About the author
Vanessa McCausland studied English and Australian literature at The University of Sydney. She has worked as a journalist for 17 years including as a news and medical reporter for The Daily Telegraph and entertainment reporter for mX Newspaper. Her work has appeared in news.com.au, mamamia, body+soul, whimn.com.au and she’s currently a weekend editor at kidspot.com.au. Vanessa has previously published a novel with Penguin Random House. She lives on Sydney’s northern beaches with her husband and daughter.
The Lost Summers of Driftwood is described as a compelling drama about broken dreams, first love and the mystery of a lost sister. Can you tell us a bit more about the book
I think it’s equal part mystery and family drama and it’s about the journey two sisters go on in searching for why their elder sister left a note written in flowers and walked into the river.
Phoebe, the protagonist, flees Sydney to her family’s childhood holiday home on a river on the NSW south coast. Her life has fallen apart. She’d been so busy orchestrating her engagement that she didn’t see that the proposal she’d been organising and waiting for was never coming.
A surprise engagement party thrown by her sister, Camilla, in which her fiancé is conspicuously absent, tips her over the edge and she escapes to the only place left to go. But while the idyllic river-side cottage is a refuge it’s also a place where she’s forced to face the ghosts of her past. Her elder sister Karin’s suicide haunts her.Her childhood love, Jez, has also moved back to the beautiful old house Driftwood, one jetty down. He’s married now and his home has become a refuge for an unlikely little community.
Secrets, lost loves, tragedy and betrayal all play out against the backdrop of the river – sparkling on the surface but with dark, forgotten things just beneath the surface.
What inspired this novel?
This book was inspired by a sense of place. I, like many Australian children, grew up visiting the same holiday house with my family. My mother’s parents owned a riverfront property and despite it being a full day’s drive to get to, we’d go almost every holiday.
When I returned to this place as an adult the nostalgia for those days playing by the river as a child was so strong, so beautiful. I think I wanted to capture something of that feeling. The passing of time. The bitter-sweet taste of nostalgia. The beauty of the natural world.
I also lost my beloved grandmother who lived on that same river in a tragic accident and so I think I was working through the feelings of grief that can also be attached to a special place. Grief and loss can make us feel so alone. I guess I wanted to share my own thoughts and feelings about them and maybe make someone going through that feel less alone.
In a way I wrote this book to immortalise this place on the river for my family because it contains so much of our history, both beautiful and sad. I didn’t have to travel back there much as I found the place was so ingrained in me – the smell of river salt, the sound of speed boats slicing through the silence and the feeling of being so far from everything, legs dangled over the end of the jetty. My family has sold the property now, so it’s lovely to have this book to remember it by.
Who are some authors that have inspired you?
I’m very eclectic in my reading. I’ll be reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life one minute, Sally Rooney’s Normal People the next and Marion Keys’ The Break after that.
Or in Australian terms, I’ll skip between Tim Winton, Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty. I’ll always read new books by Hannah Kent and Kate Morton.
I think I’m always looking for books and writers who write beautifully, in that sense of their language being a pleasure to read, but who also tell a good story.
Reading is my absolute favourite thing and I want to absorb as many stories as I can in my lifetime. Sometimes this feeling is so overwhelming. Can anyone else relate?
I can’t think of anything better than waking up on a Sunday morning and reading with breakfast in bed. That’s my ultimate luxury. Or rainy day reading. The best.
In terms of styles I admire, I’ve loved Tim Winton’s writing since high school days, for his sense of the natural world and his extraordinary voice. The style of Emily Bitto’s The Strays and Emma Cline’s The Girls influenced this book, though it’s difficult to say how, only that after reading both I felt so inspired to write.
What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?
I think I always want to make my reader feel something. That’s what I require from a novel myself. I want to be moved. So, I hope they’re drawn into the natural world, feel some of the nostalgia and the awakening that Phoebe feels being so close to nature. There are no devices – no phones or social media because there’s no reception – and I ask what the price is of being so connected all the time.
And there’s a dark thread in this book. It asks us what we’re capable of and it invites us to look into the grey areas of life rather than just seeing the black and white. I also hope to give readers a really compelling story.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m not one of those writers who are able to write every day. When I embraced this rather than felt guilty about it, I was able to free myself to create more. I do like to have chunks of time to really get into it, too. I can’t sit down for 30 minutes – I need to know that I have at least an hour to get my head back into the right creative space. I usually get a day or two a week while my daughter is in school to write and these are my favourite days and probably my mental health days as well.
The process of writing The Lost Summer of Driftwood.
It’s strange how ideas come to writers. This one was very insistent, but it took a while for it to fully form. For a long time I just kept getting an image of a woman standing on the end of a jetty. She wanted something. She was sad. She was running from something. But a few times I started and it didn’t feel right.
And then I did a creative writing course (which, by the way, is such a good way to kick start book ideas) and there was a short scene that seemed to really touch the people who read it. It involved a woman named Phoebe turning up to a surprise engagement party thrown by her sister without her fiancé. He had never proposed. And all she wanted to do was escape this crushing, humiliating situation and I realised that Phoebe was the woman standing on the jetty and that she needed to escape the party to the south coast where her family had a holiday house. So then in the next chapter she was in the car driving south in the middle of the night reflecting on all the ghosts waiting for her on that river – her childhood, her first love Jez, her sister’s sudden death. And my story started to unfold.
I often start with a very vague idea, a feeling and then I find my characters bit by bit and they’re the ones who end up showing me where the story is going. With The Lost Summers of Driftwood, a few people have said they weren’t expecting the ending and that’s probably because I didn’t know how it was going to end either! It’s like I’m writing in the same way I’m reading. I write chapter by chapter, waiting to find out what’s going to happen. I think it makes it more exciting for me as a writer and hopefully for readers, too.
At the moment I’m writing a book set in another natural setting – this time in a valley where several women have gone missing. Again, it’s set in Australia, tied closely to the natural world and there’s a mystery at its heart.