Caroline Overington has some stories to tell. Her novels, first Ghost Child and now I Came to Say Goodbye, speak of families struggling and battling their demons, and of children as victims amidst it all. These are difficult subjects – parents harming their children and the systems in place in Australia to deal with such horrendous circumstances – but Overington handles them with eye-opening honesty and sensitivity.
Overington’s career as an accomplished journalist has provided her with much insight into the lives of those dealing with these issues. And it was this knowledge that prompted her to begin writing fiction, with a freedom that her day-job simply does not allow.
Inspired by a new law passed in 2006 by the NSW government, which “makes it near impossible to report on child neglect and child murder, even many years after the children had died”, she was frustrated with the restrictions on her reporting.
“I started bumping up against these laws in my daily work and I could hardly believe it. Things that we once could report, and that are so important – which children die, and why? could anything have been done? – could no longer be told. Faces could not be shown. Police comment all comes through a central spokesman, who generally knows nothing about the case at hand, and likely won’t even have been out there.”
Overington wanted to tell ‘real’ stories, choosing fiction as a way of doing so. She says, “many of the characters are based on people I’ve come across, while researching real stories. It’s often not just one person: the character Paul Haines, for example, is a mix of every dead-leg violent dope-head drunken loser I’ve ever come across, and that’s quite a few people. But here’s the good news: the good people are real, too. The loving, caring, kind people, faced with a wall of bureaucracy and red tape and ideology, they are also real.”
The issues she faces in her work ignite her concern towards the children involved, and the need for more to be done to help them. “I’ve always thought that adults can mostly take care of themselves (there are exceptions, and there is one of those exceptions in this book) but children are so vulnerable. They rely on their parents to care for them, and often one parent is absent, and sometimes the new man in the house is a disaster, or else two parents are absent, and the system has to step in, and that’s when things can go completely pear-shaped. As a community, we spend a great deal of money – literally, in the billions – trying to improve the lives of children, and yet they still turn up dead in duck ponds. It seems to me an issue worth looking at, and not hiding under layers of law.”
Born in Sunshine Hospital (“an old timber building with magpies in the gumtrees, no longer there”) and raised in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Overington always wanted to work in journalism. “I did work experience on the local paper – the Melton Mail Express – at thirteen, so I must have decided pretty early that I wanted to be a reporter, and besides odd jobs – picking kiwi fruit in Israel, waiting tables, etc – it’s all I’ve ever done.”
She met her husband, then a British backpacker, whilst waiting tables and together the pair embarked on new adventures. “We had the twins in 2000, and shortly afterwards moved to New York, and then back to Bondi, where we live to this day.”
Writing fiction is a part-time endeavour for Overington. “Mondays is my writing day. I try to stay off the internet on Mondays. The children are at school. My husband is at work. I take a laptop into the garden and sit with a cup of tea and my puppy.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. “Some days, I get two thousand words down, and it’s complete rubbish. Some days, I get twenty words down, but at least all of them seem right.” And then there is that eternal battle of a writer: “I know a lot of people who write books, and who would like to write books, and everybody says the same thing: it’s hard to believe that it’s any good when you see it on the screen in front of you. People have said to me: ‘How do you know it’s not rubbish? Because everything I write, when I read it back, sounds like rubbish!’ And I say: every single person I know, published or not, has that stomach-churning time, when they are sure what they’ve done is a waste of everybody’s time. But if it’s important to you, keep on going.”
And when she isn’t working or writing? “I adore my family life: I have a husband, a son, a daughter, a puppy and a lizard. We are members of a surf club. The kids do Nippers in the summer; we patrol. I’m in a book club, which means a regular diet of good books I’m required to read.”
When asked what she reads, Overington wanders to her bookshelf, finding it filled with American writers that are still alive (Cormac McCarthy, Tom Wolfe, David Sedaris, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison) and then the classics. “I’ve never studied in the contents of it before; that was interesting!”
She also regularly visits family interstate, gets together with her group of girlfriends, and adores seeing her children enjoy a happy Australian upbringing: “There is always some kid running through the front door or jumping on the trampoline.”
Then there is her sense of humour: “Once a year, we dress the house for Halloween, cover it with cobwebs and stick bones in the garden, and have bats and skeletons on the fence and so on. Children come from everywhere to have a look, and we hand out eyeball suckers and other treats. I hide behind the door in a witch’s cape with a rubber nose on. I notice that plenty of parents come up to the door with their kids. I suppose they are worried that I actually might be crazy.”
Caroline Overington’s love of children is obvious, and writing books in support of their safety is something she’s clearly passionate about, but she says she’s almost done. “I have two more novels to produce: the next one is about the way the Family Court deals with custody battles; and then there will be one more. And then I shall retire from writing novels because I will have said everything I want to say.”
Learn more about what Caroline has to say at her website – carolineoverington.com.
You can read AWO’s review of I Came to Say Goodbye here.