A Gold Coast Author

A Gold Coast Author is part of ‘Let’s Talk with the Authors’, a series of interviews with authors who have worked with editors4you or WriteDesign Publications. The promotional opportunity is also open to other authors (contact us for details).

cover and books of a gold coast author Sandra Sweeney Ripples from the Wave
Ripples from the Wave, by Sandra Sweeney, a Gold Coast author

A Gold Coast Author: Sandra Sweeney

Promoting Your Books

Around Christmas 2019, I offered my authors a simple way to promote their books through an author interview.

As we writers know, it’s one thing to write a book. It’s quite another to promote it. Writers tend to shy away from promotion, but it’s vital to kick the shyness habit and get our books out there in the big wide world.

In this fourth interview in the series, the profiled author is Sandra Sweeney, a Gold Coast author who published a moving account, Ripples from the Wave, of losing her son in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Sandra teaches English for academic purposes and is an Academic Skills Advisor at Bond University. A former secondary school teacher, she has also taught international students from all corners of the world.

author photo Sandra Sweeney a Gold Coast author
Sandra Sweeney, a Gold Coast author who wrote Ripples from the Wave

Sandra, this must have been a very difficult book to write. What was your main reason for deciding to write it?

Well, in fact, it was not difficult to write. It was never a chore because it didn’t start out as a book but a scribbling of reflections and I didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t start out writing a book, I was just jotting down my thoughts. It was a way of coping. In subsequent months and years, I thought it would be a good thing for Craig’s daughters, Demi and Forreste, to read in the future and know what happened to their dad. And then I met you, Gail, and you encouraged me over the years to keep going, even though I had no idea when the story would end because I was raising Demi, so a new chapter had emerged.

How soon after the loss of your son did you start writing the book?

On the night of my son’s funeral in January 2005, in a hotel room in Thailand, I began to write about the ritual of the Thai funeral. It was different from western funerals in many ways. It had been a long and exhausting day, but I wanted to remember it – all the little symbols, sights and sounds. Writing comes naturally to me, but since I didn’t have my laptop or any writing paper, I wrote the first lines in the back of a little exercise book with a purple cover. It had been Craig’s book for Thai language classes. In the front part of the book were the curly symbols of Thai script that he’d been practising.

Your son’s young Thai wife was pregnant with their first child. You then brought her to Australia to help raise their daughter, Demi. Can you tell us something about this?

Sheree, my daughter and I, had been to Craig and Maliwan’s wedding in March 2004. Towards the end of the year, he announced Maliwan was pregnant and he was very much looking forward to the arrival of the baby in 2005.

I had only spoken to ‘Wan’, as he called her, a few times because of the language barrier so I hardly knew her at all. But after the tsunami and the funeral in Thailand, I asked her if she’d like to come to Australia to meet the family. She seemed keen to do that after the baby was born. So after the funeral, I returned to my teaching job in Australia and then returned to Thailand a few months later for the birth of the baby. During that visit, I organised visas for Wan and her sister to come to Australia. They arrived when the baby was eight weeks old.

A few weeks into her visit on a tourist visa, Wan casually said one day while we were preparing dinner, ‘Mum, I like to stay.’ That was the defining moment that changed the course of three women’s lives: mine, hers and baby Demi’s.

So that was it? She stayed?

Well, no. It was much more complicated and protracted than I’d imagined. You can’t just land in the country on a tourist visa and decide to stay. The rules are that you have to return to your country and then reapply. It could take years. So I started my quest to keep Wan and Demi by calling immigration. The answer was swift and definite; there were no grounds for Wan to stay. I had become very attached to them and began to feel that the chance to see Demi grow up was slipping away.

I began to think about the many politicians I had met in the course of attending a number of tsunami memorials earlier in the year. They always offered their condolences and said that if they could help in any way, I should get in touch with their office. One of those politicians was Peter Beattie, then Premier of Queensland. I wrote to him, explaining our dilemma but not daring to believe I would receive a reply. To my absolute astonishment, I had an answer from his PR people within hours! He had read my letter and handed it to immigration to investigate. Immigration did call and we were in the Gold Coast train on our way to Brisbane the next day.

We didn’t have to wait; they were expecting us. Demi’s Australian citizenship was granted and, after a tense couple of months and a lot of red tape, the case ended up on Minister Amanda Vanstone’s desk for the final approval. She signed off on it and Wan became a permanent resident on humanitarian grounds a couple of weeks before Christmas 2005. It was only then that we had assurance that Wan could stay in Australia and Demi would be educated here. Thanks to Peter Beattie, the future looked bright and the cloud of uncertainty had lifted. 

It was an incredible transformation for Wan. In less than a year, she transformed from a newly married girl from the rice fields of northern Thailand to an Australian permanent resident!

Your son’s wedding and funeral were both held in Thailand. How were these different from western rites of passage?

The wedding was really lovely because it was loaded with Thai symbolism and custom that I had previously not been acquainted with. It was the happiest of ceremonies. Sheree and I are so glad we had that last time together with Craig. It was a traditional Thai wedding in the north east of the country in Wan’s tiny family village. The wedding planner was Wan’s gay cousin, Ahn, who attended to every detail. There are so many parts that were truly amazing. I can’t list all of them but some examples are: Craig had to buy Wan’s mother a buffalo before the wedding; on the wedding day, the groom’s party had to parade through the dusty streets of the village banging drums, cheered on by excited kids and well-wishing neighbours; there was a string of dressed-up Aussies and Thai family members in their best wedding clothes; my son had to roll up the legs of the pants of his cream, silk suit before entering the bridal house so that his feet could be washed in a red plastic bucket by excited, squealing sisters. Wan has seven!

The ceremony was conducted by an elderly monk and it was the noisiest event you could ever imagine. Everyone was laughing and calling out to one another. The bride and groom knelt on the floor, as did everyone else, and there was a mood of happy chaos surrounded by a forest of magnificent flowers. That’s the best way to describe the wedding ceremony.

The funeral was in stark contrast. I was stressed, having arrived in Bangkok at midnight the night before and in disbelief that I was in a temple with monks chanting and my son’s coffin draped with fairy lights. Funerals last for anything from three to seven days in Thailand. Friends and relatives tend to sleep in the temple so that the deceased is not alone. The cremation ceremony lasted the entire day. Food was being cooked in a kitchen out the back, stray dogs were wandering in and out, sometimes fighting over food scraps, sometimes stretching out in the middle of the floor. Toilet rolls were handed around to mop up tears, chanting monks came and went, boys from the village wore orange monk robes, had their heads and eyebrows shaved and wrestled at times when they were bored, people posed in groups for countless photos in front of the coffin, relatives knelt at the altar or presented robes to the monks at various intervals. Hardly anybody spoke English and I had no Thai so I spent the day feeling confused and lacking any control in farewelling my son. It was so different from the quiet, one-hour ceremony we are used to. But in another way, I later felt privileged to have experienced such a deeply cultural ceremony.

It must have been very difficult under the circumstances to attend your son’s funeral in an unfamiliar culture. What helped you deal with this?

I don’t think I dealt with it very well. I was on the back foot all day, unable to ask anyone, ‘What’s happening now? Why are they doing that?’ I just had a feeling of ‘what on earth am I doing here?’ It was surreal, like having an outer body experience. I couldn’t believe it was happening and yet, I drifted along with events and obligations that swept me forward on the day.

Having written about it so soon after the event, I have managed to keep the details fresh so I’m glad that I started immediately. If I hadn’t done it then, I’d have forgotten so much of the culture on the day of the funeral and the day after when we had to return to the temple crematorium to collect the ashes. That was a very confronting, raw and unexpected experience.

You have a great sense of humour, which comes through in your book. Can you give us some examples?

The topic of death and funerals is quite harrowing so having a sense of humour is really important in a story like this to avoid the doom and gloom that could otherwise take over. Thai superstition was a source of some amusement at times. On the morning of the wedding, Craig, Wan and several Australian mates who had come over for the ceremony had stayed in a hotel in town. Ahn, the wedding planner, had been particular about the necessity for the wedding to happen before 9 am and had ensured that everyone knew the game plan. He gave the impression that it would be very bad luck if we didn’t make it to the wedding at the village on time. I listened to his warning but wondered how, with all the celebrations that night and celebrating at Mr Tong’s Bar until after midnight, it could possibly happen before 9.

Next morning at 8.45, Wan was stuck in the hairdresser’s for hours while everyone sat around in the foyer. The village was 40 minutes away so I just had to ask the question, ‘Ahn, so how bad is the bad luck for missing the 9 am deadline?’

His beautiful face lit up and he smiled and said, ‘No, it OK because last night we see the elephant so everything OK now.’

Whew! We had indeed seen an elephant the night before outside the restaurant and fed her some sugarcane. How lucky was that! In the face of impending doom, the Thais have a way of turning fate around.

Tell us about your ongoing voluntary activities helping Thai immigrants adjust to life in Australia.

It’s 15 years since the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. Life has taken a direction that I could not have predicted. Wan had English lessons at TAFE, then eventually graduated as an Assistant in Nursing Certificate 3 at TAFE, with help from Sheree and me, and eventually she became an Australian Citizen.

All this time, I have remained close to the Thai community. I’ve applied for countless visas and written dozens of letters on behalf of Thai people. I’ve taught them English and advised them about their rights in Australia. I’ve been to a police station for hours after some Australian guy beat his Thai wife. I didn’t know either of them but Wan asked me to help the woman, so I was there to support her while she told her story to the police. My Thai ties are extensive and many of the encounters have been amusing because language and culture are always a stumbling block to communication.

Do you plan to write other books? If so, what will these be about?

I do plan on writing another book. Time is my biggest problem. One day I’ll retire and then I’ll have time to write. But I have started writing a book about a dog, and I’ve met a neighbour who has had a really interesting life so I’m collecting stories from her and may ask her if she’d like me to write her memoir. I will always write because I really enjoy it. I recently wrote a blog for a page online just because I had an amusing story to tell that fitted the topics for that group. To my astonishment, I won $50! I had no idea people were paid for their blog. I’ll write more short stories when I can fit them in.

To purchase Sandra’s book, send her a message on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pg/ripplesfromthewave/

or email her at [email protected]

or SMS her 0410 553 723

We hope you’ve enjoyed ‘A Gold Coast Author’, and look forward to sharing more author stories with you. If you’d like to be interviewed for ‘Let’s Talk with the Authors’, drop us a line.

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