Bird-watching, seniors pilates and positive ageing with Joanna Nell
Joanna Nell's novels contain a poignant mix of warmth, humour and heartbreak, and her latest offering, The Great Escape from the Woodlands Nursing Home is another beautiful story. Whilst turning the spotlight on senior citizens and the process of ageing, she has a knack for making you laugh and cry in the very same page, and then you'll find yourself doing the same the next chapter, if not the next paragraph. I loved spending time with Hattie Bloom and Walter Clements, two rich characters who touched my heart time and time again. The cast of supporting characters was wonderful too, from the unofficial therapy dog Queenie and the other Woodland Nursing Home ‘in-mates’ to the cast of medical professionals and visitors. With a strong plot-line to follow, it was easy to cheer for the residents and their plight. The ending was also delightful and stayed with me for weeks.
As well as a bestselling author and advocate for positive ageing, the Sydney-based writer has enjoyed an eclectic medical career as a GP, including a stint as an NRL club medic and a ship’s doctor. Much to the amusement of her neighbours and curious passers-by, Joanna has fallen into the habit of collecting litter and pulling up noxious weeds on her daily walks and jokes that her ‘once-harmless pastime is now verging on an obsession’ albeit a soothing one. Also a keen bird lover, Joanna relished featuring a retired ornithologist in her latest novel, with her research even leading to a volunteer stint with BirdLife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project. When she’s not writing, bird watching, treating patients or walking her black labrador Margot, Joanna finds herself being regularly out-planked by her pilates classmates, many of whom are thirty years her senior.
Short and sweet questions
Current book on your bedside table:
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Originally published in 1977, it is described as a ‘masterpiece of nature writing’. In February I asked my local bookshop to order it after a recommendation from a writing group friend. I had to wait for a reprint and shipping from the UK, and I was so excited when it finally arrived last week!
Where do you do most of your writing?
In my backyard cabin. We built it a few years ago as a home office and guest accommodation. Early in lockdown, I requisitioned it as my writing studio. I wish I were the uber-cool kind of writer who could work in trendy cafes. Unfortunately, I’m too distractible and need solitude. If I’m starting a new book or working on a tricky rewrite, I often offer to house/farm/dog sit for a friend who lives in the country. It works well as it allows her to go away for a few days to visit family.
Favourite Australian holiday destination:
I’m very nostalgic about a sailing holiday in the Whitsundays where I spent my fiftieth birthday sipping champagne from an inflatable pink flamingo off Whitehaven Beach. Unbeknownst to me, my husband had arranged for my oldest friend and her partner to fly out from the UK and join us as a surprise.
What’s your preferred drop?
I’m a gin girl. ‘Mother’s ruin’. Did you know the first gin craze was in 1720?
Peanut butter, spooned straight from the jar.
How in literally twenty seconds, my husband can sort out the IT issues I’ve been struggling with all day.
Favourite fictional couple and why?
Harry and Sally. I’m still fascinated by the question of whether men and women can ever just be friends. Nora Ephron really was the queen of the feel-good rom-com.
If you could pack two non-essential items for a deserted tropical island, what would they be?
My pillow. It’s only a cheap IKEA memory foam pillow but exactly the right height and consistency for a good night’s sleep. I’ve been known to pack it in my suitcase. The other item would be a luxurious hand cream.
Name an emerging author to keep an eye out for:
Michelle Barraclough. We had a literary blind date after ‘meeting’ on Twitter and have become good friends. We’ve also ended up in the same writing group. Michelle’s writing is rich and poetic, and her first novel was highly commended in the 2017 Richell Prize. She’s also designs amazing websites for writers (https://www.freshwebdesign.com.au) and is an incredibly generous member of the writing community.
Established authors who inspire you?
Almost every author I read inspires me in some way. Here are a few of the many (each for a different aspects of their writing or career): Marian Keyes, Alan Bennett, David Sedaris, Helen Garner, Maggie O’Farrell, Somerset Maugham, Joanna Cannon, and of course my writers group aka The Ink Well: Penelope Janu, Pamela Cook, Laura Boon, Terri-Ann Green, Rae Cairns, Angella Whitton and Michelle Barraclough.
Best thing about being a writer?
Worst thing about being a writer?
The self-doubt. It doesn’t get any easier.
Do you prefer music, podcasts or silence when writing?
I prefer silence but in reality have to listen to my neighbours’ barking dogs, leaf blowers and power tools. When I’m driving I listen to audio books and podcasts about writing, or Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. Morning walks with my dog are thinking time (probably the most important and non-negotiable part of my writing process) when I try to listen for the sounds around me – birds, waves, the wind in the trees.
Caroline Herrera’s ‘Good Girl’. I treat myself to a squirt every day.
Mattieu Kassovitz who plays Guillaume Debailly in The Bureau (on Netflix). That French accent…
The best non-writing related prize I won was…
I was horse-mad as a child and every year entered the annual WH Smith ‘Win a Pony’ competition. To my parents’ relief, I never won the actual pony but one year I did win a set of Barbie-sized plastic show jumps. It was a pretty disappointing consolation prize.
Top three tips for aspiring authors?
1. When it comes to writing goals, dream big, but measure your success not in whether you achieve that goal, rather in the joy and satisfaction of working towards it.
2. A first draft is simply you telling yourself the story. By definition, it is not the final work. Remember that first drafts are usually pretty terrible (mine definitely are!). Keep going; maintain the momentum; don’t slow yourself down by going back and editing. You don’t have to show it to anyone (I NEVER do) and you shouldn’t get too attached. Be prepared to delete most of those words when you re-write, or keep them a separate file to sell for a fortune when you’re rich and famous!
3. Trust the intelligence of your reader. Leave some spaces in your writing for them to fill in. Not everything needs to be spelled out or accompanied by a flashing neon sign. Beta readers will tell you if something is too nuanced or doesn’t make sense.
What theme do you hope shines through in your writing?
Hope and optimism, especially when thinking about ageing.
Proudest author moment?
Without a doubt, it was winning the RWA’s Valerie Parv Award in 2017.
Three fun facts about the author:
• I am descended from shipwrecked Spanish Armada sailors. Sadly I didn’t inherit their swimming skills!
• I always sneeze twice.
• I won a scholarship and was one of the first fourteen girls admitted to what had been boys-only (and allegedly haunted) school since 1553. I didn’t realise how unusual it was at the time nor how that experience would shape me as a person.
Find Joanna online:
The joyous, charming and utterly irresistible new novel from the author of mega-bestseller The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village
At nearly ninety, retired nature writer Hattie Bloom prefers the company of birds to people, but when a fall lands her in a nursing home she struggles to cope with the loss of independence and privacy. From the confines of her 'room with a view' of the carpark, she dreams of escape.
Fellow 'inmate', the gregarious, would-be comedian Walter Clements also plans on returning home as soon as he is fit and able to take charge of his mobility scooter.
When Hattie and Walter officially meet at The Night Owls, a clandestine club run by Sister Bronwyn and her dog, Queenie, they seem at odds. But when Sister Bronwyn is dismissed over her unconventional approach to aged care, they must join forces -- and very slowly an unlikely, unexpected friendship begins to grow.
Full of wisdom and warmth, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a gorgeously poignant, hilarious story showing that it is never too late to laugh -- or to love.
Praise for Joanna Nell
'Whip-smart dialogue, humour and sarcasm. A heart-warming story, extremely well written and highly addictive' Sun Herald
'Lively and whimsical ... with some serious points to make about ageing, love, community and friendship' Sydney Morning Herald
'This heartwarming story about growing old gracefully - and disgracefully ... is a funny, witty and thoroughly enjoyable read for all ages' Daily Telegraph