Before You Forget: launch speech notes

Last night Before You Forget was launched at The Literature Centre by Laurie Apps, President of the Fremantle Tennis Club and all round fabulous human being. The following are the notes for my speech, from which I deviated from time to time. It followed the first screening of the emotional and beautifully shot Before You Forget video, directed by Kori Reay-Mackey, to be posted in the near future. Thanks to all who came: we had 150 people sitting, standing, celebrating. It was quite a night!

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Lesley, Mailee and the Literature Centre team for hosting this event, and for being such supporters of those of us who create literature for young people. This place is our home and our refuge.

(Ad libbed thanks to Laurie Apps, director Kori Reay-Mackey, video donors, and Penguin Random House)

  • Alan Genoni was a brilliant English teacher at Kelmscott High School, encouraging me early in my creative writing endeavours, and I am honoured that he is here tonight – as well as delighted that he also won Western Australian High School Principal of the year last year.
  • Judith Ridge, guru of literature for young people, is here from Sydney, and I’m thrilled that this is also her first time to Perth: we’ll make sure it’s not your last.
  • The energetic force of nature that is Susanne Gervay is also here from our SCBWI family in Sydney, and it is gorgeous to have her here.
  • Katrina Lievense, art teacher extraordinaire from John Curtin, was kind enough to read through the manuscript and make sure I had the arty bits right: she and Anne McCaughey were my first readers, and I so appreciate their feedback: and I think they related to one of the themes of this novel – art as saviour.
  • Thank you to my colleagues from writing, health, teaching, parliament and law.
  • Graham Smith, John’s oldest friend, and his family are here tonight – until fairly recently, John could recite every move in the year seven chess final that Graham beat him in.
  • Gemma Maxwell, whose name I used with permission in the novel, and about whom you heard Annie talking about in the video, whose mum also had early onset, and to whom the novel is also dedicated – thank you, and Tessa and Farrel for being here tonight.
  • Thank you to all of you who have provided us with the nibblies – and especially Brioni Dunstan. I want to just say, Bri should have been in events management – as well as organising the food tonight, she threw a surprise party for me and Nigel a couple of years back, with the theme All You Need Is Love, a subject to which I will return, which remains one of the most lovely things anyone’s ever done for me.
  • And speaking of Nigel, I want to thank him for his daily love and kindness, which sustains me.

Speechy bit

So now, to Before You Forget, and why it is here, and why it matters so much to me – and will, I hope, to others.

The last five or six years have been trying, to put it politely.

If I were to describe it accurately, I would have to use all my Kelmscott words.

I have learned so much about human nature, good and bad – as someone wisely said, the best thing about the worst time of your life is that you see the true colours of everybody.

Sometimes, this resulted in a fondness for fermented grape juice, periods of insomnia, and acting out in extreme and self-destructive ways, such as deciding to do a law degree.

But these years were the impetus for writing the novel – indeed, made the writing of the novel essential to our psychic survival.

The last five years have also made me appreciate more than I ever have the value of human connection.

All of you here, and more who are not, have sustained me and Annie, in large ways and in small, practically, emotionally, spiritually, virtually or in person, and I truly cannot thank you enough.

I would like to make special mention of Morgan Yasbincek, Paul Webster and Shaun Salmon, who have supported John constantly through his illness, and keep doing so even though he no longer knows them.

But the star of this show is Annie.

I wrote this novel after seeing not only the torment that her father’s condition caused her, but also seeing how her loss, for the most part, was not acknowledged or understood by others.

There was no place for her in all the dealings with care providers, doctors, the State Administrative Tribunal, in all the horrible and unnecessary contests we went through over John’s care.

Her voice, her perspective, her relationship with her father were not heard, seen, or valued.

The system for dealing with people with early onset – in a framework of aged care – is woefully ill-equipped for younger people in general, and especially for younger people who still have children and teenagers at home.

This has to change.

Annie has become a strong, self-reliant, clear sighted and determined young woman because of what has happened to her – and I am so proud of her – and I know John would be too.

But I wish things had been better for her.

And I hope it will be better for the thousands of young people living with watching their parent’s deterioration, for those who lose parents when they are still alive, the living loss of early onset Alzheimer’s disease and its many variations and permutations.

So, this is what I hope Before You Forget will provide – an inside view on a little-understood disease and its effects on those living with it.

I also hope it’s a cracking good read.

I remember pitching Before You Forget to Jane Godwin, former publisher at Penguin, at our SCBWI retreat at Rottnest, saying ‘it’s about a girl whose dad has early onset and her best friend gets anorexia and her mother starts drinking and she’s obsessed with 9/11 – it’s a comedy, obviously.’

There is comic relief in the shape of a small and crazy Jack Russell named Hecta.

He is closely modelled on a small and crazy Jack Russell named Hecta who, despite regularly escaping out of doors onto busy roads, eating unidentifiable items from the yard or bins at Brightwater, humping poor patient Labradors until he does himself an injury, or stealing and eating glad-wrapped sandwiches from people’s handbags, manages to be the kind of dog that people look at and say, ‘Ah, isn’t he sweet.’

This novel reveals the truth.

Thank you all for being here, for sharing this ‘journey’ with us, and I hope this novel finds a treasured place in your hearts.

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Fabulous February

It is a big month, dear reader. I had my first book signing at Boffins, hosted by the lovely Amy Woods: edited transcript of the same will appear on Amy’s blog some time in the not-too-distant.

This wonderful article by Heather Zubek appeared in The West .

 

And the Before You Forget video has been shot, and is now being edited by Kori Reay-Mackey and his creative crew. I’ve had generous support from so many people to produce the video – they will be honoured in the credits list – and I know this is going to be something special. Here are some stills from the shoot, filmed on location at Paper Bird in Fremantle:

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Other info about Before You Forget, including reviews as they appear (good ones, of course!), are here.

Jumping for joy in January

Dear reader, it is finally the publication month of Before You Forget. It has been a long time coming: that’s how it feels to me, anyhow. Any novel takes so much work, time and attention, and this one has taken a certain level of emotional chutzpah to get to the finish line. My eternal gratitude to my patient editors at Penguin (it’s been so long there have been a few, but Katrina Lehman is chief among them.) The novel now has its own web page here, which also talks a little bit about why I wrote it. The cover is just beautiful, more so in tangible form: thank you Penguin Random House for doing the book proud.

And here is its first review, from Amy at Boffins Books.

The remarkable Amanda Curtin, herself one of my favourite writers, was kind enough to feature Before You Forget as part of her guest blogger series, here. (Yes, it seems this is going to be a very link-y post. Stay with me, dear reader!)

I have a pretty full dance card for the Perth Writers Festival this year, hanging with more of my favourite writer buddies, including Dianne Touchell, whose Forgetting Foster is about a young boy whose father develops younger onset Alzheimer’s. We’re going to have some cracking conversations about that: here are some of her thoughts on the subject.

I am raising money to make a short video about  Before You Forget, featuring my daughter and her artwork: it is the story behind the story. The money will pay the talented young creatives who have committed to the project, including clever director Kori Reay-Mackey. The link is here if you have any spare cash. We are hoping to launch it at the Perth Writers Festival next month.

I hope you are all having a splendid 2017 so far.

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Picture by Annie Lawrinson

Good things come

♥2016 has been an eventful year in my life, to put it mildly, and even more so for many of you out there. Some of my closest friends have experienced terrible losses and grief. The state of the world is, at best, parlous. Human beings continue to confound, being full of generosity and kindness sometimes, or fear and hatred other times. Let’s not let the other times render us insensible to what is important in this world.

Choose kindness. Choose gentleness. Choose love.

♥In the spirit of gratitude, here is my list of ‘why 2016 hasn’t been a complete disaster.’ I encourage you to compile your own.

  • I was lucky enough to travel to Singapore not once, but twice, once for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, second for the tour accompanying the Near and Dear Singapore-Western Australian book creator exchange. Both trips were glorious, and mind-opening, and full of good food and better company.
  • I was also lucky enough to go to Geraldton for Children’s Book Week: words cannot express how much I adored it, and the people there.
  • I went to Bali, too. (Now, I understand why people do. My girlfriend and I had The Bestest Time ever.)
  • I now possess a Bachelor of Laws, with Distinction.
  • I have a new book at the printers (squeeee!).
  • And, I have a beautiful new niece, born on the same day as one of my dearest friends. Bambina (not her real name, obvs!) brings delight to all who encounter her.

♥In the eventfulness of recent years, I’d forgotten that Losing It had been bought by Random House in Germany. Imagine my surprise, then, to be copied into a tweet with the awesomely chick-lit-ish cover yesterday, by Walking in the Clouds. Isn’t it fun? (And if anyone’s listening, I’d be happy to do a promo tour of Germany in 2017!)

Viermal grosse Liebe mit Sahne von Julia Lawrinson

♥All caveats about privileged white blokes aside, this study into what makes for a contented life is worth watching. Of course it is about connections, friendship, love. That is what makes our lives worth living, or bearable when the ceiling caves in. In the end, your people are all you have. Cherish them.

♥I wish you all a peaceful, reflective, bookful 2017 with your people.

November news

♥I have finished my gigs for the year, having recently visited Bullsbrook College (thank you Australian Society of Authors!) and Mercedes, among others. From 2017, if you want me for WA gigs, please contact fabulous folks at The Literature Centre on 08 9430 6968 or info@thelitcentre.org.au . In the east, Booked Out are still the people to contact.

♥The last proofs for Before You Forget are in. This book was written in close consultation and collaboration with my daughter, and I am tremendously proud of it. Stay tuned for launch details. The blurb reads:

Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, this is an ultimately uplifting story about the delicate fabric of family and friendship, and the painful realisation that not everything can remain the same forever.

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The dedication for Before You Forget

 

♥It is hard to comprehend recent world events: the hatefulness that has informed the result of the US election, the awful behaviour that has been rewarded, the destructive divisiveness. It is hard to try to meet hatred with love and tolerance, but it seems that it is incumbent on us to do that. Not that you shouldn’t name and speak out about appalling attitudes and actions, of course. But fear will make us smaller, and decent people need to be more decent in these trying times. And for those who seem consumed with resentment of their fellow citizens and humans, this is a timely reminder:

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An important reminder: from Newman College library

 

 

Beyond Carousel and other new things

The launch of Brendan Ritchie‘s Beyond Carousel (Fremantle Press) was a reminder of the warmth of the writing community in Perth, aside from a great launch of a novel that, if it is anything as good as its prequel, will be a cult hit. Norman and Jan Jorgensen, James Foley, Renae Hayward, Georgina Gregory, Kate McCaffrey, Marcella Polain and Mike Williams, and proud publisher Kate Sutherland were among the throngs of wordy people and well wishers crammed into the delight that is Beaufort Street Books, where our very own Tim Winton had been talking that very morning. The incomparable Amanda Betts launched Beyond Carousel in her brilliant, witty way: Brendan’s taster had all punters racing out to read their copies forthwith.

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Brendan Ritchie

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A trio of trouble

I have just received the proofs for my latest novel, due out in February. Here is a sneak peak of the inside title page. The novel features a year 12 art student called Amelia, so the arty smatter is fitting, as well as metaphorical:

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Inside title page

And here is Hecta, our dog, chowing down on his carrot. He features in the novel as himself, although there is no carrot-eating to be found.

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Hecta with an A

 

Go for 2 & 5 in gorgeous Geraldton

  • I should rephrase the above to something like, ‘gorgeous Geraldton in which I picked up gruesome germs’, given that I am just recovering from the same nearly two weeks later. But it was gorgeous nevertheless, from the bubbling enthusiasm of the kids to the generosity of spirit from my hosts at the library to the en-costumed teachers and librarians who welcomed me into their schools. I also got to meet, remotely, some very keen readers and writers from the Meekatharra School of the Air.
  • This completed Book Week for me, having started it rather closer to home at the unphotographically represented but sparkling-lovely Coolbinia Primary, at which I was also reunited with a fellow former member of the Youth Theatre Company of WA. It was amusing to reflect on how well behaved we are these days, compared to the summer of 1985. Ah, maturity!
  • Since returning, apart from lying on the couch watching mafia flicks and food production docos, I’ve also had a sneak preview of the cover of Before You Forget, and its accompanying blurb. When I’ve got permissions, I shall share.The cover is poignant and apt. The final edit of the words will shortly be underway, too.
  • I seem to be writing something new, and non-fiction, in the space that post-law study provides. Writing with absolutely no expectation attached is liberating.
  • If you are interested in presenting at the Asian Festival for Children’s Content in Singapore in 2017, and I heartily encourage you to do so, the call for papers is out. You won’t find a more fascinating conference anywhere, I’ll wager.
  • If you’re a reader and you’ve never come across the American writer Howard Norman, you really should. Here is an excerpt of him reading from his latest.

 

Spectacular Singapore

I have just returned from steamy, spectacular Singapore, full of gratitude, wonder and chilli tofu. I was the final writer in an exchange between Singapore and Western Australia, featuring folk who contributed to Near and Dear, a collection of short stories edited by Ken Spillman and supported by the Department of Culture and the Arts and writingwa (here) and the National Arts Council (there). So far, 3000 copies of the book have been distributed to keen young readers and writers, a bunch of whom I met on my tour.

Writing and literature have to fight their way into a crowded curriculum, in Singapore as everywhere else, and I was particularly impressed with the determination of the teachers I met to make sure their students get the exposure to creative endeavours, and to practice them. Apart from all the benefits reading for pleasure gives academically (see here), it also helps us understand each other: books give you the singular opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to walk in their shoes, to inhabit their skin. In a world where the effect of intolerance is everywhere, this is a rare gift.

I was also reminded of the warmth of the children’s literature community everywhere, being reacquainted with the Singapore chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators over a delicious Indian banquet. (Delicious is a redundant description of Singaporean food, because it all is, but nevertheless, indulge me!) Thank you, SCBWI folk!

So, thank you to the people who got me there: Department of Culture and the Arts, the National Arts Council of Singapore (especially Christie Cheng and Felix Cheong), the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and Literary Lions. And thank you to all the schools who hosted me, my most excellent minder Dhava, David Liew for his characteristically brilliant recording of my session, William Phuan from The Select Centre, and Rosemarie Somaiah. It was enriching in both directions, and I look forward to my next encounter with Peranakan food, among the many other excellent things in Singapore.

 

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And very special thanks to Sharon Flindell and the writingwa crew!

Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

Forgetting Foster

On Monday night, at Boffins in Perth, I was honoured to launch Dianne Touchell’s latest novel, Forgetting Foster (Allen & Unwin). It was a special event fitting for such a special book.

Here is an excerpt from the launch speech, in case you haven’t already pre-ordered a copy and need any reasons (apart from the fact it’s Dianne Touchell’s latest) to buy it:

Foster is seven years old, and his adored, adoring father, the teller of stories, the General to his troops, is changing.

He is not just forgetting things – he is forgetting who he is.

The horribly typical path of early onset Alzheimer’s – a disease that hits as indiscriminately as cancer, but has no illuminating hope of cure – is shown here from a child’s eyes.

We see the personality change, the collapse of personhood, the loss of dignity, happening to Foster’s dad.

When he leaves bacon burning on the stove.

When he uses his story voice – the voice he uses for all the stories he tells his son – to his clients over the phone.

When he cries at the dinner table.

He displays behaviour that could be seen as funny – from putting on the wrong socks, to saying out loud the things that are normally kept to yourself – to behaviour in which the loss of dignity is shown, like pissing himself in church – an act misattributed to poor Foster, who suffers being blamed by his classmates until he finally is forced to betray his father to save himself.

Dianne brilliantly describes Foster’s dad as having ‘a hole in his head’, one that was ‘becoming bigger and bigger until even a reminder could no longer nudge the forgotten thing back into place.’

The effect of his father’s illness on Foster is described pithily:

‘[Foster] was unprepared for how much a change in someone else could wilt the pieces of himself he thought he knew best.’

Dianne shows not only the wrenching changes inside the family, but the way they are misunderstood and unrepresented outside of it.

We see the lack of understanding from children and the adults who should know better.

We see people who prey on the family’s vulnerability, from the meddling, uninvited sister, through to the neighbour who is cruel to Foster and his father, but who presents herself as only wanting to help.

We see a world in which the services provided by aged care don’t fit the family: when Foster looks at pamphlets from the service providers Foster sees ‘pictures of well-dressed, happy old people doing craft and playing board games. It occurred to Foster that there were no people in the pictures like Dad.’

Like early onset Alzheimer’s itself, a story about Alzheimer’s is never going to have a happy ending.

But this story is made not only bearable but radiant by Foster himself, who is something I thought I would never say about a Touchell character – sweet and appealing, as well as smart and uncompromising.

His innocent negotiation of his father’s illness is rendered through Dianne’s impeccable prose.

Foster’s father has taught him well: rituals help make sense of the unfathomable.

It is the loss of the rituals that mean most to Foster which provide the emotional knot at the heart of this novel.

But the ritual that does endure, through the loss and the confusion, from symptoms of early onset to its diagnosis, is the ritual of telling stories.

At the beginning of Forgetting Foster, we have the father wielding the power of narrative in the Foster’s classroom:

[Excerpt from p 5 of the novel]

This excerpt also shows Dianne’s remarkable facility with the perfect simile, embedded in the prosaic, making the language both literary and accessible, and showing that those qualities are not mutually exclusive.

The father has given the gift of storytelling to his son, and Forgetting Foster closes with the son returning the gift to his father.

It is a redemption of sorts for the bystanders of a disease for which no redemption is possible.

I don’t know how Dianne wrote this book without breaking into a million pieces.

There has been an inexplicable rise in early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Australia.

More than 25,000 people under 65 have been diagnosed with it, and there are concerns that many others are misdiagnosed with stress and depression, or alcoholism, or other types of mental illness.

There are about 5000 people in aged care facilities – services that are often not equipped to deal with younger people with Alzheimer’s.

This increasing incidence of early onset, combined with later average ages of parenthood, means that Foster’s story is going to become more common.

Which makes this beautiful book even more vital.

It will change the way we think about the children of parents with early onset.

It will begin a conversation we have not yet had in this country.

But you don’t have to buy this book for political reasons.

Buy it because it is quite simply Dianne Touchell’s best novel yet.

Asian Festival of Children’s Content – it’s a wrap

The book creators’ part of the AFCC is over for another year. I have heard about Japanese picture books, the state of children’s literature in Ireland and Africa, content controversies in the Philippines, Singapore and the States, why you should never post your book to a reviewer, and met (and re-met!) a bunch of passionate children’s book people from the world over. It is a warm, friendly and mind-opening conference. It is an important cultural exchange of ideas, and reinforces the fact that people who love writing, creating and sharing books for young people have a common language, no matter where we come from.

I’m off to do a writing workshop for The Writers Centre now, and to find the durian mousse recommended in this post, so here is my summary of the festival in pictures.

I am grateful to writingwa, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – West, and the Department of Culture and the Arts for making it possible. I am also grateful to the organisers of the AFCC, Alycia Teo and especially Mr Rama – you have done a stellar job in bringing people together and getting us talking. It is a remarkable thing you have created.