Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel Other Houses is a masterful and tender story about people who live from payday to payday. In this Q&A originally published by Good Reading, Paddy shares the inspiration behind her stunning book.
Your novel provides insight into the lives of a family who are attempting to break their cycle of poverty for their child – what inspired it?
I’ve taught in all sorts of situations from community houses to university and I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t want a better life for their child, but I have encountered many whose circumstances have forced their child to drop out or fail to complete assignments or just sink under the weight of their difficult lives. There are plenty of novels and stories about the despair of poverty, addiction and violence. I wanted to write a story of hope, where good people make sacrifices and there is light, a possibility that their child will make it.
Throughout your novel you look at themes surrounding social and economic disparity – how does one’s socio-economic background impact their access to opportunities?
If you’re working on a low income, if you’re unemployed, if you can only get casual shifts driving an Uber or delivering meals, these are some of the things you can’t or can barely afford: healthy food; reliable transport; dental care; health care for chronic disease; clothes that last; haircuts; and importantly, loans. How do you get ahead if the only loan you can get is a payday loan with sky-high interest? So you can’t fix those teeth, buy that car, get a mortgage. And when you go for a job in your cheap clothes and your crooked teeth and bad haircut, no matter how clean and tidy and enthusiastic you are, you can’t compete against the well-nourished, well-groomed person on the seat beside you.
In what ways can we bridge social and economic disparity in our communities?
How many articles, academic papers, white papers, policy documents have been written about this, I wonder. It takes the will of government to make change that would address this problem. On a personal level we might be able to sponsor a child, help a neighbour, give to a charity, but that won’t lift a whole class out of long-term unemployment or low-paid, unreliable casual work. Slogans like “If you have a go you get a go” make out that it is the fault of the individual if they don’t get ahead. That’s a shocking insult to the people who are working hard, being paid a pittance, unable to afford childcare or even proper school uniforms. We need to do better as a nation.
In the novel you look at Lily’s apprehension at going to the police – why did you think it was important to highlight this distrust?
You know that awful guilty feeling when a police car starts up its lights and siren behind you? Did I run a red light? A stop sign? Are my taillights broken? Imagine the feeling if, in the past, you had experienced unpleasant dealings with the police. Say your child had shoplifted, or you had been at fault in an accident. It’s a vicious cycle. Communities that have frequent dealings with the police don’t trust the police because the police don’t trust them.
Lily and Shannon work as cleaners – what does someone’s home tell us about who they are?
So much! I remember even as a child going into a new friend’s house and realising, Wow, they do things differently here. The minute we enter someone’s home for the first time, we “read” the house and the people inside. Formal or casual, kitsch or elegant, clean or grubby, new stuff or old and that’s only the beginning. Reading isn’t necessarily judging, but we can’t help interpreting what we see.
Both Lily and Shannon have experienced dangerous moments in their work – why are workers in this profession vulnerable?
For a start, manual labour is dangerous for the body. But you’re probably talking about women who work in vulnerable positions. I think the dangers for women in any profession and in any situation have become very clear over the last couple of years thanks to the courageous women who are now speaking out. I salute them and thank them for shining a light on what we all face.
What kind of research did you do to capture the day-to-day struggles of Janks and Lily?
I have worked as a cleaner so that research comes from experience, although I’m sure almost everyone will recognise cleaning delights like collecting the gluey hair from the shower strainer. I also made sure to check my work on the bikies with a person who has connections in that world – who shall remain unnamed! As for the struggle of getting by day-to-day, I’ve lived in many places with friends and neighbours who were just keeping their head above water, as well as experiencing a fairly precarious life myself a couple of times. It’s a lot easier to fall into poverty than to climb out of it.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I’d love to be one of those “get up at dawn and write for three hours” people, but I’m a time snatcher. I write in short intense bursts and am often surprised at what I’ve written when I come back to the page. It’s part of the joy of writing for me – where did that come from? Sure enough, when I examine it deeply, it will have come from something I read or saw or heard, sometimes years ago, that has been composting inside. So my writing process involves a great deal of rewriting as I search for the connections and deep veins that hold a work together.