A few weeks ago I listened to a Life Matters podcast that featured an interview with young adult fiction author Amanda (AJ) Betts. She spoke to Natasha Mitchell about her latest release, Zac and Mia. AJ Betts is an author and a teacher on a hospital ward in Perth. The book is about the strong bond between two young people, Zac and Mia, who meet in the oncology ward. I had to read this book! When I bought it, I read it in two sittings. And I loved it. It's beautifully written and features believable characters. I wanted Zac to be my friend.
Zac and Mia resonated with me so much because I have spent lots of time in the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne as a baby and child, and then in the Albury Base Hospital as a young adult. I made friends for life in both hospitals (particularly in Albury), went to school at both hospitals, and became an empowered patient due to interest I took in my condition and in the relationships I developed with my doctors. I go to the Royal Melbourne Hospital now, and the head dermatologist is the one I've seen since I was six. I'm now a bit of a teacher-patient, working with my dermatology team to deliver lectures to doctors at the hospital and also in the medical program at a university. I also used to mentor young people in the Chronic Illness Peer Support program at the Royal Children's Hospital from 2008-2011, and the friendship Zac and Mia formed reminded me a lot of the friendships among young people I mentored.
As I read this book, I thought of the great friends I'd made in hospital - especially the Jones family who I love dearly. Hospital can be a lonely place, and often patients are coming to terms with a big change in their lives, and so it's nice to find friends who already know what this situation is like. A lot of the time when I was in primary school, I wanted to stay in hospital because kids treated me better in there. I also thought of the maturity that young people with chronic illnesses need to develop, and the way peers with chronic illnesses just get it.
Thank you so much for writing this book, Amanda - it's meant so much to me.
I got in touch with Amanda for an interview. The book has stuck with me a week after reading it, and so my questions to her were so involved. I wanted to know about Zac and Mia from the author's point of view. Her answers as as beautiful as the writing in her book.
Carly: Tell me a little about the book in your own words.
Amanda: "Zac and Mia is a story of two teenagers whose lives are altered because of treatment for cancer. They develop an unpredictable friendship that is tested in the real world."
Tell me about your role as a hospital teacher. (I had the BEST teacher in the Royal Children's - I wish I was still in touch with her).
"My role is to provide an educational service for teenagers who unable to attend school for health reasons. I liaise with their enrolled school and teach the students one-to-one, ensuring they keep up to date so they can transition back to school when they're well enough. I've been working there for eight years.
The book shows how young people mature so much because of a chronic or terminal illness, and trivial things like split ends or parties don't matter so much. I could absolutely relate to this. Tell me a little about Zac and Mia's need to mature quickly, and especially the change in Mia.
As you know, the hospital world is completely different to a typical adolescent environment, such as a school. The things that define you in school - peer groups, academic success, hobbies, appearance, etc - don't carry across into hospital. Suddenly you're without your friends and the structure of school, and even your appearance is changing. Then there's the prospect of serious illness, pain, sacrifice and mortality to contend with. Teenagers, unfortunately, have their world view pulled out from under them and they're forced to reconsider what's really important. Mia tries to maintain the illusion of perfection, which exhausts and unsettles her. She has to confront what many people don't really grasp until their thirties, or older: that it doesn't matter how people judge her; that real friends will support her; and that beauty is tied up with imperfection, vulnerability and love."
I loved Zac's friendship with Cam - the age gap was significant. Do you think that certain relationships come by because of illness? I think the people you meet is one of the silver linings of illness.
"I've noticed that age gaps sometimes disappear in the hospital setting. Cam is a really genuine guy who connects with Zac. The situation allows an individual's qualities to take prominence over the obvious differentiations of age, class or gender. They're all on a level playing field in hospital."
Technology has changed since I was in hospital as a young person. I'd meet people in the ward and communicate with them by letter and sometimes phone. If they lived close by I'd meet them once a year (my family still makes a 1.5 hour trip to a family I met in hospital in 1989 every Boxing Day). Now young people have social media to connect. How important do you think this instant communication is when stuck in hospital?
"Social media has the benefit of being immediate, eg Zac can update his status and receive sixty comments in an hour. But there's the flip side to this: instant communication is reflexive and not necessarily meaningful. After each barrage of online comments, Zac feels inevitably lonely. The most meaningful communication he has is with others in hospital, as only they can fully appreciate the reality of the situation."
The Internet has also meant that patients are a lot more educated (and connected) about their illnesses. Zac was rattling off a lot of stats about cancer (well done on your research!). Do you think the instant and vast way of patients can research their illness means they may become more more scared about the diagnosis. There's also the power of blogging and sharing stories (which of course, I am a strong advocate of). Did Zac blog? Do you think him reading blogs and forums late at night was just as powerful as him blogging? (I loved the blogging reference.)
"Thanks! The Internet becomes Zac's forbidden secret. While it's useful for Zac to educate himself, he becomes too fixated (I think) on stats and figures. There's a risk of placing too much importance on these when, as Mia says later, every case is unique. The Internet can also be a minefield for anyone trying to research/diagnose an illness, and it can certainly incite fear. I found the blogs to be helpful, both for my research but also as a resource for Zac and Mia. Blogs make each case unique and often provide helpful tips for support. Zac didn't blog - he's an avoider, though of a different kind to Mia - though he does take great comfort from reading them. It's the only time he lets himself connect to his own emotions. He finds the blogs heartbreaking, as I did when I read many online."
Why did you write the book? It's such a valuable story - where do you hope it goes? I think it could also give young people without illnesses a great insight into what it's like to have one, and maybe make them think about how they treat people who are doing it tough. Are you glad it's touching more than just the demographic of the Zac and Mia?
"I hope that all readers can connect with the story. Illness isn't the main focus of the book - it's the catalyst for bringing them together and a motivator behind some decisions. The focus is on two individuals trying to work out what's best for them, and I think people of all backgrounds are responding to these characters.
I wrote the book because I wanted to try a 'romance' of sorts. I chose the hospital setting because it's familiar to me and I'm inspired by the incredible teenagers I've known over the years. I admire their courage, humour and compassion, and I believe we can all benefit from seeing the world through their perspective, even if it's just for a day."
AJ Betts' publisher, Text Publishing, has given me a signed copy of the book away for one of you readers.
To win, comment below telling me about an unlikely place you've struck up a friendship.
Entries close at 5.00 pm Tuesday 20 August. Please leave a valid email address if you aren't logging in with a Google account or linking back to your blog. This means I can contact you if you win!
If you're not a winner, you can purchase the book from Text Publishing.