Julia Lawrinson has long been one of my favourite writers. She’s also one of the smartest and most articulate people I know, someone I admire and respect enormously, so it is a thrill, and a privilege, to have this opportunity to feature her new novel, Before You Forget.
Julia has an impressive publication record: 13 novels for children and young adults since 2001. Her books include Obsession, 2001 (winner, Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), Bye Beautiful, 2006 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards, shortlisted for Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), The Push, 2008 (shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards) and Chess Nuts, 2010 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards). She appears regularly at schools and writers events, including the Melbourne and Perth Writers Festivals, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (Singapore), the Celebrate Reading Conference at the Literature Centre, Voices on the Coast (Queensland) and Kindling Words East (Vermont, USA), as well as in regional Western Australia (Albany, Geraldton, Bunbury, Newman and Port Hedland) for Children’s Book Week and for the Literature Centre’s Youth Literature days.
What Julia has written in response to the 2, 2 and 2 questions below gives a deeply moving context for this new work—in terms of its subject matter and her motivation for writing it. I would always be looking forward to having another Julia Lawrinson on my bookshelves, but this one feels special even before I read it.
Here is the blurb for Before You Forget (Penguin Random House):
Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.
At times funny, at times heartbreaking, this is an ultimately uplifting story about the delicate fabric of family and friendship, and the painful realisation that not everything can remain the same forever.
And now, here’s Julia…
2 things that inspired the book
1 My daughter’s struggle with her father’s younger onset Alzheimer’s disease
My daughter was 12 when her father started displaying the alarming symptoms of younger onset Alzheimer’s disease, and 15 when he was finally diagnosed. The most noticeable thing about younger onset is not so much memory loss, at first, but personality change. Her dad began stockpiling food, bringing strange men home and giving them money, getting up in the middle of the night and bellowing at us, driving erratically, and becoming furious over the smallest things. Worse, he was unaware of what was happening, unable to acknowledge or discuss it. The change in personhood was disconcerting, disorienting and difficult for me, and worse for my daughter. It was hard to understand, to deal with, to explain to others. So, the need for the novel.
2 The transformative power of art in everyday life
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that any difficulty in life is endurable if only you can transform it into art, but I became convinced of this from an early age. In Before You Forget, Amelia is an art student who struggles to find visual form for what is happening to her father, and to their relationship. But she also experiences that sense of losing yourself in the act of creation, which is the pleasure of any art form, whether it is writing, music, painting, acting. Making something from what has been destroyed, or has disappeared.
2 places connected with the book
I spent a lot of time wandering around Fremantle when I was writing Before You Forget. It was a terrible time in my life, but walking soothed, and I tried to get as close to the water as I could. I was sprayed by water in winter as I walked into the wind at South Mole; picked my way around seaweed on Bathers Beach, listening to the hush of waves; watched dogs large and small gambolling on South Beach, fetching sticks and balls, racing each other on the sand. I like to think that the rhythm of those walks can be felt in the writing. Certainly, Fremantle features large in the novel.
2 Ground Zero
Amelia is obsessed with watching and re-watching 9/11 footage: the unanticipated horror of it is her personal disaster writ large, as well as an exemplar of the randomness of fate. She wants to understand how people survived it, how they found a way to think about what had happened. How life, however changed, continues after catastrophes of all kinds.
When I took my daughter to New York, we spent sobering days at the memorial and the museum. In the museum, the Virgil quotation ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’ (repurposed from its original context) stretches out among a sea of blue tiles. Many of the exhibitions are dedicated to remembering those who perished by recording the ordinariness of their extinguished lives: when they were born, things their families and friends most recall, their favourite subject at school. It struck me as a worthy aim of any memorial: to provide a continuing existence for the spirits who are lost, to honour the past for the comfort of the living. A testament to the centrality of memory.
2 favourite characters
1 Hecta the Jack Russell
Hecta in the novel is very much based on our Hecta in real life. As Simon’s condition deteriorates, fictional Hecta behaves much as actual Hecta did: becoming naughtier and naughtier. He escapes out of carelessly open front doors, climbs onto tables, steals carers’ sandwiches out of their handbags, and eats the same, still covered in cling wrap. Anyone who has had an untrainable Jack Russell (is there any other kind?!) will recognise Hecta’s antics!
2 Ms M the art teacher
Ms M is a formidable art teacher who expects her charges to do their best work, and is not afraid of sharing her disapprobation if they do not. Ms M is reliable in a way Amelia’s parents suddenly are not, and the art room becomes her haven. Although I am entirely unskilled in the visual arts, the teacher and the space were analogous to my supportive English teachers, and, of course, the library with its written treasures.