He used to smell like laundry detergent. Even with cologne, you could smell him underneath. Always the same smell. I would nuzzle my face into his chest and breathe it in. They didn’t tell me his smell would change.
Ella and Theo have just said ‘I love you’. Their relationship is young and evolving, and so are they – finding their place in the world together and apart. Their lives are going mostly to plan until a sudden cancer diagnosis changes everything. Excited nerves about meeting each other’s parents and living together turn to anxieties about survival. Easy becomes hard. Hard becomes impossible. Their lives cannot remain the same, and now every moment is coloured by illness and their push to overcome it.
This Is Us Now is the story of two young people navigating a relationship in the most extraordinary circumstances. They’re faced with the hardest decision: when you feel like you are losing someone you love, do you hold on or do you let go forever?
With the publication date for This is Us Now coming up fast, the GSP editorial team sat down with first-time author Jacinta Dietrich to ask her about her creative process and the inspiration behind her stunning debut.
When did you begin writing This is Us Now?
I started it during my Master’s degree as part of my Master’s project. It was only a couple of months after my partner finished chemotherapy. Since it was so fresh in my mind, I just decided to write it all down.
Can you elaborate further on the inspiration behind the novel?
Sure. During my partner’s treatment, I read a lot of books about cancer but none of them had a story that resembled ours. It felt like there were only three types of illness narratives. There were YA books like The Fault in Our Stars or Five Feet Apart where both characters are sick and they meet in hospital or in a support group or something similar. Those books tend to be about how both characters deal with their illnesses and their first love and first loss. Then there were books with much older characters, like The Notebook, where either one character is sick or both are but they’ve already had this beautiful life together. When one of them passes, or they both pass, there is a sense of closure. And then there were books that are the widow memoir, where one partner is still alive and looks back on the experience of losing a loved one. And while these types of books are powerful and nostalgic, they are usually about the grief of losing someone, not about receiving a diagnosis and navigating through that process successfully. I was looking for a text that was about a couple where one person is sick and the other isn’t and what that experience genuinely feels like in the moment and not retrospectively. So, I decided to write it.
Did you have a plan or an outline of the plot while you were writing the book?
Because it originated from my and my partner’s experience, I kind of had the plot. The thing that was most important to me was the emotions I wanted to convey to the reader and how I wanted the reader to feel at certain points throughout the book. Often there were things I wrote that hadn’t actually happened to me or my partner. Often, my thought process was, ‘What would happen if I throw this situation at these characters?’. Of course, I had a lot of personal experience to fall back on, which definitely made the writing process easier.
What is your writing process like? Are you someone who writes in small chunks or do you write in big marathon stretches? What works for you?
Sadly, I am not super disciplined. I wrote [my Master’s project] mostly in little bits and pieces, until my supervisor, Grace Yee, would be like, ‘Alright, we have a meeting coming up’, and then I would write big bits. But I’m definitely more disciplined now, or at least I’m getting there.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing the manuscript?
One of the biggest challenges was that when I jumped in, even though I was very conscious that I wanted to write fiction, it was hard to go back and put myself in that situation. I think that’s been one of the hardest things about editing the book as well. It was difficult though, particularly, at the start of writing the book. I hadn’t really considered what it was going to be like to write about it for a whole year even though it was fiction – how emotional it would be. That was definitely the hardest part. The rest of it was fairly easy, because I already knew the story I wanted to tell. And I knew what fictional things I wanted to add and what emotions I was drawing on. But, yeah, the biggest challenge was definitely the real-life aspect of it.
What did you enjoy about the writing process?
I think I just enjoyed writing something big. I know that sounds silly, but I’ve always wanted to be an author, even from when I was a kid. It just never felt attainable, until I actually wrote something that was over 10,000 words, and then I got over 15,000 words, and it made me recognise, ‘Oh, I could actually do this’. Now I know I have the commitment to sit down and write an amount of words that could be published. It’s genuinely been wonderful just having the manuscript and showing myself that I can actually do it.
What are your favourite things about your main characters?
My favourite things are that, even though not all of the emotions are pretty, they’re very honest. I also like how authentic Theo and Ella’s relationship is. It’s not about big grand gestures, it’s about the little things. To me they feel like real people.
That definitely comes across in your writing. Who are your favourite authors or favourite books and how did they inspire you in writing this book?
I know it’s controversial, but I will always go back to Harry Potter. Those books were what got me into reading as a kid. With regards to authors… that’s hard. I always think, ‘what have I been reading lately?’ I love Jane Austen. Love a classic! What’s on my bookshelf at the moment? [Thinking]. I’ll read anything. I think that has actually helped because there’s no specific genre I like to write. I will happily read anything, so I’ll probably happily write anything. As I said before, I read a lot while doing research for this book, but there was nothing that really resonated, which suggested to me that there is a gap in the market for a book like this, and that was partly why I wrote it.
What was the last book you read?
I’m one of those awful people who reads three books at once. The last book I read was Big Little Lies, because my partner’s sister was reading it over the holidays, and she was like, ‘Get on this!’. I liked it. It was easy to just rip through. At the moment, I’m reading Loner by Georgina Young. It was the Text Prize winner of last year, or the year before. And I’m loving it! It’s similar to my book in that it’s also written in little snippets, moving through someone’s life from day to day. I’m also reading a little bit of Will Kostakis, as well.
Did you learn much about yourself by writing this book?
I learnt that I’m a lot braver than I thought I was. At first, I didn’t think I would be strong enough to write a story like ours, even through fiction. Secondly, I never thought I would be brave enough to actually share it with people. Other than you guys at GSP, there’s only a few people who have read it. One of them is my partner because he needed to give his permission for me to start spreading it around. Because my partner had cancer, I had a lot of fear that the reader would just automatically assume that it is us even though it is fictionalised. I worried that there wouldn’t be much love for the female character, Ella, because she is quite honest, and a bit raw, and a bit brutal at times.
Do you think your approach to writing and editing the text has been shaped by your experience learning about and working in the publishing industry?
I think that if I hadn’t been studying when I wrote it, I probably wouldn’t have written it in little scenes, I probably would have tried to just tell the full story. And I don’t think that would have worked, because so much of the journey with cancer is repetitive, so much of it is the same, that it probably would have been very boring. I also think knowing what the market was doing and knowing what else was out there definitely meant that I didn’t tell the story in a generic or traditional way. I still tried to write something that would be accessible for readers but was also different and could stand out. Though, I don’t think I consciously thought about that during the writing. But I think all of the publishing and editing experience I’ve had definitely helped when I came back to revise it.
What has it been like working with the team at GSP?
It’s been so nice. I have to admit I was scared at the start, because I sent the manuscript in on just a whim. And I was like, ‘Whatever’. I didn’t expect anything. And then when GSP got back to me, I was like, ‘Oh no!’. I was not mentally prepared for it. Everyone at GSP has been so wonderful that it’s made the process so much easier. Of course, sometimes I feel imposter syndrome and think, ‘Will anybody like this?’. But working with GSP has been so much better than I ever expected. As my first experience editing a book, it has been beautiful and gentle and so nice. There have been things that you guys have considered that I just hadn’t seen. I’m so grateful that I had another set of eyes on it. And you guys have treated me with so much love and care. It’s weird to pass something on and share it with someone and then have them pick it up and look at it and go, ‘Have you considered this? What about this?’. But I feel like you guys have treated it as your own baby and certainly you’ve improved it.
What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?
Just ride it out even if it doesn’t feel great. That first draft is a first draft, but then you have it, you have this big, beautiful thing that you’ve poured your sweat, blood and tears into. And by that point, you’re just so proud of it, that you’ll want to keep working on it, even if it’s a bit rough. Just think of it as a launching pad.
I’d also say go and find yourself a little cheerleading squad of people with different skills. My cheerleading squad is made up of three very different people. I have a genuinely lovely friend who I could pass anything to and she’ll be like, ‘Jacinta, I love it, it’s beautiful, go forth’. Then I have my more critical friend who is a journalist who tells me, ‘You’ve buried the lead, what are you doing, do this instead’. And then I’ve got a nice middle ground person who has also done the same degree as me who brings in a publishing perspective and a lot of insight that the other two don’t necessarily have. She’s like, ‘Alright, so where does it sit? What do you compare it to? What’s your pitch?’. So, my advice would be go and find yourself three really different people to poke you in all the right places and help you along.
This Is Us Now will be available on Grattan Street Press and select bookstores on June 17th.