From the back of the book:
Justine and Perry are embarking on the road trip of a lifetime. It's been more than a year since they watched their dad lose his battle with cancer, leaving nineteen-year-old Justine as the sole carer for her disabled brother. Now, the twins' reliance on each other is set to shift. Before they go their separate ways, they're seeking to create the perfect memory. For Perry, the trip is a glorious celebration of his favourite things: mythical sea monsters, Jackie Chan movies, and the study of earthquakes. For Justine, it's a chance to "free" her twin, to see who she is without her boyfriend, Marc -- and to offer their mother to chance to atone for past wrongs.This sums up the story beautifully. I suppose it's not the done thing to also add sentences to the effect of: 'a beautiful emotional story that somehow manages never to descend into melodrama,' or 'finally a love story that's more about familial love than the romantic type,' or 'characters you'll wish were actually real so you could give them a big hug (if they were up for it of course).' These are the kind of postscripts I'd tack on if it was my job to write a blurb for this book -- which tells you what a good thing it is that this isn't my job.
Are You Seeing Me? is set partly in Brisbane and partly in Vancouver, Canada, echoing the author's own background. Darren Groth is a Queenslander now writing from Vancouver, where he lives with his wife and thirteen-year-old twins. Recently I got to chat with Darren about his work.
Before talking about the text itself, a process question because I'm fascinated by the processes of creativity and the rituals (or lack of them) that creators employ. What does your writing process look like? And how long did it take to write AYSM, from idea to final draft?
My process is pretty organic. I'm not a huge planner of a novel -- a lot of the details reside in my head and unfold on the page. I tend to start with a simple idea or scenario which, through the thousand and one questions that result, ends up becoming a full blown story.
With AYSM, it began with an idea close to home for me: a set of twins -- one with a disability, the other without -- left on their own after their father's passing and their mother's departure many years ago. From that basic premise, the questions commenced: who are they? Where are they at in their lives? What happened to the father? Where is the mother now? Eventually, I had answers to all the questions and a tale to tell.
The first draft of AYSM took almost a year to write. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be the first of many. Final draft would come after six previous! I think it turned out for the best, though.
I'd agree with that.
The relationship between AYSM and your own family story is quite clear. When did you first realise you wanted to write a book like this? Did you wrestle at all with finding a balance between following the story you were writing versus exploring the story you are living?
I knew soon after the release of my previous novel, Kindling, that I would do AYSM. I wanted to write a book that would be a gift to my daughter and explored the idea of a young woman trying to find her own way while caring for her brother. As you mentioned, there were plenty of touch-points I could bring from my own family's circumstances -- not enough that you would call the work "faction", though. Historically, I've tended to do that with my novels: I'll use compelling narratives from my own experience, add lots of made-up stuff, give it all to caracters I create, and then see where it ends up.
This makes perfect sense. And I suspect we can't help but imbue our fiction with some of our own history, even if we are writing in worlds completely different to our own.
Have your children read the story? Did they offer any feedback?
My kids are thirteen; neither has read the story yet. My daughter will read it one day -- as it's dedicated to her, I hope she loves it. She's more into The Hunger Games and The Simpsons at the moment. My son, due to his ASD, may never be able to read AYSM or Kindling (the book that was my gift to him). He has progressed very well over the years, though, so never say never!
It's very important to AYSM that both Justine and Perry have a voice. It's not solely Justine's story; neither is it solely Perry's. Did you always intend to tell the story like this, even from its inception? And did you encounter any special challenges in writing a story with two protagonists?
For a while, I entertained just writing AYSM from Justine's perspective. Not far into it, I understood Perry needed to be heard, too. He was actually far easier to write than his sister. Justine is far more nuanced than Perry and required a lot more care during editing to ensure her voice was consistent and authentic. Putting Perry on the page involved a greater amount of research (everything I now know about earthquakes, sea monsters, and Jackie Chan movies, I owe to him), but he was a dream to author.
The editing and crafting shines through. Justine's character is gently deep and manages to authentically straddle the sometimes awkward divide between youth and adulthood.
Speaking of divides, the book, with its dual settings of Brisbane and Canada, has a very strong sense of place. How important to you is this sense of place in what you read and write? Is it always as significant within the text as with AYSM? How does being an Australian living in another country help (or challenge) you as a writer?
Place, when done particularly well, is like another character. One of my favourite reads of all time is I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti, and the backdrop for that -- a remote rural town in southern Italy -- is remarkable and plays as much of a role in proceedings as any of the protagonists. If my sense of place in AYSM is half as good as Ammaniti's then I'm rapt.
Regarding living in Canada as an Aussie, I think it offers a different stimulus to my work than I otherwise would've had remaining in Brisbane. As Justine herself might put it: no better or worse -- just different.
Beautifully said. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and background on this important story. Good luck with all your future work!