Northern Beaches Mums Group
Northern Beaches Mums Group

Parents are unsung heroes: Fiona Higgins on writing truth in fiction

As a northern beaches mum who frequently writes about, you guessed it, northern beaches mums, I’m often asked by readers whether there’s any truth to my fiction. Have I managed to slip some friends into my novels, a nasty neighbour, my mother-in-law?

Of course not! I staunchly deny, even though it’s sometimes a difficult line to defend. (Try telling the members of your mothers’ group that you’ve written a novel called The Mothers’ Group, but it doesn’t feature you ladies, I swear!)

The truth is, my novels are frequently inspired – at least in part – by the chaos and delights of family life. I wrote my debut novel, The Mothers’ Group, when I was sleep-deprived with my second baby (so it’s little wonder it features some dark themes – sleep deprivation will do that to you). A few years later, Wife on the Run tapped into my angst around the frenetic pace of modern living and my children’s engagement with social media, while my third novel Fearless was inspired by three incredible years my family and I spent living in Bali.

It’s no surprise then that my newest novel, An Unusual Boy (released October 2020), is also inspired by layers of personal experience. Set in Queenscliff, its central character is 11-year-old Jackson, a quirky kid with surprising ‘super-powers’. While Jackson isn’t diagnosed with autism or Aspergers or ADHD, he sometimes struggles with communication and friendships. The unique way Jackson moves through the world is often humorous and endearing, while also rendering him quite vulnerable.

I think we’ve all probably met, or cared for, a child like Jackson, perhaps we even know an adult like him. Health professionals might label Jackson’s idiosyncrasies ‘neurodivergence’. In my twenty-year career in the not-for-profit sector, particularly working with charities in youth mental health & wellbeing, I’ve come into regular contact with children like Jackson. And while it’s not always easy, I’m a better person for the experience.

Children like Jackson have a lot to teach adults about perseverance, resilience and the importance of recognising and embracing diversity in all its forms. Our daily news feeds demonstrate that society’s systems’ schools, policing, and the justice system don’t always cope well with difference. But children who are ‘different’ also show us – if we choose to listen – that systems must adapt to and accommodate diversity, because what sets us apart is often our greatest strength.

Of course, in real life, walking alongside every child like Jackson is usually an incredibly hardworking mother, father or carer. This is something I explore in the novel through Julia, Jackson’s mum. While she struggles at times to raise a child who is different in a world set up for ‘normal’, she’s also deeply committed to supporting, defending and advocating for her son. Ultimately, the novel highlights the incredible resilience and selfless love of parents just like Julia, whose story is echoed in the daily commitment of thousands of real-life parents and grandparents and teachers throughout Australia and the world.

In An Unusual Boy, like all of my works to date, I’ve tried to bring undiscussed truths to the fictional page, in an effort to encourage more conversations about important issues facing our community today. Capturing the real complexities of family life in a novel is both a responsibility and a privilege. Ultimately, An Unusual Boy is a tribute to the incredible resilience of parents under pressure – because parents are the unsung heroes of both the novel and our real world.

Fiona Higgins is the author of three previous novels – Fearless, Wife on the Run and The Mothers’ Group – and a memoir, Love in the Age of Drought. Her novels have been translated internationally in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Estonia.

Outside of writing, Fiona has tertiary qualifications in the humanities, social sciences and Indonesian Studies, and a longstanding career in the Australian not-for-profit sector. Over the past twenty years, she has worked with organisations specializing in international development, youth at risk, rural and regional issues and youth mental health. 

She is a founding director of Australian Philanthropic Services (APS), which inspires effective philanthropy and provides education and practical support for individuals and advisers. A passionate advocate for positive education strategies to support youth mental wellbeing, Fiona is a volunteer Crisis Support Worker on Australia’ s national crisis and suicide hotline, Lifeline. 

She lives in Sydney and enjoys ocean swimming, early morning runs and arguing about Monopoly with her three children.