, or even to honour my mom, though it will still be done with a hat tip and love at her memory. She’s gone, has been for some time, and so this needs to be done for me now.
It’s all well and good to say that the craft takes however much time it takes, that you can’t rush art and shouldn’t try, and so on. Often true. However, there comes a point in some cases where a long-unfinished project isn’t unfinished due to a need for proper time so much as it is being carried around unfinished as a stopgap to dealing with the baggage that made finishing feel too painful, or even impossible.
So, here we go. Starting today Farewell, Mr. Tilbey is my main focus. This book will be finished being rewritten by the end of March, and I will give myself April to edit. No more stalling, or lamenting what could’ve been. That’s practically the whole point of this story, so I should really be practicing what I’m trying to preach.
Cheers, Mom. This thing is getting done. Promise.