Usually I find it impossible to trace the seed of an idea but with The Water Diviner it’s easy. No light globes, no cries of ‘eureka’ from the bathtub. Instead it’s a line in a letter – an unremarkable, broken sentence dashed off in April 1920 by a very busy Australian soldier.
“One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave; we looked after him and he’s pushed off to Italy now.”
The original missive was penned by Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Hughes, head of the Graves Registration Unit at Gallipoli. The bodies of thousands of ANZACs were abandoned in Turkey when the allies withdrew in 1915. Now the war was over Hughes was back to identify and bury them: a pretty gruesome and daunting job.
Hughes’ words must have been read by hundreds of researchers over the years, all of whom presumably by-passed this line about a lone father as a historical footnote. Which is probably all it is really. But I prefer to think it was waiting, lurking, poised to spring like a historical booby trap as I skimmed past. It ambushed my eye and immediately sparked so many questions.
Who was that father? What the hell was he doing there? Really, what possessed him to get on a boat in Australia and go to a military zone across the other side of the world? Was it love or guilt or disbelief? Who was his son? Did he ever find his son’s body?
When I told Andrew Knight about this bloke turning up at Gallipoli out of nowhere, he just smiled and said that an act of insanity like that deserves a bit more attention. He’s the kind of bloke whose story you want to tell.
A year and a half of research later we still had no idea who this crazy father was. But we had enough historical ammo to imagine what he was doing there and what might happen to him.
So we made him up.