From the author The original idea for the book was inspired by several similar but unrelated events. I started work on the story after seeing an episode of Australia Story on the ABC some time ago. It was a true story about a Murray River steamer being restored by an old man and a shy teenager who joined him as his school ‘work experience’, and stayed on to help finish the boat.
I wrote an early draft and sent it to Fremantle Arts Centre Press at the same time as I submitted In Flanders Fields. Ray Coffey, the editor, liked it but decided to publish Flanders first as he felt it to be a more important story, being about Anzacs.
The early drafts concentrated on the death of the Captain and the boy having to finish working on the boat by himself, but as I redrafted it, the friendship and the passing on of the Captain’s skills and love of the sea and his adventures became more prominent. The relationship that I had as a boy with my own grandfather was partly responsible and the Captain’s behaviour in the book often resembles my grandfather, his type of stories and what I remember from my childhood.
The other inspiration also came from my childhood. When I was 12 years old my father decided to build a 4 metre plywood racing dinghy and I spent many, many hours in his workshop helping bend timber, glue planks and hammer in nails. It was a fantastic experience for a boy and left me with a love of the smell of wood shavings and an appreciation of woodworking skills.
In Osprey I wanted to remind the readers of the art and skill of woodworking and of the beauty of the designs of past eras before boats were fibreglass, high tech, high powered and soulless. I also wanted to capture time when life was lived at a slower pace and people had time to sit and tell yarns and enjoy each other’s company.
I decided not to make the characters related so that their developing friendship would be based on mutual respect and not on family connections. The other reason is that there are many stories about both modern and traditional grandparents and their special bonds.
Tom was named after Tom Sawyer as I admire Mark Twain’s writing and it seemed appropriate seeing that Twain was a steam boat pilot on the Mississippi River himself. Even his pen name is the cry of the steamboat captains for the river depth of two fathoms. Tom’s surname, Stevenson, is in honour of Robert Louis Stevenson and the Hispaniola, the Captain’s ship, is from Treasure Island.
The name Osprey was suggested by Brian after I had many attempts at a suitable name for the boat. I had originally wanted something relating to the Swan River but most names I came up with sounded more like beer advertisements. He had nearly finished the illustrations when he suggested Osprey after watching ospreys circling over the cliffs near his house at Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania.
Part of the reason we set the story in the early years of the twentieth century was so that as the Captain was looking back and remembering his adventures, they could take place in the much more romantic and treacherous era of sailing ships. Although that meant a lot more research into the costumes and the ‘Edwardian look’ of the period for Brian, as well as the details of the ships, it also it meant that Tom would be dressed like Tom Sawyer.
Brian used a neighbour’s son as the model for Tom and he used himself as the model for the Captain, which is ironic as I had him in mind when working on the various versions of the story. Brian does indeed have a feint nautical air about him and it is easy to imagine him as a traditional naval captain.
The hardest part of writing a picture book is restricting the number words, because it is the combination of words and pictures that must convey the story. It is not necessary to describe everything on a page if the readers can see it clearly in the pictures. For instance, in the very beginning where Tom first looks into the workshop I had originally described the old fashioned tools, the timber stacked ready for steaming and some of the clutter. With Brian drawing these things, the words were no longer were needed and were cut out. And again, with the final illustration showing a sailing ship taking the Captain’s spirit back to sea, no words are necessary, and in fact, would detract from the quiet atmosphere of the painting.