Kylie Ladd chats with Zibby Owens about her compassionate and heartwarming new novel, I’LL LEAVE YOU WITH THIS. Inspired by real-life organ transplant stories and her own personal loss, Kylie brings a mix of humor and depth to the narrative. She also describes her life as a psychologist and how it intertwines with her writing, making this episode a rich exploration of how real-life experiences can morph into captivating storytelling.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kylie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I’ll Leave You With This: A Novel.

Kylie Ladd: Thank you so much for having me. It’s lovely to be here.

Zibby: We befriended each other on Instagram a while back. I was really moved by your story about your own brother. Then of course, your novel was really beautiful. I love how you tell the story, this time, of a shooting of Daniel and how it affects the five siblings in the family and how you go through different points of view and how a loss can affect so many people, but then of course, what happens with everybody’s life independently. It was really beautiful and immersive and sad and all the good things that a book brings. Maybe I should let you tell a little more about what your book’s about and the inspiration behind it.

Kylie: I think you’ve summed it up beautifully. It’s really about four sisters who are not particularly close for a variety of reasons but who do come together after the death of their only and much-loved brother, Daniel, to track to down the recipients of his organs after his death. I always feel I have to insert the caveat at that point and say that sounds gruesome and medical and technical, but I hope you’d agree that the book is quite light in tone and even funny in places even though that premise, as I said, it does put a few people off. It’s a story of life, obviously, of hope and of legacy. Legacy was one of the main words that was in my head while I was writing it.

Zibby: Interesting. You do have this dark sense of humor about death and everything. In one scene, the sister’s husband’s aunt has passed away, and the ashes are in the back seat of the car. You have Daniel’s old dog come in and eat his way through it. There’s ash all over the back of the car. She’s like, oh, my gosh.

Kylie: Yes, I really threw readers right in at the start there, didn’t I, with the thing about death? I have to confess that was almost inspired by something that happened in my own family. My husband, yes, had been driving around with the ashes of his mother. It’s not funny, but he didn’t know what to do with them or where she would’ve wanted them spread. Being a man, he’d just left them on the back seat until they fell below the back seat. One day, we found the dog — our dog did not get to the ashes, but our dog was interested in the box. I suddenly thought, oh, my god, imagine what would’ve happened if Taco, our dachshund, had actually got into that box. That came to me when I was starting the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Kylie: I know. Again, I’m making this book sound so macabre and gruesome. It’s not.

Zibby: No, no, not at all. I was trying to point out there’s always this piece of funny with all the darkest days. There’s the humor in it. I think it’s the juxtaposition of those two things that enables people to even get through it.

Kylie: Absolutely, a hundred percent. There has to be laughter as well, doesn’t there? That’s what life is. As sentimental as it sounds, life is about the balance.

Zibby: You lost, tragically, your own brother. Tell me about all of that and how this story comes from a personal place.

Kylie: Look, I did. There were two main inspirations for this book. I’m just going to quickly talk about the other one and then move on to that. The first was — I haven’t actually told you this. I’m going to hold it up briefly. I don’t know if you can see it. The first was a newspaper article I came across one day when I was between books, actually. It says, “Doctors left mystified by amazing slight of hand.” I mention it in the book, which you have read. For people who haven’t, very briefly, it’s about an Indian girl, a student, eighteen years old, who lost both her arms below the elbow, had to be amputated below the elbow, in a bus crash. Doctors offered her a — this always sounds a bit science fiction, but it’s very true. This only happened in 2018. Doctors offered her a double-arm transplant. Amazingly, the arms took, but the arms came from a man. The donor was a male who was older than her, but most importantly, bigger than her, of course, being a man, hairier than her, of course, being a man. His skin was quite darker than hers. Skin color, as you’d appreciate, is important, particularly in India with the caste system and what have you. Doctors said, “Do you want these arms?” Again, I’m aware of how macabre this is sounding. She said, “Of course, I want arms.” I’m trying to be short. The surgery was a success.

Zibby: No, don’t be short. This is fascinating.

Kylie: Oh, good. It is fascinating. The surgery, which took sixty hours and was the first of its kind in the world — I’m a neuropsychologist by trade. I work in a hospital. I got my hospital librarian to look up all the journal articles about this for me because I was fascinated. She did. The surgery took about sixty hours with various teams of surgeons rotating in and out. I know, amazing. Beautiful part is that it worked. Within a month after surgery, she had functional arms. The even better part, Zibby, is that a year or so after the surgery, while these arms, when they’d first been attached, looked quite wrong on her, for want of a better word — they looked big and dark and hairy. Within eighteen months of the surgery, the arms had transformed quite dramatically. This is where I hold up the paper. They’re still a bit out of proportion to her, but they’ve lightened in color. They’re not hairy anymore. They’re much more in proportion than what they were, which is what I saw in the journal articles. Because I work in a medical field, that absolutely fascinated me.

It did also strike a chord because, as you mentioned, I lost my own brother just over ten years ago now. He was an organ donor. My brother, Piers, was a pilot for Qantas, Australia’s airline. He was the youngest pilot they’d ever employed. All he’d ever wanted to do was fly in his life. He was thirty-nine when one day, Mom and Dad got a phone call from Qantas that Piers hadn’t shown up for work. That was completely out of character. He just lived to fly. He had a partner, but she was a flight attendant who was away flying herself, so Qantas contacted Mom and Dad. They went around to his flat. Long story short, he’d suffered an enormous brain aneurism and was still faintly alive. My mother was a doctor. She performed CPR and managed to keep him alive — although, there was blood everywhere — until the ambulance came. By the time my sister and I were contacted about the whole thing and he was in ICU at the Alfred Hospital, which is Melbourne’s major hospital, it was clear that he’d had this aneurism and he was brain dead, that he wasn’t going to be able to survive. By the time my sister, who’s just eighteen months younger than I, and I got there, they let us see Piers and be with Piers. Then a doctor asked if he could speak with us privately and informed us that Piers was registered as an organ doctor. They wanted to check with us that it was okay to proceed with transplantation surgery, with harvesting some of his organs. Again, I guess I’m being medical. I was surprised they asked our permission given he was thirty-nine and a registered organ donor. Apparently, that’s how it’s done in Australia. I have no idea about the US. Obviously, it was a terrible thing that happened. I don’t have to explain that to you. Although, it did give us all a little bit of solace that something came out of it at the time.

The best bit of this story happened further down the track. That is that three years after my brother’s death, my parents received a letter from the Organ and Tissue Service, which is what is the service that coordinates transplants in Australia. It was a letter from the person who’d received my brother’s right kidney. Donations in Australia have to be anonymous on both sides, but the parties can communicate with each other through the Organ and Tissue Service. This man was of the age that my brother had been when he died, in his late thirties. He’d had a major infection that had turned into complete kidney failure three or four years before the transplant. He’d been on dialysis for that time. While dialysis saves lives, it’s also a very difficult way to live. It certainly impairs the quality of life. He’d had to give up work. He was not able to take his sons to the football. He had three young boys. He wasn’t able to travel because he always had to be around for dialysis. He received my brother’s kidney — just one is all you need — the day that my brother died. He left hospital within the week. He said he felt better the moment he woke up from surgery. I’ve now heard this in my research, that kidney transplants particularly work very quickly. He said he felt better within twenty-four hours. He left hospital within a week. He was back at work within a month. He finally wrote to us. He said, “I’m sorry it took me so long.” He was going overseas to the UK, which is a long way from Australia, with his family for his wife’s sister’s wedding. He said, “It’s finally made me realize — I would never have done this on dialysis. I’ve always been grateful. I think of my donor every day, but I think even more of you, his family, who’ve lost your loved one. I’m so grateful to you for allowing this to happen.”

That had happened six, seven years before I wrote the book. I never even thought about putting it into a book because even novelists don’t turn everything traumatic that happens to them into fiction, at least not straight away. It wasn’t until I saw that article about the Indian girl and her arms. I thought about what a miracle transplantation and organ donation is. Suddenly, all those pieces fell into place. I suddenly thought, I want to write about this. The time was right by that stage. I was over the initial grief. You never get over it completely, of course, but I was able to write about it by that stage. While Daniel, the man who loses his life in the book, is not my brother Piers — they’re very, very different. It’s not Pier’s story. Certainly, yes, that was inspiration for writing about organ donation and transplantation. I’m going to take a breath. I’m also going to say while I’ve concentrated a lot on organ donation, the book is really, just as much about that, if not even more, it’s about sisters. It’s about relationships. It’s about family and blood, which was not what I expected when I started writing it, but happened as I was writing it. I suddenly realized these girls, they really don’t get on. For all that they’re keen to do this for Daniel, they don’t get on themselves. That was what gave me the narrative thrust of the book, if you will.

Zibby: Interesting. You said early on that even though the two sisters who are closest in age, you would expect them to get along — there’s this assumption. Oh, they’re close. They’ll be friends. They’ll be best friends. Yet those were the two that were furthest apart, in a way. Daniel was actually much closer to the one who was seven or eight years apart from him.

Kylie: That’s right. Daniel is really the one that holds the family together. He’s the fourth in the lineup. There’s three girls, Allison, Bridie, and Clare, above him, then Daniel and then the youngest sister, Emma. As an aside, you might notice that the siblings are named alphabetically. It’s A, B, C, D, E.

Zibby: I did not notice that. Oh, my gosh.

Kylie: You did not notice that?

Zibby: I did not notice that. Very clever.

Kylie: It sounds clever. I did it for my readers because it’s hard on a reader to be confronted with a whole lot of characters at once and trying to remember them all. Birth order is really important in this book. As you just said, you think the two firstborns or the two oldest are going to be closest. Then Daniel is actually closest to one that’s seven years older than him. Birth order is really important to this book, so I wanted the reader to be able to quickly always identify where each character came in the birth order, if that makes sense. By giving them A, B, C, D, E, readers who noticed could work out, okay, E, she’s the youngest. She’s the youngest by thirteen years to the oldest. There’s a big gap. I can’t remember what we were saying before I got distracted by that.

Zibby: We were just talking about age gaps. I’m really glad you told me that. That’s super clever. I love it. I feel like a moron for not even noticing. It’s a great idea.

Kylie: That’s what I was going to quickly say. Daniel, even though he’s fourth, is really the lynchpin or the fulcrum in the family. He’s the one that all the sisters are closest to. When he dies, the sisters who already weren’t that close because of personality differences and age gaps are pulled even further apart because they no longer even have that central one person that they all love and particularly relate to. I was interested in that and when that happens in a family too.

Zibby: Did something similar happen in your family? I know this is about your novel. Fiction is very much not nonfiction, but were there echoes in reality?

Kylie: Not in that specific way, no. It’s just my sister and I and then my brother, who was seven years younger than myself, actually. I probably identify most strongly, of all my sisters, with Allison, the oldest, because I’m the oldest. Allison is a typical oldest child in that she’s responsible and organized and a bit bossy and a bit of a pain in the neck. That’s probably me as well. I didn’t actually realize that there was the same age gap between Allison and Daniel as there is between Piers and myself. There’s only three of us, so it’s not quite the same. Age plays a part. Seven years is a big difference. If one of you is at high school and one’s still at primary school, it is a big gap. That was part of the reason that the sisters aren’t as close as they could be, is the age gaps.

Zibby: My kids, there’s seven and a half years between my twins and my youngest. Then I have another daughter in between.

Kylie: Goodness, so you know about age gaps too.

Zibby: I’m fascinated by birth order and all the interrelationships. I always find myself wondering what the four of them, God willing, as they grow up, what all the different relationships will be. I like seeing it all unfold.

Kylie: I love that you say that. You say, was there an echo in yours? No, there’s only three in mine, three siblings in my family of birth, but I wanted at least five because five just gives you so many, as you’re saying, so many different relationships to play with: A versus B; A and B versus C; or C, D, and E versus A. As I mentioned, I’m a psychologist by training and by practice. I work two days a week as a psychologist. The plethora of relationships and all the different ways they can unfold, but the ways they can so quickly be reversed or turn on each other as well, I just love playing with that. Having five siblings to play with was a delight. It really was.

Zibby: It is such an interesting thought experiment. What happens to the pieces of yourself that live on? It challenges the whole notion of self and our relationship to our bodies as specific, scientific things so apart from the soul. Then I wonder, for the girl in the article, the donor of those arms, how great would it have been for someone who loved that man to sit there and hold his hand again?

Kylie: Absolutely. I do have a scene in the book, as you know, of Allison when she meets Daniel’s hand transplant recipient. When I was doing research for the book, I’d covered all the standard organs you think about when you’re thinking about donations, like kidney, liver, lungs, all that sort of thing. Because I’d read about this girl, I suddenly thought, I wonder if that’s ever happened in Melbourne, if there’s even been any — not Melbourne; Australia — if there’s ever been any organ limb transplants. God bless Google. Quickly googled it. To my delight, I found that there has been one hand transplant recipient in Australia. That man lives three hours out of Melbourne. I tracked him down, again, using Google and a local paper. I went and met him. He was absolutely fantastic, him and his wife.

Zibby: No way.

Kylie: Yeah, way. They came to the launch of the book. They were the guests of honor. He received his transplanted hand at the age of sixty-eight, which is late in life to be given an organ like a hand. A hand transplant’s terribly complicated, obviously. You have to pass a battery of psychological tests to be given an organ like that. He was apparently the one who passed them the best, so to speak. I’m not expressing that well. Thirty percent of recipients of organ donation recipients, at least in Australia, don’t take their medicines or don’t do the right follow-up. Would you believe? There’s a high percentage, which doctors and scientists believe is some sort of psychological rejection of needing a transplant or what have you. If they’re near death, they’re not screened. Recipients often will receive a lot of psychological screening before they are given a transplant, again, at least in Australia. I have no idea how it works anywhere else. He’d come through all the tests with flying colors.

By the time my book was out, he was seventy-nine. He’d lost all four of his limbs to meningitis. He had two prosthetic legs and one transplanted hand. He came to my book launch at seventy-nine and held court. He held up his hand when I was making my speech and said, “If anyone wants to come and have a look at it, feel free.” There was a line of people wanting to look at it. He was great. He was loving showing it off. I remember sitting at his kitchen table. He showed it to me. It’s very scientific, obviously, but there’s something magical, too, about seeing what is a part of someone else functioning in someone else’s body. While I’m very much a scientist in my work, there is a woo-woo part of me that got goosebumps and just thought, oh, my goodness, this is someone’s life going on in a different form.

Zibby: Tell me about the process of turning your idea into fiction and your whole life as a novelist.

Kylie: I’ll Leave You With This, it’s only my second novel to be in the US, but it’s my sixth novel altogether. I have to say I actually find writing really hard. Sometimes I don’t know why I do it. Obviously, after six novels, there must be a good reason. I feel compelled to. I have to say I found this novel really easy to write, which is not usual for me. I read that article two days before my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, which was also the day that her school closed down for the first lockdown for COVID back in 2020. My daughter was doing year twelve, her final year, at the time. She’s very anxious. She ended up doing seven months of her final year of school at home online. As you’re possibly aware, Melbourne, where I live in Australia, had the longest series of lockdowns in the world. We were locked down for the best part of two years. Not consecutively. We had a six-month lockdown, then got out for a few weeks, and then a one-month lockdown. This is a COVID novel. I got the idea in the first lockdown and researched it in the first lockdown. I met my transplant recipient between lockdowns one and two. Once I met him, I thought, yes, there’s really magic in this idea for me.

I started writing it in lockdown two. I finished it in lockdown six, which was our last lockdown. I actually found it really easy to write, which, as I said, is unusual for me. I set the novel in Sydney, Australia’s other major city, even though I live in Melbourne because I was so fed up with being in Melbourne and being in lockdown in Melbourne. In our lockdown — I know you had something like this, probably, in New York and lots of parts of America. We were only allowed to leave the house for an hour a day. We weren’t allowed to go more than five kilometers from the house. For the best part of two years, that’s all I did. All my other novels are set in Melbourne, but I was over thinking about Melbourne. I thought, I’m going to set it somewhere else so I can pretend I’m somewhere else, by the harbor. I set it in Sydney. Thank god for that novel because I couldn’t do my work as a psychologist. The hospital I work for shut down. It was closed to everything except emergency surgeries and things like that. I am just so grateful that I saw that article two days before the first lockdown started and I had something to keep me from going absolutely mad in the eighteen months or so that we had of lockdown. Very grateful for that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How do you balance US launches, Australian launches? How did you find it for your last book? Tell me a little more about that.

Kylie: This book launched in Australia six months ago. I did lots of launch stuff for it then. That takes four or five months. Then it’s all started dying down. Then it’s only just come out in the US and the UK in the last couple of weeks. It’s nice, actually, to get a chance to talk about it again because I hadn’t been overseas. I took a holiday, went overseas with my husband, which, of course, borders were shut and we weren’t able to do for three years. We’ve been in Europe for the last month. It’s really nice to come back and start talking about it again, I must say. I hope that it’s reaching other readers and other areas. I work as a psychologist, as I said, two days a week, and I write two days a week. That’s my plan for my life. I try to keep one day a week free for doing all the other things that mothers have to do because they don’t have time to do anything else. It generally works pretty well. I really like that balance in my life. I don’t want to work full time as a psychologist. I don’t want to write full time either. Having two days a week of each, I feel really — blessed is an overused word, but I do. It’s a great balance of my life of being out in the world doing stuff with other people and being inside in my own head and creating worlds.

Zibby: I love that. That’s beautiful. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Kylie: Writing is a long game. My first novel was published at forty. I’m fifty-five now. I wrote three novels before my first novel was published. I wrote novels for ten years before my first novel. That was my other one that actually got into the US. It was called After the Fall. As I said, it’s been fifteen years since that came out, just about now. I wrote novels for ten years before the first one got published. I hear a lot of people who are overnight successes who write their first novel and get it up and it does well. I know a lot of writers, having been in the game for the best part of twenty years. The more writers I know have had to work long and hard. Persistence is the name of the game, keeping your bottom in that chair and just turning up to do the work. The other thing I would say is be really familiar with your genre. I write commercial fiction. Know what is going off, what’s popular in your genre.

Try and work out if there’s gaps, too, if there hasn’t been — when this story came to me about organ donation, a part of me did think, is that too macabre for the market? Is that too confronting for people? I did also think, I’m not aware that there’s been — there’s been My Sister’s Keeper. There’s been a few books about organ donation, but not a lot. I did think, yeah, it’s not something that’s been overdone. I think it’s important when you’re trying to sell a book to a publisher to be able to show exactly how it fits the market, both in terms of what’s already there, but also in terms of what’s not there. I think that’s important too. Read aloud. That’s my final thing. I read everything I write aloud. My husband is retired, has been since he was fifty. He’s in other parts of the house. He goes, “I just hear your voice coming from the study all day. It’s just a constant murmur of your voice. What are you talking about?” It’s just me reading out every sentence I write because to me, that’s the only way you know if a sentence flows and if it hits the ears correctly, so to speak.

Zibby: Interesting. I read what I write to my husband, but when he’s next to me, not with him in another room.

Kylie: I don’t show anything I write to my husband until it’s published. Everybody does it differently. I’m really insecure about my work. I think if Hodder or whoever or Penguin, my publishers in Australia think it’s good enough, now I can show it to my husband, but not until Penguin or Hodder have given it a tick.

Zibby: That is really funny.

Kylie: I know. It’s silly, isn’t it? We’re all different.

Zibby: No, it’s not silly. That’s so funny. Have you started your next novel? Maybe you’ve already finished another novel by now.

Kylie: No, I’m actually two thirds of the way into what I hope will be my next novel. I’ve written four or five novels that haven’t got out. They don’t always get out. That’s part of the persistence. As a practicing psychologist, I’m very interested in the intersection between the psychological and the medical, which is sort of what I’ll Leave You With This is about and what others of my books have been about as well. My previous book before I’ll Leave You With This, which wasn’t published in America, is called The Way Back. It was actually inspired by an American case, by the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. Oh, good, I thought you’d probably know that case. I wasn’t interested, per se, in the kidnapping. I was interested in how somebody gets over something like that, something as traumatic as that. I guess that novel is about post-traumatic stress disorder, which, again, doesn’t sound particularly sexy. It’s that sort of thing that I’m interested in, how people deal with psychological things. The reason I’m mentioning that is because part of what I’m working on at the moment is that — fingers crossed. In Australia, somebody’s optioned that. A screenplay is being written for that at the moment. Fingers crossed it will get up. We’ve still got to get funding. I’m half involved with that process. I’m also working on a novel about an IVF mix-up, which, again, came from an article I read in the paper and is based on a true story. Again, it’s that lovely interface, for me, not for the people involved, of the medical and the psychological and where that leaves us. Very interested in assisted reproduction and all the ethics around that. That’s what’s happening at the moment. I’ve got to finish that by the end of the year.

Zibby: I’m so impressed, Kylie. This is amazing. You’re just so bright and so introspective. You see the whole big picture. It’s true. Your vantage point as a psychologist in that world and being able to tap into the fiction, maybe this is the new thing. Two days a week psychology, two days a week writing will take off. Maybe you’re just a trendsetter here.

Kylie: I’m never an early adopter. I was the last person I know to get a mobile phone. Yes, I’m prepared to be an early adopter in this respect.

Zibby: There you go. Trendsetter.

Kylie: Trendsetter. I recommend it to everybody. It’s a great life balance. One day a week to do the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning and walk the dog.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. Congratulations on I’ll Leave You With This. I can’t wait to follow along and see what else you come up with next.

Kylie: Thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Buh-bye.


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