The initial spark for All That I Remember About Dean Cola came to me during a visit to MONA on a long weekend in Hobart. Back at my hotel, I wrote in my journal:
8 June 2015
I want to write a novel infused with the essence of these two ideas:
2. We are more than the sum of our parts
2. An ode to staying forever young
And these are descriptions I wrote of the two artworks that had inspired me:
The room is dim and claustrophobic, humid. And it stinks like shit. Clear hospital-drip-like bags and tubes hang in a row from a steel beam containing buttons and dials. Part alien-robot, part surgical-looking, the apparatus reminds me of cow-milking equipment. It whirrs, burps and farts, mimicking the machinations of the human digestive system. ‘The Cloaca Professional’ (Stomach Machine) is fed food and produces faecal matter once a day. The sum of our parts. Soulless.
In another room, a life-like little girl in a frilly party dress lies inside a metal cabinet with chicken wire doors. Alice in Wonderland in a coffin comes to mind. Attached to the underside of the cabinet is an old-fashioned fire extinguisher with a clear tube that somehow pumps ‘saliva’ to the girl’s silicone mouth. Inside, beneath the girl, is a floor of fake grass or moss, and above her hang two small chandeliers. Mice crawl around her, keeping her company while sustained by her saliva.
I listened to an interview with the artist, Meghan Boody. ‘The Mice and Me’ sculpture is a replica of herself as an eight- or nine-year-old child. When asked by the interviewer if it was creepy to sculpt a face in your own image, she said No, it was comforting, nostalgic. She grew up in New York and feels a strange tug or presence whenever she walks past her old apartment. When she looks up at the window of her bedroom, she thinks about how wild it would be if she saw herself as a child looking back down. ‘The Mice and Me’ is an ode to staying young forever.
The storyline for Dean Cola came to me in a rush, all at once, and I jotted it down that weekend in Hobart. After dozens of restructures and hundreds of drafts, the final story ended up being pretty much as it was in those initial notes (I would have saved myself years of work if I’d just stuck with the original outline!). When Dean first came to me, I didn’t have time for it because I was working on my second novel. But it wouldn’t leave me alone and when it started pervading my dreams I guiltily, in spare moments, started writing it.
My protagonist, Sidney, first appeared as an intriguing, vivid character, but she wasn’t fully formed; she developed over time. Initially, I wanted to explore ‘madness’, but the more I researched psychotic disorders, in particular schizophrenia, the less I wanted to write a ‘mad person does a bad thing’ novel. I wanted to write the complete opposite: a novel that challenges the stereotype, perpetuated by the media, that people with mental illness are more evil or dangerous than the general population.
Having waged my own life-long war against mental health issues, I hope All That I Remember About Dean Cola will make a contribution to the conversation aiming to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.