The Real Life Story behind The Long Distance Playlist

Apr 27

The Long-Distance Playlist has an extra-special place in my heart. If I’m honest with you, I think that it’s my favourite of the four books I’ve written, and maybe that’s because I’ve carried this story in my heart for over twenty years.

Throwback to the year of 1999 and the moment when the idea for this novel jumped into my mind… I’m alone, on a long flight, staring out a plane window, daydreaming. I’m on my way to Perth – but in my imagination, I’m travelling thousands of kilometres further – to a boy, who lives 13,875km away from my hometown. I can feel my heart fluttering in my chest as I visualize myself walking across the tarmac, to the arrivals gate, to meet him…

You see, twenty years ago, there was a boy from the other side of the world, who sent me letters and emails across a four-year period. This boy made my teenage years a little bit brighter, and better. He was the first boy to call me beautiful, to make me jewellery, to read my short stories and songs, and to MSN Messenger chat (2000 much?) with me for hours about my hopes, dreams and fears. What started out as pen-pals – a boy from a land of frozen lakes and snowy skies, and a girl, from the beaches of Byron Bay – became something much more, as we navigated our way through a myriad of experiences in our late teen years.

This boy – let’s call him B – and I started writing letters about a month after my fifteenth birthday. He lived on the edge of an immense lake, in the heart of the USA. A family member of mine had met his parents, and knowing B was obsessed with Australia – suggested that he write to the girl who lived on the East Coast of the Land Down Under.

And so… one day, a letter arrived, addressed to me, with a photograph inside…

B was a year older than me – blonde, blue-eyed and cute. He was really interesting too – mad about travel, art, design and music. We spoke on the phone a week or two after his letter arrived, and I felt impossibly shy. I was impossibly shy back then – I barely spoke a word to the boys in my class at school. B asked me a million questions about Australia…and slowly, I started to relax, and chat back.

You sound so Australian! he said, I love it!

His accent was just as cute as his photo.

And so I wrote a letter back. I remember being nervous as I started it, but by the time I was a page in, I’d realised I was having fun. Written words have always been my thing – the space where I feel most comfortable, where I can put the words that flit around in my head, into the right order, with the right meaning.

I sent a picture of me with that letter – and oh my gosh, did I ever stress about that photo!

A letter arrived in return.

Tara! I’m so glad you wrote me back…wow! You are really beautiful! Thank you so much for the picture!

Tell me more about you! What is your favourite book, movie, colour! Tell me anything and everything about you! I really love hearing from you!

And the letters went back and forth, across the ocean. There was always a two-week gap between the date either of us mailed a letter, and the day it arrived – in 1999, everything was slower.

But that was part of the excitement. Every day, when I got home from school, I would RUN to the mailbox, heart pounding. Was there a letter? If I saw his handwriting on an envelope, I was over the moon. I’d race up to my room, close the door, and rip open the envelope, grinning.

I wrote to B about the things I loved – my passions, which were all creative endeavors – acting in plays, singing, poetry, writing, drawing. I told him about my favourite books, movies and songs. I wrote songs too back then (I wanted to be a singer-songwriter), and B was the first one I showed my lyrics too.

I’d mail off copies of my short stories, and the paintings I dabbled with on my weekends. I’d try and make my world – a sleepy seaside neighbourhood – come alive in my letters.

I loved all of your poetry in the last letter. You are so talented! You described the beach, the sunset, the ocean, with so much passion! I felt like I was there with you.

B sent things back to me as well. Characters he’d sketched, ink-drawings, CD’s (yup, very old school!) by his favourite artists, special songs he wanted to introduce me to. Streams of postcards from the places that his family traveled to on their summer vacations.

Gifts too.

I hope you like this necklace! I made it for you. Do you have a boyfriend?

He’d made me a necklace, with a BROKEN arm. I remember my head spinning out at the thought. And why was he asking if I had a boyfriend?!

I’d never had a boyfriend. Never even kissed anyone, even though I was already a hopeless romantic, lost in day-dreams half the time.

So you don’t have a boyfriend? Cool! I don’t have a girlfriend either….

B was kind, and caring, and sweet – completely different to the boys at my school who were going through a spit ball phase, and who called me Naso (Italian for nose) or other equally ugly names, that often made me burst into tears after school.

The experience of writing to B felt like light-years away from all of that. He was the first boy I felt confident being totally and utterly myself with.

B day-dreamed too.

I drew this picture quick for you. It is you and I, looking at the stars.

The year 2000 arrived, and with it, access to email. I was sixteen now, but I didn’t have my own computer, or email account yet – all of that was still a bit of a mystery to me. On a two-week interstate trip to visit my aunt, she showed me her email account, and ran through a bit of a ‘how to’ guide – and then she asked me if there was someone I wanted to write an email to

B of course.

Tara! It is really you!! This was your first email? This was my 1,000,000! 😉 This is so neat – we can write everyday now – no more waiting on letters!

Each night I’d sit down at the computer and tell him about my day. Every morning, there would be an email back from him. Some of them were so sweet, and lovely, that I’d print them out. I’d carry them around with me in my bag, reading them over and over.

The holiday with my aunt came to an end, and so did my access to email.

He wrote me on the last day –

I really hope you get this email before you leave! Maybe I should send it quick just in case? I hope you get it! I will write you a really long email next time, okay? I love hearing from you! Sweet dreams Tara!

I’m so sad I won’t get to hear from you for a while…this daily email was so nice! I already miss you!

We went back to sending letters. Time ticked by – another few months disappeared, and I turned seventeen.

We exchanged Christmas presents.

I remember leaving his present till last on Christmas morning – stretching out the anticipation. He’d sent me a baby-blue off the shoulder blouse. A necklace with three ellipses – a single bead of gold, silver and bronze suspended on each one – like tiny planets in orbit.

Every time I wore the blouse, I thought of him.

The letters kept coming.

Thank you for the new picture of you! I have it framed on my dresser.

The neatest experience about lying out on the ice is the sounds. Sometimes it gets so loud we can hear the ice from inside our house. The sounds are different every night, depending on how cold it is. I’m sure it will freak you out the first few times you walk on the ice. You look down and see the cracks underneath you. The cracks are deep and rigid…

Well it’s getting late – I have to go to bed, so I better finish this letter. I will be thinking about you in my dreams…

Guess what? My family are planning to come Australia this fall! That will be a dream come true…we can meet! It will be wonderful to meet you at last!

If I close my eyes right now, I can travel back in time to the split-second I read THAT NEWS.

I can remember exactly how I felt, knowing we were finally going to meet. The excitement burning in my chest and cheeks. I’m going to meet him!

I can recall the pure terror as well – the thoughts like – what if we met, and I’m too shy to say anything in person? What if the whole thing is an awkward mess?

I wondered – how would I feel seeing B – talking to B – being AROUND B – this boy that knew everything about me, even though we had never sat in the same room?

I wrote back. I don’t have a copy of this letter, of course, but I’m sure it was bubbling over with excitement.

He was excited too. His parents were talking about buying a property in Brisbane – B was in his last year of high school, so attending university in Australia was now a very real possibility.

I will be in Australia before you know it! I can’t wait to hear your Australian accent again!

And then the trip got put off. His Dad was having problems with his business.

B and I were still hopeful. We were chatting now, a couple of times a week, via MSN Messenger – my family finally had a computer! I still remember how my heart would do somersaults whenever the pop up – ‘B is online’ – would appear on my screen.

I’ve always been a romantic. Sometimes rather a hopeless one, and this was one of those times. My seventeen-year-old heart was lost in a dream of when we would meet.

Eighteen arrived. The year of the HSC. B was starting college in the US. And everything in his world had changed. I won’t go into the details, because none of that is my right to tell, but it was sad. And things started to change with us.

None of what happened was his fault. Time and distance just became too much in the face of what was happening in his world.

The letters and emails started dropping off.

As I said before, I won’t go into the details, but I remember one moment, when I was a few weeks off my first HSC exam. I remember I cried, and cried, and felt so stupid, and foolish, and naïve.

The worst thing was losing the closeness we’d had. The second worst thing was that I felt like I couldn’t open up and share what I was going through with anyone else, because who was going to understand why I felt so upset about a boy that I’d never even met?

So I pushed the feelings down, and forced my heart to move on.

But those years – the one’s I’d spent writing to B – were an undeniable part of my story, of course.

I always knew that one day, I was going to write a book about a boy and girl, who lived an ocean apart, but were closer-than-anything.

Twenty years on, the world, and how we communicate, is very different. But with my fourth book, I knew I wanted to explore the essence of what I’d experienced at ages 15-18 – that the closest connection in my life, had taken place across a vast distance.

I wanted to write about how communicating with someone via letters – or more commonly these days – via social platforms, DM, text, Skype, and shared playlists – can feel just as real, meaningful, and poignant as any in-person interaction or catch-up.

THE LONG DISTANCE PLAYLIST is, for me, a celebration of friendship – of the people in our lives, that we can call upon, in the middle of the night, in any time zone – and find understanding, empathy, comfort and love, waiting for us. 

Looking back, that’s what I found during those years I knew B. In a period when I often felt awkward and shy, and lonely – I had someone who understood me, who made me feel more appreciated, and less alone.

And that’s why, at the end of the acknowledgements of THE LONG DISTANCE PLAYLIST, you’ll find a shout-out:

B – our story didn’t end like Taylor and Issy’s, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. I’m not sure if you will ever read this but thank you for writing to the girl from Australia. The genesis for THE LONG DISTANCE PLAYLIST, and the crux of the story’s heart – two people, kilometres apart, but closer than anything – began with our letters. I will always be grateful for them.

I still have all the letters. Most of the time, they’re tucked away in a box. But every few years, I open the box, and read a few.

Some letters make me smile. Others make me laugh. There’s a little bit of sadness sprinkled in there too – only natural, for any loss we’ve felt in life – but there amongst the postcards, drawings and letters, is a story.

That story became another story – a very different story – Taylor and Issy from the Long Distance Playlist are very much their own characters, kilometres in distance from B and I. But they might not have existed, if a boy from the other side of the world hadn’t picked up a pen. If a girl hadn’t written back.

I know I will always be grateful for those letters…