On Homesickness…

On any long break away from Australia, it is inevitable that the idea of home and what it is, starts to reverberate around the subconscious. You either end up homesick—or realise that to some degree “home” is where you are and what you make of it. Or some combination of this. I recall when my first marriage broke up—I was in my late twenties—I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed and maybe watch TV and eat roast meals and heavy puddings. But the “home” I was wanting comfort from was that of my childhood, with my parents and things familiar to the me of pre-adulthood, looking for it to cocoon me in a time warp and allow healing.

Since having my own children and now a marriage of thirty years, home was where they were—plus familiar objects, surrounded by familiar places with Aussie accents, good coffee and great food of any nationality my whim dictated. But the people—family and friends—always a key part.

We have had two houses in our married life and just moved into our third. Almost immediately we left for four and a half months (six in my husband’s case) overseas, so the “new” house has all of our “stuff” and is in a familiar suburb (and with one child and her partner) but it itself has no history of family luncheons, girlfriends crying on shoulders, to warrant it being home in a home-sick sense.

We’ve also, through all of our married life, had a weekender—a shack to escape the city, where we love writing. The children had a pony when they were young—now they plant fruit trees and enjoy making cocktails and BBQ’s on the balcony. As they left home to make their own way, and the house they grew up in was sold, this now has become the place of comfort and familiarity—the place of their roots. If I’m homesick in a traditional sense, this is the home my thoughts return to.

Now is over four months since I left Australia (now heading home), most of it spent on the road—walking, staying in a different place each night for six weeks, and the rest of the time in different cultures. The last five weeks we have had the call to Muslim prayers waking us each morning before dawn, and I pause to reflect on what I have missed. For I am ready to go home; while loving the smells and tastes of Morocco, I’m wanting to be not seen as the alien—“no, all closed there” and “this way…to my shop”; familiar refrains I won’t miss, as much as they add to the excitement and difference.

Travelling with my partner of course helps—and it’s been a working holiday (just finished my “half” of Two Steps Back”). But I miss friends and family—Facebook, emails and texts and Messenger have kept me in touch, but it is only the superficial, not the pulse of their daily lives; the late skype calls for work that reminds me my little girl is all grown up, the enthusiasm for the next walk which might take my son and his partner to somewhere that will cause me to fret until they return, the furrowed brow that tells me my friend is worried about one of his patients.  I think of this when I think of all the displaced people around the world, many in countries I have been to recently living in camps for years with no sense of the future. Many will have family with them, many will not—none likely to have all the family and friends I return to, still safe. I think of the comfort in having family with you—but then know that they cannot be comforted when they worry for their children’s future—something more in peril than any child in Australia, certainly my own.

But beyond that, what stuff have I missed? I miss the birds—which were terrifyingly absent in rural Italy; the magpie’s swooping into the birdbath and three at a time sending water in all directions; the tiny wrens darting in and out, the rosellas cautiously sipping between descents on the surrounding fruit trees. I look forward to seeing the Moroccan rugs in the new house and despite the Camino (which did teach me to need stuff a whole lot less) I am really, really, sick of the same set of clothes that I’ve been managing with carry-on luggage. I look forward to good coffee and muesli (omg how I have missed unsweetened muesli…or actually, right now, any muesli…not a Moroccan thing), and real books (travelling light you have to use kindle). And I look forward to sharing how grateful I am to be Australian, and however much I will probably complain about politics and climate change…I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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A Writing Pause

 

I’m in one of those incredibly lucky moments in my life that I am stopping (briefly) from writing (well, from books and editing) to just take breath. Everyone is freezing back home in Melbourne (my son returned there from Europe on the days coldest for the year, and felt it); I’m in rural France where the temperature range is from 14 to 31; nights cool enough to sleep and days not too hot (the stone walls of the farm house keep the workplace at a delightful 25). Sunshine and rolling green hills outside my window. Another two weeks before I don a back pack and start walking to Rome (a mere 1200km after the 2000km we did twice to Santiago from the same French farm house). A morning and evening walk just to keep in shape, healthy food (trialling Don Tilman’s standardised meal system for my husband’s new book) and nightly “good” sleep ratings (one excellent even) from my Fitbit.

I can bask in the glow of being shortlisted for the Davitts (not alas for the Ned Kelly’s, though This I Would Kill For would have been eligible last year for that), knowing the company is excellent (and that Jane Harper is a favourite to win I should imagine, but as I loved her book I can’t complain if I lost to it!). All the while editing my new stand alone rural thriller, The Long Shadow. Each edit making it better, word by word. Because its different to the prior ones—a less kick butt heroine but one with her own arc, a rural setting, a good twist—there is always the hope maybe another country or television company will buy it. You don’t stay a wake thinking about it, but still…Then after reading two articles on Adrian McKinty hitting the big time (hell I loved his earlier books and he’d won prizes and was still doing Uber to support his family…a timely reminder of how tough this gig really is) I wonder…should I have set it in USA rather than rural NSW? I’ve also been spending nights talking plots of a new book with my husband and asked the same question but after yet another gun massacre in USA the idea of three months in Montana or New Mexico to do research seemed less appealing.

Just because I don’t already have enough to do, have also been talking about the plot for a sequel to Two Steps Forward (Two Steps South) – which will be set on the upcoming walking path we are doing. Keeping this many plots and characters in my head at once if challenging…but not complaining. All my own doing…

I’ve had some time out to read as well—Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending (prepub copy my husband was sent) which is a thoughtful poignant take on becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. She has then gone onto to be a very successful British author and this book doesn’t cover that transition, but having been a medical student and psychiatrist and knowing she is also a writer, it was interesting to see the overlap and very different reactions we had to the inevitable challenges that being a doctor throws at you. She had a very serious MCA as well (which I thankfully have not) which added to her narrative. I’d have liked more…it’s got me thinking about maybe my own memoir one day. If I run out of other things to write…

So back to the edits.

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Parenting Assessments – Where Mental Illness meets Protective Services

As my work as a psychiatrist often inspires my books perhaps it’s not so surprising I’m talking next Tuesday for the Mental Health Foundation on the above topic – which is something my heroine Natalie King deals with in This I Would Kill For. I wrote a short blog for them and anyone interested. You’ll find it here

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What I was Reading…

Check it out at Meanjin here

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True Crime Podcasts—Why are We Addicted?

It started with Serial—someone suggested I listen and within ten minutes I was addicted. I knew people listened to podcasts and thought I didn’t have the time…since then, I’ve found plenty; every time I’m driving alone, and they have replaced TV and music when I’m in the gym.

Serial was an eye opener—though I do some forensic perinatal work, my contact with the court is limited and virtually never with the police. For those who missed the phenomenon, Serial followed the case related to the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed—who courtesy of the podcast and the questions it raised, has been granted a retrial. It was well presented with Sara Koenig offering balance to a perhaps more invested Rabia Chaudry (she knew the defendant) but who was able to give insights into the town and being Muslim in small town America.

The first secret to their success was that it took you with them. Though much of it was going through prior investigations and trials, it was with fresh eyes and in real time had the promise of change—of righting a wrong.

The second secret was it turned out to be a compelling case with twists and turns, faulty technology reports, witnesses that recanted and changed stories and a legal system that was far from Perry Mason perfect. The twist that the hosts worked out from tapes was extraordinary. Fiction doesn’t get this good—or rather it wouldn’t have been believable if it hadn’t been real. And we were there when they did it.

The weakness was the same as the strength—real time meant we caught up and the law had slowed down to its frustratingly slow tedious self. Something that these podcasts as well as my own experience as an expert, has led me to believe desperately needs change.

Season Two I found less compelling, though it gave an insight into the military with Bowe Bergdahl going AWOL in Afghanistan. There were some interesting moments, some philosophical questions—but at the end of the day the military should never have enlisted him and he should never have joined if he wasn’t prepared to take orders. For me, there was not the same ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Perhaps there would have been if I’d been in a military family.

Season Three has taken a different approach—Sara Koenig and new offsider Emmanuelle Dzotsi (who is apparently from Ohio but sounds very English)—spend time in a Cleveland court. After Season Two I’d stopped listening but then found myself at a loose end and started this, and thought I wouldn’t continue because multiple superficial cases held little appeal. To my surprise its kept me engrossed. Its like being beamed into a different universe—the life of petty crime and autocratic judges who think they know best and to hell with best-practice evidence. At times its almost funny (if not so horrendous) and often sad. Its also an eye opener—insights into the downhill slide for poor black men especially, being forced into guilty pleas to misdemeanour  to save risk, only to have fines mount and then real charges and gaol time become inevitable.

Rabia Chaudry who was one of the lawyers involved in the first Serial series subsequently wrote a book about Adnan Sayed (who was a family friend) and then joined with two other lawyers in another podcast series—Undisclosed. They’ve gone through the cases of Gary Mitchum (a murdered barwoman who was his on/off partner) and Joey Watkins (a driveby shooting) and now are onto Dennis Perry—a case of a church shooting and murder of the pastor and his wife. This is the least interesting of the three—it was along time ago and most of the notes and tapes have been lost and the witnesses changing testimony hard to fathom after so many years.

Speaking of which—memory and witness description, a common problem in these cases, I tested myself out. I saw a group of four at dinner, then saw them again the next morning at breakfast. I’d spent a bit of time looking at one of the guys—thought he would have passed for Nick Cave’s brother. I looked away and a minute later described the other three; two of my descriptions would have fitted half the middle aged population and the other I got her hair colour wrong and though I said glasses, omitted that the glasses were BRIGHT red. Some of these people got less of a look than I had, and were being asked after a much longer period of time…

Along the way (after diverging to S-Town, well worth it, and a sort of crime), I started another series—Truth and Justice. Bob Ruff, ex-fireman, is kind of like Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard series. Heart of gold and rough around the edges. He started out with following Series with updates on Adnan Sayed, then Kenny Snow, Edward Ates (Elnora Griffin murder), Jesse Eldridge (Keow Gove murder), George Powell III which I missed, West Memphis 3 (there is also a movie) and currently Season 6: The Melgars where Sandy is convicted of murdering her husband.

In the middle of watching these Australia got on the band wagon. Phoebe’s Fall was followed by Trace (now also a book), The Teacher’s Pet and Wrong Skin. There’s another one that does an episode per case which hasn’t captivated me (though there was a thoughtful episode where the mother of a murder victim made a good case about who owns the court information). Of course there was my own involvement in the Keli Lane documentary which I also wrote about for ABC, here. That, like Making a Murderer had  high viewer ratings—more evidence of our true crime addiction.

My interest is flagging though.

There is, eventually, a common thread, across cases, across countries. Justice is not what I had naively thought it to be—it has different faces depending on your colour, which state you live in (I should know this—NSW is much more likely to give long sentences for child murder versus community service for Infanticide in the Victoria, and it varies wildly in the USA) and how much money you have. It can rest on how smart or biased the police or DA or judge is, or whether they are having a bad day. In USA if you’re unlucky you’re the case the DA or police chief will use to ensure they get voted in. At least we don’t have that in Australia. Perhaps the worst part is how even well meaning people can be so certain…of things you just can’t be certain of. And even a smart sounding DA in the Melgar case just didn’t seem to be aware of some gross inconsistencies. These cases are complicated and of course the podcast hosts aren’t necessarily right—but what they show is how easily a case can go one way or the other. As happened in the Keli Lane case, a smart prosecutor out to win (more so, arguably, than for the truth), can sway a jury.

The feeling of being part of something happening and changing gets swamped with the realisation that so much needs changing and little is being done about it, as well as what I’m sure criminal defence lawyers suffer all the time—compassion burnout. There is also this increasing conviction that things are never black and white, and that the only person who can ever be truly know if they did it or not, is the person charged. In the Melgar case, given Sandy had medical causes for loss of memory and consciousness, maybe in some cases, not even then. Hopefully this helps people be more tolerant, less likely to opt for mandatory sentences and (in the USA) the death penalty. Its likely to make for better informed juries—let’s also hope that enough law enforcement people listen and also ask how can we stop this and how can we make things better?

I will continue to listen, though maybe more selectively. For me the interest comes from humanising the millions we hear are locked away in USA prisons and gives sense to a group that in many other ways is often not sympathetic. The podcast hosts choose carefully—no one wants to set someone free and have them kill again because you got it wrong—but Serial 3 has managed to show the petty crime and unlikeable characters in context, surely journalism at its best and certainly what I want to do in my psychological thrillers. I guess for me, also, these podcasts given me food for thought in future books.

There’s a prurient interest too, I’m sure—fiction crime readers like to read to assay and allay their fears of what the news bombards them with, in a way that they know the hero/ine will win through (and they will survive!). True Crime podcasts take you a step closer to the real action, but still from the safety of your own home—even more than fiction we all get to be the detective (my husband kept telling me that people on Twitter thought I had it wrong on Keli Lane—I said there was  reasonable doubt—and they may be right…but I had read all the case notes and spent four hours interviewing her. Had they?). The only problem is that these are real people, real tragedies. The dead person is still dead, the families are still grieving and the convicted person is still in gaol (and if wrongly, the true culprit is at large). We need to remind ourselves of that.

 

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Getting to Know Yourself on a Greek Island

When I first embarked on training to be a psychiatrist I was on the verge of throwing away my medical training and returning to university to do an Arts course, and follow my passion to be a writer. I had to finish the year as a second year registrar first—three months of anxiety (and a bout of mumps) doing paediatrics where the well-meaning parents bypassed their GP of thirty years’ experience to see me; three months rehab which just convinced me I never wanted to grow old (I was too young to think that this was better than the alternative), three months in general practice where I saw a relentless line of the worried well (the senior partners must have seen the real patients) and the three months that saved me; psychiatry.

What had attracted me about psychiatry was the world it opened up to me—different ways of thinking and being, and at both the practical experiential level and the philosophical. I found it riveting. I soaked in DM Thomas’s The White Hotel (a fictional account of one Freud’s patients), watched behind a one-way mirror to paradoxical therapy (my most dysfunctional patient and their partner were being told what they were doing was brilliant—it wasn’t, but the therapy was) and was bear-hugged by a manic patient with BO. It was stimulating, challenging, and fascinating.

Training to be a psychiatrist however, was less Freud and more neuroscience. I abandoned a DPM degree because I would have had to dissect a brain (I wanted to be a psychiatrist, not a neurosurgeon) and eventually supplemented the neuroscience with psychotherapy supervision, group and family therapy training and attachment therapy courses.

But what was it like on the other side of the couch? I had a brief stint (three months) in a chair opposite a therapist to solve a specific issue and a one off brilliant intervention for grief, but I’d never really allowed myself to be vulnerable—which is what laying on the couch (seven to fifteen years, once to three or even five times a week) renders you. Given I have a job, a relationship and two grown kids and a fabulous life, intensive therapy of the analytic kind seemed unnecessary and, well, a bit self-indulgent.

So what better place to check out the idea while being indulgent as I wanted to be, for two weeks ‘holiday’ on the Greek Island of Skyros? Skyros Holidays have been doing this for forty years—one location does the ‘we’re all still young’ stuff—everything from canoeing to trapeze, and the town location does writing courses and…’self-improvement and self-development’ courses about which curiously little is said, apart from old reviews (for some reason TripAdvisor thought it wasn’t operating) which uses words like ‘intense’. As a writer, surely I would do the writing course…well, no…my husband was giving it. So this left…self-development.

Of course everything was totally confidential so I can’t say anything about anyone else’s experience except to say I wasn’t in the room alone (eight participants and one psychologist). But let’s say that the boxes of tissues were there for a reason…

What stunned me most was having given myself over to the experience, how quickly it became confronting. Not everyone wants or is ready to make themselves that vulnerable, possibly some shouldn’t; individual therapy might suit them better…in the case of some people (not naming anyone except the narcissist everyone mentions…and for this purpose also add in Hannibal Lecter) then I wouldn’t expect therapy to work and wouldn’t wish it upon any poor therapist!

The process depends on people entering into the therapy setting in good faith…and having some self-awareness/psychological mindedness helps (I believe DM Thomas, after running a writing course on Skyros wrote a book—Lady with a Laptop—as a parody of his experience but I have NO intention of doing so of mine). I did keep oscillating between the belief that knowing myself at a deeper level would open me up to changing some of my annoying habits, to feeling this was RIDICULOUS and I was a operating, functioning, normal person so why the hell was I crying and putting my head in someone’s lap?

All but one of us made it to the end (and they only left because of a family emergency); I looked a little less shell-shocked when emerging for lunch in the second week than the first, and now we’re arranging catch-ups and group chats (the reunions will be challenging but not for psychological reasons; I’m the only non-Brit so I suspect I’ll be expected to travel, not them, though camping in my living room in Australia would be no more challenging than those 30 hours therapy).

So what did I learn?

I learnt to be humble. Well, a little.

I learnt what I think is enthusiasm and lust for life can be read as nervous energy. Sometimes it is.

Being vulnerable is scary—but not challenging yourself constantly risks bigger things. And it makes for deeper connections. After all, that is what we are wired for. I may not keep these new friends forever, but they were important connections in the overall trajectory of my life. I thank them for that.

I learnt (okay, I knew this already, but it was reinforced in such a clarifying way that I will never forget it) that one should never prejudge anyone—that when you know them deeply(well more than you know those casual friends that annoy you)—‘walk a moon in their moccasins’—then really, prejudice is virtually impossible.

None of this seems a bad thing. And I still got to eat Greek food, swim and have fun. Most of all I got to eat the best Greek pastry, ever, every day for two weeks.

 

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Lessons in Learning

What I loved first perinatal psychiatry and now love about writing, is that no matter how much you know (or think you know…), there is always so much more to learn. On the face of it, this is daunting.

So, first this hurdle (one that keeps popping up to be renegotiated); sometimes with a gentle ‘its okay not to know everything, and no one expects you to be Lee Child’ to ‘Pull your bloody finger out or you won’t even get to be (put in name of favorite author who doesn’t sell well – yes, I know selling isn’t everything but expecting awards is too disappointing, and I want to go to Sisters in Crime/Aussie Crime Writers events to have a good time!)’

Note to self – you probably need to learn more about excess use of brackets ie don’t. And long sentences – its ok, they go on the third edit, but this is only get two edits…

Second lesson: embrace learning with excitement. Because in writing it is exciting. Well, thrillers anyway. From realizing you described the place your novel is set perfectly and could have avoided a four day trip to central NSW (long way, flat, dry…) to thinking of all the ways you can use the museum, the bar, the language, the birds…so yes, of course you had to travel there! This pretty much summarizes most of my learning…I kind of know it, but need to be reminded, and keep at it. Some of the freshness of the people in books come from real people who inspired your character, but more often it is little things from people along the way that you pick and tweek and add. Being passionate about what you do is the recipe for good health. It may not mean you earn the most, but it makes the time pass so much faster – and you feel the achievements at a deep level. You’re also likely to achieve more.

Third lesson: even when you are listening or reading someone give a talk/ lecture that you yourself could give (I do a lot of lecturing in psychiatry, and there are always questions at literary festivals about the writing process, and I have done a few beginner workshops), there is something to take away. If all else fails, maybe the speaker has a mannerism you can use for your character, or they’ll suggest a great wine bar to drown your sorrows in after the next rejection.

Fourth: Just because your first readers hate your draft, it doesn’t mean you have to completely re-write. One of the interesting things I’ve found in writing, is how small subtle things on the page change the readers attitude. In my latest The Long Shadow, going to the editor in August), I’m doing a stand alone rural thriller with a new character. I have got used to Natalie King (and there are more NK books coming too), and this lead character is completely different. Trouble was I kept telling myself how different she was ie sweet and naive relative to Natalie’s kick-butt attitude, and ended up with a very passive indecisive character…but  a ‘delete all’ maybes and perhaps and she was transformed! Okay, a little more than that, but the story was still solid with a great twist (I think…), so that got to stay intact!

Final lesson: don’t EVER think I won’t have to re-write and edit. Now that would be a recipe for disappointment! And I’d stop learning – which I don’t ever want to do.

 

 

 

 

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