Ewa Ramsey captures the anxiety of a young woman trying to recover from a tragedy

A new voice: Ewa Ramsey, author of The Morbids, a story about a young woman coming to grips with anxiety. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
A new voice: Ewa Ramsey, author of The Morbids, a story about a young woman coming to grips with anxiety. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

When I arrive at the park where I've arranged to meet Ewa Ramsey, my photographer is already busy working with her. He's got her walking along the wet, narrow pavers that border a huge spraying fountain, asking her to pause and focus on the camera.

I'm nervous; and she looks nervous. But Ramsey survives the shoot without falling or getting wet, and then wades into her first ever interview on a nearby park bench on a quiet winter's day.

Ramsey's debut novel, The Morbids, will be released in September by Allen and Unwin. It's a masterful work of fiction, driven by realistic characters and earnest dialogue. Paraphrasing the book sleeve, the story's lead character is Caitlin, who was a normal twenty-something in Sydney with a blossoming career and a plan to go travelling with her best friend, until an accident two years ago left her with a deep, unshakeable understanding that she's only alive by mistake.

Caitlin has to overcome her fear of death and start living again.

The title, The Morbids, comes from a nickname for a death-related anxiety therapy group. In the book, Caitlin attends the therapy group with others who suffer the same anxieties about death - albeit for other reasons - trying to find their way back to a life where they can cope more easily.

Considering the subject matter, the book is upbeat, full of personalities and movement, chatter among friends and workmates, all the while Caitlin is slowly working to resolve the fears that have controlled her life.

Ramsey does not hesitate in admitting she has suffered from anxiety - the book comes from a state of mind she has experienced. But it's not that simple.

"It starts out as my story," she says. "I do have an idea of who this book is for. It didn't start out as a book about anxiety at all. As it developed, I started to see the reader as people who would relate to it the most."

The setting is inner Sydney - Caitlin works in a busy restaurant in Pyrmont. While Ramsey was raised in Sydney's northwestern suburbs, around Seven Hills, as a young adult she lived in the city's inner west. She doesn't miss a beat in describing city life in the book, right down to the cat-piss smelling apartment above a second-hand bookstore that Caitlin lives in.

The rhythm of the book moves quickly, and we learn plenty about Caitlin's relationships past and present. The book brushes over physical descriptions of its characters, but it sure lets them do all the talking.

Ramsey laughs about all the conversations in the book.

They are so amazing. They are people who are in my head. I wish they would shut up sometimes.

Ewa Ramsey discussing characters in her book, The Morbids

"In one of my first writing workshops, I said 'I'm really bad at dialogue'," she says. "And everyone said, 'No you're not!'."

She does her writing in the early morning hours. After getting up with her husband James at 5am when he goes to work, she will get herself a cup of coffee and return to bed and her laptop where she writes in the quiet hours before her two boys Jacob and Finley rise.

But the main characters in The Morbids visited her at all hours of the day and night.

"They are so amazing," she says. "They are people who are in my head. I wish they would shut up sometimes. Because I am so character-driven, they will take it directions I haven't even thought of."

When those voices visited, she would write down dialogue notes on her phone wherever she was.

First novel: The Morbids, by Ewa Ramsey, published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99 RRP.

First novel: The Morbids, by Ewa Ramsey, published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99 RRP.

In the book, Caitlin spends a lot of time talking with her best friend, Lina. It is the overwhelming, uncompromising trust and love in that friendship that breathes life back into Caitlin, as she comes back from depression, a point of no return, after the accident.

Caitlin and Lina's friendship bond began as young girls in the same neighbourhood. One of their habits, as they grew, was exchanging postcards, even from places they had not visited.

(When Allen and Unwin invited Ramsey to discuss a book contract, staff members had prepared postcards for her from all over the world, telling her they loved the book and hoped she would sign with them.)

In Ramsey's life, she has that lifelong friend, too.

"I am still close to my best friend from age 13," she says.

"And she writes. And has kids. She is the first person I share what I write with.

"I showed her an early draft. Lina was much less nice. She said, 'I hope it's not me'. So I thought I was being mean."

So Ramsey made some adjustments to the character.

The other tip from Ramsey's friend - she had not given any physical description of Lina at all. The book is so dialogue-driven, there are no distractions in terms of loading up characters with minute details irrelevant to the storyline.

She gave Lina a hair colour. In her own defence, she was focused on the characters and where they were going, not what they looked like. It was her way of connecting the characters and the story to her readers.

"Any of these people could be anybody," she says.

"There is enough anonymity they could be anybody. So much so when you are dealing with mental illness."

Ramsey is a careful writer, a true crafter of words. You don't get the agent you want (Grace Heifertz of Left Bank Literary) and the publisher you want (Allen & Unwin) unless you are very good.

But she is not an overnight success story. Her book, in some ways, has been a lifetime in the making.

"As a writer, because writing is so subjective, you don't know if what you've done is good or bad," she says. "I am very fragile, fearful of criticism."

While her love of words has been part of life since she was a child, her parents spending a small fortune feeding her appetite for reading, her success as a writer with a first novel did not come until she was 40 years old.

That passion for words never disappeared. She works for the Newcastle Writers Festival and she's on the board of directors of National Young Writers Festival.

On August 13, she turned 41. She bought herself a new laptop to write her second book.

A year ago, she wanted a book contract for her 40th birthday. She got it, with Allen & Unwin coming on board in early August, 2019.

Still, on the eve of the book hitting the market, her own doubts and anxieties linger.

"Even now, I'm waiting for a call," she says with a half laugh. ".. It was an accident. We're not doing it'."

But the book deal is no accident.

"I think it is a novel that speaks to the zeitgeist really," says Rosemarie Milsom, director of the Newcastle Writers Festival. "Alienation and loneliness."

Newcastle should be proud of Ramsey, Milsom says; Allen & Unwin is one of the leading book publishers in Australia.

Caitlin, the main character in the book, is 28. But Ramsey says she could not have written this book when she was at that age.

"I didn't write fiction," she says. "I didn't feel ready and comfortable sharing that part of me. I wouldn't have written the same book at all in my 20s."

She suffers from anxiety, and she was involved in a vehicle accident that left her shaken. But she invented the "morbids" therapy group that Caitlin attends, where everyone has a fear, however unrealistic it may seem to the rest of us, of dying from a horrible incident.

It took a life change, moving to Newcastle on New Year's Eve in 2011 with her husband and children, for her to find herself as a fiction writer.

"That changed things; having kids and moving to Newcastle gave me a window to assess my career goals and my life," she says.

"It gave me the freedom to write. In my 20s, I was terrified of putting something out there people weren't going to like. Like Caitlin's fear of travelling. I think my anxiety got the better of me. I never really wanted to put myself out there."

She finished the book four years ago, sent it to a friend in 2017 and sent it, all 125,000 words, to her agent in 2018. They edited it down to 89,000 words and began to seek a publisher, with Allen & Unwin making an offer last year that set the wheels in motion for its publication in September.

The concept for a second book is "slowly percolating" in her head now. The next book may have some characters from The Morbids, but not Caitlin or Lina.

"They've worked through their demons," she says. "I will leave them alone."

This story Talented writer's debut: a novel for our time first appeared on Newcastle Herald.