Author Steve Hawke, son of Bob and Hazel Hawke, has written a second novel, Out of Time (Fremantle Press), exploring the sensitive topic of dementia. The book, about Anne and Joe, a couple in a great relationship, who suddenly have to confront the news that Joe has dementia, is dedicated to Hazel, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Steve grew up in Melbourne and in 1978, aged 19, he moved to the NT and then the Kimberley. He stayed there for almost 15 years, captivated by the country and its people, working for Aboriginal communities and organisations. Steve’s prior novel, The Valley, published a year ago, is now on its third print run.
Steve chats to The Starfish about Out Of Time.
Steve, what prompted this book?
Through personal experience, I’d come to the belief that if I were to succumb to dementia/Alzheimer’s, I did not want – for myself or my loved ones – to go through the whole long, sad process of letting it “run its course.” But I found myself wondering what this actually meant in practice if it were to become real, rather than hypothetical. In this sense the book is, as I say in the Author’s Note at the beginning, a working through of a conceptual dilemma in the foirm of a novel.
It’s exploring some harrowing topics; was it difficult to write at times?
It did have its moments. It still does at times; I find myself tearing up re-reading some passages. But those are just moments. On the whole, I love the business of writing a novel; of creating characters and a story that means something and is true to those characters. The positives outweigh the negatives, by large measure.
It’s dedicated to your late mum, Hazel. Did you learn a lot about the disease through watching her live through it?
It was watching Mum go through “the Big A” as she called it, and being part of the family process of dealing with that, that brought me into contact with the whole world of dementia and caused me to hold the opinions I do. I can’t say I learnt a lot about the disease of dementia, per se. The medical side of things is of marginal interest to me, beyond the fact that it is not a disease that is curable, or even manageable; it is an inevitable downward spiral. It is the human dimensions that are important.
So many of us will end up watching a loved one succumb to dementia; have you any advice to help deal with this?
Keep on loving them.
With the topic of euthanasia currently being debated in the WA Parliament, what’s your message to politicians?
I am not a preacher or a message giver; at least not in my novels. I see shades of grey and complexities at every turn, and these are what I seek to explore. I do note that neither the Victorian legislation, or the the legislation working its way through our parliament offer anything at all to dementia sufferers or their families. In fact they are specifically excluded. I do accept that this is extraordinarily difficult territory to define and specify and legislate. But broadly speaking I believe that sufferers and those closest to them should be left to find answers that are right for their particular beliefs and circumstances.
You received great accolades for your first adult novel The Valley, which became a best-seller. Were you surprised at its success?
How do I answer that? I do believe it was, is, a good book, and a novel that can offer its readers not just a big story, but an insight into the world of remote Indigenous communities that is unfamiliar to most Australians. I am pleased at how it has gone.
How do you think Out Of Time will be received?
It has not been out long, but so far the responses have been good. And there is no doubt that it is dealing with an issue that is very real to very many people. So I can only hope. I have given the novel an unofficial sub-title of ‘A Bassendean Love Story’. It is set in a very familiar world of suburban Perth, and explores a long term loving relationship and a family that is full of warmth and humour. And people seem to be getting that, which is great.
Sympathy to you Steve, for having lost your father, Bob Hawke. You have clearly followed your own, very different, path in life. If you don’t mind me asking, how much of your father do you see in yourself?
It’s not something I’ve thought about to tell you the truth. He loved me like a father, and I loved him like a son. As you say, we’ve followed very different paths, and each respected the other’s choices.
Are you especially proud of something in particular he achieved in his career?
Many things. I was proud of his work as a union leader just as much as Prime Minister, and loved belting out the union anthem ‘Solidarity Forever’ at his memorial.
What did Bob think of The Valley (assuming he read it)?
He was a bit past reading a big, long novel by the time it was published.
I’ve also had a relative with Alzheimer’s (my grandmother) and as it can be hereditary I sometimes fear I will end up with this disease. Do you also fear being in the same boat?
My aunt had it as well as Mum. Of course you think about the possibility. That is what led me down the path of writing this book. But hey – there’s not much you can do about it is there?
Are you optimistic that future generations with dementia will have better systems in place to help? (eg assisted dying, better medication?)
There seems to be a report almost once a week about the latest “breakthrough” in dementia research. I gave up reading these stories a long time ago. If they do come up with better treatments that can halt or slow down the relentless progress of the disease, that would be bloody wonderful. One day they probably will. But I’m not holding my breath.
All the indications at present seem to be that there is an ever growing wave of sufferers, and I do fear that our health and aged care system is going to really struggle to cope. Between that and the reality that the assisted dying legislation is probably never going to apply to dementia sufferers – I’m sorry, but I have to say that I am not especially optimistic. Individuals and families are going to have to keep finding their own ways through it all.
What are you now working on Steve?
I’m working with the great Bill Dempsey, of West Perth fame, to help write his autobiography. It’s good fun getting lost in the world of footy again, 25 years on from the Polly Farmer biography. And I’m in the early stages of shaping novel number three, playing with characters and sketching out ideas. I hope I’ve got a few more books left in me yet!