For any woman (and many a man) under the age of 35, the words ‘chiko roll’ can only mean one thing: Puberty Blues
. Co-written by Australian-born authors Kathy Lette
and Gabrielle Carey; this book, and its subsequent motion picture adaption, is still a cult hit for many young adults today dealing with the big issues of friendship, boys, surfing, being ‘kewl’, and wondering why the hell Aunty Flow hasn’t come to town yet.
As another film adaption, this one a TV mini-series, of Puberty Blues
is currently in the works, we speak to one half of the book’s writing duo, Kathy Lette. Back in Oz from her adopted home of England, Kathy today enjoys a fantastically brash career full of hit novels, wisdom, and – it goes without saying – that infamous Aussie humour. Emilia Terzon got on the email to her before she touched down in Australia.
Welcome home, what's the first thing you like to do when you touch down on Aussie soil?
Plunge into the surf at Bondi. In London, I only get to surf my brain waves.
We love your self-confessed name-dropping. Had any famous people come stay in your attic recently?
As my husband is a human rights lawyer, my attic has always been full of various revolutionaries and rebel leaders. Basically, I’ve had everyone in my attic but Anne Frank. The latest was Julian Assange.
You’re a self-confessed Scrabble fan (which is obviously awesome). What's the best word you've ever played?
Well, my pal Kylie Minogue is a total scrabble whiz. And no wonder. With a K and a Y, Kylie’s Christian name is actually a triple word score.
Comedy obviously informs a huge majority of your work. How do you tackle heavy issues with humour?
If you can disarm with charm, you can slip in your message so much more effectively. I just write down the way women talk when there’s no men around. It’s a great male myth that women aren’t funny. I think men just say that as they’re terrified what it is we’re being funny about. They presume we spend the entire time talking about the length of their members, which is not true… as we also discuss the width, which after childbirth is much, much, more important.
One of your most recent projects, The Boy Who Fell To Earth
, does just this. Was comedy and laughter pivotal to raising a child with Asperger's Syndrome?
Mothering a child on the autism spectrum is like trying to put together a giant jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of having a coloured picture on the box. There is no owner’s manual. It’s like finding a baby under a spaceship and bringing him up as your own. I wanted to call the book My Family and Other Aliens
. When Julius, was diagnosed with autism, aged three, I sat in stunned silence in a drab Victorian London hospital. As the doctor told me that my cherished, beloved boy had a developmental disorder, I remember his voice being all light and falsely cheery – which was when I knew something was seriously wrong. My son had walked and talked early. He was so bright, advanced even. Then at about 14-months, he just suddenly lost his language. I’d presumed he simply had a chronic case of glue ear or some other minor ailment, so the word ‘autism’ slid into me like the sharp cold edge of a knife. This is a diagnosis which pulls you into the riptide and drags you down into the dark. The doctor had reduced my cherished child to a black and white term. But to me, my little boy was full of the most vibrant colours. My son had become a plant in a gloomy room and it was my job to pull him into the light. I felt disbelief, followed by dismay and then by a fiercely protective lioness-type love.
When a mother is told that her child has special needs, her guilt gland throbs. Was it something I ate whilst pregnant? Soft cheese? Sushi? Was it the glass of wine I shouldn’t have drunk in the final trimester? Was it something I should
have drunk - like pureed beetroot? Was it something I didn’t eat? Organic tofu, perhaps? Or maybe I ate too much? I hadn’t just been eating for two, I had been eating for Pavarotti and his extended family… If only I’d feng shui-ed my aura in yogalates classes chanting to whale music like Gwyneth Paltrow and Organic Co. My son had so many tests, he must have thought he was being drafted into the elite moon mission astronaut programme. I tried everything from cranial massage to karma maintenance and other areas of scientific expertise based on medical ideology that’s been rigorously and methodically proven by Goldie Hawn and other well-known academics. I ricocheted from psychoanalysts to biofeedback practitioners and other nouveau-voodoo nut-jobs, until my own inner-child wanted to throw up. (I hate to think how many doctors’ children I have now put through University). Finally, many experts, tests and schools later, my son was re-diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome.
It's been over 3 decades since you co-wrote Puberty Blues
and still today young girls are reading it. What makes it so timeless?
The wry, dry humour, which is drier than a Betty Ford clinic.
A lot of the girls who grew up reading Puberty Blues are now old enough to have children of their own. How have you grown up with your audience?
I am still friends with all the girls I went to school with. In fact, I wouldn’t have survived with out them, as a woman’s pals are human wonder bras – uplifting, supportive and making each other look better than better.
Now Puberty Blues
is making it onto the screen… again. Who would you pick to play your semi-autobiographical self and why?
Southern Star are now shooting an 8-hour mini-series based around the book. The mini series is a tad more ambiguous about the girls’ ages. I’ve read all the scripts and given notes on dialogue and character. I’ve made sure the teachers are wearing long socks with their shorts and have gold ingots nestling in their chest hair. And that the girls have rising inflections and say “roollly” a lot. It’s hilarious to be considered old enough to be archival. I’m also driving around town with a casting couch strapped to my roof racks, as we do have to cast a lot of good looking young blokes. I think it’s thrilling that the book is being reinterpreted for a younger audience. The book and film are in the cult territory now. Young Aussie kids dash up to me in London streets all the time gasping: “Go get me a chiko roll and DON’T TAKE A BITE OUT OF IT ON THE WAY OR YOU’RE DROPPED!!”
It’s so exciting to have a fresh eye on that period of Oz history. The ‘70s was a time of social upheaval. Gough had just been elected, dragging us out of the beige ‘50s mentality of Menzies. Cleo scandalized the Aussie male population by publishing nude male centerfolds. Germaine Greer was telling women to stop being tethered to the kitchen by their apron strings. The generation gap was a Grand Canyon wide between parents and their kids. The new scripts capture that extraordinary mix of optimism, naivety, sexism, brutality, racism, politically incorrect humor, happiness and hilarity. Adaptations can be disappointing. My book Mad Cows
was made into a film staring Anna Friel and Joanna Lumley. It was so dire I bought back a lot of my film rights afterwards. The Victorian Opera staged How To Kill Your Husband - and other handy household hints
, last year and that was a triumph. My new novel, The Boy Who Fell To Earth has been bought by Emily Mortimer, so I’m expecting great things there as she’s such a clever actress and so highly intellectual. And of course, she’s known Jules his whole life. (She’s John Mortimer’s daughter. And he was my best pal. He called himself my toy boy…but said it would take him three weeks to get a soft on!).
If you could go back in time and impart some wisdom onto the likes of 16-year-old Debbie or Kathy Lette, what would you say to them?
Wear sunblock. Stand on your own two stilettos - don’t wait to be rescued by some knight in shining armour.
Kathy Lette is speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival at Kathy Lette: Live in Newcastle, Girl Trouble, Welcome To Hyperbowl, and The Feminist Supremacy.