Right before she started grade seven, Jessie Cole’s older sister committed suicide.
The traumatic event cleaved her childhood in two.
But far from shying away from the topic, she has now written a book about it.
A beautiful, lyrical memoir of loss and healing, Cole’s Staying has garnered rave reviews in the major Australian newspapers, and has drawn praise from authors like Tim Winton and Anna Krien.
She will speak at two panels at the Tamar Valley Writer’s Festival this weekend: Who decides? Ending life or ending suffering, and Learning to fly: emerging authors.
Cole believes the emerging authors session will prove illuminating for up-and-coming writers looking to get published themselves – particularly when it comes to knowing exactly how drawn-out the process actually is.
“I think it was probably about ten years between when I first started writing and when the book came out,” she said.
“And that’s such a common timeline.
“The finding-a-publisher part was long, there were lots of weird near-misses and things like that, and then when I actually signed my publishing contract, it took a whole two years for the book to come out.”
As well as for talent, Cole stands out among writers for her location.
Far from the pressure cooker of the Melbourne and Sydney writing scenes, she lives on a secluded property in coastal New South Wales. It’s the same house she grew up in, where Staying is set.
In that sense, she has something in common with many Tasmanian artistic hopefuls.
Separated by the Bass Strait, amateur creatives may feel they are without the advantages of the lively metropolitan publishing scenes.
However, Cole believes this is actually an advantage.
Isolation from the cities is also, frequently, isolation from the pitfalls of constant comparison and groupthink.
“Sometimes I feel like a lot of the writers that are congregating in the cities have so much networking going on that it’s harder for them to get work done – they’re so busy!” she said.
“I do think there’s an advantage to being disconnected from that more social side of writing because you just have more time.
“Also, you’re not as aware of what everybody else is achieving. If you’re surrounded by all these people who seem like they’re doing really well it can make you feel really inhibited.
“I like the process of writing to be something that’s pleasurable for me, and the difference between something being pleasurable and hard work is often to do with that degree of pressure and expectation. So I prefer to work as far removed from those weights as I can.”
Living in a regional area didn’t prevent her from getting her name out there, she added.
“When I started submitting to all those literary magazines, before I had any kind of standing at all, I got things published,” she said.
“This was when I was living in the middle of nowhere and no one knew anything about me.
“So I think they are actually taking on you on the value of your work.”
The other topic Cole will speak on at the writer’s festival is death.
It’s one she is intimately familiar with.
After her sister, Zoe, committed suicide, she wanted to speak about her emotions, even though she was only a child. But she found it was other people who weren’t able to listen.
Faced with the enormity of the subject matter, they would react to the prospect of discussing it with palpable discomfort – even, Cole said, terror.
But in literary form, she is able to communicate with an audience in a way that they can control, and in doing so, they are able to absorb the story on their own terms.
“A book is a much safer way to hear a story because you can read it at your own pace, you can read it in a private place, you can take your time to digest the information and you can stop if it’s bothering you,” she said.
“I think, culturally, we’re actually really bad at talking about grief, and about loss, and about death, and especially about suicide.
“What’s happened for the most part since publishing the book is that people have been really open and willing to listen.
“It has felt incredible, really.”
IN OTHER NEWS: September 18: The Examiner subscription package