Antonia Hayes found inspiration for her novel Relativity through exploring her own personal moments of pain. Photo: Nic Walker
In 2001, Antonia Hayes had what she now describes as "a pretty lousy Christmas". Outside, the world was grim enough (September 11, anthrax, the beating drum of an impending war). But indoors, Hayes was facing a far more personal ordeal: sitting bedside in a Sydney hospital, coming to terms with the idea her infant son, Julian, might die.
Hayes still has photos taken at Christmas that year of Julian with Santa, complete with a bald patch and conspicuous scar on his scalp. Weeks before, doctors had drilled into Julian's tiny skull to remove blood clots that had been triggering massive seizures. "He was really little," Hayes says. "Five kilograms. Tiny. It was pretty awful.”
I took a seed of something that happened in my life and used fiction to write my anxieties and worst-case scenarios.
Hayes' debut novel, Relativity, published next week, features the same act of family violence that caused Julian's real-life injuries, its harrowing first chapter more or less lifted from the incident:
Before your brain can register what you're being told, you know that something is wrong. And before you can respond, it's already too late. Because once you've heard those words, an event is set into motion and everything will change. "Help," he said. "He's not breathing.”
Hayes, then 19, didn't know it at the time, but while she had been sleeping, her partner - Julian's biological father - had shaken him violently. Julian became one of the 30 or so infants admitted to Australian hospitals each year with shaken baby syndrome. "Being protective of Julian, I didn't really want to make that public," Hayes says now. "But I spoke to him about it a lot. He didn't do anything wrong; I didn't do anything wrong; so there shouldn't be any shame there. Violence is a choice and Julian's father chose to hurt him. Once I accepted that Julian's father was responsible, I stopped blaming myself too.”
Hayes was 16 when she met her then-boyfriend, another Sydney teenager, one year older. The two weren't necessarily planning a future together ("He was just my high school boyfriend"), but kept dating past graduation. Then, in her first week as an English major at university, Hayes found herself sapped of energy, involuntarily falling asleep and suspected she had glandular fever. When her GP asked when she'd last had her period, there was a moment of pure fear.
Tests confirmed Hayes was pregnant. Her GP explained that, though she was on the pill, its effectiveness had been compromised by antibiotics she'd recently taken. "I wasn't even being irresponsible. I just didn't know. When you're 18, you don't know anything.”
After the doctor's appointment, Hayes kept the news secret, spending hours curled in the foetal position in her bedroom, "kind of catatonic". Then, as she weighed up her options while 11 weeks pregnant, she found herself watching an episode of Australian Story. "It was about a stillbirth, called Losing Layla," she says. "I thought, 'There are people out there who really want to have babies, and they can't. I do want to have babies, and I can. And I have one inside me! I'm just going to do it.”
Hayes' parents were supportive - her mother, Josephine, had given birth to Antonia when only in her early 20s. However, as Hayes' belly swelled, she suspected her university classmates saw her as a "weird pregnant girl". "No one's comfortable in their skin at 18," she says. "Well, imagine putting someone else inside your skin. I was a bit of an island that year.”
In the meantime, the pregnancy made her look at her relationship more seriously. Hayes' boyfriend was relatively supportive and moved in with Antonia, her mum, stepfather and brother in Paddington.
Hayes gave birth to Julian during a break in study. Flooded with oxytocin, she says she loved him immediately. "I just wanted to hold him, all the time.”
Then, when her son was six weeks old, Hayes - exhausted after a sleepless night - took a nap and left him in the care of his father, who was supposed to give him a bath. The next thing she knew, he was waking her in a panic, telling her that Julian's breathing had stopped. After the rush of ambulances and paramedics, doctors discussed Julian's potential injuries: brain haemorrhage, retinal haemorrhage. "It was a very confusing, scary time," Hayes says. "I was only 19, I had a newborn baby, and I didn't know what was wrong with him.”
Julian's father wasn't volunteering an account of what had occurred, so Hayes' fear turned inwards. Had she done something wrong? "I was going through everything, even my pregnancy," she says. "It really made no sense to me.”
The police were called in and interviewed Julian's father first, while Hayes stayed by her son's bedside as he suffered one seizure after another. She says there are large blanks in her memory from these weeks; her doctors would later diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the first few days, no one was entirely sure Julian would pull through - he flatlined several times. Soon, a forensic paediatrician confirmed he was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. Visits between Julian and his father became supervised. Julian stayed in hospital for about a month, and there was the possibility he'd have cognitive problems for the rest of his life. "I didn't want to believe [my boyfriend] had done it, because that was awful," Hayes says. "At the same time, you also have to protect your child. He was denying it the whole time, and you want to believe the person.”
Julian didn't have any more seizures after the surgery, but Hayes remembers him being "quite frail" as a baby. He experienced developmental delays: gross and fine motor skills lagged; so did speech development. No one was certain he would ever walk. He went through years of speech therapy and physiotherapy. Then, when Julian was four and Antonia had been assured he would be okay, she flew to Paris, where her mother had taken up permanent residency. "I needed to reinvent myself," she says. But in reality, Hayes admits, she "sort of fell in a heap".
It was in paris that hayes saw an ad for a four-day intensive writing workshop with Jeanette Winterson. She enrolled immediately. The British writer's most resonant advice was to "write from the wound". Hayes says she "took a seed of something that happened in my life and used fiction to write my anxieties and worst-case scenarios".
At the end of the course, asked to read her story - a version of which appears in Relativity - out loud, Hayes realised she was crying. She looked up to see others in the room weeping with her. The director of the Faber Academy's Paris program encouraged Hayes to enrol in their novel-writing course in London. She agreed.
Over six months, Hayes caught the Paris-to-London train each week, recruiting a trusted friend to care for Julian, who was by now seven years old, happy, healthy and at school. After six months, she had a manuscript and a title. An influential British literary agent, Karolina Sutton, read an extract and asked to see more.
Hayes composed a triptych novel, each section written from the point of view of a mother, an incarcerated father, and their preternaturally intelligent pre-teen son, Ethan, who is obsessed with physics and the mystery of who his real father is. Hayes has refined Relativity's elevator pitch: "It's about science, love, unbreakable bonds and irreversible acts.”
One challenge was writing a third of the novel from the perspective of a perpetrator of shaken baby syndrome. "It was interesting to lift a veil - fictionally - on what happens inside these heads. When it is talked about, it's 'This guy was a monster.' It's never really the case. Sometimes it's just the tiniest sliver of somebody.”
Writing the book forced her to empathise with people, like her ex-partner, who discover they have the capacity to harm a child and bury themselves under layers of denial. "It'd be like having a razor blade in your head," she says. "There's so much self-preservation going on with that sort of thing, with how much you'd lose if you admitted to [being responsible].”
By the time Hayes submitted the final manuscript to Sutton, eight years had passed since she wrote the initial story in the writing intensive. In that time, Julian had outgrown the fictional Ethan.
On Hayes' right shoulder is a tattoo of a mathematical equation she got in 2008. She explains that it refers to the speed of light. "I did it for Julian. He's my constant. The whole point of [Einstein's theory of] relativity is that even on the opposite sides of the universe, some rules are the same. The speed of light is one of them.”
Nowadays, Hayes is happily married to David, whom Julian calls "Dad". Her son is a smart and funny teenager, enrolled in a selective school in San Francisco, where the family is now based.
Relativity, meanwhile, started a bidding war among publishers in Australia and commanded lucrative advances in Australia, Europe and the US. Still, when people applaud Hayes for her accomplishments while looking after her young son, she baulks. "Julian's been the impetus for me wanting to achieve more," she says. "It's because of him that I wrote the book. It's never 'in spite of'. He's the reason."