Australian writer Debra Adelaide landed a whopping $1 million advance for her much-anticipated novel, The Household Guide to Dying. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings on the eve of its publication.
This has been touted as your ‘breakthrough novel’. With ten books behind you, including two novels, does this feel strange?
Not really. I wrote this novel for myself, so while on the one hand it’s a great surprise to see so much fuss, on the other I feel content. Perhaps at the moment I don’t know what it means to have a so-called breakthrough novel. But if that’s the case, I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
‘The mother dying was a disgraceful breaking of every rule.’ It’s also a slightly risky situation for an author – to write a book where the reader knows its sympathetic heroine, a mother of small children, will die at the end. What made you decide to write this story?
I didn’t decide, as such. It chose me, which is what I think many authors would say. But I have been interested in the topic of dying generally for quite some time, and I wanted to explore the possibility of writing about dying in a frank and comic way.
The running thread of Delia’s job – a ‘witty, ironic’ advice columnist and writer of a bestselling series of books on household advice – provides some wonderfully funny moments, and a welcome leavening humour to the very emotional main narrative. Did you have fun with this aspect of the book?
Yes. In fact in my dreams I am really an agony aunt disguised as a domestic advice columnist. And what was particularly satisfying was to make these extracts from Delia’s advice column another little narrative in the novel, one in which, in the end, the story surprises her as much as it does the reader.
As a mother, reading about a mother farewelling her children, reading this book made me cry more than once. Did you ever find yourself emotionally overwhelmed when writing it?
I think it’s more appropriate to say that intense emotions shaped parts of it, but that I was never overwhelmed, otherwise I doubt I would have been able to write a fictional story.
Delia’s response to her impending death proves some very bizarre moments: posing in her own coffin holding a martini glass for her book cover, making and freezing blood sausages (made with her own blood) for her family to eat when she is gone. ‘Why can’t just you deal with this like any normal person?’ says her mother. Do you think there is a ‘normal’ response? What is behind Delia’s (almost manic) activities?
I have no idea what a normal response is to imminent death, especially as I’ve not yet faced it. Delia is certainly manic at times, and what is behind that is her intense desire to shape, control and direct the little amount of time left to her. And then at some point, she realises how futile that is.
The book – and Delia’s advice books – is curiously old-fashioned in the way that it treats the domestic arts (cooking, laundry, cleaning) with reverence and affection, as arts that one could be proud of mastering. What was the inspiration for that? And are you, in your parlance, a ‘goddess’, a ‘domestic whore’, or something in between?
I wish! Goddess or whore, either would do me. But Delia is especially interested in elevating the domestic arts, since to her they are so fundamental. And so overlooked. My position, for what it’s worth, is that domestic work is strangely compelling. If only it were valued more ...
This book seemed, to me, to be a kind of love letter to motherhood, in all its small joys and ongoing imperfections. Did you set out to do that?
No, quite the opposite, as it’s a theme I’ve already explored in earlier books. But clearly it’s an ongoing preoccupation of mine, and I’m very happy that readers would have this reaction.
Delia says her advice column is ‘a version of me, a slightly feral one’. Obviously you are not your character, but it seems there must be aspects of you in there – like her, you keep chickens, you work with words, and I suspect the Jane Austen ruminations are as much yours as hers. How much of yourself did you put into Delia?
Lots. Inevitably. It’s one way of investing a character with some sort of credibility. It’s true that I do keep chickens and I am a writer, but Delia’s views and prejudices and obsessions are all hers, as is her story. Her life, which has been full of trauma, regret and guilt, barely resembles mine.
Delia reflects ‘I was always pathetically grateful for email, since it let you attend to inquiries or make ones of your own while your children wailed and fought and called out from the bathroom ... without the embarrassment of all that drifting over the phone’. That sentence is so very apt, I wondered: does that describe your working life?
Not at all. I’m answering these questions in total quiet and privacy. Not. But even though my children are much older now than Delia’s, and more independent, my working life is still hectic. I think we forget too easily that just running a home can be a full time job.
Delia’s editor, Nancy, is initially sceptical about Delia’s final ‘how-to’ book, The Household Guide to Dying. ‘Who on earth would pick up a book with that title?’ As the author of a book with that title, who do you imagine will pick it up and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
All I can hope is that readers will take away from the book the pleasure of having read a good story, by which I mean a story that will take them out of their worlds and make them think about mortality and other things in a new way. And in my dreams I imagine that George Clooney will pick this novel up.