May 13, 2009 / 1:36 PM / 10 years ago

Debra Adelaide confronts death in latest novel

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Australian writer Debra Adelaide was writing her third novel, on the topic of dying, when her 6-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia.

For about a year, Adelaide put the book to one side, thinking she would never go back to a humorous book on death, but a year down the track, as her son recovered, she found herself engrossed in it again, eventually finishing “The Household Guide to Dying.”

She found writing the book, which has just been released in the United States and Canada, helped her confront dying and made her far more open to talking, and joking, about death.

Adelaide, a lecturer in creative writing, spoke to Reuters about her writing and her latest novel, which follows on from “The Hotel Albatross” in 1995 and “Serpent Dust” in 1998, as well as 8 anthologies and reference books on Australian literature:

Q: What triggered this novel?

A: “The idea had been percolating for a long time. I realized I had started to think about dying when my children were young, with the extreme emotions generated by birth and having young children arousing fears that you probably don’t confront head on. As a parent I was very anxious about the welfare of my little children as they seemed so fragile. I’m not morbid but I remember thinking how we’re not about expressing those sorts of fears.”

Q: Do you think people’s attitude to death has changed?

A: “I think we have changed quite a bit and we are more prepared to confront death and dying and to talk about it more. I am not sure but I suspect that is part of the whole cycle of abandoning religion and we start to create our own civil ceremonies to compensate. We’ve seen this happening with marriage over the years and naming ceremonies for babies but it is now happening more with dying.”

Q: What was people’s reaction to you writing about dying?

A: “I kept it quite close to myself but that is a natural thing for me as a writer. I find it hard, and not particularly useful, to explain to people what I am writing about it until I have written it.”

Q: How did it affect you?

A: “It has made me think a lot more about my own death and dying and, if anything, made me more willing to be able to talk, and to laugh, about it to. I hope when the time comes I will retain my sense of humor and talk about it and not tip-toe around it.”

Q: Your son was sick during your writing?

A: “My youngest son (of three children) was diagnosed with leukemia while I was writing this novel and I had the main character, the narrator, dying prematurely of cancer. I couldn’t work on the novel for a long time and kept thinking I could not go back to it, writing a comic novel about death and dying. After he improved and it seemed that he was going to survive and resume a normal life I still persisted in thinking that I would have to throw the novel out, but then I went to look back at it and started tinkering with it again and found myself writing it again almost accidentally. I would never have commenced a novel like this after he had been diagnosed.”

Q: Are you writing full-time now?

A: “Well, I have a full-time job as a senior lecturer in writing but I have taken leave to get on with my writing and have a bit of a break. It was very hard working full-time and writing a novel. I would write at night in a corner of my bedroom when the children had gone to bed or quieted down.”

Q: How did you manage to juggle it all?

A: “It is not possible to do it for long but I can do it for some months at a time. As the book reaches its final stages I want to work on it day and night. It gets into my blood. I dream of it when I go to sleep. I think about it all the time and I can sort of do without the sleep.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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