Centre for Stories

Meg Gatland-Veness

"As a teacher, I see every day the struggles that teenagers face and what they have to deal with before they even get into the classroom."

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a bookMeg Gatland-Veness attended the University of Newcastle where she studied a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Secondary Teaching. Meg has been writing stories for as long as she can remember and reading them even longer. She always carries a notebook with her in case inspiration strikes or she encounters a beautiful new word. Equal to her love of words is her passion for championing local youths and fostering important conversation about issues facing young Australians. When she’s not writing novels, Meg is a high school drama teacher who channels her creativity into choreographing and directing musicals, writing poetry, singing and dancing. Her novel, I Had Such Friends, is available for purchase here.

I Had Such Friends – Synopsis
When Charlie Parker dies, it affects everyone who knew him. Everyone, that is, except for seventeen-year-old Hamish Day, the boy who lives on a cabbage farm and only has one friend. But Hamish soon finds himself pulled into the complicated lives of the people left behind. Among them is Annie Bower, the prettiest girl in school. As he uncovers startling truths about his peers, his perspectives on friendship, love, grief and the tragic power of silence are forever altered.Black and white portrait of a woman

Where did this story come from?

I wrote this story about five years ago. I started it when I had just finished university and I wrote the second half when I was living in London. A lot of the novel was very much inspired by my own experiences at high school. When I was there, a girl from my year died. She had a stroke. The opening scenes with the year advisor making the announcement and sitting in the staff common room were straight from that day. As for the story itself, I came up with the characters first, especially Hamish and Peter. I won’t say that I set out to change the world and I didn’t ever expect to get published. But, I was also sick of the normality of so many things. Of everyday homophobia, unspoken abuse and accepted harassment. So, I guess I wrote it as a way of speaking out against things I feel passionate about.

I’ve witnessed, and experienced, similar issues in my country town in Western Australia; but I’ve also noticed an increasing attention to the rural Australian experience in our zeitgeist, is this something you were adamant about contributing to?

I grew up in a small town called Milton and I wrote very much from my own experiences of small town life. The high school in the novel is also based a lot on my own high school and what I saw and experienced there on a daily basis. I’m also a huge fan of Australian literature; most of my favourite authors are Australian and I have always loved to read stories that are relevant to my own context. I Had Such Friends was also inspired by other Australian novels such as Jasper Jones, Tomorrow When the War Began, Seven Little Australians and The Secret River. I can’t say it was something I was adamant about, but the story always needed the small town setting to work. It was essential for the characters to feel trapped in that claustrophobic space.

This claustrophobia produced your protagonist, Hamish Day; he is frightfully but hilariously honest, often self-deprecating and occasionally self-loathing. Why did you construct him this way?

Hamish can be a stereotypical, teenage nerd. He is, in a lot of ways, a male version of me, and many of my friends, at high school. Now that I’m a teacher, I see everyday the self-loathing that teenagers experience. I have seen that Hamish’s self-deprecating humour is very common, as it is often easier to say these things yourself so that other people don’t. Hamish is a skinny, pale, short and weak seventeen-year-old, with one friend, who lives on a farm. So it’s only natural that he makes fun of himself. Hamish’s voice throughout the novel highlights his insecurities about his shortcomings, especially when they are thrown into sharp relief by Peter Bridges, the football player, whom he idolises. Hamish pokes fun at himself to make people laugh because, unfortunately, it’s the only way he knows.

Hamish also has a problematic view of others, and the world more generally—in relation to gender norms, for example. He does, however, develop throughout the novel. Did he develop in the way, or to the extent, that you anticipated?

Hamish does have a negative outlook on life, especially life on the farm and in the town where he lives. This was a core component of his characterisation throughout the novel. His negative, self-deprecating and antisocial ways, however, do start to dissolve as the story progresses and he makes genuine friends who actually care about him for the first time in his life. It is through his relationships with Peter and Annie that he is able to see things in a more positive light and to realise that he isn’t trapped and that there is a way forward. This development is not complete by the end of the novel, of course, he still has a long way to go, but he is getting better.

Other than gender norms, I Had Such Friends tackles numerous difficult topics—homophobia, abuse and suicide are only a few—what motivated you to cover such an array of subjects? 

As a teacher, I see every day the struggles that teenagers face and what they have to deal with before they even get into the classroom. In a class of thirty students, at least half are dealing with some kind of anxiety or depression. Another huge percentage have had a close family member die. Others are struggling to come to terms with their sexual or gender identity. Some have been abused or bullied. Half have parents who are divorced, and every single one of them has had to grieve the death of a close friend to suicide. They all have their own stuff going on, and there isn’t one student who is one hundred percent okay. I wrote I Had Such Friends to shine a light on the issues that young people in Australia are dealing with right now. I don’t pretend to think that I Had Such Friends will solve these issues—there isn’t going to be an easy fix—I just wanted to start conversations, to let young people know that they aren’t alone, that they aren’t the only ones going through these things. I also wanted to let parents and teachers know that, even if they aren’t talking about it, these things are happening.

The book cover of 'I had such friends'

Perhaps because of these subjects, the book is traversed with grief, and the attention to it—through objects and moments—is remarkable. While a number of other things are attended to in the novel, grief became a powerful thread. Did this occur organically, or by careful measure?

The death of Charlie Parker is very much the catalyst for all the other events of the novel to unfold and, even more so, the death of Paige, which is a constant source of pain for Hamish and the reason for a lot of his problems. These two characters are a ghost-like presence throughout the story and therefore the grief that follows their memories is a powerful force that guides the decisions of every character in the book. Each character is tied to the others by the grief they collectively share. Grief was always intended to be at the centre of this story but the extent to which it shaped the characters was not fully planned. It happened, in some ways, organically.

The consequence of this grief, collective or otherwise, is powerful; indeed, the story begins with grief and, in part, ends with it—with the death of one boy, and the death of another. What informed this decision?

The cyclical nature of the story was preordained from the beginning. I wrote the first chapter and then I wrote the last chapter and then I filled in all of the gaps. Grief is at the centre of all the events in the novel and, as much as it hurt me to write, it was only ever going to end with another death.

I, and undoubtedly many writers, can relate to the ache caused by writing about arduous topics; despite, or in spite, of this, what do you hope your readers will gain from your debut novel?

First and foremost, I sincerely hope that readers will enjoy I Had Such Friends, even though it addresses a lot of heavy issues and deals with some morose themes. I hope that the characters are ones that will stay with readers long after they put the book down. But, more importantly, as I have said previously, I hope that this novel will bring to light a lot of the issues that hide below the surface in the lives of teenagers and that, after reading this book, they will know that they are not alone and that they can talk to each other about their problems and, hopefully, ask for help from their parents, teachers or school counsellors. Many of my students who have read the novel have thanked me for shedding light on the issues I have, and that’s all I can ask for.

You can purchase I Had Such Friends from Pantera Press.

Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.