Inside the house Richard’s partner of 40 years, creator of hit TV series Offspring, award-winning playwright and best-selling novelist Debra Oswald is busy with The Weekly’s styling team, while sleeping soundly in his mother (daughter-in-law) Shelley’s arms on the sofa is the couple’s brand new and first grandchild, Cassian. Wandering between the family throng making sure everything’s in order is the prince of this suburban idyll, Clancy. The handsome five-year-old kelpie needs no introduction, he’s just as famous as his owners thanks to his regular newspaper column and recent book of letters Love, Clancy. All in all, it’s a pretty regular family scene, which I later realise is the glue at the heart of Richard and Debra’s rather special relationship.
I’m here to talk about Deb’s latest novel, a psychological thriller about guilt, responsibility, friendship and yes, family. It’s a roller-coaster ride, expertly crafted with a teasing moral dilemma at its heart – is murder ever justifiable? You may think the answer is obvious, but The Family Doctor offers genuine pause for thought.
The story opens with a grisly scene as GP Paula discovers her best friend Stacey lying in a pool of blood at her house with Stacey’s two children curled up together against the dining room skirting board. Paula rushes to save 10-year-old Cameron and eight-year-old Poppy, but they have already been shot in the head. As she struggles to find any sign of life, their father Matt lurches into view, lifts his rifle and blasts his head off.
This chilling first chapter crackles with the dramatic skills Debra has honed over decades and could equally be a scene from a TV series or play. But next it shifts into a thought-provoking thriller, leaving philosophical hot potatoes smouldering in the reader’s mind as the twisting plot unfolds.
“I was thinking about one of the [real-life] cases where the children were killed and about if you were the doctor for that family and you’d spent your whole professional life caring for little children. I feel quite emotional just talking about it,” says Debra who, I later discover, always becomes deeply enmeshed with her characters.
“I thought about afterwards and if you were there looking after the next little children who might be in danger, what might start turning over in your mind. That was the imaginative switch that got me thinking.”
As she talks Debra’s eyes roll back and I can feel her creative cogs spinning, she’s right there in the midst of her tale, living her fiction. In much of her work the seed comes from real life and in this case it was the horrific epidemic of domestic violence cutting a swathe through Australian households. “I would sit in bed in the morning reading the paper, watching the news – another one, another one – feeling this helpless rage. I didn’t know how I could write about it because I didn’t want to write as a victim – because I’m not – and I didn’t want it to be some titillating story about a psychopathic murderer. So I started from the position that I was in, which was as an anguished observer and how that rage might tip you over into doing something about it, however unwise that might be.”
Debra works alone in her home office tapping away at her computer, conjuring up characters and plots using Richard as a sounding board all the way through. “I think when you look at those cases, particularly where there’s been an inquest so you know that the woman had been desperately trying to seek help from everybody in the system and the system totally failed her, I think everyone’s mad as hell about that,” says Richard. And as we launch into a discussion of legal stuff-ups and flawed patriarchal systems, I can see exactly how these two work – bouncing around ideas.
Debra has been thinking up stories since she was a little girl. “I loved going to the Parramatta Library once a week. My dad used to take us in our pyjamas and I’d settle in. My parents would take me to the theatre as well. I thought it was so thrilling and the idea that I would get to make up stories seemed exciting but also very possible because I was so little I didn’t understand that that was quite a difficult thing.” Debra poured her story ideas into her Olivetti Lettera 32. The typewriter was recently put out for the council clean-up – “I regret that now,” she adds.
Debra’s mum was a ‘ten-pound Pom’ from South London; her father from a working-class Melbourne family and both supported their daughter’s endeavours. “They were both smart, ambitious people who didn’t get an education so were quite ambitious that their daughters [Debra and sister Kate, who is now a GP] would and also that we would have quite a culturally rich life even though we lived in deepest Carlingford [Sydney].”
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