It was only seven-fifty. The yard was still empty.

Donna buttoned up her coat and pulled on her beanie. She passed through the gate and shuffled toward the garden, the contents of her watering can splashing onto the granitic sand beneath her sneakers.

Donna’s “garden” was little more than two flowerbeds in the yard’s northwest corner. Azaleas, pansies and chrysanthemums fought for space in one of the beds while the other housed rose bushes. A bare lemon tree stood to the side in an old barrel. Donna’s hands ached for a pair of secateurs to perform the emergency work needed to revive it.

She opened a tub and took out a bag of topsoil and a plastic trowel. She creaked down onto her knees and loosened the dirt before watering each plant’s roots. Next, she inspected the undersides of the leaves. Last season’s thrips hadn’t returned. Yet.

The sun had risen over the eastern wall, placing its warm hand on her back. Donna heard the yard fill behind her, sounding like a barn full of hens. She mostly kept to herself nowadays. Whatever friends she’d once made in here had long since gone. The new girl sharing her cell had barely uttered a word in six weeks. All the others were scary. They seemed cunning and vicious. Killers.

Donna finished by tending to her roses. The plant’s thorns scratched and tore at her skin, but she remained undeterred. Her eye fell upon a rose toward the back, its white petals blooming like a sunrise. She gently ran her bony finger around its perfect edge.

‘She’s a beauty,’ came a voice behind her. It was Sam, one of the prison’s older guards. His uniform sagged upon his gaunt frame. Duke – Sam’s ever-watchful German Shepherd – eyed Donna from its leash.

Donna nodded to her bag of dirt. ‘I’m running low again. Can you put another order in?’

‘What for? Parole board’s next month.’

The statement pricked her. ‘What do you mean? I’ve still got years.’

‘I wouldn’t be so sure. All this time in here without causing any trouble? Too expensive keeping someone like you locked up in here, Don.’

‘So they’ll just throw me out?’

‘What are you on about?’ Sam frowned. ‘Don’t you want to get back to your outside life?’

She tried to decipher the life he meant.

‘I suppose so,’ she eventually said.

She watched Sam lead Duke back toward Block H. She packed her spade and soil into the tub and brushed her hands clean against her trousers. Why were they punishing her? She’d done nothing wrong. She turned back to that single perfect rose. The squeals of the other inmates grew louder behind her. Which of them would tend to the garden when she was gone? Donna closed her eyes, trapping her tears. She couldn’t leave.

She imagined her cellmate’s serene face.

Donna’s hand twitched for those secateurs.

© Matthew S. Wilson, October 2022

This piece was originally written for September’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, run by the Australian Writers Centre.


Why do I write?

I’ve pondered this question in recent weeks after listening to a fabulous podcast by Noè Harsel, where she poses this exact question to a range of Australian authors. It’s a seemingly simple question, yet I found myself twisting in circles trying to answer it. Why do I write? After publishing my first novel in 2012, immediately embark on another? Why lock myself in the study each evening, surrounded by empty coffee cups, mocked by plot holes and a flashing cursor? Why do I put myself through that?

Once Upon a Camino tells the story of an Englishman named Tom, who walks the Camino de Santiago – an 800-kilometre pilgrimage across Spain – seeking the blessing of his girlfriend’s family before proposing. However, upon his journey, destiny intercedes, transforming his quest into something else altogether.

In the three months since the release of my novel, the lovely messages I’ve received have reminded me why I write.

I write for the unexpected connection my words create with others.

Writing is lonely. While I’m thankful for the support and interest of my friends and family, the actual process itself is solitary. But when you share your work, a kind of magic occurs. The thoughts and feelings you’d assumed had been yours alone unexpectedly move someone else. This may be a fellow writer or simply a friend. The most magical is when your writing somehow reaches and moves a complete stranger. Whether it’s a 30-word flash fiction submission or a novel, the joy of these connections cannot be underestimated. It’s what compels me to write.

I’ve been thrilled to hear people’s responses to Once Upon a Camino, especially all the little details readers have shared: the cover selfies when the book arrived, the unexpected tears throughout, or the sleepy morning from staying up late to discover what happens next. I’ve even had people message me from Spain, telling me they’re reading the book on the Camino itself. Such moments eclipse the months of doubt while writing it, vindicating that surviving ember of self-belief.

Another lovely part of sharing your work is the unexpected questions you receive from readers, hungry for another detail from your story. Some of the questions have been specific – did Hank and his family make it to Santiago? Does Pablo find love? By far, the most common was where I came up with the story’s idea.

The story was inspired by my journey along the Camino, which I walked in 2010 (you can read more about the hike itself here). Travel has always fuelled my creativity. Unburdened by the obligations of “real life”, my mind has permission to wander. This was never truer than on the Camino. Walking through quilts of paddocks for a month, I was free to mull over the random thoughts that drifted in.

One such thought was marriage. 2010 was the year where every second weekend was occupied by a wedding – we’ve all endured that year, haven’t we? I must have heard “Come on Eileen” a hundred times. I recall several of my friends had sought the blessing of their girlfriend’s families before proposing. This intrigued me. They’d done it to be respectful, but I’d always wondered what would happen if the parents had said no. I had no idea that this innocuous thought would be the inciting incident of a novel I’d complete a decade later.

For many, the Camino is a pilgrimage deeply rooted in penance. It follows that redemption is a central theme in my book. As I wrote it, I reflected on my life’s mistakes, wondering if I’d paid sufficiently for each. I also explored this in my first novel – The Devil’s in the Detail.

Regret, blame and forgiveness all seemed grey to me. Good people can sometimes do awful things too.

I wanted flawed characters the reader wouldn’t immediately support. Even in Ramos’ character, I wanted a villain which the reader could imagine a plausible path toward his treachery.

My novel is also about time. For those who’ve already read it, this may seem obvious. But I also wanted to investigate how people viewed their pasts and how societies viewed their histories. Are our childhoods as unique as we remember? Are our mistakes as grave as we fear? Are our histories documented by reliable narrators? These questions felt important. In some ways, the Camino is timeless. Pilgrims have walked it for centuries. And while they may now wear fluorescent windbreakers and carry aluminium hiking poles, the mountains, farms and many villages remain unchanged. This influenced my story significantly.

And finally, I wanted to comment on fate and connection. I walked the Camino by myself, yet I was rarely alone. Instead, walked alongside would-be strangers from all over the world. Some became friends. Whatever caused that – destiny, fate, coincidence – it was difficult not to buy into the Camino’s narrative. Many travellers have epiphanies upon the Camino, and the path seems to evoke its own sort of magic. This mysticism offered creative possibilities with my story. Bending the narrative gently toward fantasy felt right.

So the story essentially came from these thoughts and feelings from the Camino itself. The challenge came when I returned to Australia, where I was faced with moulding this lump of clay into a shape that made sense. I began imagining characters to place into my story, defining roles for each, and inventing scenes to test them. A decade of research, countless drafts, a global pandemic and an eternity of editing followed. 

But none of that is why I write; it’s how I write. And that’s another article altogether.

Once Upon a Camino is available in paperback and eBook from bookstores everywhere. Click here for some locations.

You can also show your support by adding it to your GoodReads here.

Part 2: Launch.

Twelve years after completing the Camino de Santiago, my novel inspired by my hike across Spain is finally available to read.

Once Upon a Camino is an adventure set upon the ancient pilgrimage across Spain known as the Way of Saint James. It tells the story of Tom, a 28-year-old investment banker, who must walk across the country to receive the blessing of his girlfriend’s family before proposing. Upon commencing the Camino, Tom’s plans further unravel – his backpack mysteriously disappears, and his phone loses its signal. And when all the other hikers seemingly vanish, Tom makes a discovery that changes everything. Suddenly pursued by the authorities, Tom’s only path home to his girlfriend is alongside a motley band of pilgrims bound for Santiago – among them a reclusive fisherman named Fernando, who carries his own dark secret.

Once Upon a Camino is a novel about time. It focuses on past regrets and untrodden paths. It’s a story of friendship and connection, of following your heart, despite your better judgement. It’s written for those who’ve walked the path to Santiago and others who simply enjoy life’s unpredictable journey and the strangers we meet along the way.

The story is based on my own travels through Spain (I wrote about it in Part 1: Inspiration). Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story that captured the unique sense of adventure and camaraderie I’d experienced on the Camino. I also wanted to try and tell some of Spain’s fascinating history.

One hope for this book is that it might one day find an audience among those making their way to Santiago, perhaps even a topic of conversation between a pair of strangers around a dinner table in a hostel along the Way. But the novel is for everyone, not those who’ve walked the Camino. It contains themes for all. As Carpe Librum so kindly wrote in their review:

Once Upon A Camino is a story about love, courage, friendship, regret, fate and destiny and was beautifully told.

Carpe Librum

Once Upon a Camino is available in paperback or eBook at several retailers. Click here for more information about where to read it.

I hope you enjoy it.