‘Creating a fictional character inspired me to fight to find my true self’
Scientist Paul Hardisty on writing his first novel The Abrupt Physics of Dying
Paul Hardisty: ‘Like Claymore Straker, it’s time for me to make the tough choices, to take the risk to become the man I always wanted to be, the man I knew I really was.’
Claymore Straker, the central figure in my new novel The Abrupt Physics of Dying, just published by Orenda Books in London, came to Hemingway early. He was in his teens when he first read the words that would propel him on his journey: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
Later, in his early 20s, after the war, he would discover these same words did not mean what he had at first thought they did, and part of him blamed the words and their author for misleading him. And so they were subsumed, forgotten, to remain buried within him for another decade.
Fighting for something means accepting there is always a price, and acting despite this. Every combat comes with pain, scars, risk of damage and death, loss. Is the price worth the prize? Every one of us does this calculation every day.
Take on a bully at work, or let it go. Stand in front of the logging trucks coming to take away the forest, or stay at home. Stand up for what you think is right, or stream along with the current. These are the decisions, in the end, which make you who you really are. At the end, as the final images flicker across your retina, what will be the measure of your life?
In the book, Clay finally learns the true meaning of the words. Several readers have asked why he must suffer as he does in this learning. No physical combat comes without damage. Many of the depictions of physical violence people see today on the TV and in movies are simply untrue. The human body is a wondrous instrument, with Neolithic recuperative powers, but it is massively vulnerable to physical trauma.
Few people survive something as simple as a two metre fall from a step ladder without major damage. If you’ve ever been in a fight, you know this. Win or lose, you’re more likely than not to emerge with broken bones, missing teeth, smashed cartilage. Worse if weapons are involved. No one walks away clean, without pain, physical and psychological.
So Claymore gets smashed up. He must. It is a consequence of unearthing those words, much later in his life, and finally and fully understanding their meaning. It is the cost of doing something right and good. It’s the reason why it’s so hard to act in the face of wrong. It takes courage to fight.
But the fight is also a selfish one. The fight to be who you really are, who you know you should be. The fight for your true self. This requires more courage and application and involves more risk than any other battle and has the highest price.
People, even those closest to you, mostly want you to be something other than you truly are. Societies, governments, and companies need your compliance, and offer status and rewards to get it. And of course you never know how much time you have left. Claymore is fighting this battle right now, to be his true self before he dies. He has made a start. I’m trying to do the same, but it’s hard.
I’ve been writing my whole life. When I was a kid I used to borrow my dad’s typewriter and peg out stories. I think I wrote my first story at five. I remember thinking, then, that I was a writer, because I was writing.
Later, in my early 20s, I decided to give it a go. The passion was there, the desire. But I was weak, lacked discipline, and quickly realised I had nothing to write about. I hadn’t lived. So I decided to get out there and have something to write about.
I started caring about things, and doing things I cared about. I studied, learned about water and rocks and physics and how to shoot a gun and fly a plane. Built a career that would take me outside, to faraway places, helping people. And as I went, I wrote. The stacks of notebooks grew, page ends curing in the sun.
Much of that space was filled with exhortations to myself never to stop fighting. Along the way I met the woman I eventually realised was created, somehow, for me (whether I have come even close to fulfilling that same function for her, I continue to wonder). From her I learned discipline, the ability to apply myself. We travelled the world, had two sons together. I read. I wrote for my work: reports, scientific papers, and then, years later, my first technical book. I was getting there, the long way.
But for a long time now, years, I’ve been making excuses. I don’t know how many years or days I might have left. Like Claymore Straker, it’s time for me to make the tough choices, to take the risk to become the man I always wanted to be, the man I knew I really was. How strange that my own creation, this fictional character, is now inspiring me to take the last and biggest step in the fight to become my true self.
Paul Hardisty is a university professor and director at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisatio, Australia’s national science agency. The Abrupt Physics of Dying is published by Orenda Books.