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The hard stuff [published in WQ]

I have a reputation for doing the hard stuff. Nothing to do with drugs: I just seem to be drawn towards tackling stories that involve grief and trauma. That kind of writing takes me through some perilous terrain.

Why do we do it, to ourselves and to others? Why do writers feel compelled to pick at wounds and expose their rawness? When done well, sharing the grittiness of life and death and everything in between draws writer and reader together, makes us feel less alone. I find that readers respond most warmly to the work that has been most confronting, in terms of both subject and process. If there were no sweat and tears involved, I’ve probably missed the mark.

The first book I wrote was a baptism by fire. Sophie’s Journey is the story of Sophie Delezio, who nearly died at the age of two when a car ploughed into her childcare centre and burst into flames. Two years later, Sophie was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing and again suffered near-fatal injuries. Sophie’s Journey is told through the voices of the people around Sophie: family, friends, doctors, nurses, passers-by who came to help at both accidents.

The second accident had happened only months before I started writing Sophie’s Journey and the events were still fresh in people’s minds. Many of the doctors and nurses I interviewed were moved to tears in describing Sophie’s treatment. Yet I didn’t want to write a book about horrific injuries and gory medical procedures. What I wanted to do was unwrap what was special about Sophie that brought her through two near-fatal situations. I also wanted to tease out what was not special about her: the qualities that we can all draw on in the face of calamity.

To achieve both of those things, I knew I had to frame my questions with great care. In working out how to do that, I came across the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (www.dartcenter.org). It’s a goldmine of resources on interviewing survivors of violence and tragedy, ways to avoid subjecting already-traumatised individuals to more suffering, and the writer’s ethical obligations in post-trauma interviews. Read more