Adelaide writer Rachael Mead has a well-respected body of work in poetry, criticism, and shorter works. She recently published her first novel The Application of Pressure (read our review) and kindly took some time to sit down, in an appropriate socially distanced way, to chat to Glam Adelaide.
Her novel is based around the lives of paramedics in Adelaide. Mead has drawn this work out of the experience of her paramedic husband and his colleagues. Yet interestingly, she didn’t originally set out to write a novel.
“It was meant to be a short-story cycle and when I submitted it to Affirm Press , they thought that it would work as a novel. I had my first crack at a short story back in 2012 and it was about paramedics, but what I was doing was just translating an oral story I heard onto the page. And you think ‘that would make a great story’ but actually, when you put it on the page, it can be very thin: one layer of plot, no depth to the characters, and they’re not embedded in a back story. All those things that you sort of take for granted when you read,” Mead said.
Certainly, paramedic work is the motherlode for a writer, in terms of human behavior and high emotion.
Mead agrees: “You don’t need to go to many dinner parties to realise that being a paramedic is a winner when it comes to conversation. Everyone is completely fascinated!”
All of the stories contained within The Application of Pressure are based loosely on real cases.
“The ethical side was quite important,” she explains. “I didn’t want anyone to recognise themselves in these stories so absolutely every personal detail has been disguised or changed. I didn’t want to rake over anybody’s grief. Then I realized that an entire collection of the brutally confronting would be too much for anyone and is not representative of the way paramedics’ working lives roll. So, I tried to have a mix of the gruesome, the bizarre, and the funny.”
Mead switches between first and third-person narratives, which is an interesting choice for a writer.
“Initially I was writing them all in the first-person. Then I felt that being in their head is too claustrophobic. I couldn’t do that to a reader for an entire book! I rewrote in the third person, but I realised I’d lost something. I still wanted to have a few [in first person], to slip the reader into the skin of the paramedic.”
Rather than just have one protagonist, Mead has two: Joel and Tash. Wanting to have both the male and female voice (since 50% of paramedics are now women), she also wanted to write a friendship.
“Through having the male and female protagonist, and this long-term friendship, I wanted to show that bond formed in hardship. I also needed two characters to show the different types of stress-related disorders. Joel witnesses a single incident which he’s powerless to do anything about, which traumatically impacts upon him. Tash’s experience is the cumulative effect of her working life: cumulative micro-traumas. Having the two protagonists helped me explore that in two different ways. Plus, I’m a firm believer that men and women can sustain friendships and there doesn’t have to be that sexual undertone.”
Although most of the novel is firmly embedded in Adelaide, Joel spends some time working in the Solomon Islands, and Tash for the RFDS on the Lands near Uluru. According to Mead the SA Ambulance Service is quite an old-school employer, in that paramedics often start working there out of Uni and stay until they retire. And although the job is diverse, there is often a desire to find a new challenge, so they take the opportunity to do humanitarian work outside of SA.
And what of Mead’s new challenge after the success of her first novel?
“I’ve got another one! I haven’t written it yet, but the idea is there. But I’m still writing poetry. I almost have another manuscript together, so I have a foot in both camps. It doesn’t come as naturally as the poetry, but we’ll see how the next one goes: the difficult second album!”
Interviewed by Tracey Korsten
The Application of Pressure was published in May 2020 by Affirm Press. RRP $29.99.