Q&A with Carly Nugent

‘Sugar’ cover designed by Text Publishing Art Director Imogen Stubbs (@imogen_stubbs) and illustrated by @gozitive.

What inspired you to write Sugar?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 28 and living in South Korea. The day my blood tests came back, the doctor said “Diabetes is your friend for life”. Not it isn’t, I thought. Diabetes fucking sucks. In writing Sugar I wanted to give voice to the frustration of living with a chronic illness. Having diabetes isn’t the end of the world, but it can feel that way. And it’s okay to feel that way. I think it’s important to acknowledge those feelings of anger and grief and sit with them for a while. Letting yourself be angry can be an essential part of coming to terms with a diagnosis; we are often too quick to jump to the ‘moving on’ stage. When a person loses someone they love, we accept that they will need time to grieve. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness is also a loss. Your life will not be the same as it was. You need time to grieve that loss, too.

I heard that the character of Persephone was inspired by Greek mythology. How has the original myth been integrated into your novel?

In the original myth, Persephone is dragged into the underworld by Hades. In writing Sugar, I was interested in how experiencing a traumatic event—like the loss of a parent or the diagnosis of a chronic illness—can leave you feeling separate from other people, like you’re in another world. In Sugar, Persephone is in a kind of underworld of grief, pulled down by these things that have happened to her. There are other parallels as well, but I don’t want to spoil them for readers!

Frederick Leighton, ‘The Return of Persephone’. Source: WikiMedia.

This is your first novel for young adult readers. What compelled you to reach out to this age group?

I knew I wanted to write this novel from a young person’s perspective. I’d met kids and teens living with diabetes, and heard from them that there were often misunderstandings from people in their communities about this illness. The fact that it became young adult rather than middle grade wasn’t as intentional—once I started writing Persephone’s voice took over, and it was clearly a teenage voice. 

Sugar draws from your own lived experience of Type 1 diabetes. As a writer, do you often dive into your personal life as part of your creative practice? Did you find this to be challenging, rewarding, or both?

I find that my personal experiences always creep into my writing somehow—even if I’m writing about something completely alien to my life, like zombies! It’s definitely both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because you are opening up your own usually very private feelings to both strangers and people you know, without having any real idea of what their reactions will be. And rewarding because I find that writing out those emotions—particularly grief and anger—through a character helps to process them and find a way to the other side.

Your novel deals with grief, which is a universally difficult thing to grapple with. What drew you to explore grief through the eyes of 16 year-old Persephone?

There’s a kind of grief that comes with being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Your life will never be the same as it was—you are grieving the loss of an amount of freedom, a sense of health, and a trust you had in your own body. I wanted to explore this alongside the grief of losing a person who is important in your life. I was drawn to Persephone as a character because—in my experience at least—everything seems so much more intense when you’re sixteen. It’s also a time when we feel very caught up in our own ‘stories’, and it can be hard to see the often chaotic and random nature of the world as separate from ourselves. I thought it would be interesting to explore the way Persephone deals with her grief at first, and how her perspective on it changes over the course of the novel as she grows up a bit. 

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

Are there any books that influenced you in writing this novel?

Yes! Probably too many to list here. In researching the themes of the novel I read How to Survive an Atomic Attack: A Cold War Manual, edited by John Christopher. The inspiration for Persephone came from a beautiful book called Greek Myths by Ann Turnbull, illustrated by Sarah Young. I also read so many wonderful young adult novels as I was writing, including The Minnow by Diana Sweeney, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, and pretty much everything by the brilliant Vikki Wakefield, but especially Inbetween Days and This is How We Change the Ending.

If you could travel back in time and give advice to your 16 year-old self, what would you say?

Shitty things will happen to you, and to the people around you. And it’s okay (and, I would argue, essential) to feel shitty about them, to acknowledge them and be angry and sad and feel all those emotions. But it is also possible to be happy alongside all of those shitty things. Not in opposition to them, not in spite of them, but with them.

Young people already have it tough, not to mention having to navigate the impacts of COVID, climate change, and more… What do you hope they get out of your novel?

I hope they find characters they can relate to. Whether it’s Persephone’s experience with diabetes, or her anger and grief, or Steven’s anxiety. I guess I also hope that Sugar will encourage a sense of empathy. Diabetes is one of those illnesses that is often hidden, and I hope this book will be a reminder that we never really know what other people are going through. One of the reasons I think fiction is so important is the way it allows us to really live in the head of someone who is different from ourselves. I hope Sugar can help explain not just the logistics of living with diabetes, but also the complex thoughts and emotions that go with it.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

The description of Sugar mentions ‘the complex interconnectedness of the universe’. Do you think young people struggle with finding their place and purpose in our current world?

I can’t speak for young people, but I know I struggled with it as a teen, and in a lot of ways I still struggle with it as an adult. I think as humans we are always trying to find meaning in our existence—it’s in our nature to invent stories to try to explain the things that happen to us. And that instinct can sometimes be helpful, in that it can give us meaning and hope and a reason to go on. But it can also be detrimental because when truly random things happen—like someone dying suddenly, or being diagnosed with an illness—it can lead us to blame ourselves.

What are you currently reading, and what’s on your to-read list?

I just finished reading Dark As Last Night, a wonderful collection of short stories by Tony Birch. Currently I’m reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville for a book club I’m part of. I’ve also just started Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention which is a non-fiction book by Johann Hari, and Dearly – poems by Margaret Atwood. There are a lot of books on my to-read list! Including: Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto, The Furies by Mandy Beaumont, Growing Up in Flames by Zach Jones, The Gaps by Leanne Hall, and All the Little Tricky Things by Karys McEwen.

Sugar is now available at bookstores around Australia and online.


Carly Nugent lives in Bright in Victoria. Her short fiction has featured in numerous publications, including the Bellevue Literary Review and Award Winning Australian Writing. Her first novel, The Peacock Detectives, won the Readings Children’s Book Prize, was a CBCA Honour Book, and was shortlisted for the Text Prize, the Australian Book Design Awards and the Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards. Sugar, inspired by her own experience of having diabetes, is her first book for young adults.


You might also be interested in these posts: