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Adelaide novel exposes the reality of life as a paramedic

Books & Poetry

South Australian writer Rachael Mead’s new novel The Application of Pressure takes readers to the front line of emergency services work through the story of two paramedics constantly navigating across Adelaide at ‘lights and sirens’ speed.

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Hills-based writer Mead, a regular arts reviewer for InDaily, is an established poet and author of four published collections of poetry, but The Application of Pressure – published today by Affirm Press – is her first foray into long-form fiction.

The novel follows two Adelaide-based paramedics and unfolds over more than two decades with chapters revolving around incidents or emergencies – some frightening, some sad, some bewildering – that the pair are confronted with daily and which threaten to push them to breaking point.

Here, Mead shares the story behind the book and how she was able to make it so realistic, as well as offering a peek inside her writing sanctuary.

Where did you get your inspiration for The Application of Pressure?

My husband has worked for the South Australian Ambulance Service for the last 23 years and you don’t have to attend many dinner parties to realise that people are absolutely fascinated by paramedics.

Everything about the job seems to inspire curiosity. And it’s not just the lurid appeal of gory cases like gunshot wounds or vehicle accidents. It’s the fact that paramedics get to see behind the scenes of other people’s lives and have access to places that remain hidden from the rest of us. So, being a writer married to a paramedic, writing about his work seemed an obvious choice.

Although it’s laced with black humour, the book does include some macabre and confronting scenarios. How realistic is it in terms of the challenges faced by paramedics while on the job?

Some of the stories that make up The Application of Pressure are entirely fictional, but many are based on real-life situations from my husband’s experiences as a paramedic that I’ve fictionalised by disguising all the identifying details.

There were some incredible real-life situations I had to ultimately exclude because they were either too distressing or too unbelievable. The truth really can be stranger than fiction.

The paramedics in the book are fictional characters, but the nuts and bolts of the work they do is as realistic as I could make it. And this was important because I wanted to write a book that asked how paramedics cope with daily exposure to trauma as part of their working life. So the novel might be confronting, but I hope it digs beneath the gore and grit of the job to lay bare the uniqueness of paramedic culture and how they cope with the often brutal realities of pre-hospital medicine.

Tell us about Tash and Joel, who readers first meet as trainees confronted with a dead body in an Adelaide alley.

Tash and Joel are both paramedics working on Adelaide’s medical frontline and the book follows their careers over a couple of decades, from their time as trainees in the late 1990s to the turn of 2020.

With their regular work day being a supercut of the worst moments of other people’s lives, they maintain their sanity through a friendship built on a bedrock of black humour and mutual respect. But constant exposure to trauma begins to take its toll and both characters experience moments of work-related crisis.

Joel witnesses a particularly harrowing incident, while for Tash, it’s the relentless exposure to trauma which threatens to destabilise her health and relationships.

Adelaide itself is almost like another character, with many local streets, suburbs, pubs and other familiar landmarks featuring in the stories. How important was it to you to give the book this sense of place?

I’ve lived in Adelaide most of my life so it was a natural impulse to ground my writing in the landscapes and communities that I know and love. But after making the decision to write stories from a paramedic’s perspective, giving the book a strong sense of place became essential.

Exceptional navigation skills and knowledge of local geography are fundamental elements of paramedic work. So seeding the stories with local places and landmarks was crucial for immersing the reader in the head-space of characters constantly navigating across Adelaide and the suburbs at ‘lights and sirens’ speed.

Readers are also given an insight into how Tash and Joel’s work impacts on their personal relationships. In your experience, what are some of the challenges of living with a paramedic?

Organising a household routine around 12-hour working days, night shifts and an eight-day work cycle isn’t easy when the rest of the world operates on an eight-hour day, five-day working week. But the most significant challenge is helping my husband de-stress and debrief in his downtime.

Paramedics (and other emergency service workers) are especially vulnerable to trauma and stressor-related disorders, since their work brings them into such frequent contact with traumatic events. Paramedics are also far more likely than the average person to find themselves in physically threatening situations.

After 23 years, all the techniques and considerations I use to support my husband’s psychological health are now so ingrained in our domestic routine that they barely even register as anything out of the ordinary. But the demands that COVID-19 has placed on our frontline medical professionals has made me more aware than ever of the enormous burden they carry.

I believe you’re fortunate to have a rather special writing studio at your Adelaide Hills home – what’s the story behind that?

One of my husband’s methods for unwinding is making sure his days off are completely removed from work. He’s an incredibly gifted artist and builder, and his talents are in high demand. As his wife, I’m lucky to be able to jump the queue! A few years ago, he built me a gorgeous, bespoke writing studio overlooking our dam, so I hope that using it to write a book based on his work and experiences is a fitting way to show him how much I love it.

Inside Rachael Mead’s writing studio with a view. Photo: Mike Smith

Having already established a successful career as a poet –  how difficult was it switching to prose for your debut novel?

More difficult than I expected! I’m a voracious reader, and when I started writing my first paramedic story, I naively assumed that a life-long consumption of books would somehow naturally metabolise into the ability to write one. Wrong. Even telling a story aloud is surprisingly different to writing one.

There’s so much to know about the mechanics of writing: narrative arc, character development, dialogue, theme – and this is just skimming the surface. Writing poetry fostered a love of observation, an eye for underlying meaning and a knack for metaphor, but when it came to writing fiction, I was an amateur. Thankfully, I had a brilliant mentor in Rebekah Clarkson (author of Barking Dogs) and a community of friends who are exceptionally talented writers.

The Application of Pressure took me many years to write, but I was in good hands from the moment I attempted to write my first short story to the book finding its perfect home with Affirm Press.

The Application of Pressure, by Rachael Mead, is published by Affirm Press and available from today.

Rachael Mead and fellow Adelaide author Katherine Tamiko Arguile (The Things She Owned) will talk about their new novels at a free Zoom event with Imprints bookseller Jo Case this Thursday, May 28, at 6.30pm. Bookings (here) are essential.



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