Retiree escapees inspire latest novel
Love letters between her parents and a real-life story of a couple overseas running away from their retirement home, is the inspiration behind Lisa Ireland’s sixth novel The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan.
After the Ocean Grove author discovered photos of her parents and letters penned during the early ‘60s, she remembered the retiree escapees and wondered ‘What would’ve happened if they made it out for good?’.
“This novel has been two years in the making from the first moment I had the idea, to the book being on the shelf. That’s a big longer than normal,” Ms Ireland said.
“I had some time off and went overseas. Normally a book is about a year in the making, the first draft takes about six months and I do about three months of research beforehand.
“Then the next six months is spent on edits, firstly my own then the publishers. It’s a few months going back and forth polishing it until it’s perfect and then it’s off to the printer.”
The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan sees 79-year-old protagonist Shirley plan to kidnap her husband Frank from the dementia unit of his nursing home and take him to the beach, where they had happy times in their youth.
“I have a particular interest in aged care because my grandfather had Alzheimer’s, he lived into his 90s. I spent a lot of time with him and the last two years of his life was in an aged care home.
“While the home was really lovely and the staff were great, he was very unhappy there. There’s absolutely no suggestion he wasn’t well cared for, but it was more the experience itself.”
With a Royal Commission into aged care, stories such as this speak to the way society treats the elderly have “never been more relevant”.
“In this book I explore the shortcomings of aged care without throwing workers under the bus, who by and large I think so a great job and are well-intentioned. It’s the system that lets us down, not the people at the coalface.”
Ms Ireland said she’s “happiest” with this book, a product of experience gained across her writing career, including a decision seven years ago to become a full-time author.
“For me personally I really struggle with self-belief so I’m not a person that’s ever really in love with their novel. You have two types of writers – some love their work and I wish I was that person.”
Ms Ireland said her latest instalment is the most “structurally complex” to date.
“I couldn’t have written this book six years ago. Even though it’s the most complex story I’ve ever written, it was also the easiest in terms of flow. I was really passionate about the story.
“I found it just fell onto the page. Since I’ve been promoting the book I’ve had to read bits out loud and when I’m reading I think ‘I can’t believe I wrote this’.”
From visiting the places mentioned in the book, to eating at the same eateries, a lot of research goes into Ms Ireland’s books.
“I go to long lengths for my research, in this book they go on the road trip in a Kombi down the south coast into Victoria through Gippsland and back,” she said.
“Although we didn’t get a Kombi, we drove to every location mentioned and if they ate somewhere, we ate there. Everything in the book is authentic, I tend to choose a setting I know well. It’s simple, if you don’t know, you don’t know.”
For her readers, the mother of three said she hopes they enjoy the uplifting novel about love, commitment and sacrifice.
“I really hope people will see ageing is not something to be feared, and that older people in our society have lots to contribute.
“We shouldn’t write people off once the turn 50, 60, 70 or any age. It’s important we don’t lose sense of who we are, it’s not about how old we are.”