I can’t get my shit together enough to work out how to do a proper book club so this is going to be the Mamamia one. Very Free Form.
The first book I picked up after finishing mine has been one by someone I know a little bit and admire very much. Caroline Overington is a journalist for The Australian, author and prolific Twitterer. I’ve followed her by-line for many years and read and loved the memoir she released in 2006 of her three-year experience, Only in New York: How I Took Manhattan (with the Kids). When the opportunity came up to move to New York to be a foreign correspondant for the Sydney Morning Herald, she and her husband decided to leave Bondi with their 18 month old twins and give it a red-hot go.
That memoir was a wonderful book about work and motherhood and relationships and, without even realising it until I’m writing this now, was influential in writing my own memoir.
But this post is not about that book (although I highly recommend it if you can find it). Nor is it about the award-winning non-fiction book she wrote afterwards about the Wheat Board scandal (confession: didn’t read that one although if anyone could have made a Wheat Board interesting reading it’s Caroline). She’s also won a bunch of journalism awards and I hope she’s had therapy for her MASSIVE UNDER- ACHIEVING. Really, Caroline, try harder.
This month, Caroline released her first novel, Ghost Child which has already become a best-seller and so it should. I couldn’t put it down. Via email, I asked Caroline a few things….
11 QUESTIONS FOR CAROLINE OVERINGTON
1. You’ve written several non-fiction books including a brilliant memoir about moving to New York to work there with baby twins. Why, as a journalist, did you want to write a novel?
I am one of those lucky people who always knew what they wanted to do with their professional life: firstly, to work as a journalist and then, when I’d amassed a bit of life experience, write a novel. As with journalism, I found I adored every minute of the process. As they say: do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I have been absolutely over the moon to hear that people are reading it, and passing it around to their friends, and recommending it to others. I can’t tell you what it means to send it out there, and have people embrace it.
2. What were the themes you wanted to explore in the book?
The book is about a child murder: it begins with the death of a small boy. His mother goes to prison for the crime, but some people believe the mother might have taken the blame for the boy’s little sister, Lauren. I’ve long been interested in what happens to the other children in those families where there has been a child murder. I suppose that’s because, as reporters, we cover the crime, and move on. But if your mother goes to prison, who takes care of you? Do you get to stay with your siblings? Do you get to see your parents? Where do you go? Is the State welfare system up to task of caring for these children? Are foster parents given the tools they need?
Also, what happens when you grow up? Do you try to hide from your past? Eventually, you will have to tell people the truth, especially the people you grow to love. How will they react? Those are ideas that journalists rarely consider, but I wanted to explore them.
3. How was the process of writing Ghost Child different to your day job and your other books? How long did it take and how does one actually go about writing a novel?
I look six months off work to write the book. My schedule looked like this: I would get up with the children in the morning, prepare breakfast (and the lunches) and walk them to school. I’d get back home at about 9am, turn off my Internet connection (it’s too tempting) and write, with a cup of tea, until noon, no interruptions. Then I would walk down to Bondi, swim, get a coffee, head back home, and get ready to pick up the children. We spent the afternoons playing, or doing homework and then bath, book, bed, before Daddy came home, and we’d have dinner together. Bliss, much?
4. The style of the book is so engrossing. A page-turner. And it’s really distinctive. It reads like a series of first-person interviews. Tell me a bit about that. Did you have the characters in your head?
I wanted to explore the horror of child murder from the point of view of each person who has to deal with it: the police, the paramedics, the surgeon, the foster carers who have to take in the siblings, and so forth. I was determined to let each of them speak in their own voice. Each is a very different person, from a different walk of life, and in real life, they would speak and think in a quite unique way, so I let them just be who they are. I didn’t want to pretty them up too much. We aren’t all posh.
5. You’ve done a lot of court reporting in your career and covered a lot of cases involving the abuse of children. How do you handle that aspect of your job? Do you ever have trouble sleeping after some of the things you’re exposed to?
It is difficult to report on child murder but I am careful not to overstate the difficulty for reporters. It is much more difficult to be with paramedics, who have to scoop these children out of the lakes and burial plots; it is much more difficult to be the surgeons, who have to try to save the lives of these children (and deal with the parents in the waiting room, often knowing they are the ones who did the damage); it is much more difficult to be a nurse on a ward, where a child is suffering.
In that respect, I have nothing to complain about.
6. What are some of the stories that have stayed with you?
I was most troubled by the massacre at Port Arthur, but that is true of every reporter who went there. Police took reporters around the site, soon after the killer, Martin Bryant, was arrested. Nanette Mikac had been there with her two small daughters. After the first shots were fired, she tried to take her daughter, Madeline, 3, by the hand, and run. Bryant hunted them down, and killed them. Her other little girl, Alannah, who was 6, tried to run and hide behind a tree. Bryant approached, and shot her dead, too. It stayed with me for a long time. You could still fear their fear.
There was no attempt in those days to hide the names of the dead from people, as there is NSW today. People were able to grieve for these girls, without thinking of them in terms of pixel-faces and fake names. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation was formed. (Princess Mary is the patron) and it has raised a great deal of money for children.
Also, Tasmania is a small place, and most of the dying and injured (35 dead in that massacre) were treated at the same hospital as Martin Bryant. The hospital is small, so they had the killer himself in one part of the hospital. He’d set himself alight in a failed suicide bid, and the nurses were holding up his head, so he could sip water, and tending to his wounds, and his skin grafts, and administering pain medication.
In the other room, they were tending to the dead and the dying. It was the human spirit at its highest.
7. Tell me about Lincoln.
He cannot walk, or talk, or feed himself, although he does sometimes put a hand on the bottle, when a nurse feeds him. He is blind, and although he has been described as a “delightful little boy’’ he sometimes cries uncontrollably. Lincoln’s carers believe that he was shaken as a baby, but no charges have ever been laid. It’s so difficult to prove Shaken Baby Syndrome. When Lincoln presented at hospital, he was listless, he was grumpy, he wasn’t feeding properly, he had a temperature … these could be symptoms of anything, including poison, fever, or infection.
The scans showed he had bleeding on the brain and behind the eyes but so often with shaken baby, if the adults don’t dob each other in, there is only one witness, and Lincoln can’t talk. As long as the legal battle over Lincoln rages, the courts can’t allow new foster parents into his life, to learn to look after him, and eventually to take him home.
8. You are one of my favourite people on Twitter. Why do you like it and who are the most interesting people to follow?
You are one of my favourite people on Twitter! I like it because it’s interactive. For too long, this business was all one way, with the occasional letter to the editor. Twitter makes it more dynamic. Something interesting will happen and within seconds it’s there, and people are chatting away about it. It’s also a sweet spot on the Internet, not yet plagued by nasty types.
9. You are the mother of twins, an author and a senior journalist on a national broadsheet newspaper. How do you balance and juggle and all of that? It’s the perrenial question we all ask each other, isn’t it?
Life is always easier when you set yourself some guidelines. Mine is this: the children come first. They are more important than work. Once that rule was in place, the rest just flowed: we go to everything, which means first day at school; report night; soccer, ballet, Nippers, end-of-year concerts; meet-the-teachers, everything.
We host two grand birthday parties every year, and we host an annual Halloween party, for which we dress the house like a Haunted Castle, and invite all the neighbourhood children. I know all their teachers and all the other parents – once a week, I have dinner with other Mums from the school – and we have a Christmas holiday together every year, making sure we visit all the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Work sometimes gets cross, but I think to myself: 10 years from now, will it matter that I was at work at 11am on a Sunday, instead of 9:30am, which is the time I’m supposed to start? Because it will certainly matter to the children that I didn’t bother to watch them race across the sand at Tamarama Nippers, every Sunday until they got their Bronze Medallions.
10. With the promotion of Ghost Child and having to give interviews, how have you found the experience of being written about after a career spent on The Other Side?
It’s been amazing. Some of the reporters who have come out to interview me are so young! And yet they are so polished and professional and enthusiastic. I have enjoyed talking to them about their goals: young women, in particular, have the world at their feet, and I’m so pleased when they tell me they are going to do it all. Travel, work, have children … they aren’t daunted, and I tell them: you go for it.
11. What’s at the top of your Smug and Crap lists?
Smug: I only dropped one of the babies, and you can’t tell which one.
Crap: 1.) I have picked a pacifier up off the floor, wiped it on my jeans, and put it in my baby’s mouth.
2.) I have wiped toothpaste off my son’s face with my own wet thumb.
3.) I have tried to tell the children that a large paper bag with a Texta face is a perfectly good costume for the Halloween parade.