Al Campbell: From full-time mum and carer to published author of ‘The Keepers’

Author Al Campbell

As a full-time mum and carer, Al Campbell reached a point where she knew it was time to do something for herself.

“Every week felt crammed with occupational therapy appointments, speech pathology, music therapy, behavioural therapy, visits to psychologists and developmental paediatricians,” Al recalls. “For the sake of my soul (and my head – what was left of it), I knew I needed to do something that was just for me – that spoke to my life instead of to my reality, and for me, that was words. Books. Writing.”

Craving a flexible option, Al enrolled in a creative writing course at the Australian Writers' Centre – and then another and another. Each course was an opportunity to draw on the expertise and advice of the tutors and other writers, until finally she wrote ‘The End’ on her first manuscript.

That story, The Keepers, has now been published by University of Queensland Press.

“Enrolling in those AWC courses made all the difference in the world, the best thing I ever did – I wouldn’t be published now if I hadn’t! I emerged a better, more thoughtful, more intentional writer after each and every course,” Al says. “And in September of 2020, only five months after finishing my Write Your Novel program, and four months after typing The End, the University of Queensland Press offered to publish my book.”

Never too late to start

Al’s two sons both have complex support needs, so time has always been a rare commodity for her. A university course was out of the question, but she knew she wanted the support of a writing community while learning her craft. 

“In 2016, Nikki Gemmell wrote a column called ‘Never too late to start’ about writers I admired like Annie Proulx, Elizabeth Jolley, Anita Brookner and others, all of whom only began their careers in their 40s and 50s. That column started me thinking that maybe, just maybe, time hadn’t yet run out,” Al says. 

“So I took the plunge and enrolled in an AWC course. I started at the beginning because, well, that’s where I was. And it was perfect, exactly what I needed – a course that was flexible, affordable, self-paced, with lots of helping hands.”

Al worked her way through the AWC’s foundation creative writing courses before taking up a mentorship with Cathie Tasker and then completing the Write Your Novel program. 

And never too early to write!

“Early on during the Write Your Novel program, I read about Toni Morrison, a single mother, about how she used to get up at four in the morning to write. I thought she would be a fine example to try to emulate, so I set my alarm and had a go, and found that writing between four and seven in the morning really works for me. The boys are still asleep, the whole street is mostly still in bed, and I find that the words and ideas really flow during those early hours. The muse perches on the end of my bed, plays his soulful, cowboy harmonica and is quite charming and helpful! Seriously, it’s my best writing time.”

One of Al’s sons had become seriously ill while she was working on her manuscript and she wrote a large part of it at her son’s bedside at the Queensland Children’s Hospital – a writing residency she doesn’t recommend! But once it was completed, she wasn’t sure what to do next, so she turned to Angela Slatter – who is another of our presenters – for advice. Angela had previously helped Al with two short stories that had gone on to be published.

“Angela considered my manuscript ready to be queried, so she recommended me to two publishers she considered likely to be interested in my story,” Al says. That was when the publishing offer from UQP came through. “And, yes, a glass (or three) of stars may have been consumed that Friday night!”

The Keepers by Al CampbellSetting sail with her writing

Al’s debut novel The Keepers is the story of Jay, who is devoted to the care of her teenage twins, and her lifelong half-real friend Keep, who steps out of a pile of books one day when Jay is a child and in serious trouble. The novel deals with the serpentine systems that carers have to navigate, the damage done by parents who can’t love, and the resilience of those whose stories mostly go untold.

Although it deals with topics close to her heart, publishing a book was not something Al had thought was an option for her.

“I well and truly believed that ship had sailed,” Al told us. “It had been a childhood dream, of course, ever since dear darling teacher, Mrs Pam Loman, in seventh grade (back when the Earth was flat) read my nurse-spy-WWII short story out to the class and turned to me and said, ‘You should be a writer one day, Alayne.’ I worshipped that lady so much I probably would have ended up driving B-double trucks if that's what she’d advised me to do! I would love to track her down, tell her I finally took her advice. Many writers would, no doubt, have a similar story. But, anyway, I let life get very much in the way and I did nothing about pursuing my dream. I think that because of the way I was raised, I’ve never been very sure of myself. As a result, I’ve always been a bit of a drifter.”

Finding a community of experts and fellow writers gave Al the grounding and encouragement she needed to finally make room on her dance card to write.

“I met some wonderful, kind people doing these courses – both tutors and classmates. New forever friends, hopefully. They and the AWC were there for me, encouraging me, when absolutely no-one else was.”

Al firmly believes in being proactive in her development as a writer. She listened to every bit of advice from the courses, and from the So you want to be a writer podcast, chasing down snippets of information and pursuing opportunities. As she says, “The course doesn’t write our books for us.” It was through her hard work and dedication that Al was able to finish her manuscript, all while caring for her children. And by doing courses with the AWC, Al found her voice and belief in herself.

“At the end of my Write Your Novel course my tutor, Bernadette Foley, told me: ‘It’s time to get your work out there, to get your name out there, as a writer.’ Her words lifted me up, yes, but they also took me by surprise. She genuinely believed in my writing, in my book. I think she believed in them more than I did. Without her encouragement, I may never have had the confidence to show The Keepers to anyone. I would still be drifting, that space on my long, long dance card, still empty.” 

Courses completed at AWC:
Creative Writing Stage 1
Novel Writing Essentials
Write Your Novel
Fiction Mentorship
Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder
2 Hours to Scrivener Power
Make Time to Write
Inside Publishing: What You Need to Know to Get Published
Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers

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