10 Questions with Pip Desmond


1. Why did you want to write this book?

To help me make sense of looking after Mum through the heartbreak that is dementia, and to find her again. I also hoped our family’s story might help others going through the same ordeal and show them they’re not alone.


2. Did you also need to write it?

Yes, I think I did. I put off writing it for seven years after Mum died but it wouldn’t go away. Arundhati Roy says writers don’t choose stories, stories choose writers. I feel as if this one chose me.


3. It’s an intimate examination of your relationship with your mother but it also has universal relevance given so many of us have, and will have, an involvement with dementia across our lives. What impact do you hope the book will have in that public sphere?

I hope it will spark discussion about how we as a society can sustain our rapidly ageing population. It’s going to take resources, courage and humanity to look after the burgeoning numbers who have dementia, support their families and caregivers, and insist that the aged care industry puts people before profits.


4. What advice would you give another family whose parents are diagnosed with a form of dementia?

Dementia changes the rules. People’s ability to reason is affected so there’s no point arguing with them or expecting them to understand. Try to relate to the emotion behind their words, not the words themselves. Where possible, agree, distract and deflect rather than confront. Go easy on yourself when nothing seems to work. And share the load – dementia is very hard on everyone.


5. Writing the book: exhilarating or exhausting?

Occasionally exhilarating. Exhausting by the end. In between, I felt driven, sad and sometimes angry, but also deeply contented at being able to spend 18 months getting to know my mother.


6. Tell us about your writing habits. What time of day is best?

Song for Rosaleen took 18 months to write, more or less full-time. I always work in my upstairs loft, never at the kitchen table or in a café. When I’m engrossed, I’m usually at my computer by 8.30am. I tend to slump after lunch, so I’ll go for a walk or do shopping or housework. I’m often at my most productive in the late afternoon when I get my second wind. I never write after tea or my brain will whir all night.


7. What are your strategies when the going gets tough?

I cry on my husband Pat’s shoulder and he puts me back together. My grandkids keep me grounded. Meditation and walking in the bush around our neighbourhood clear my mind. A glass of cold pinot gris helps at the end of a hard day.


8. What’s one new thing you discovered while working on this book?

That the more personal the story, the harder it is to write.


9. What’s one thing you hope people will take away from reading Song for Rosaleen?

That my mother was an unsung heroine, like many women of her generation.


10. What are you reading at the moment, for work and for pleasure?

I’m always interested in how other writers tackle personal stories. I’ve just finished reading Hunger, Roxanne Gay’s disturbing memoir about her obesity, the lifelong legacy of teenage rape. Before that, I enjoyed Aukati, a brave exploration of race and politics in Godzone by my MA in Creative Writing classmate Michalia Arathimos. Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, another first novel, wowed me with its beautiful writing. Anything by the late Kent Haruf is exquisite. My latest find has been Benediction: I’m in awe of the way he conveys emotion in ordinary lives without ever using the word ‘feels’. Now I’m halfway through Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection Merciless Gods. It’s edgy and sometimes shocking but I can’t put it down.