Friday, May 19, 2017

A Sydney family grapples with a mysterious virus in Amanda Hickie's tense and brilliant BEFORE THIS IS OVER

I always believe that writers are haunted into writing the novels they write. What was haunting you?

I'm always haunted by the small decisions we make every day that have unknowable consequences, the ones where you think 'I'm being silly, this is part of normal life, it's perfectly fine' but you know deep down that very occasionally it's not fine. Before This Is Over starts with a big crisis outside my character's control and those come along in our lives with predicable regularity irrespective of what we do - diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes etc.  Somehow, we never find ourselves saying "if only I hadn't been around when the Spanish flu hit", instead it's "if only I hadn't gone out that night," "If I'd only asked him to stay," "If only we'd taken more care."

I think that's doubly true once we become parents and our kids' well being is up to us. Hannah asks herself early on why it is only possible in hindsight to know which times she should have dug her heels in. That haunts every decision I make.  

What I most loved about this novel was the incredible tension that could be found in an ordinary life. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page. Was there ever a time while you were writing the book that you felt simply too unnerved to write it?

It has surprised me how many people have found it unnerving - it is, as you say, ordinary life. I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to scary things so I certainly didn't set out to write that kind of a book. Maybe because I had the author's omniscience, nothing could sneak up on me.

But there were moments that I baulked at or flubbed the first time. For instance, the scenes of Gwen at the front door and the food truck involved Hannah either aware of behaving badly or being swept up in events beyond her control. I had to steel myself to put her through those. I lived with these characters for quite a long time and they are people to me, so I felt bad if they suffered. I wanted to make everything work out well for them or take them aside and give them a heads up. But then I wouldn't have found out how they reacted to the hard choices.

I especially loved the last paragraph, where Hannah watches her son running and knows that when he comes back, he’s going to be someone different. As the mother of a 20-year-old son, I know that feeling. You captured it perfectly. Can you talk about that please in the context of your novel?

I have two - eighteen and twenty four - so I've been around a lot of teenagers. Watching my kids and their friends, I was always acutely aware that in many ways they were more thoughtful and compassionate, more interested in the world, less self-obsessed than my friends and I were at their age.

I think the obvious interpretation of the novel is that of all the characters, Zac undergoes the biggest metamorphosis, but I'm not sure he does. Certainly Hannah's view of her son undergoes a profound change but I suspect that as parents we are slow to recognize the capabilities that our children acquire for themselves. Zac does what his parents tells him to for a lot of the book, and then he starts to surprise them, but only, I suspect, because they haven't stepped back and seen the person he is.

The line about the baby health nurse was a conversation I had - I complained that my eight month old always crawled away when I put him down. It felt like he didn't need me. The nurse said that he was confident I would be there when he got back and that allowed him to go explore. It was a profound insight - that our job as parents is to make them sure enough of themselves and us that they can leave.

It's very easy to mourn the toddler or the preteen they were. Our culture is not very tolerant of teenagers - they are lazy and self-obsessed and spend too much time on social media. Since when can you treat a whole generation like an undifferentiated mass? The ones I know are as individual as adults - and that shouldn't be a surprise. They only difference is that they are still in the process of making themselves, and so we get to meet a new version of them at each stage. Our task is to discover and help launch each of those versions. In my experience, getting to know each one of them is amazing.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things before you begin, or start with a moral question, or simply follow your characters where they might take you?

I have a bunch of questions floating around, sometimes for decades - what happened to Romeo and Juliet when they woke up dead? How would I survive a catastrophic epidemic? - and as I come across events or ideas that are relevant, they add to that idea. Then at some stage I start thinking about the specific traits needed to tell this story - a doctor, an aging parent, a distant friend, a son. A few of those will start to fit together to make a specific character.

I probably have a starting and ending point (in Before This Is Over, those naturally fall around the epidemic) and four or five significant scenes that form a rough story arc, as well as a bunch of 'this needs to happen somewhere' ideas. By the time I've finished the starting scene, the next few scenes will have suggested themselves.

And I'm not the first to say, but for me most of the writing is in the rewriting and editing. The structure and plot of the novel barely changed after the first draft, but it became much more of a unity and I doubt there is a line that hasn't been modified in some way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I had to ask my husband this, and his answer made me realize why. I don't think I have a setting between disinterest and obsession.

At the moment I'm diving into a particular song writer. When the novel was released in Australia I was asked by an interviewer to suggest music to go with the interview. After casting around for suitable disaster themed music, I stumbled on a song by The Postal Service called 'We Will Become Silhouettes' that I already had in my collection and loved, but had never really listened to the words. The first three lines are almost the plot of my novel! So now I can't stop listening to Ben Gibbard's music. The last week or so I've been walking around the house singing a single line from one of his songs - but the song (and hence the line) changes every day. Maybe one of them will attach itself to another book or character. No way to know until it happens.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I don't want you to ask this, but since some of my friends made this assumption I'd like to knock it on the head - Is this your family?

It most definitely isn't. I can picture the house Hannah lives in, what Sean and the boys look like, and it's not by looking at my own life.

That having been said, the things we write about come from somewhere and I'd be lying if I said that I never lifted a line they or one of their friends said or stood in the school ground at 7 am waiting for a bus to camp and thought 'I could use this...'

The other day I got into a quite spirited disagreement with my husband about what Mr Moon (Hannah's cat) looks like. We could both describe him in detail, but our descriptions were nothing alike and nothing like either of our cats. The same is true of the human characters.

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