INTERVIEW WITH SAMANTHA TIDY
We asked author Samantha Tidy a few questions about our flagship publication The Happiness Jar, available now through our online store, and due for national release in bookstores September 2013.
The title of your novel is really intriguing. Why is your novel called The Happiness Jar?
The jar is a real tangible object in the novel – it’s full of handwritten notes, penned by the deceased character, Rachel Hudson. Faced with a terminal illness she’s been writing these notes to herself during the course of her life. From the jar, comes the main challenge for the character of Beth Hudson, Rachel’s mum. When Beth goes through Rachel’s belongings not long after her daughter’s death she finds the jar full of paper notes, each of them revealing the secret moments of happiness in Rachel’s life. Surprisingly to Beth, she herself wasn’t present for many of them. This is confronting for Beth as she has pretty much sacrificed everything in her own life to try to make her daughter’s short life more comfortable. Beth gradually reads everything in the jar, through the course of the novel. As she does, she gets to know her daughter, and finds some surprises – some of them rather shattering and life-changing.
Do you have your own ‘happiness jar’?
I used to have one, many years ago. I didn’t write things in it as they happened though, as Rachel does in the novel. I came up with the idea of the jar in my early twenties to help me find my focus on the occasional day when life gets you down, as it does when you are a writer in your twenties! I sat down and wrote out individually all the happy moments I could remember in my life, as far back as my early childhood. I would go through the jar of notes when I needed a pick me up. I think it’s a great thing to start, a happiness jar, no matter how old you are. It’s important to stop and savour the good bits in life. Too many people spend too much time whinging over the negative.
How did you come to write The Happiness Jar?
Originally the novel was rather different. I’ve rewritten it many, many times, during the course of the ten years it’s taken to finish. I started working on it the day I moved to Melbourne in 2003. After the success of my first novel, I told myself I had to be serious about this writing career and move somewhere full of writers to be inspired! I was naïve to think that at the time, as my hometown Fremantle is a rather artsy place and there are lots of successful authors in WA, but it really did work. In Melbourne, I lived in a very tiny and cheap flat in St Kilda. Working part-time in a bookshop on Acland Street gave me a lot of inspiration. So did trying to live on about $200 a week. After two years or so, I grew tired of poverty and sought out a full-time job. For the rest of my six years in Melbourne, I was able to work around other authors at the State Library of Victoria, and this was great inspiration. Melbourne deserves its title, the City of Literature.
In those ten years I’ve published other work such as children’s books and short stories, but I kept coming back to Rachel and her story. I knew it was a big story, and so getting it right was important to me. It was a much different experience to writing my first novel, which happened rather organically. I used The Happiness Jar as the basis of a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing. That was a great help. I learnt to critique myself at RMIT amongst a bunch of very talented people, including our supervisor, Antoni Jach. I had some pretty big names in that class reading my work, and telling me when it wasn’t great, and importantly, what I could do to make it better. Seasoned authors like Alexis Wright and Rosalie Ham as well as other fellow students like Kate Holden and Jacinta Halloran who have gone on to publish great books. The original version of the novel was very different – it was a novel about Rachel being locked out of heaven, for making the will that she made, and so it was originally called Rachel’s Testament. I did my masters degree on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and contemporary heavens in literature.
What was the inspiration for the themes in the novel?
There are three main themes in the book covered by the three main characters – one is the background story of Brian – being a Vietnam veteran with undiagnosed PTSD; the journey of Matt, which takes him to a struggling Indigenous community; and the third is Beth’s journey of faith.
I guess it’s a consequence of my age, but the fathers of a few of my friends served in Vietnam. Those friends are immensely strong women, who have had to deal with their father’s (or husband’s) issues for the past forty years - all of them health-related, either physical or mental. When a solider leaves a war zone, there is a lot going on in their head and for some, it will be this way every day for the rest of their life. When I worked at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 2009, I met many veterans - a lot of them who served in Vietnam. On some occasions, it would turn into a long chat over coffee, and they would pour their heart out.
Some of those stories I can’t forget because they were their PTSD triggers and for some reason they wanted to talk about it with me – maybe it was the fact I worked at the Memorial, they thought I could handle that stuff, better than their own daughter perhaps. I don’t elaborate too much on this in the novel, but it’s enough to let the reader understand the context.
And what about Matt and the journey to the Indigenous community?
When I was a teacher in my twenties in Western Australia, before I moved to Melbourne, I worked in rural towns, and also in a remote indigenous community. I was confronted there by some very sad situations, but I was also inspired by the many people working there who for the most part, were doing good things to improve literacy and health. I have kept my passion for Indigenous health and literacy – more so in fact, and I want others to understand more about the crisis that we collectively seem to ignore.
There are some very real statistics that I mention in the book, that people should stop and consider. An indigenous Australian has a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population. It’s about 17 years shorter. I have a Kimberley friend who jokes that when he turns 50, he should get the pension because it means he only has ten years to live according to the statistics. Indigenous Australians have six times the rate of blindness. There are more statistics like this, and these make up the ‘gap’. Literacy is another major issue, and when you combine this with childhood deafness rates, the future is not very bright for these Australians. When you want to empower people, education in the only way to cultivate self-motivated change. This is a major, major issue in Australia and it’s not even on the political agenda, in an election year.
Australians are great charity donators. We can sponsor a child in another country and ignore the crisis on our back doorstep. But with that crisis comes a feeling of helplessness and we need our leaders to dilute that hopelessness by taking some risks, and letting go of the chains of bureaucracy. I don’t think much has changed in the ten years since I left that school. I want to hope so and believe so, but the truth is, as a nation we are yet to sit down and seriously talk about this issue, out in the open. We need to have a great discussion in the media, with tolerance on behalf of all parties – and not one spurred on by a politically charged ‘intervention’. An episode on Q and A would be a small start, but a few more politicians raising it in parliament and seeking a national dialogue on solutions would be great.
Which is your favourite character in the novel?
That’s a hard one. The Hudson family have been in my head for so long. If I had to pick, I would say Rachel, as you never get to know her personally, only through the memories of the characters, and by the notes that Beth pulls out of the jar. You come to understand her as someone who grabbed hold of life and squeezed everything she could out of it. She travelled the world with cystic fibrosis – which, if you ask someone with cystic fibrosis they would say, has its challenges. She also inspires her remaining family to do the same – to embrace life. None of that could happen when she was alive, and she knew that - the family dynamic wouldn’t allow it. So in dying, she wanted to give something back to the people who had sacrificed so much, in light of her illness and her short life. It’s an amazing gift. Death might be a painful experience for those that remain behind, but it can also be a profound catalyst for them, to embrace life to the full. This is the inspiration that I hope people draw from the novel.