Interview: Penny and Rebecca talk about Last Writes
The creators of Last Writes talk to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Last Writes.
Last Writes is a personal journal for final wishes, closing reflections and one’s last legacy. The journal is modelled on a little notebook created by a fabulous and funny mum who died just over a year ago. She was staunch, quilted from fabric of loyalty and kindness, and had arms so wide they wrapped around legions of people whom she embraced with formidable compassion. Although she didn’t mince words about many things, she knew that death is difficult to discuss with those nearest and dearest. As a society, it’s a confronting topic. So, she wrote down what she wanted in a little journal. It was as tender as it was practical. It was as moving as it was funny. It was as if her last act of love was to make her death easier.
We used this idea to develop a template that everyone can use to address all the issues associated with their passing. It provides a framework regarding the logistics and practical considerations associated with ensuring that someone gets the send-off that they want. Where? How? Who’s key? It’s a blueprint for family members or close friends. But it’s more than that. It invites people to share their thoughts on death, on what has defined their life, to compose messages for key people left behind and to reflect on their life. Only if they want to, of course. There’s space to add nuts-and-bolts information that might have got drowned in desk drawers or filing cabinets: contacts; where to find key documents; service providers etc. In essence, it gives people a chance to have a voice beyond the grave.
What inspired you to write this book?
At the funeral of the writer of the original journal on which ours is modelled, there was discussion about the book. It was clear to everyone gathered that the whole event was exactly as she would have wished it to be. The book was a topic of conversation. Friend after friend said something along the lines of “I need to put together a book like that. It’s an incredibly good idea.” We merely wanted to make it easy and all wrapped up all in one place. We also had the intention of diluting the heaviness of such a weighty theme by making it a combination of the serious and the whimsical. We wanted to shed light on a person’s personality and legacy by prompting them to think about quotes, favourite films, memories, defining events and all the messy triumphs and potholes that make life such an interesting journey.
What research was involved?
We made sure that we were not replicating something that already existed and we could not find anything exactly like Last Writes. We also researched layout design, book size, colours and section ideas that people might find useful. We developed everything to align with ‘family’ – if it didn’t make a difference to relatives (or close friends), it didn’t get included. We hoped that it would become a treasured gift but, until you launch it, you never really know of course.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Once we decided we would create the journal, it was all go! There were a lot of phone calls and sitting around each other’s dining tables throwing ideas about with lots of family input. There were many many drawings, quite a few wines and a few tears. There was a constant sense that we may be creating something that will impact people’s lives and permeate through all the decisions that are likely to be written into the book.
How did you work together as writer and designer?
We are pretty much opposites in everything - one of us thinks in words and is always writing, one of us thinks in images and how things look on a page and is always sketching. Although you’d think that would be a recipe for disaster it was actually a very easy collaboration. We are both open to feedback from each other but mostly stick to what we are good at so we’ve organically found our stride. It was helped by a deep-seated friendship which made dealing some of the more tricky elements of the subject matter much easier. There was a lot of laughter as the little journal began to take shape.
What did you enjoy the most about creating Last Writes?
We’ve been friends for a long time and our kids have grown up together so it was special to be able to work together on something so meaningful. Because we created it so quickly, there wasn’t a lot of time for the idea to be over-analysed. We’ve taken the freshness of that into the new edition and added new prompts, different layouts and paintings to make it more visually enticing. It was also rather lovely to use a number of beautiful watercolour paintings by an artist who is also a family member. Her gorgeous mostly South Island scenes are captured within the book.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
We toasted life. Because each day is precious and everyone’s life narrative should be respected and protected.
We hit the ground running! Two days after our first edition was delivered, we had a segment on The AM Show so we didn’t have a lot of time to sit around after that. We had a lot of feedback from our community and in a sense, that was an amazing way to celebrate.
We also listened and read some of the preliminary feedback which indicates that people have embraced the book as a key to unlock a basket of issues which are difficult to address comprehensively and organise consistently. We have heard from people who have used the book to connect with sick relatives, who have had a blast filling in the journal with their spouses or who report that they are generally less worried about their death because the ambiguity that hangs over some families is diminished. We’ve heard from younger people, old people, sick people and well people but no one has said “what on earth we you thinking?” The much-missed mum who compiled the journal that inspired this, and who died just over a year ago, would get a kick out of the fact that a funny and quirky idea has been turned into something which genuinely seems to have struck a chord with people. She’d squeeze a lime into her G&T and say “whoever would have thought?”
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Penny: The Secret Garden because I am an avid collector of children’s books and I finally tracked down a particular edition that I have been hunting for years.
Rebecca: I’m obsessed with anything visual so my favourite book this year has to be Information is Beautiful by David McCandless. It’s a book about information graphics and how seemingly boring data can be transformed into beautiful images – it never fails to inspire me.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
For Penny, a sequel to the novel “The Old Bitches’ Boarding School” which I wrote as a light and cheerful romp about a group of Remuera women taking on a corrupt Council and some malignant property developers to save a beautiful but dilapidated old mansion. A process not aided by copious amounts of wine and some serious conundrums, such as what to do when the law gets in the way of common sense and how to get rid of a body on the Northern Slopes. Rebecca did the design for that book too and it is quite lovely.
For Rebecca, I’m excited to be creating graphics for Penny’s sequel. We’ll also be launching greeting cards with the paintings that are in the journal – we’ll put them on the site too.
We’ll both be keeping in touch with our amazing Last Writes community and developing more resources to help people write their Last Writes.