Researching The Gift of Life: Watching a Heart Transplant to Finding the Silent Story

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Research is my happy place. I do extensive research for every book I write and it’s where I learn not just technical information but also start to find my character development, settings and plot points too. I get to travel within Australian and overseas for location research, which is a great gift. I interview people, spend hours on the internet, watch loads of YouTube videos and, inevitably, buy a lot of reference books. It is the phase where anything is still possible, ideas are still forming and excitement takes me back again and again for more.

My forthcoming novel, The Gift of Life, is based around organ donation, specifically, heart transplants. I love anatomy (I studied it for two semesters) and Biology was also my strongest subject at school and I then did another semester of it at uni. As a result, I loved brushing up on all my anatomy and physiology and researching the many causes and treatments of heart failure, some of which lead to the need for an organ donation. I even ended up at the cardiologist myself, as I have a long history of arrhythmias and, as I found out in my research, these can lead to heart failure! (Fortunately for me, the type I have appear to be uncomplicated.) My husband, too, also ended up at the cardiologist, then my mum went… It seemed like every time I turned around, ‘hearts’ were the theme of the day.  One thing I learned through all this research was that we are all vulnerable to heart issues, which can come with a long list of complications, which can also lead to a need for a transplant. I really had no idea how common it was.

The amount of personal testimony I came across (both from the point of view of a heart transplant recipient and also from the family of those who had consented to the donation of their loved one’s organs) is significantly higher coming from the USA than it is Australia. This was both tricky–because the USA medical and legal systems are very different to ours–and also an opportunity to hear different experiences and voices from those who’ve gone through the process.

There is a wealth of videos on YouTube and I even came across one that showed a heart transplant operation. That one was a little tough to stomach, to be honest!

I interviewed two Australian heart transplant recipients, which was a fabulous opportunity to hear their stories firsthand. They were both very different people–he a middle-aged man with a wife, children and career–and she a young woman in her twenties with a long life ahead if only she could get the chance. Their experience of the process was vastly different too. The organ transplant process is a gamble at every stage: the illness, the waiting period, the operation, the recovery, the chances of rejection and ongoing complications.

In the end, I had way more information than I could use in the book, which is normal. The Gift of Life starts two years after Gabby McPhee had her heart transplant; therefore much of what I learned about the difficult, emotional waiting stage (and the ongoing physical rehabilitation and care through that period) had to be cut and left out; however, it’s all there in my mind, forming the basis to the background of Gabby’s psyche.

I also became really interested in the more silent half of the story–the experiences of the family members who make the decision to donate. These stories are harder to find, and understandably so, as their experience is rooted in trauma, shock and grief. But as a writer, that ‘silent space’ is the most interesting to me. The possibility of a new, untold story is the one I want to follow. The wealth of information I found on the other side (the recipient’s stories) served to highlight a gap in the narrative that, when voiced through the character of Krystal Arthur, fleshed out the full circle of life.

I loved researching this book. It was utterly fascinating from beginning to end.

 

My Chocolate Tourism Bucket List

Do you love your chocolate? Me too! And other than combining chocolate with a good book, I can’t think of too much better than pairing chocolate with visiting a new place of interest.

While writing my latest novel, The Chocolate Promise (also called The Chocolate Apothecary in the UK), researching and taste-testing chocolate pretty much took over my life—and my dress size! And my palette for chocolate has changed. Only the finest will do these days. So now, I’ve begun writing myself a ‘Chocolate Tourism Bucket List’, to continue my love affair with this heavenly food.

Here are my current Top 5 locations:

  1. Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. This is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. Let’s just consider that for a moment: chocolate + Sicily. It’s a no brainer, right? Top of my list.
  2. Puyricard. This French chocolate artisan store is located just outside of Aix-en-Provence in the south232323232fp93232>uqcshlukaxroqdfv67-35;5=3427986;494<24-ot1lsi of France, which is where the main character of The Chocolate Promise spends time with a master chocolatier, roams the beautiful countryside and encounters unexpected romance. I soaked up the research for this part of the novel and am positively salivating to go there in person and enjoy the delights of Provence, including this chocolate store.
  3. Chocolate Walking Tour of Melbourne. A little closer to home for me, this would be a delightful weekend treat. Melbourne is known by many to be the food capital of Australia and I’ve no doubt the chocolate on this tour would leave a lasting impression. I only hear good things about this one. Definitely a To-Do, sooner, rather than later, I think. (At least the plane flight would be a quick one!)
  4. Rococo. I certainly couldn’t comprise this list without including a visit to Rococo in London. You’ll find an acknowledgement to Chantal Coady (founder of Rococo) for her inspiration that influenced The Chocolate Promise and for good reason. I pored over her book, Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate, as research for my novel. I even imported some of her creations. (The milk rose is my favourite.) I think I’d like to rent a flat just around the corner and simply hang out there every day, breathing it all in.
  5. Cailler. I’ve been to Switzerland but only once and I would love to go back there. (I’ve even been trying to work in some sort of Swiss plot into a novel so I can have a tax-deductible reason to go.) And this factory has some pretty great architecture to go with the experience.

So there’s my shortlist to get me (and maybe you) started. I’m sure there are dozens of amazing places around the world that would keep me entertained on my chocolate tours. I’d love to hear your recommendations if you have any?

p.s. Here’s a recipe from Chantal Coady for Chocolate Ganache Teacups, which fortuitously combines two of my favourite foods: chocolate and tea!

Booksellers: Love Your Local

Since my last post about high tea in Melbourne, I have enjoyed another two events (in Brisbane and Sydney) with booksellers, who are smart, funny and creative people who absolutely LOVE books with all their might. Where in the world would we be without booksellers? I can’t even imagine but I know that’s not a world I want to live in.

You see, I spend a lot of time in bookshops, gazing at books as others might gaze at works of art in a museum, smelling the books (it might be a tad addictive), and writing. I sit quietly in corners, on couches, and sometimes on the floor. I find immense inspiration in the words and images already in print and there’s something just a little bit transcendental about absorbing the best of what surrounds me.

And I also listen (eavesdrop is really too strong a word) to the booksellers. And they are amazing. People come in and ask the most vague or helpless question about a book they want but can’t remember the name of, or about the gift they need to buy for their child/ neighbour/ boss/ crazy uncle, and those booksellers SELL. My word they do. But they don’t just hand over anything. Their passion and belief in a book spills over in their words and gestures and the customer smiles with relief and walks away happy. And I sit there with my notebook/laptop, pulling words from my brain for my next book, and I think, ‘Wow, I hope someone does that for my book one day.’

For me, the greatest part of the high teas was getting to talk to these champions of books and authors and publishers, hear how they constantly reinvent themselves to compete with global markets, and admire their tenacity and wit.

This Christmas, buy books! For everyone in your life, from your mother to your dog. And support the booksellers who are out there every day keeping our books alive.

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Me with my friend, Kathleen, who came with me to Sydney, doing the tourist thing and stopping for a selfie.

The Tea Chest is alive!

My novel, The Tea Chest, is alive!

Last week I had the fabulous fortune of going to Melbourne and sharing high tea with a gaggle of fabulous women, booksellers in the independent book world. And to my complete surprise, a tier of reading copies of The Tea Chest greeted me upon arrival. I lost the power of speech for a good five minutes! Luckily, there was champagne and delectable goodies to revive me.

Reading copies are given out to booksellers and reviewers prior to the book being finalised and going on sale. So the cover is still not the final cover and the words do not include the final edits. But, gosh, how exciting it was.

I also had the pleasure of staying in the charming Windsor hotel, which was delightful.

Thank you to everyone who came to meet me, hear about my book and share tea. I always knew booksellers were special people but I like you all that much more again.

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