Book celebrates difference, and Ballarat

July 3, 2022 BY

Secret world: Robbi Neal has been inspired by her mother, and Ballarat, while writing of her latest book. Photo: SUPPLIED

AS a young mother, Robbi Neal was diagnosed with cancer, and told by doctors that she only had a twenty per cent chance of surviving the next three months of her life.

“My youngest child was three, the next was five, and the others were teenagers. I realised the youngest two weren’t going to know who I was if I died, so I wrote a memoir for them,” she said.

The resulting book, Sunday Best, was published after winning a HarperCollins/Varuna manuscript award.

Neal recovered from the disease, and her career as a writer took off.

The Secret World of Connie Starr is the local author’s latest novel, not only written in Ballarat, but set here too.

“I love Ballarat and have lived here since 2001. It’s a wonderful, fantastic place, and a lot of Connie Starr happens around central Ballarat,” Neal said.

“My mother grew up in Ballarat, went to Dana Street Primary School and Ballarat High School, and my grandfather was the minister at the Baptist Church in Dawson Street.

“Quite a bit happens around the Baptist Church and the hospital in the story, the Yarrowee River has a strong thread through the book, and a character works at Faull’s Shoes, so there’s a lot of Ballarat in there.”

The character of Connie Starr is inspired by Neal’s mother, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder late in her life.

Neal said she has crafted this secret world with an aim of celebrating the differences within people, like her own mother.

“Often what is the weakest point about ourselves, and what separates us from people, is often also the very thing that can be our strength.

“I’ve been told the characters are quirky and different, but there is a real respect for them in the writing, and that’s really important,” she said.

“I’ve often felt like an outsider watching others live life. I grew up in a strictly religious family with a father that was really violent and a mother with mental health issues, so this makes me want to write about characters that also feel like they don’t quite fit in.”