Briefly tell us about your book.
When Sidney, a woman living with diverse mental health, decides to stop taking her medication, she becomes preoccupied with a man from her past — Dean Cola, her teenage crush. She is drawn more and more into the past, trying to find out what happened to Dean, and at the same time what happened to her. What Sidney discovers is very traumatic, and in the middle of the book we see her back in psychiatric care. I don’t want to give away too much of what follows, but I will say that our hero survives and uncovers the truth that will set her free.
All That I Remember About Dean Cola is about memory, time, mental illness, perception, and perspective. It is a very layered book and I used artwork, bonsai, literature, and devices such as metaphor to highlight perspective both literally and figuratively.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
The initial spark for the novel came to me on a winter’s day in Hobart, while visiting MONA. I was inspired by two artworks: The Cloaca Machine, a weird part alien-robot, part surgical-looking installation that mimics the machinations of the human digestive system — the sum of our parts but completely soulless; and The Mice and Me, a life-like sculpture of a child in a frilly party dress lying inside a coffin-like cabinet, which the artist, Meghan Boody, describes as an ode to staying young forever. Back at my hotel, I wrote in my journal:
I want to write a novel infused with the essence of these two ideas:
- We are more than the sum of our parts
- An ode to staying forever young
Initially, I wanted to explore ‘madness’, but the more I researched psychotic disorders, in particular schizophrenia, the less I wanted to write a ‘mad person does a bad thing’ novel. I wanted to write the complete opposite: a novel that helps destigmatise mental illness or neurodiversity by moving away from tired cliches of the ‘crazy person’, and challenges the stereotype, often perpetuated by the media, that people with mental illness are more evil or dangerous than the general population.
What was the research process like for the book?
At first, I thought I was going to write about the parallel lives (and breakdowns) of Sidney and Obel Cola (Dean’s grandfather), an Italian immigrant who worked on Tasmania’s Hydro Electric Commission Scheme in the late 1940s. I did a lot of research into ‘The Hydro’ post WW2, which I never used. Perhaps it was meant for another story …
All That I Remember About Dean Cola examines mental illness. I drew on some of my own experience for the book but, while there are parallels, Sidney’s disorder is very different to mine, so I put a lot of time and effort into researching psychosis and schizophrenia and its treatments. I read stacks of books, articles and reports. I talked with people who have lived experience. I also interviewed a psychiatrist and took a course in caring for people with psychosis and schizophrenia. When I was reasonably happy with the manuscript draft, I employed a sensitivity reader with lived experience of schizophrenia (who has since become a dear friend). I used my own teenage journals to help capture Sidney’s voice as a sixteen-year-old in the late 1980s. And my daughter advised on the character of Aubrey, Sidney’s fourteen-year-old next-door neighbour in present day.
Sidney is a burns survivor. For this element of the story I contacted an occupational therapist who specialises in burns care. She very kindly answered all my questions and directed me to resources such as survivor’s stories, and clinical practice training videos on burn injury and burn survivor rehabilitation and management. I also purchased medical compression garments to wear on my hands to give me an idea of what it might feel like, how it would restrict movement, and how others would react.
Sidney’s husband is a firefighter, so I got in touch with an MFB firefighter. He let me look inside a fire truck, and very generously read sections of Dean Cola and answered all my questions: everything from Do you wash your own uniform shirts or get them dry-cleaned? to What colour flames would you see in a car fire?
Sidney keeps bonsai, and a fun part of my research was doing a bonsai course. Let’s just say I don’t have a green thumb like Sidney, and she would be very disappointed if she knew that my bonsai died.
I finished the first draft of Dean Cola during a week alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, up near the Goulburn River. Lots of gum trees, birds, dry grass, dead leaves, cracks in the earth, flies, and lights of trucks gearing down on the main road. Sidney’s childhood house on Broken River Road is based on my memory of a house on the river in this area where my family lived when I was a child; I tried to find it, but it’s no longer there.
I could keep going, but it would probably end up as a whole other book of all the things I learnt about while researching All That I Remember About Dean Cola: Greek traditions, art therapy, river floods, rainwater tanks, terror attacks, how to change a beer keg, synaesthesia …
Does the creative process get easier for you with each book?
No! Dean Cola was the most difficult of my three books to write. I remember talking to a writer friend, who was working on her third book at the same time, and we were both struggling. She asked me why I thought it was so difficult. I said I wanted to challenge myself, but maybe I had challenged myself too much! With every writing project, I have wanted to grow as a writer, and try different things. With Dean Cola, not only was the subject matter challenging and at times distressing to go into, but I also wanted to do some quite tricky technical things with the narrative. There are point of view changes; some second person narration; time shifts; the voices in Sidney’s head that had to seem everyday or matter-of-fact, like background noise. One of the hardest parts to write was the section set in the psychiatric hospital. I wanted to create a certain effect: past and present combined, like it was ‘all time’, but also ‘outside of time’. I experimented with a lot of different ways to do that: present in Roman and past in italics, woven together; columns where one side was present and one side was past; footnotes … I also wanted it to be crystal clear for the reader. Although Sidney is sometimes confused, I never wanted the reader to feel that way — occasionally wrong-footed maybe, but never confused. In the end I hope I achieved that.
It was so important for me to do justice to the character of Sidney and to the subject matter that I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than the absolute best I could do. I put an enormous amount pressure on myself to make every sentence, every word choice, as good as I was capable of. At the same time, I was out of contract, so I had no guarantee of publication at the end — nobody was asking for the manuscript, nobody cared if I wrote another book or not. I was convinced that Dean Cola would never be published, that it was too strange and dark. That’s the weird thing about writing — something makes you do it anyway; it’s like the story demands you write it and you don’t have a choice. And there were the usual boring things like no time to write, no space, no money. And my mental health suffered. I was quite unwell by the time I finished Dean Cola. Looking back through the journals I kept at the time, I’m not quite sure how I managed to achieve anything. But, somehow, here is a book.
How did you think of the title of the book?
The book wasn’t always called All That I Remember About Dean Cola. My early working title was You Used to Love Me, but the real title became obvious because Sidney was writing pieces called All That I Remember About Dean Cola. Without giving away too much, the title is ironic (like The Great Gatsby), and it implies the story’s dramatic question.
The naming of the character Dean Cola (aka Coke) is interesting. I keep a list of character names that come from wherever they come from and wait until a suitable character presents themselves (does that sound weird? I’m sure all writers do this!). Dean Cola was on that list. One day my mum and I were talking about the black-and-white cat we had when we lived in that old house on the river. I was positive its name was Collingwood. But Mum said no, his name was Coca Cola but we used to call him Coke. So I think I subconsciously named my character after a childhood pet!