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Author Interview – Edwina Shaw by Ransom Publishing UK
Here are a few questions relating to your latest book Thrill Seekers published by Ransom Publishing, as part of the Cutting Edge series.
Thrill Seekers is clearly a novel which is very close to your heart. One of the central concerns is the onset of schizophrenia in a young character and the effect this has on his family and those close to him. Can you tell us how your own experiences with the illness in your family inspired you to write the novel?
Thrill Seekers is dedicated to the memory of my brother Matthew who was twenty when he killed himself after battling schizophrenia for many years. He was about fifteen when he first started showing symptoms, getting paranoid, hearing voices and so on. It was terrifying for all of us (I am the eldest of five siblings) but most of all for him. One of the worst things was that even though we knew he was dangerously crazy, we couldn’t get him into a hospital until he made a suicide attempt. These were frequent so he was in and out of institutions until he died. The most painful days were when his medication was working enough so that he realised how sick he was and the likely future he had to look forward to as someone with a serious mental illness.
Through it all Matty was incredibly brave, often escaping from locked wards, going out and trying to have a good time and be happy. The line, “I’m going to sing a happy song,” in the “Douggie and the Paparazzi” chapter is from one of the poems he wrote during that time. I wrote Thrill Seekers so that some record of my brother’s courage in the face of this illness survived.
As Stephen King says, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Thrill Seekers is heavily autobiographical so that although names and characters and details have been changed, the essential emotional truths are the same.
Even though Matty’s been dead almost twenty-four years I still miss him very much. We were good mates.
The novel is structured through multiple narrators. One of the most striking aspects of this is hearing Douggie’s own version of events and seeing how his illness affects his perceptions. Do you think this might help a young audience to understand schizophrenia? What were your intentions in writing the narrative in this way?
I originally wrote this book in a number of voices not just Brian, Douggie and Beck’s. Jacko had stories, and Pete and Russ too. Even the mother. But I think it works best with just these three main characters. It’s always been interesting to me to try and understand how other people think and get inside their heads. With fiction you can do this – or try to anyway. By writing in a number of voices you can look at a situation from many different viewpoints and also give deeper insight into each character by showing them through other characters’ eyes.
I certainly wanted to give Douggie a voice of his own, to give voice to someone with schizophrenia and demystify it a bit. I hope that by reading Douggie’s story young people will perhaps reconsider how they treat, or avoid, someone who’s suffering. Schizophrenia is not uncommon. I don’t know whether we’ll ever understand it, but we can be more compassionate towards those who have it and help support them and their families.
Do you feel that the link between cannabis and schizophrenia is something that is not taken seriously by young people? Do you think more should be done to raise awareness? ‘
This is something I feel very strongly about. Matty and his friends were twelve when they first started smoking dope regularly. Only a very lucky few survived into adulthood intact. Many of them have developed some kind of mental illness. Three, that I know of, developed schizophrenia. That’s evidence enough for me.
Since writing the book I’ve done some research and it seems that the old movie Reefer Madness wasn’t quite so wrong and hilarious after all. Everyone has a 6% chance of developing schizophrenia, but if you smoke dope regularly but research in a Swedish study showed that heavy cannabis users were 600% more likely to develop the disease. I also read an article by Professor Robin Murray from the London institute of Psychiatry who conducted a study in London and New Zealand which said that psychiatrists in inner city areas say cannabis is a factor in up to 80% of cases and that the younger a person is when they start to smoke it, the higher the risk of schizophrenia as the brain is still developing. With those people who have schizophrenia in the family the risk is ten times higher.
I’m no wowser. But I think young people should definitely be made aware of the risks they’re taking – especialy if they have a predisposition towards the disease. If dope makes you paranoid take that as a warning and leave it well alone.
There’s this whole perception of drugs being cool and cannabis in particular being harmless. Through telling Matty’s story I hope to reach out to young people and let them know that it’s not cool to blow out younger kids. It’s not cool to throw your life away because getting high seems easier than staying straight. Heavy cannabis smoking – especially with high THC content − is really, really risky. There’s nothing cool about going crazy.
The setting of the novel is very important in creating the emotional atmosphere. The oppressive heat and the pollution of the creek mirror the claustrophobia of the character’s lives. Are these places you know well?
This story is set where I grew up, on the banks of Oxley Creek here in Brisbane. These days it’s quite a posh area but then we were on the wrong side of the tracks and the kids had the run of the streets, and the creek. It was horribly polluted from the factories and sewage plants further upstream. In summer the heat and humidity is relentless; heavy as a smelly, wet, old dog-blanket.
I still live near the river. I used to hate it but these days it’s cleaner and lots of birds live in the mangroves. Usually it flows along like Old Man River but in the recent floods we were reminded how fierce and powerful it really is.
The characters in the novel are often portrayed unsympathetically. Brian, in particular as the main narrator is not always likable. How did you go about constructing such complex characters? Did you intend to achieve this by making plain all their faults?
Everyone has faults. For me, it’s always been easier to judge my characters harshly and show all their weaknesses than to show their good sides. Brian is just like all of us, trying to do his best, trying to keep his head above water and figure everything out, but most of the time failing miserably. I think that by writing from the three viewpoints in first person you get to see a well-rounded picture of all the characters.
The novel portrays a group of young people who seem lost in their lives. Most of the characters are unfulfilled and unable to move on in life beyond the area in which they have always lived. Do you think this is a common issue for young people in some areas?
For sure. Poverty is a trap. Kids whose families break up, suffer abuse, or who lose a parent as well are behind the eight ball. But all circumstances are surmountable. Guts, courage and someone who believes in you, be it a teacher, a mate, or a girl or boyfriend, or even just yourself, are essential in being able to escape shitty circumstances.
Most of the world’s most successful people came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The novel addresses homosexuality, in particular Brian’s homophobic reaction to Pete’s relationship with Jacko. Do you think these attitudes are still prevalent among young people?
I think that no matter how far we’ve come in addressing homophobia we haven’t really come that far if calling someone “gay” is one of our worst insults. Homosexuality is now more openly accepted but I think in some groups, especially among working class young men, coming out as gay would still be incredibly difficult.
Brian’s homophobia is a symptom of this type of ethos. But in his case it’s more complicated than that. He’s jealous of Pete stealing Jacko’s attention. He feels like all his life he’s been worshipping Jacko and Jacko’s never really given him anything but crumbs in return and then Pete comes along and Jacko is besotted.
The novel ends on a hopeful note. Brian seems to be moving on. Do you ever imagine what might become of the other characters? Do you see them being able to find a way out?
This ending is why I love fiction. In it I was able to keep Douggie alive when in reality my brother committed suicide. In my dreams of what may have happened to these guys, Douggie gets out and finally gets some decent medication and he and Brian have boating adventures all around the world. Eventually they start a business together somewhere on the coast, a small mechanic shop. I see them both with wives who love them, kids too, getting together every Sunday for a BBQ. Beck was always going to be fine. She moved to Sydney with Pete and got a high flying job in publishing. She still writes poetry.
Thrill Seekers is your first full-length novel. When did you first decide to write the story? Has it been something that has been an idea in- progress for a long time?
Some of the stories in Thrill Seekers have been in my head for about twenty-five years. They are the main reason I started writing as a career. I knew I had to get them out of my head and onto paper. I wrote most of the book as part of a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and finished it in 2005. Since then it’s gone through many rewrites and changes.
What sort of research did you do in preparation for writing?
I read some of my old journals and some of Matty’s old poems. I remembered, and the more I remembered the more ideas came up.
Any tips for budding writers?
Number one of these is that as a writer you can truly be thankful for a traumatic childhood or adolescence. All of it is great writing material. Use it!
Write as if you were telling an old friend the story, write free and fast and let everything out of your heart onto the page. Then, if you want it to be fiction go back, change names and places and details and endings, especially the endings! Show this to another person interested in writing – someone you trust − and get their advice on how to make it better as a piece of writing. Then go back and rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Some of the stories in Thrill Seekers I was calling draft 1000 and I probably did another twenty drafts after that.
If you want to be a writer, write. Write every day. Join writers groups. Write. Send your stories off to competitions or journals. Grow a hard skin to cope with all the rejections (there will be rejections). Celebrate your successes. Write.