Introduction by Julie Koh
Ewa Ramsey’s debut novel The Morbids centres on Caitlin, a woman in her late twenties who has been psychologically affected by a fatal car accident. She thinks constantly about dying and tries to keep her anxiety at bay by working hard in her job and attending a support group called the Morbids. When Caitlin discovers her best friend is getting married overseas, she is forced to confront her fears and learn to live again.
Can you tell me about your path to becoming a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories constantly as a kid but as I hit adulthood, the anxiety I felt around writing – especially creative writing – got the better of me. I’d blog occasionally, and for a bit I wrote for a couple of magazines, but it always felt fraught and for a long time I gave up writing entirely.
Then in my early thirties, I moved to Newcastle. On a whim, I volunteered for the National Young Writers’ Festival. Being in such a supportive, positive environment reignited my passion, and I’ve been writing ever since.
How did the idea for The Morbids come to you, and what was your journey like from conception to finished book?
The opening scene of The Morbids had been kicking around my drafts folder for a while when I submitted it to my writers’ group for feedback. They were so positive about the work that I knew I had to do something with it, so I kept writing. Very quickly, it became a whole manuscript. It was nothing like it is now – it was too long, and much edgier, because I wanted to be this cool, edgy literary writer (which I’m really not).
After a lot of editing and polishing, I sent it to an editor I knew at a publishing house. We tinkered with it for a while but that process eventually stalled and that’s when I sent it to an agent as an unsolicited submission. She got it immediately and took me on. We lost the bloat and a lot of the edginess and I let myself embrace my own gooey centre. Finally, it sold to Allen & Unwin, and they have been amazing to work with.
It’s been a long and winding journey, but I count myself as really lucky to have come this far, and to have worked with the people I have. I pinch myself daily!
In your novel, Caitlin’s best friend Lina is about to get hitched and seems to be leaving Caitlin behind. What drew you to write about a friendship at breaking point?
I’m a sucker for romance but I find friendships much more interesting to write about, especially when they have a long, tangled, complicated history like this one does.
Caitlin and Lina’s friendship formed in adolescence and was galvanised by trauma that shaped both of them as people. However, it’s only in adulthood that the full effects have become apparent. Their friendship presented such a rich vein for exploring character and creating tension and conflict, but also adding warmth and hope. There’s so much love between these two, despite everything.
Sydney features strongly in the story. There are many recognisable places, from Newtown to Cremorne, as well as recognisable preoccupations, like status. How does the city itself affect Caitlin’s wellbeing?
For Caitlin, the city is an escape. She uses the noise and anonymity and busyness to soothe the worst of her anxiety. It works for her for a long time, but like anything that treats the symptoms and not the cause, it’s not enough on its own. This book is about her coming to accept that.
Trauma and mental illness are core themes, with Caitlin attending meetings of the Morbids. What is this group and can you describe your research into groups like it?
The Morbids is a drop-in support group for people with death-related anxiety. It’s completely fictional but based on support groups I’ve read about, and experiences shared with me by friends and mental health workers.
The group’s format – once a formal psychiatrist-run group and now an ad-hoc service with a revolving door of facilitators – is also fictional, but it nods to the way community mental health services are often neglected, pared back and put into the too-hard basket. Everyone has good intentions but budgets are always tightening and we end up relying on people who maybe aren’t trained to deal with complex situations, and are constantly at risk of burnout. It’s a tough system, with patients too often left to fend for themselves.
A key question in The Morbids concerns what it means to live life to its fullest. What’s your own view on how to find a balance between seeking safety and taking risks in our lives?
This is one for my therapist! I’m a fraidy-cat and hate taking risks, but I’ve come to a place where I know that if I don’t take a chance occasionally, I’m never going to be really happy.
I think the key is remembering that there are also risks in not taking risks. It might feel safer not to Do The Thing, but it’s not necessarily going to feel better, especially in the long term. If you’re anything like me, not doing things isn’t going to make you less anxious, it’s just going to make you anxious about different things – and probably unhappy as well. At least if you take the risk, you might actually get what you want. It’s scary, but it’s almost always worth it.
Having said that, a safety net makes taking risks so much easier. As a middle-class cis white woman in a hetero relationship, I know my safety net is extremely strong and makes even my biggest risks less risky. Without that, there’s more to lose, and I think it’s important to acknowledge this.
Besides being an author, you’re an arts administrator now on the board of the National Young Writers’ Festival. What advice do you have for writers who are just starting out?
Honestly, keep writing. The one regret I have about my life is how much time I spent not writing! And if you can, find your community; whether it’s online or a writers’ group or volunteering at a writers’ festival. Writing is so solitary and it’s so easy to get lost in your own head and your own anxieties. Having a community makes it easier to keep going.
The Morbids is out in September 2020 through Allen & Unwin.
Ewa Ramsey is a writer and arts administrator based in Newcastle, NSW. She has presented short fiction at the National Young Writers Festival, won a commendation in the Newcastle Short Story Award, and been a finalist in the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. She has also written for PC&Tech Authority, and worked as an editorial assistant and pop-culture writer and reviewer for Atomic magazine. She is currently Operations Manager for the Newcastle Writers Festival and on the board of the National Young Writers Festival.
Julie Koh is the author of Capital Misfits and Portable Curiosities. She was named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist. Her fiction has appeared in the Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Comedy Writing. She has written two radio plays for Radio National Fictions and the libretto for the satirical opera Chop Chef.