#LoveOzYA Q&A with Robyn Bavati about A Weekend with Oscar
Robyn Bavati is the award-winning author of Dancing in the Dark, Pirouette and Within These Walls. Shortlisted in several children’s choice awards, Dancing in the Dark was a 2011 CBCA Notable Book, a 2014 Sydney Taylor Honour Book, and was on the Year 8 English curriculum at a number of schools. Within These Walls was a 2017 CBCA Shortlisted Book, winner of the 2018 WAYRBA award, and has been studied by school children around Australia. Robyn’s forthcoming novel, A Weekend With Oscar, will be published in July.
How would you describe A Weekend with Oscar?
It’s a story about grief, friendship, first love and family. The protagonist and narrator is sixteen-year-old Jamie, who lives with his mum and younger brother Oscar, who has Down syndrome. Though still grieving the loss of his dad, life starts to look up when he meets Zara, the new girl at school. When their mum goes away for the weekend, Jamie volunteers to look after Oscar. But when the weekend is over, she doesn’t return.
A Weekend With Oscar is by turns a heart-wrenching and heart-warming book that deals with, among other things, disability (primarily intellectual), opportunity and communication.
What inspired you to write the book?
When I joined Toastmasters in late 2014, I met Jacqui, a friendly and outgoing young woman with Down syndrome, who comes to our meetings. After I’d met her two or three times, the idea of writing a book featuring a character with Down syndrome began to take root in my mind. I was struck by the visibility and obviousness of Down syndrome, and I realised that, like most parents of children who struggle in different ways, parents of a child with Down syndrome would no doubt worry about their child’s future. However, unlike other parents who grapple with whether to disclose their child’s struggles, and to whom, the parents and siblings of a child with Down syndrome would not have this issue, or this choice. In fact, the conspicuousness would be part of what they had to deal with. I wanted to explore what that would be like.
Jamie bonds with Zara over the fact that they both have siblings with disabilities - Jamie's brother Oscar has Down's Syndome and Zara's sister Hayley has severe Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In the author's note you mentioned interviewing families with children with Down's Syndrome and ASD. Could you tell us more about your research with these families?
From the outset, I realised that interviews would be the most important part of my research. Since I did not have a family member with either Down syndrome or ASD, I spoke with those who did about their thoughts, feelings and experiences. I taped many of the interviews and took detailed notes.
There are very few thoughts and feelings in the book that are entirely made up. I ‘borrowed’ almost all of them from my interviews. I also borrowed many of the anecdotes related to me. For example, one interviewee told me that once, when he was overseas with his younger brother (who has DS) and they were on the way to a bus stop, he saw the bus pulling up and ran to catch it, only to find, after the bus had driven off, that his younger brother had burst into tears. Trying to figure out what was wrong and getting no answer, he finally said, ‘Wait, you didn’t think I’d get on the bus and leave without you?’ His brother admitted that yes, that was what he’d thought. ‘I’d often done this before,’ this interviewee explained, ‘but only when we were in Melbourne, in his usual environment. The thought of being in an unfamiliar environment without me scared him.’ I used this incident in the book almost exactly as it was related to me.
Another interviewee told me that her sister, who has ASD and with whom she shares a bedroom, once decided to move all the furniture at 3 am. In the book, Zara is exhausted at school one day because Hayley has done exactly that.
I also used the incidents that occurred during the interview process. For example, one young man with Down syndrome came to my house for the interview, and when he noticed a dish of cat food, asked where the cat was. I said I wasn’t sure, and he started to panic. The next thing I knew, he’d left the house and was sitting on the front fence, too frightened of the cat to come inside. Later, his brother explained that once a cat scratched him, and he’d been scared of cats ever since. This too appears in the book.
Similarly, I went to interview a woman and seemed to be waiting forever at her front door before being let in. Her son had hidden the key, which he apparently did as a joke on a regular basis. I loved the cheekiness and humour of this, so I used it.
While the plot is my invention and the characters fictional, the thoughts, feeling and experiences of my interviewees give the story its authenticity and lend it an emotional truth. They also inform the themes I explore.
One of the themes in the book is familial pressure, both external and internal. Dan's pressured by his mum to take accelerated classes, whereas Jamie wishes he could do more to help his mum with Oscar, which is why he offers to take care of him so she can go to Perth to help her sister. Why was this theme important to you to explore?
No one gets through life without experiencing pressure, and sometimes we’re not even aware of the pressure we’re feeling until it abates. I remember the feeling of release I had on completing my final Year 12 exam. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised I was under pressure. And I know I’m not alone in this.
Often, we don’t realise that a lot of the pressure we feel comes from within, and that it’s up to us how we respond to the pressures both within and around us. Becoming aware of this is part of growing up, part of the journey towards self-knowledge, part of learning how to ‘manage’ life.
Do you have a favourite character in the book and why?
That’s a bit like asking parents if they have a favourite child. I love Oscar because he’s friendly, fun-loving, cheeky and charming, and also has a kind and caring side, Zara because she’s loyal, thoughtful, and empathetic, Dan because he’s loyal, funny and refuses to dwell on the negative, and Jamie because he’s loyal and sincere, and genuinely tries to do the right thing. (I see I’ve used the word ‘loyal’ three times – maybe loyalty is one of the reasons those three are friends.) I love how different the four of them are. And I love how real, authentic and unpretentious they are.
Could you tell us more about the process of writing A Weekend with Oscar? How long did it take? Was it similar or different to writing your other 3 books (Dancing in the Dark, Pirouette, and Within These Walls)?
Usually, an idea comes to mind, and I sit with it for weeks or months to see how insistent it becomes. The entire process – from the initial spark of an idea to printed book – takes years, and I’ve learned from the books I’ve started but never finished that it’s best not to dive in too soon. At some point, the idea becomes a concept (or doesn’t). Eg. ‘A book about dance’, the idea behind Dancing in the Dark, became ‘a girl from a religious Jewish home forbidden by her parents to take ballet lessons does so in secret’, which is the concept.
With Pirouette, the idea and the concept came together. An early draft of Dancing in the Dark included a short paragraph (later deleted) about a girl who was being pushed into dancing by her mother, and that girl was quietly waiting at the back of my mind. One day, when I was browsing at the library, I came upon a book about identical twins, and I remembered how much I had always loved twin-swap stories as a child, and suddenly I had a concept – identical twins separated at birth who meet at a dance camp and swap places because one is pushed into dancing professionally while the other is not being given the opportunity to do so.
Within These Walls was different again because writing about the Holocaust wasn’t my idea. I was asked to do so, and to set the story in Warsaw and write it from the point of view of a Jewish child. The concept – a child moves into the ghetto with her family, and loses every member of her family, one by one – was mine.
When I first had the idea to write a book featuring a character with Down syndrome, I was in the middle of writing Within These Walls, which meant I could just sew the seed and leave it alone. Then several months after that book was published, I revisited the idea. When it turned into ‘a teenage boy looks after his younger brother who has Down syndrome when their mother goes away’, I knew I had a workable concept.
As with all my books, the concept, and therefore the story, must lend itself to isolating
the main character – physically, emotionally or psychologically – because that’s when a character is truly tested and has the opportunity to become heroic.
The next step was research, and then on to the writing itself. (Within These Walls was also heavily researched based – even more so than this one. The others were not.)
Like my other books, A Weekend With Oscar went through several drafts. Unlike my other books, particular attention was paid to the language around disability to ensure that it was current, positive and respectful.
While I finished the first draft in early 2018, the entire process – from initial idea (in late 2014 -early 2015) to published book in July 2021 – was six and a half years.