Three decades ago Anne Howell woke up in a strange place, in excruciating pain and under the impression she was just nine years old.
She had no memory of her adult life and struggled to comprehend not only where she was, but who she was.
“They said my mother was coming and I started to realise that I was in a hospital and when she arrived she seemed really old, really, really ancient,” Anne said. “I actually started to realise that I was older than I thought.”
The journalist and writer was in fact 30 years old and suffering from retrograde amnesia after contracting meningitis during surgery.
She soon learnt she had already built a successful career and started a family.
“I would meet this so-called husband, not recognising him, and he would bring in a creature which I didn’t know what it was and it turned out to be my daughter.”
She was thrown into a life she couldn’t remember and left to rediscover her own secrets and those of the people she was closest to.
“It’s like being alienated from your own self and inheriting someone else’s life. I couldn’t remember having this child, I just had no idea how I landed there,” Anne said. “It’s like someone suddenly assigning you a child and finding you a partner and finding you a role and saying, ‘Here you are, here’s your life, enjoy it’.”
It sounds like a piece of fiction, but Anne’s book All That I Forgot, is a memoir following her first three years of recovery.
Although the experience was something she’d always wanted to write about, for a long time she was unable to do it.
“When I first did try to write about it I was very close to the events and I didn’t have my writing skills on board,” she said. “I had to just start from scratch like a child learning to read and write again.”
And the physical challenges were not the only barrier, with the story itself revealing deeply personal details about her life.
“It’s a strange thing to put your hardest experiences on the page. I’ve been finding that people all over the place have been popping up and contacting me and it’s like I’ve had a personal conversation with them about myself because of the book,” Anne said. And they’ll contact me and I haven’t seen them for 30 years or I barely know them and they’re talking to me quite intimately and personally because I think there’s a baring yourself with memoirs.”
That privacy was also something that fellow South Coast author Rachael Mogan McIntosh struggled with when writing her own memoir about her family experiences.
“The trickiest part is when you’re trying to really drill to the truth with what you are writing about and other people are involved, your family is involved or people that you love, you’re kind of restricted to sending that really interrogative lens onto your own life,” Rachael said. “That’s the only person you can go hard on, you have to be really gentle and careful about all the other people.”
Her book Pardon My French follows the year she spent with her husband and three kids in the south of France.
“We decided to just upsticks and take the whole circus to a different location; we had three kids under 10,” Rachael said.
She said she loved the popular ‘fish out of water’ genre but hadn’t seen experiences like her own represented in literature.
“I felt like I hadn’t seen a version of it that really addressed the everyday family life where you’re scrambling for money and you’re shopping at the op shop and you’re trying to juggle all those bits and pieces.
“It tends to be a very aspirational genre that’s very much about restaurants and travel and a very glamorous slice of life.”
She hoped audiences could relate to the chaos and excitement of her experience.
“An Australian family, transplanted into another culture and what that looks like. I hope that it met a little hole there. A very normal family life but in a magical setting.”
Rachael and Anne will be sharing their stories at the South Coast Writers Festival on a panel focusing on what it’s like to write about one moment in time in your life.
Festival director Sarah Nicholson said it was important to showcase writers from the region as part of the event.
“We’ve actually got a really strong showing of writers locally,” she said. “We’ve got lots of best-selling authors and multi-award winning authors, Australians of the year, people who’ve won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature, so we include a lot of those local talents in the program.”
Sarah consulted experts and specifically designed panels to spark conversations and ideas.
“I think you get another dimension to the work when you get to go and see the author speak about their thoughts and what they were trying to do with it,” she said.
And Sarah said the event was not just for writers, with the local community having the opportunity to be exposed to quality new work.
“For people who are readers, it’s how you find new books to read. What we’ve got in the program, there’s deep books but there’s also funny books and non-fiction, books dealing with culture and thrillers and adventure books, so there’s a whole range of stuff in there.”
South Coast Writers Festival begins on 18 August. For the full program visit the SCWC website.