All art is autobiography, so they say, and I know this to be true. Every story says something about the writer, regardless of their intention or, indeed, consent. Many writers draw from their lives for their fiction, and often return to the same themes in their books, particularly events that caused grief and loss, important periods of their lives that affected them deeply.
Amanda’s post today is about receiving a life-threatening diagnosis at a young age, how it forced her to rethink her life and plans, and how she wrote this personal challenge into the struggle of the characters in her novel.
Read on for this very moving piece about grief and loss and changing plans. And also to view the very lovely cover of her book!
Amanda Niehaus is a writer and scientist living in Brisbane, Australia. She is author of the acclaimed novel The Breeding Season (Allen & Unwin, 2019), won the 2017 Victoria University Overland Short Story prize and has published short stories and essays in Griffith Review, Overland, Creative Nonfiction, The Writer, Nature, The Guardian, and others.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
The Breeding Season is my first novel and, in a sense, tells the story of my transition from a research scientist to a creative writer. The book follows a Brisbane couple, Dan (a writer) and Elise (a scientist), as they grieve the loss of their baby.
Great loss changes everything. It upsets the course of our lives and can be incredibly isolating. The novel encompasses Dan and Elise’s struggle to find each other again, through all the darkness.
I wrote their story as a way to cope with my own losses, which, I believe, is common amongst writers. For me, it was a way of translating my story into other bodies, of running a kind of experiment on the healing process.
My own story is of breast cancer at the age of thirty two. At the time, I had one baby girl, eight months old, and we were trying for a second. I wasn’t supposed to have cancer. I was too young! Too healthy! Even worse, my cancer was linked with the female hormone oestrogen, and it made sense that—even if my eggs survived chemotherapy—I should have my ovaries removed. Hedge my bets.
My daughter Nelle would have to be the only one.
Yet cancer also forced me to reconsider what I wanted to do with my life—how I wanted to spend my time, the legacy I wanted to leave in the world. If I only had five years left? Ten? I wanted to curl into my little family, take nothing for granted.
Dan and Elise seek answers to these questions, too, and, in many ways, find themselves right where I did.
From my experience, I learnt that time is too short and there will never be enough of it. I could pretend that I was immortal until the day I was diagnosed with cancer—and though I survived it, I’ll live the rest of my life knowing that one day I’ll die. It’s no small thing to carry. But it makes it easier to prioritise, invest in living and loving, and follow those crazy dreams. Research science didn’t make me happy anymore, but creative writing did (and does, soooo much), and I was compelled to move my career in a whole new direction.
Because my heart will always be somewhat nerdy, a lot of science is woven into The Breeding Season. Dan and Elise’s lives mirror the science that Elise studies, connecting their human lives (and ours, along with them) to those lived by myriad animals, including the northern quolls and antechinuses that are such a big part of the book. One of the themes of the book relates to ‘work-life balance’, which animals don’t contemplate intellectually like we do. Yet every calorie an animal absorbs will be used to grow, maintain its body, or survive—or it will be given to the eggs, sperm, or offspring that will outlive it.
On a certain level, we’re so much the same.
And I believe that it’s important to remember this right now, thinking beyond Covid-19, as we deal with rapidly shifting climates and fires, floods, and extinctions. We’re reacting too slowly to global change because we’re disconnected from the natural world around us.
So many wonderful Australian writers are writing across this gap, connecting our scientific, natural, social, and corporeal worlds through story. Some of my recent favourites are Krissy Kneen (Wintering, An Uncertain Grace), Erin Hortle (The Octopus and I), and Donna Mazza (Fauna). Creative writing shows us how scientific ideas, facts, and discoveries—for example, the sex lives of animals or the rebirth of ‘lost’ species—matter to our everyday lives, creating empathy and inspiring change.
Amanda has kindly donated a copy of her novel for a giveaway.
All you have to do to enter is leave a comment—it can be on anything you feel moved to write about after reading this post. Maybe, you had to change to your life plans, or believe in combining science and art? If so, please let us know!
You can leave it here on the blog, or on any of the social media posts, because I check them all prior to the draw.
The winner will be chosen randomly on Thursday, 21st May, at 12pm. International entries welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.