A green coffee cup, an old bottle of Pelikan Brilliant Green ink and a green lamp are on the coffee table in Debra Adelaide’s office. It is the green room. Tall and slim, her curly grey hair falls down around her green earrings and green necklace which match the colour of her cardigan and shoes – all green, her favorite colour.
She is sitting in front of her small office library of hundreds of books next to which is a large poster of shelves of many more books. She says with smile, “I like reading, I don’t have other hobbies, except my garden”.
Debra is editor of The Simple Act of Reading, a collection of 21 essays written by different writers, including herself.
“I worked on this nearly a year ago. I approached authors to write new works, and also others who had essays previously published that I wanted to include,” she says. The Simple Act of Reading involved thinking about early reading practices and books that were special to her. “I was also reflecting on how certain books and authors stay with you for your whole life, and how they influence your own work as a writer in ways you do not expect.”
Her morning begins very simply, with a coffee no sugar, then a walk from home to work. Her days are busy, involving the duties of a mother, writer and an academic at University of Technology, Sydney.
“I didn’t plan my literary career, I didn’t plan my academic career. I did plan having my children. These things all happen slowly and organically.” She used to only be able to write in quiet environments. However, she has learnt to work with domestic chaos around her, such as people knocking on the door endlessly saying “Mum” or “Debra”.
“I think my children and my students will remember this: “I’ll be there in a minute. That’s the thing I’ve said more than anything in my life,” she says laughing.
She has three children – Joe, Elle and Callan. “My children are a very important part of my life. I always love to guide them and care for them.”
Callan is quoted in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald as saying “When she was pregnant with my younger sisters, she worked all the time and she vomited all the time. She would quickly scoff down her food so she could get back to work.” At work, she is now an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Program, where her students exist in ever-growing and talented numbers. She says, “My students are very talented. I am very happy to help them.”
Debra spent almost eight years writing one of her novels, The Household Guide to Dying. “I wanted to try and write a comical book about dying. I supposed because, to me, death and dying is a bit taboo and the way you tackle taboos is to make a joke of them, particularly in Australia. And I thought then my natural writing voice was a comical voice; now I’m not sure if that’s true.”
She thought no-one would show interest in the book except her. However, her agency loved it and described it as “amazing”. She finished and published it in 2008 in Australia, then internationally.
Debra says she had very mixed feelings when she wrote the book. “What if I was dying before my time and I was leaving behind a young family? What if I had unfinished business?” It led her to other questions and other questions led to the story.
“When I started writing the book, I didn’t know what it was about, all I knew it was about a woman who was dying who decided to write a book about dying,” she says.
She says she has always had a strong connection to books. As a girl, she says she was not good at sport, nor did she make friends easily at school. However, books made her extremely happy. One of her strong memories from childhood is her mother calling out before she even got up: “Debra! Put that book away!” Now she loves reading, writing and also helping people develop writing of their own.
One of her secrets to an organised life is to make a long-term plan as well as a very specific short-term timetable. If she does not have particular deadlines, she will set them herself. When speaking about her most recent book, Letter to George Clooney, she says, “I’d got a few stories together and I’d had a couple published and then towards the end of one year, I thought, ‘Right, this is it. Next year you’re going to finish a story every single month and have enough for a collection.’ So I did.”
Debra Adelaide will publish her new novel, Woman’s Pages, at the end of the year.
Debra Adelaide joins Sunil Badami and Cath Keenan for a nice long chat about the glorious feeling of sinking into a book on Thursday, May 21, 4.30-5.30pm, Philharmonia Studio