I felt like a film-maker more than a writer when I came across the picture. It just hit me in the gut, made all the drone research fall into place. It was an image so powerful that nothing could be the same in the narrative after it was deployed. There’s almost a sadness when you find such a key story element. Then you begin to suspect it is too overpowering and you second-guess the obvious, finding fault with what you originally treasured, wondering if you were just exploiting a ham-fisted device because you were getting tired and looking for an easy gimmick. This is what the cold light of day, the next morning is for, and why you look forward to sleeping on it; either way, the answer will be enlightening. Either your instant excitement was warranted and the world has landed a golden egg in your lap, or your instincts, honed by years of humiliating missteps, have saved you from over-emphasising fool’s gold, the sort of mistake your discerning readers, that precious handful, must be protected from like the blind from an unexpected precipice.
Michaela was holding up a printed-out story when I walked in that day. It was about a giant poster of a Pakistani girl laid out alongside a little village of mud huts, which could have been from the Stone Age. It was claimed the girl’s parents had been killed by a drone strike. The huge poster, spread over a scrawny field, was designed to be seen by drone operators thousands of kilometres away in America.
Activists, working on behalf of the most impoverished looking drone victims of the third world, had produced an image which reminded comfortable westerners of the cost of their hands-off technology. My Australian characters in the drone story had been hassled, even assaulted, and they were traumatised. In Pakistan, the trauma was caused by bombs, destruction, death. Such a polarised world order could only survive if the victims had no knowledge of their killers. But these connected, globalised activists knew who to target; they knew what cars they drove, and houses they coveted, what movies they watched on their big screen TVs, including a couple about the stresses of operating drones. Working on behalf of the powerless tribal prey of deadly sky-borne machines, with stories and images their only weapons, these artists had brilliantly manipulated compassion and empathy, their poster a gift for the deadline media world. But not for my book. Or not yet.
Isabella asked me what I thought about the poster story. I could see she’d been excited, but by the time I got to saying something, she was already lost in thought, not hearing a word, her mind made up. There were no shortcuts in her business, that’s for sure.