Writing & News

Letter from Sue Orr to readers of her novel Loop Tracks

Upswell Subscriber letters series 2022

Loop Tracks germinated at lunchtime on a Friday, late in 2016, in a swish Japanese restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand. We were a group of girlfriends having a rare catch up. All the details of that afternoon are as clear in my memory now as they were on the day. They are all welded to Loop Tracks.

A sashimi platter with scallop, kingfish, tuna, salmon and snapper. Edamame beans and grilled eggplant and agadashi tofu. Quite a lot of Waiheke Island Man O’ War Pinque rosē. We chatted about our jobs and our families. The conversation turned to teenaged pregnancies – one in particular, the daughter of a person we knew – and then we floated on the good ship Man O’ War back to the 1970s. We talked about the shame and the rage and deceit of our own teenaged years, how girls at school sometimes disappeared, without explanation, for six months or so. How they’d eventually return but not really – they were no longer the sassy, sexy ones with boyfriends. Hollow, sad in a way you couldn’t quite put your finger on. There were rumours of babies, but really, who knew? You would never ask. Then someone mentioned 1978 – the year that politicians closed the abortion clinics in New Zealand and girls had to fly to Australia for legal, safe terminations. And one of my friends said ‘I had to fly to Sydney. The plane was delayed on the tarmac. For hours.’

This is how a novel begins: a tingle, like shorting electrics desperate to earth. There was a pause in the conversation, and I said ‘What a great set up for a book.’ My friend and I looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, and the conversation moved on. My buzzy brain was already imagining the book’s first paragraph. Hers could justifiably have been thinking why the hell did I say that.

Writers have lots of those tingly moments, but they need to be tested. The best way to test them is to try and forget about them. I’ve forgotten about the idea of a novel based on someone’s tinnitus turning into a world-class symphony, for example. Feel free to steal that gem. But the idea of a plane delayed on the tarmac at Auckland Airport for hours, with anxious pregnant girls and women on board, was – like the plane itself – going nowhere.

I obsessed about its possibilities. Eventually, I rang my friend. Could we talk some more, about that thing, I asked her. She said yes. A week on, we sat at my kitchen bench. It was early evening and we had the house to ourselves. I told her I wanted to write a novel that had, at its genesis, her experience on the plane. Would she let me? Would she share her story of that day, and give the work her blessing?

I wanted to make certain things clear to her. No one would ever know who she was. I would protect her identity, no matter what – and this would include the way in which the story was told. Her experience would spark the tale, but the narrative would be fiction. If I couldn’t achieve that, there would be no book.

She could have said no – I would have respected that decision. Moved on, waited for the next tingly thing. She said yes. I pushed record on my phone, and she began to talk.

We covered a lot of ground that night. The before, the during, the after. We talked about reliability of memory, how certain silly facts stick (the sandwiches on the plane were triangles) and others – the big ones, like exact dates, exact months even – slip away. Now and then, I’d glance down to make sure my phone was capturing our conversation. It would be the only one we would have on the subject. I wouldn’t put her through this again.

A few days later, I sat down and transcribed her words. I listened to their pulse. I heard the hammering heart of a young girl facing enormous trauma on her own, with unbelievable bravery. And I heard the silent spaces in between the beats – the woman she’d become; a wise, kind, generous mother. Hesitant at being dragged back to an experience she had put behind her.

It took me close to five years to write Loop Tracks. I was busy with other things, including a move from Auckland to Wellington. There were moments, too, when I faltered. It wasn’t only my friend’s experience I was writing about. It was the collective experience of many thousands of New Zealand women. What about the triggering effect for them? This hesitation eventually focused my thinking around why I was so determined to write the story: abortion was removed from the Crimes Act only in 2020. Decades of state regulation of female bodies. Decades of legislated shame, sorrow, secrets. And a fear of complacency, as we observed the ever-simmering pot of patriarchal control boil over once again in Texas, USA.

I was never a pregnant teenager. But I have friends who carry deep scars. Many who could never raise the thousands of dollars needed to get to Australia to safely end an unplanned pregnancy. Some who have tried to contact the children they were made to adopt out, and been rebuffed. One who was forced to have a baby conceived by incestuous rape. When the child grew to be a man and discovered his geneology, he killed himself.

All the manufactured shame, all borne by the victims. Shame that has conditioned women to bury their pasts; it suits the patriachy nicely that they feel that way. I hear from some of them. They write to say thank you for Loop Tracks.

Ironically, in the end, the writing of the novel was made easier by the fact that I had never experienced any of the trauma I was writing about. I had no choice but to transition quickly in the plot from fact to fiction. My friend gifted me the details around the flight delay; I had to make the rest of the story up.

My friend and I met sporadically over those five years – usually in the company of others. We rarely spoke about the novel, but she knew it was underway.

She read an early draft of it, and I waited nervously for her response. What would I have done, if she’d hated it? Asked me not to publish it? I can say, hand on heart, that I would have abandonned the project. But she was happy with Loop Tracks – proud of the fact that her experience had been the catapult for a fictional narrative of collective experience.

Loop Tracks’ New Zealand launch took place in a Wellington bookshop in June 2021. A lot of people came. I talked about about the conversation in the Japanese restaurant. I romanticised it, calling it a gold nugget sitting between me and my friend – a precious thing that she could have claimed back as her own, but instead gifted to me.

My friend was at the launch. She’d travelled a long way. We met beforehand, shared a quiet moment. I told her once more how deeply grateful I was for her help, her generosity and her bravery. How Loop Tracks belonged to both of us. And how, during the imminent launch, as I talked about her, I would not catch her eye.

I’ll look at everyone except you, I said. We won’t cope, if I look at you. I delivered my lines of gratitude to her and it took every ounce of willpower not to turn her way.

Sue Orr, Wellington New Zealand  (An earlier version of this piece first appeared on newsroom.co.nz’s readingroom.)