Useful 6

by Oswald Debra and Debra Oswald

Publication Date: 28/01/2015

4/5 Rating 6 Reviews

From the creator of Offspring comes a smart, moving and wry portrait of one man's desire to give something of himself.

Sullivan Moss is useless. Once a charming underachiever, he's now such a loser that he can't even commit suicide properly. Waking up in hospital after falling the wrong way on a rooftop, he comes to a decision. He shouldn't waste perfectly good organs just because they're attached to his head. After a life of regrets, Sully wants to do one useful thing: he wants to donate a kidney to a stranger.

As he scrambles over the hurdles to become a donor, Sully almost accidentally forges a new life for himself. Sober and employed, he makes new friends, not least radio producer Natalie and her son Louis, and begins to patch things up with old ones, like his ex-best mate Tim. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of him.

But altruism is not as easy as it seems. Just when he thinks he's got himself together, Sully discovers that he's most at risk of falling apart.

'I don't know when I have had the absolute pleasure of immersing myself in a novel as rich and rewarding as Useful. With gimlet eye and boundless heart, Debra Oswald pulls together the threads of disparate lives, including an old dog, a suicidal loser, a narcissistic movie star and a crew of Khmer asbestos removers. Their fates entwine in a plot that is by turns dark and light, brimming with insight, mesmerising, and above all, true. This novel is more than useful, it's absolutely essential.' Geraldine Brooks

'Debra Oswald is the master of character; no one escapes the truth yet no one is beyond redemption. Useful tossed my emotions around like a summer salad, with characters that are tragically broken yet supremely loveable.' Eddie Perfect

'With characteristic charm, wit and humanity, Debra Oswald has crafted an irresistible story of metamorphosis, as Sullivan Moss evolves from a self-described bag of spare parts to something altogether more whole - and way more complicated. As Sullivan opts in to the mess that is life, Oswald makes the most of every twist and turn, while also finding room for poignancy, insightfulness and the ups and downs that are part of being human.' Nick Earls

Contemporary fiction
Publication Date:
Penguin Australia Pty Ltd
Dimensions (mm):
What is your new book about?
Sullivan Moss is a charming no-hoper who decides to become a useful person by donating his kidney to a stranger. He has to sober up and get fit enough to pass the physical and psychological tests to be a donor, along the way becoming entangled with a restless radio producer and her son, a movie star, a Colombian asbestos remover and reconnecting with some old mates. In the process Sully transforms into a man he never expected to be. But just at the point he is almost giddy with confidence, even vanity, about his quest, things fall apart.

What or who inspired it?
I’ve always been interested in the struggle to be useful in the world. This particular story was sparked by the image of a person about to jump off a building, contemplating smashing their body on the concrete below, wasting all those healthy organs. Once I had that spine – Sullivan’s quest to donate his kidney – a whole lot of other story flesh grew, bits of character and story that have existed as scraps in my notebook for a long time.

What was the biggest challenge, writing it?
It was important to me to manage the shifting sympathy for the characters – hoping the reader will regard them with a clear-eyed, tough gaze but also with tenderness. Also, I wanted to the story to feel satisfying and whole but not too neat and predictable – sometimes it’s tricky to do that and remain emotionally true.

When did you start writing?
Writing at all or writing this book? I started writing what I blithely called ‘novels’ when I was 10 and starting writing plays when I was 12. I began work on this book about 3 years ago and relished any blocks of time I could grab to work on it, when I wasn’t busy with ‘Offspring’.

Are there any parts of the book that have special personal significance to you?
Because I come to love my characters as if they were my family or friends, the entire novel ends up having personal significance for me. At another level, there are various details drawn from my life – for example my father died 8 years ago, like Natalie’s dad (although my dad didn’t die in the same way!); I have a 14 year old kelpie so the Mack scenes have a special edge for me; my partner has worked for ABC radio for more than 15 years and during that time, I’ve observed his amazing producers working, being so quick-witted and smart – so the passages about Natalie’s work life are my homage to those producers. And I suppose my years working in the worlds of theatre and TV are soaked into various story details along the way.

What would you like to think people can get from reading your book?
I hope readers would feel they’ve engaged with these characters and their dilemmas in a thoughtful, visceral and satisfying way. I’d love people to come away from the book thinking about the idea of usefulness. Of course, every human being is precious and has value for their own sake, with no measurement or conditions. But personally I feel the urge to justify my existence, to feel that I’m a useful addition to the planet – whether it’s through the work I do or parenting or being a good friend or whatever. Sullivan wants to feel like a useful person – even if his quest to be useful is initially a bit immature and misguided. The only thing he can think of to offer up is a chunk of his body. At the same time, other characters in the story are dealing with their own struggles around this issue – how does the world value you, are you useful to other people in a way that makes you feel hemmed in and exploited, have you devoted your life to things of true value?

If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?
During school years I worked as a kitchen hand and cleaner in a nursing home. Through university, I was a waitress and barmaid. But since university, I’ve made a living as a writer. As research for ‘Useful’, I did a 2-day TAFE course in asbestos removal (the same course Sullivan does in the book). I passed the test and now have an official certificate in asbestos removal – my first ever employable qualification!

What do you like to read? And what are you currently reading?
I read a bit of non-fiction but mostly fiction. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed a range of things - smart, tender relationship novelists like Anne Tyler, Patrick Gale, Charlotte Wood and Carol Shields; historical novelists like Hilary Mantel, Geraldine Brooks and Rose Tremain; wonderful contemporary US writers like A.M. Homes, Curtis Sittenfeld, Lorrie Moore, Dave Eggers, Siri Husvedt. I don’t read much crime fiction but I do love the occasional hard-boiled yarn – like Daniel Woodrell and Elmore Leonard. I just finished reading Joan’s London wonderful novel ‘The Golden Age’ and rereading Wallace Stegner’s exquisite ‘Crossing to Safety’. I’m currently making up my pile of books for summer reading: ‘Merciless Gods’ (Christos Tsiolkas), Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘, ‘Nora Webster’, Hilary Mantel’s stories ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, Nick’s Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’. Can’t wait to get stuck in.

Describe a day in your life when you are writing.
Cup of tea and the newspaper in bed. I would try to be at the computer by 8.30 or so. I’m besotted with my height-adjustable desk and I spend most of the day standing up to work. I usually write until midday, then take the dog for a walk. If I’ve got any creative juice left in me after lunch, I might press on with writing. Or I might devote the afternoon to rereading and fiddling with whatever I’m working on or deal with emails, administration, research, visiting friends and so on. If I’m really fired up or facing a deadline, I might work after dinner but I’d be more likely to read or watch a DVD or go to live music or bother my partner by making him listen to me rambling about whatever story problems I’m wrestling with.

Download: Useful Bookclub Notes 
Debra Oswald

Debra Oswald is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier's Literary Award and the creator/head writer of the first five seasons of the TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and are published by Currency Press.

Gary's House, Sweet Road and The Peach Season were all shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Award. Debra has also written four plays for young audiences - Dags, Skate, Stories in the Dark and House on Fire.

Her television credits include Police Rescue, Palace of Dreams, The Secret Life of Us, Sweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas.

Debra has written three Aussie Bite books for kids and six children's novels, including The Redback Leftovers and Getting Air. Her first adult novel, Useful, was published in 2015.

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  • Useful

    by on

    If you enjoyed the series 'Offspring', you are certain to love this book. Like the series, the characters in 'Useful' are flawed, insecure and prone to internal monologues and self-berating. This is balanced, however, with wit, warmth and continual striving for self-improvement. I could really relate to those moments where characters tried to second-guess what other people's motives were and interpret what others were saying - this is where most of us find relationships awkward at times. Although I found some aspects of the plot implausible at times, I chose to go along for the ride, and was quite content with the dizziness factor and the excruciatingly funny scenes in this journey. The resolution is satisfying yet not mawkish - thank goodness for a non-Hollywood-esque ending!

    Don't be put off by the book's cover (being a squeamish sort, I was at first) - this is a terrific summer read: light, humorous and quirky. I'm looking forward to reading more of Debra's work!

  • A brilliant read.

    by on

    Useful is the first adult novel by Australian author, playwright, and television scriptwriter, Debra Oswald. As Sullivan Moss recovers in hospital from an unsuccessful suicide attempt, a routine enquiry from a nurse gives him an idea: he will make up for his hitherto useless existence by anonymously donating a kidney to a stranger. His determination to see this one thing through amazes those who know him. His ex-wife, despite having every reason to abandon him, manages to find him a place to live. Natalie, divorced mother of Louis and a producer of breakfast radio, needs someone to house-sit her recently-deceased father’s flat and look after his ageing dog, and Sully fills that vacancy.

    As Sully makes an earnest effort to satisfy the donor requirements, he finds himself making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. Extended sobriety is a new experience for Sully that changes his perspective. As her characters deal with a myriad of life’s challenges: death, suicide, sex, psychiatric evaluations, raising children, finding a purpose in life, alcoholism, a corpse in the wrong place, asbestos removal and cancer, Oswald manages to include plenty of humour, much of it quite black. Readers are warned that, when her characters get agitated, some resort to expletives, and also indulge in some rather disappointing behaviour, demonstrating just how flawed human beings can be.

    Oswald gives the reader a plot that is entirely believable, with a twist or two to keep it interesting. This is a wonderful story: clever and laugh-out-loud funny, but also heart-warming and with enough emotion to choke up the most callous reader. Oswald’s screen- and play-writing experience is apparent on every page and readers will look forward to more from this talented author. A brilliant read.

  • There is more to a person than what meets the eye...

    by on

    What starts out as a light and quirky read about a guy called Sullivan and his failed and clumsy attempt at suicide and life, turns into something with much more heart. A completely compelling and warm read with humour and great characters (of which you would expect from the writer of Offspring TV show). This book had me feeling so very much by the end. Highly recommend if you liked The Rosie Project.