Today is World Diabetes Day. November 14th has long been designated as a day to draw attention to this important disease.
Because both my husband and our daughter both have Type 1 diabetes, I like to do something special on this day to raise awareness of this condition. The incidence of Type 1 is increasing at an alarming rate, with a radical effect not only on the lives of individuals but also on national healthcare services.
This year what I’d like to mark World Diabetes Day is to introduce you to a terrific Australian author Belinda Pollard, whose novel Poison Bay features a character, Rachel Carpenter, who has Type 1 diabetes so must overcome extreme challenges when she gets lost in New Zealand wildnerness with her friends.
Although Belinda’s initial intention was just to write a great thriller, the final result is a terrific novel that will raise awareness and foster better understanding of Type 1 around the world. I was privileged to help her fine-tune the diabetes story line drawing on my family’s experience of living with the disease.
So for this World Diabetes Day 2016, I’d like to share the story behind Belinda’s story, and I’m very grateful to her for answering my questions below.
Debbie: What made you choose Type 1 diabetes as a condition for one of your characters?
Belinda: Poison Bay is about a group of old school friends with past secrets who go hiking in the remote New Zealand wilderness, and lose their way, both geographically and morally. Basically, they start killing one another, as old friends so often do.
The terrain and weather are brutal in Fiordland National Park, but it’s feasible that a large, well-equipped group could just sit tight and wait a few weeks to be rescued. I needed to raise the stakes. A character with Type 1 diabetes added urgency for both the lost hikers and their rescuers.
It was the plot-tensioner that came to my mind because I’ve had some friends with Type 1 diabetes over the years, even if I didn’t fully understand what daily life was like for them.
From the start, I was determined that Rachel be a physically strong character, not a feel-sorry-for-me weakling. She is the fittest of them all at the beginning, because she uses exercise to give her a sense of control over her condition.
The more I learned about Type 1 during my research, the more glad I was that I had chosen that character trait. She’s also doing her best to heal from a recent bereavement, which adds another layer of emotional strength to her.
Debbie: How did your perspective on the condition change between you starting to write the book and publication day? Did you actually know anyone with Type 1 before you started writing, or was it more of a plot device to add tension to your story?
Belinda: Big changes! There’s been a kerfuffle recently about writers who appropriate other cultures into their books in a negative way. I think the same is often true of various medical conditions, belief systems and personality traits.
I’m embarrassed to say that Rachel was little more than a plot device at the beginning.
While I was writing the first draft, I won a prize that gave me a manuscript consultation. It turned out that my manuscript consultant had a daughter with a significant medical condition. She said something about how Rachel’s mother might be feeling in this situation, and it flicked a switch in my brain.
I realised that some readers might have a strong emotional investment in Rachel’s fictional outcome, and though I knew it would be impossible to please everyone, I owed it to them to do my best. It became almost like a ‘duty of care’ in my mind.
I cruised the internet and read books, and a nurse I met online did some training with me over Skype in the various glucose meters etc that Australian diabetics most commonly use. This only got me just so far. Strangely enough, there are not that many books on how to manage Type 1 diabetes while lost in the wilderness without food for a couple of weeks!
That’s when you came into the equation, Debbie. I knew you were an advocate for Type 1 research, and we’d brushed past each other on Twitter and blogs. I screwed up my courage, and asked if you’d mind checking the Type 1 storyline for me, and you said yes!
The feedback you gave me was bracing and somewhat bruising – but also thrilling! It gave me the chance to fix some serious misunderstandings and reconfigure certain sections of the plot. I’m sure the result is not perfect, but I felt like I now had a plausible outcome for Rachel. I’m incredibly grateful for the feedback!
Debbie: How did including a character with Type 1 diabetes enhance your story?
Belinda: All my characters have challenges of various kinds. I love writing them that way, because every single person I know is fighting a battle.
Anxiety, grief, chronic fatigue, depression, Type 1 diabetes, cancer, fear of heights, social awkwardness… these or any of a million other challenges might be our daily companions, but they don’t define us. It’s our character that defines us, and we make the most of the life we’ve got.
In the same way, I want my characters’ problems to be almost incidental. I want them to be defined by how they treat other people and the great things they achieve. Hopefully, I will get better at writing ‘real’ characters as I continue to grow as a writer.
Debbie: Have you had any feedback since publication from people affected by Type 1?
No, but I see that as a good thing: apparently they’re not annoyed! (Thanks, Debbie.)
Debbie: You’ve had some healthcare challenges yourself in the past which you overcame by what I might describe as dogged determination! Can you tell us a little about that, because it seems analagous to someone trying to deal with the challenges of living with Type 1 diabetes?
Belinda: In 2004 I was bitten by a mosquito and got a virus that left me with enduring pain and fatigue. Ever the eccentric, I chose to hike New Zealand’s Milford Track as part of my rehab program! This sounds even more nuts when you know that I’m not a particularly athletic person, even when I’m well. The Milford Track is 53km over mountains that look like upside-down shark teeth, and I’d been wanting to do it as part of a research trip for Poison Bay.
I’d also heard that a program of consistent exercise helped some people heal from chronic fatigue, but exercise seemed virtually impossible to me at that time. Training for a research trek gave me a deadline as well as the motivation to push through the pain and exhaustion, and keep on plodding.
My weird rehab program wasn’t a miracle cure, but I found that with each training session I could do a little more for the same amount of pain.
The day I arrived at the start of the trek was terrifying. I really didn’t know if I would end up on the evening news, being airlifted off the side of a mountain. But somehow I did it, one painful step at a time. I have a photo of myself standing under the sign that marks the end of the track. To the casual observer, it’s not obvious that my hiking poles are acting almost as crutches by this stage, or that my heart is on fire with the joy of having done this crazy thing.
Today, I still have bad days, but I have a lot more good ones. I achieve a lot of things that didn’t seem possible in those dark early days of the illness.
Debbie: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Type 1 diabetes while writing this book?
Belinda: I didn’t know that exercise could reduce the amount of insulin a Type 1 diabetic needed to inject. And I didn’t know that a dwindling supply of insulin would not be Rachel’s biggest or only problem – that low blood sugar with no hypo remedies available was also a serious threat as the survival situation went on.
Debbie: What would your advice be to anyone with Type 1 diabetes who might be thinking of making a trek like the one you describe in Poison Bay?
Belinda: Don’t go into the wilderness with a deranged murderer. 😀
Debbie: I really enjoyed Poison Bay, and would have done even if it wasn’t helping raise awareness of the challenge of living with Type 1 diabetes. What are your future plans for writing novels? And do they include Type 1 diabetes?
Belinda: I’m currently working on Venom Reef: Wild Crimes #2. This time my two journalists are heading to a remote tropical island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef to make a documentary. (A rather less gruelling research trip for me this time!) Groundbreaking medical research collides with terrorism and greed, and… well… let’s say it’s not the best holiday they’ve ever had!
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- To find out more about Belinda and her novels, visit her website: www.belindapollard.com.
- If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like to live with Type 1 diabetes in your family, you might like to read my slim memoir, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes, available as an ebook or paperback.
- The following websites are invaluable for anyone affected by diabetes of any kind: http://www.idf.org and http://www.diabetes.org.uk.
- JDRF is the leading charitable funder for research into better therapy and a cure for Type 1 diabetes, and all profits from my Coming To Terms book go to them.