Things like severe crippling injuries or diseases don’t typically make great fodder for a funny book. But for Ian Simpson, who has lived nearly half a century in a wheelchair, it’s as natural as writing about cups of tea or supermarkets. To find out the wheel story (cringe) we put some questions to him…
So Ian, your book is Rolling with the Punches – tell us more…
“It’s a humorous book about spinal injury and cancer…”
Seriously? Not ANOTHER one…haha
“No really! It's a story about someone who has a spinal injury at a young age, who grows up, who adapts to life, who represents Australia in two sports, has a job, has a wife, does all the ‘normal’ things, and who in general is perfectly happy with life.
“The book also examines, and challenges some of the public attitudes towards those of us with a disability. Over the years I've developed a few philosophies on life. For example, I can't stand the whole self-pity thing and I'd like to think I'm a ‘glass half full' sort of person. I mean, when you've been in a wheelchair for 45 years, you don't think anything of it, it's just part of life. It certainly doesn't get me down. But what did get me down, and what really tests some of those philosophies in the second half of Rolling with the Punches was 8 1/2 months of cancer treatment.”
So this book came about after completing our fabulous Life Writing course with Patti Miller here at the Australian Writers’ Centre. What would you say was the most important thing Patti taught you?
“Can I cheat and nominate two things?”
“As a first-timer, it was great to get feedback on my writing both from Patti and from the rest of the class. It was favourable most of the time, but it was constructive all of the time. So I was pleased that the extracts I read out seemed to strike a chord with a potential audience.
“The harder part was putting all the writing together in such a way that it became a meaningful and readable narrative. And it's here that Patti's advice on structure, both during the course and later on when she edited my manuscript were invaluable.”
She’s a legend. But let’s shine that limelight back to you again and talk timelines. How long, from idea through research to finished product, did this book take you?
“All up, it was probably between about one-and-a-half to two years to write. I'm not a very fast writer, and I'm really trying to break the habit of trying to get everything word perfect the first time. Then there was the nine months while the Finch prize was judged. From about June this year, it's been go, go, go in the sometimes terrifying but mainly exciting world of publishing.”
Sometimes terrifying but mainly exciting – not a bad book title in itself. So, this is your first book — was writing a book based on your life ever something you considered previously?
“I've always enjoyed writing and I'd toyed with the idea of writing a book. It was a CT-scan I had in April of 2011—a year after enduring the nightmare of oesophageal cancer—that was the real impetus. Oncologists use quaint little euphemisms like ‘areas of interest' when they debrief you after scans and tests, and after my CT in 2011, I was told that it had revealed an area of interest that would need further examination by a PET scan. This is a procedure where they inject you with a radioactive solution and wrap you up in a sheet of foil until you feel like a barbecued barramundi.”
“Given that I'd only stopped chemo 12 months earlier, those days were quite long enough for the seeds of déjà vu to quickly mature into little trees of fear. As I said, I'd often wondered if there was a book in me, so I decided that I better get my act together just in case I was on borrowed time.”
And so to deciding what to write about…
“For years I'd also thought about writing something light-hearted for the benefit of those who still have fairly antiquated views about people in wheelchairs. So the book was also, in part, a ‘declaration of independence’. I was in a lift few months ago with an oldish lady. She turned to me and asked, ‘Did you come to the shops all by yourself?' I turned away and winced, and between gritted teeth said, ‘Yes.' To which she said, ‘Aren't you a clever boy.' I wondered if I should roll over and wag my tongue. I think extreme attitudes like these are pretty rare these days. Rolling with the Punches is me doing my little bit to hopefully make them extinct.”
Yes, and we’re sure that lift encounter showed you that life has its ups and downs (badoom chish…) Ahem, so do you have an agent? If so, how did you get one to represent you?
“No, but I have had a lot of support from a small Sydney company called A&A Book Publishing. From my experience they are especially useful for first-time authors.”
And possibly one of the first people would find in a phone book. So how did your book deal come about?
“First I entered the Finch Memoir Competition, which I didn't win. I then sent pitches to a couple of the book publishers as well as some smaller ones. Joy Aimée at A & A got back to me after my first contact and by 24 hours later she had read the whole manuscript. After a couple of meetings, a steep learning curve in the field of publishing and some advice from a few people in the business I sign a contract. About four months later and I'm a published author. Yikes!”
Did you have a writing routine?
“What's a routine? No, I did not have a ‘typical’ day. I'd try to set aside 30-60 minutes after I got home from work, but it was by no means a regular commitment. The closest thing I got to routine was a couple of hours most Sunday afternoons. The beauty of writing most of the book on an iPad is that I could quickly jot down something whenever I had an idea or an inspiration. I wrote some of Rolling with the Punches on the train for example. I even woke up in the middle of the night a couple of times and got a few paragraphs down. Hey, it worked for Keith Richards!”
What's next for you? What are you working on now?
“I'm working on steering clear of the C-word for starters. In writing terms, I've got two ideas in mind. One is a novel based on an actual murder case during the Great Depression that will also see some flashbacks to World War I. To this end I'm currently doing an online creative writing course with the Australian Writers’ Centre as well as recently doing a fascinating seminar on writing historical fiction.
“On a completely different track, I'd love to research and write a biography of a remarkable man called Sir Ludwig Guttmann. He is considered the Father of the Paralympics, but before he was doing ground-breaking work with spinal injury patients, there's an equally significant story regarding his life and the times under Nazi rule as a German Jew.”
Wow, that’ll keep you busy. So what's your advice for those who would like to tell the story of their own journey?
“I'm not sure after just one book if I'm ready to get on to the pedestal and become advice-giver. I tried to be a sponge, in other words listen to everything, listen to experienced writers, read books, both the ‘how to' sort as well as books in the genre in which you're writing… and do Patti's life writing course! You learn so much, because like I said, I had a collection of ideas down on paper before I did the course but that were all over the place. There was no structure, there was no real narrative. Hopefully now there are.”
Ian’s book, Rolling with the Punches, is out now. Available in all good bookstores and online.