Kiwi author Tammy Robinson’s career continues its well-earned skyward trajectory with the announcement that one of the USA’s ‘big five’ publishing houses, Grand Central Publishing, has acquired her latest novel, Photos of You, described by their editorial director, Leah Hultenschmidt, as “a beautiful story that manages to be heartbreaking and joyful at the same time”.
German and Czech rights to Tammy’s tome, her eighth, have also been sold, with other European deals expected. On top of that, the author tells me she’s just picked the voice actor to narrate the audio book, so I ask if she’d already visualised the voice of her protagonist, Ava Green.
“Not really, they sent me an email with the five women auditioning, and it was more of a case that I knew four of them were wrong,” she says. “My publishers said they were already leaning to toward one, and, as it turned out, we all agreed on the same voice.”
It’s the second of Tammy’s novels to be traditionally published (the previous was Differently Normal), having self-published her first six books. I ask her about that leap, and if she still has faith in the power of publishing and the printed book in the digital age.
“I do have faith in the printed book, but it was not what I expected, and I do hear that from a lot of other traditionally published authors,” she says. “It’s a weird feeling, you get published and you expect it to be this amazing rush, but it’s actually a bit of an anti-climax at first! However, I do believe that people will always buy books, and hopefully, it’s just a bit of rough time for the industry. I know some writers that have actually gone back to self-publishing, and others that have gone hybrid, but I’m keen to continue this way.”
Photos of You centres around Ava Green, a 28-year-old diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her dream of a wedding before she dies—with or without a groom. It’s a bittersweet tale about how it’s the quality—rather than quantity—of love that counts. It also feels like a very personal one, and I wonder if Tammy has had experience with the disease.
“A close friend that I worked with a few years ago died of bowel cancer when she was 38, but I didn’t see a lot of the battle that she went through,” the author reveals. “We were told that she didn’t want visitors. Like anyone, I’ve also lost a few family members, but, thank God, and touch wood, I haven’t had anyone really close to me go through it. My mother did die very unexpectedly five years ago, and I channelled many emotions from that in terms of grief.”
The warmth of Ava’s relationship with her parents radiates from the pages, does that mirror your upbringing?
“Yes, I had a wonderful childhood with my parents, we were very close, and I still am with my dad. They have a lifestyle block outside of Rotorua and my father would always take my brother, sister and I bushwalking, educating us about the plants and the birds. He even does all the bird calls! There was a dysfunctional family in my previous book, and that was very challenging, it’s far easier for me to write about close, loving families.”
Your dad must be very proud?
“Yes, I just wish my mum was here to see it. I recently received a message from a terminal cancer sufferer saying that she really appreciated the honesty in the book about the struggle rather than the Instagram version of cancer where it’s all about bucket lists and bungy jumping. It was very touching. I sent that to my dad and he cried.”
It’s an emotional read, was it emotional to write?
“Yes, very. I do a lot of research and put myself in in the character’s and her family’s shoes. It can be quite draining.”
During the book, Ava is invited to pen a magazine column about her cancer battle, often imploring readers to be mindful of the everyday moments that make life so special. It’s also a theme of the novel throughout.
“I knew it was going to be depressing,” says Tammy. “You know going into it that there’s not going to be a happy ending, so I wanted it to be a reminder to live life. I have a twin sister who was in Thailand when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, she was okay, but it obviously affected her, and I got a tattoo on my arm as a reminder to live life. It’s the kind of thing that we all try to remember and try to live by, but you just end up getting sucked into the everyday stuff. It’s only when something big happens that you realise what’s important and what’s not. I wanted the book to make you stop and think.”
Do you believe in an afterlife?
“We weren’t raised religious. We still don’t have answers as to why my mum died, the best guess is that her heart just stopped. After that I went through a bad patch, looking for some spirituality. I needed to know if there was something, but I didn’t really get any answers. I do like to think she’s still around in some form. So, although I wouldn’t call myself religious, I don’t believe we go away completely, but I’m not sure in what form we remain.”
The novel is also peppered with many a light-hearted line and moments that counter the gloom. I ask Tammy about finding the balance when dealing with something so harrowing and she says it’s the kind of stuff that “just writes itself”. She has, she admits, always had a dark sense of humour.
“I suffered from depression for a long time and ended up having ECT about 12 years ago. I’ve been good since. I try not to get sucked into any holes, I avoid the news as much as possible and keep a gratitude journal. I do try to look for the positives and look for the things that will bring joy.”
Does the process of writing help out with that headspace?
“Definitely. If I don’t or can’t write for too long that I get quite angsty. My husband can sense it, when I need that time.”
Tammy jokes that there are often long stretches when she can’t write, owing to her having three kids aged between two and six years old. “Last year, my husband upped and moved us to a farm in the Waikato after 17 years in graphic design, and now only gets a weekend off a fortnight. So, then he looks after the kids and that’s when I write!”
You must be very efficient?
“Yes, though it’s frustrating when I can’t write for a long time, I’m always thinking about it so when I do get to sit down I have a pretty good idea where it’s going. I often jot down dialogue, and I also text myself a lot.”
Tammy tells me she’s currently working on two more novels, both with more positive outcomes. After having written something as harrowing as Photos of You, she needs to imbue herself with a bit more optimism: “I’m a definitely a romantic at heart, so I need for someone to live happily ever after!”
Photos of You, published by Hachette, is out 11 December.
Words — Jamie Christian Desplaces