2007: I embark on a PhD. It explores the history of scientific research into the origin of life on earth. I try to make some interesting points about science and scientists. It takes me ages to complete.
2014: My PhD thesis is accepted. One incidental finding from this period is that I don’t make a particularly good scholar. People who complete PhDs and wish to continue on the academic path need to have at least a couple of publications by this point, with more forthcoming. I have none. Acadæmia and I bid each other a friendly farewell. I find non-academic work in the public health sector.
2019: The publisher contacts me to ask whether I might be interested in writing a picture book about the origin of the universe – the Big Bang and so forth. My reply is that I’d happily write what they ask me to (I’m in the habit of saying “yes” to publishers very quickly, whatever they ask; this probably speaks volumes about my self-esteem as a writer, but so far it’s worked out well). However, I add, the origin of the universe isn’t very interesting to me. This is not to denigrate the origin of the universe – I’m a big fan of the universe myself – it’s just that my enthusiasm lies elsewhere. It just so happens, I tell the publisher, that I spent years looking into the origin of life. Would they like a book about that? The publisher responds well, and I’m sent off to write a book proposal.
A few days later, as I prepare my book proposal, I come across a problem: the territory I wish to cover has already been covered. A picture book called How Did I Get Here?, telling a story stretching from the Big Bang to the birth of the reader, already exists. It would definitely include the origin of life. Moreover, it was published in Australia, only the previous year. It’s been doing well. Moreover, I’m on record saying good things about the author/illustrator, Philip Bunting, whom I actually met in person for a brief moment in 2017. I even sent him a friendly email one day about a thing he wrote in a magazine. In short, my chances of plausibly denying that I knew of this book are low, and since I’m clearly a person who can get worked up about the origin of things, I’m a bit nervous. I want to see what this book is like.
The next day I rush out and grab a copy. Damnation! It’s very good! (I check with my 6yo son and he agrees). I do, however, note that the origin of life only takes up a couple of pages. I tell myself there’s more I can say on the topic. I put all of that in my book proposal and hope the publisher agrees with me.
A few weeks later the publisher emails: they’ve accepted my proposal and want me to write a children’s picture book about the origin of life. Dates and things are agreed on. The major question is who’d illustrate. Julian, when asked, is supportive but very busy with his own stuff.
Then the publisher does something interesting: she suggests asking Philip Bunting if he’d like to be the illustrator. I wouldn’t have thought of that – I’m still worried he’ll think I’m ripping him off. Well, I think, if that’s the case, at least now he’ll be able to tell me right away, before I’ve started writing. I seem to be the only one thinking along these lines: Philip is happy to come on board. We have a chat and get along swimmingly.
2020: Drafts fly back and forth between locked-down Melbourne and the Bunting residence in Queensland. We resolve heavy questions such as “What is Life?”, “How to honestly portray an open scientific question?”, “What does an atom really look like?” and “How many pirate eyepatches and Monty Python references can we possibly cram into a kids’ picture book?”
2021: The book is done, due to be published in August. The advance copy I receive looks good. In an odd way, it’s the first publication coming out of my PhD, started 14 years ago.