Why I wrote All That I Remember About Dean Cola

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 Mice and Me — Meghan Boody, 2008

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.

All That I Remember About Dean Cola

My new book!

The boys from back home stand beside the bed, watching her bleed onto the white sheet. ‘He only said to scare her,’ one of them says.

Sidney is happily married to her firefighter husband and thinking about having a child, but her life has been marred by psychotic breakdowns. Haunted by memories of Dean Cola — the teenage crush who is an essential piece of the puzzle that is her past — she returns to the town where she grew up. Something unthinkable happened there, but is she strong enough to face it?

A compelling portrait of mental illness, memory, and the ways that the years when we ‘come of age’ can be twisted into trauma.

Pre-order from Scribe, Booktopia, Amazon or your favourite local bookshop.

Easter 2020

Easter years ago

We all went to Mum’s old house up the bush. Autumn was hot during the day and cold and frosty at night. The smell of eucalyptus, and wood smoke from the pot belly stove. We ate fish and chips and drank too much on Good Friday.

My kids — happy shiny faces, rosy cheeks — played in piles of crispy crunchy leaves.

Easter now

Low–mid 20s days in Melbourne, cold mornings. The smell of burning dust from the heater not used since last winter. Police crackdown on non-essential travel. In Tasmania they have warned ‘There will be choppers in the sky’ to ensure residents are not leaving their homes. No holidays. No camping. People walking the neighbourhood aimlessly with dogs and kids, crossing the street to avoid each other. And posting on Instagram pics of campfires and tents pitched in backyards. Or images from years ago.

My kids sleep till afternoon.

I tried to cook fish on Good Friday, but it fell apart in the pan.

Term 2 writing courses online

Business as usual. Sort of.

I’ll be running the following writing courses online (with no kids, dogs or cats running across the background of my soon-to-be-very-tidy office, which is not really in my kitchen …)

Monday 1.30–3.30 Writers Workshop (for Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre)
Tuesday 9.30–11.30 Creative Writing (for Span Community House)
Wednesday 9.30–11.30 Thornbury Writers Workshop (for Span Community House)

Dog sitting on office chair at desk

There will be lots of writing, inspiration, an online guest author, a virtual excursion, and perhaps the occasional Mad Hatter’s tea party or Great Gatsby cocktail hour.

If you would like to join us, please contact the centre you are interested in for more info and enrolment details, or Tania at tanchantraining@gmail.com
Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre E: info@cnlc.org.au P: 9347 2739
Span Community House E: info@spanhouse.org P: (03) 9480 1364

2020 course dates for Term 1

How to Start Your Story — Writers Victoria
Time: Sunday 10 – 4
Date: 16 February

MONDAYS
Writers Workshop — Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre
Times: Mondays 1.30 – 3.30pm
Term 1 dates: 3 February – 23 March

TUESDAYS
Creative Writing — Span Community House
Times: Tuesday 9.30 – 11.30am
Term 1 dates: 4 February – 24 March

WEDNESDAYS
Thornbury Writers Workshop — Span Community House
Times: Wednesday 9.30 – 11.30am
Term 1 dates: 29 January – 25 March

Creative Writing — Princes Hill Community Centre
Times: Wednesday 5.30 – 7.30pm
Term 3 dates: 12 February – 25 March

Writing a novel is like rock climbing

“” by smile_kerry is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Writing a novel is like rock climbing (and not the indoor kind with those pretty-coloured bumps and grooves to hold onto). Everyday. For years. And years. At the start it’s a new and fun adventure. About halfway up the cliff you might realise that you’ve gone the wrong way or are climbing the wrong mountain altogether, but you’ve come too far to go back. There will be sacrifices, there will tears, there will be pain, there will be days when you can’t face the climb at all; you might even fall off the mountain a few times. You will feel jealous of climbers who are climbing faster, the ones who have the right equipment and seem to know what they’re doing, the ones who get all the help and support. Keep going. Don’t compare yourself to others — everybody’s climb is different.

When you’re just about to finally reach the top, you will be pushed back to the bottom — by self-doubt, early reader feedback, rejection, or some other obstacle. You’ll have to start the climb over again. And again. And again. You must want this so badly, more than anything. If you do, you’ll get there — in the end you’ll claw yourself, by your bleeding fingernails (and pig-headedness), over the precipice. And then you can start working on the second draft!