Debra Oswald is one of Australia’s most respected screenwriters and the author of the beautiful Australian novel The Whole Bright Year. For those of you who don’t know, Debra’s screen credits also include: Bananas in Pyjamas, Police Rescue, The Secret Life of Us, and various dramas for ABC TV Education. She is also an author of children’s novels and stage plays. She is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2014 AACTA Award for best TV screenplay for Offspring.
Tell us a little about your book. What inspired you to write it? What was your most joyous moment and your most difficult challenge?
I was mulling over how to write about the panicky urge we can feel to protect the people we love, especially children. I started cooking up a story about a worried mother and her infatuated daughter. When the daughter runs off, the mother abandons her farm to go searching for the girl.
It then struck me that this was a version of the Demeter and Persephone myth. I’ve always loved myths and folk tales, so I wrapped some of that into the story. Originally, I wrote the story as a play – The Peach Season – that first appeared on stage in 2006. But I couldn’t get the story and characters out of my head. There was more material to explore, gaps to fill in, the luxury of more time you can spend in a novel – so I wrote this book.
There are many joyous moments along the way – stumbling across happy accidents during the drafting or really feeling a character come alive in your hands. Later, once the book is out in the world, I always love it when a reader tells me there is a character they had judged harshly at first (in this book, that’s probably Sheena) whom they grow to care about.
The challenges are all about maintaining faith in the work and pushing through the self-loathing urge to give up. (!)
Are you working on anything new? Tell us about it.
I’m working on two new TV drama projects. One – for a UK producer – is a story about a 19-year-old Australian girl who stumbles into a job as a live-in nanny for a seductive, celebrity family in London. The other one is for an Australian producer and it’s a drama about a family of musicians. But such projects are always a long shot, so I’m not placing much hope on either. Meanwhile, I’m mulling over a couple of different ideas for a new novel and agonising about what would be the right story for me to tackle next.
Does food and cooking feature much in your book?
Yes! There are moments when characters bite into luscious peaches straight from the tree. There’s a Christmas 1976 feast – with a mixture of traditional Hungarian food cooked by Roza and hideous 1970s try-hard dishes cooked by her cranky daughter-in-law, Heather.
Roza takes pleasure in cooking good food for herself, her adult son and to sustain her bereaved friend Celia.
Near the end of the book there’s a scene where Joe buys piles of takeaway schnitzels, coleslaw and cherry strudel from Una’s Café in Darlinghurst as comfort food for everyone after a number of traumatic events have left them reeling.
In a Gold Coast nightclub, Sheena serves Oyster Kilpatrick, Liebfraumilch, Slimy Maria and Fruit Tingle cocktails. I could go on … so much food in my books!
Do you love cooking? What are your favourite family recipes?
I love cooking. I enjoy putting delicious healthy (mostly) dinner on the table for Richard and me on just an ordinary night at home. I also love doing more elaborate dinners for guests. I enjoy the planning beforehand and then being immersed in the process.
I go through different phases with favourites. At the moment, we’ve had a run on cooking Mexican food and Sri Lankan curries. I quite like doing Crepes Suzette for people because there’s that little moment of drama with the flaming – that’s the show biz in me!
Tell us a story about yourself that revolves around food. For example, what was your favourite food as a child? What’s been your biggest cooking disaster/triumph? Who taught you to cook?
I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, near Parramatta. My mother was English and worked full-time, so she had neither the interest nor the time to cook with much variety or flair. The food in our house was pretty plain and boring.
Then again, we ate healthy because my father was a ‘health nut’ – so even in the 1960s, it was grainy bread, lots of vegies and no soft drink for us. Mountains of passionfruit, citrus and spinach from our garden.
Then when my older sister hit her teens, she took up cooking, and food in our house suddenly got way more interesting. We both started experimenting with ‘ethnic’ food, garlic was embraced and it was great.
What is your favourite cookbook? Why?
My favourite would be the black folder into which I slip recipes I’ve collected over many years – dishes friends have cooked for me, recipes I’ve printed off the net or torn out of magazines, plus my variations on dishes.
Favourite delicious treat or dessert?
Favourite delicious treat or dessert? Passionfruit Delicious is my latest simple favourite but it changes all the time.