Chatting with Kath Engebretson about The Blooming of Alison Brennan.

Hi Kath, It’s lovely to welcome you back to talk about your new book. The Blooming of Alison Brennan which was published recently by Next Chapter.

Kath Engbretson.

A family full of secrets…and one girl who must survive.

Sixteen-year-old Alison Brennan’s mother, Bernadette, is an agoraphobic hoarder, and her father Harry seems to have no past. Struggling every day, Alison seeks the help of a school counsellor.

When an old homeless man is found dead in a Melbourne park, Alison’s life changes. Somehow, the man’s death is connected to her family and the Polish Home Army.

Fighting for her future, can Alison unravel the mystery of her family and the dead man, and find a way to place her trust in others again?

Available in paperback or on Kindle.

I enjoyed reading it and found Alison such an engaging and relatable character.

Alison lives with her agoraphobic hoarder mother, and her father Harry, who lets life happen. Alison’s everyday life is a struggle, even to get herself to school. As a teacher and academic, did you encounter any children of hoarders?

Not especially of hoarders, but as a teacher, you often encounter children or young people who struggle with difficult home situations. It may be that they’re a carer for a sick parent, or the family may be breaking up, or sometimes it’s just emotional and physical neglect. As a teacher, you can be a listener, but most schools have specialist counsellors or welfare officers who have the skills and knowledge to help. I modelled the school counsellor, Stella Goodall, on such a person.

Photo by Lance Grandahi at Unsplash.

Most of us will have seen what a hoarder’s home is like from TV. It’s certainly not a normal environment. What inspired you to write about such an unusual topic?

From reading books and articles about hoarding, I began to try to imagine what it must be like for a child or teenager to be trapped in such a situation. They would either be buried in it or try to rise above it. I had to give Alison lots of inner strength and independence to cope with it, but also empathy, or it would have made her hate her parents.

Alison is lucky that she gains help from a school counsellor, but she is also a strong character herself.

Yes, she’s very strong, and in the story, I try to show that it was a characteristic she inherited from her maternal grandmother.

Lucky to have a loving grandmother.

I got impatient with her father, but when his story is revealed, I gained more understanding. I enjoyed how each chapter gave us a different person’s perspective.

Had you always planned to write the book that way, or did you choose to do that later on?

No, it evolved. It began being a story of a child of a hoarder, but then the characters grew. I wove in the grandfather and the uncle and his partner, to give Alison a support base, then the events that unfolded are indirectly based on actual events.

We ignore the homeless.

The link between finding the homeless man dead in the park and Alison was a surprise. As were the stories of heroism from the Polish Home Army. You didn’t overload the book with information, but it was clear that you had done your research. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told.

Was the linkage always obvious to you or did that develop as you wrote?

The homeless man found dead in a Melbourne park actually happened some years ago, but I changed it in every detail. Making the homeless man a Polish refugee was something I wanted to do. A friend of our family married a Polish man who had come to Australia after the war. He had been a prisoner of war in Poland and was an activist for Poland’s freedom after the Nazi takeover. He expressed his activism through poetry, and the State Library of Victoria has three of his books of poems, all in Polish of course so I couldn’t read them, not knowing the language. The refugees who came to Australia after the war were often sent to remote places to work on big constructions such as the Snowy Mountains scheme.

Refugees could have been lost at sea. Their experiences too painful to share

Imagine the loneliness and pain, in those stark conditions, especially since many of them would also have lost their families to the war. I try to tell that story through Hobie and his son. Richard Flanagan writes of this immigrant experience in Tasmania in The Sound of One Hand Clapping.

What do you hope people take away from the story if anything?

The triumph of the human spirit, that change is always a possibility, that love is everywhere and when we think it’s not possible, it can come from behind and surprise us.

Just a little bit of hope.

How long did the book take to write and what’s next on the agenda for you?

I wrote this over one year, but I didn’t find a publisher until now. Reading it again, I’m very proud of it. I’m working on another book now, set in the Victorian Mallee area. I hope to have it out next year.

Oh, I will look forward to that. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Thank you, Sonia, for your interest and support.

You can find the book at Abe Books, Book Depository, or Amazon.

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Author: soniabellhouse

Sonia Bellhouse is the author of Fire & Ice, a Scandi-timeslip romance about ice dancing, Norway and Vikings. She is also a contributor to Passages, a short story anthology and a contributor to Writing the Dream, an anthology for published writers both published by Serenity Press. In 2012she won two major awards in the inaugural Rockingham Short Fiction contest. Sonia's articles and stories are published in various magazines both in Australia and the UK. These include Good reading, Today's Bride, That's Life! and That's Life! Fast Fiction in Australia and Yours, The People's Friend and Best of British in the Uk. Sonia worked as a book reviewer for two years. An avid reader and writer of multiple genres she facilitated a local book club for eleven years. She reluctantly decided to give it up, to concentrate on her writing. Sonia is a long time member of a writers group, regularly engaging authors to present workshops to the group. Sonia enjoys catching up with friends, ignoring the ironing in favour of playing with her cat and learning new things. She's taken several online courses with Future Learn and The University of Iowa for both writing and non-writing topics.

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