There are many proverbs that speak to a story’s ability to bring people together.
Lithgow couple Paul Phillips and Jo McClelland's love of storytelling actually brought them together from across the world, unfolding a plot line that itself is worthy of a novel.
The two writers (Paul describes their relative writing styles as, “Stephen King meets ‘Alice in Wonderland’”) came into correspondence in writing communities online in 2010.
You can always put a book down. You can't put life down and go, ‘well let’s skip a chapter’.Paul Phillips
“I was raising a kid and then I was using writing as something I could just go off and do when he was asleep,” Paul said.
“I had been a single dad for about ten years and I wasn’t even looking [for someone], let alone thinking that was something I could do."
At the time Paul was also operating his bookshop ‘A Reader’s Heaven’ in Lithgow.
Jo had just launched an online fiction magazine ‘The Glass Coin’ from her hometown, an hour outside of Toronto.
“I was looking for writers and artists on different online communities,” Jo said.
“Paul promoted my magazine through his shop’s social media and helped me in that way. And then we were focusing on short stories, and I asked him to write something, and it was really great,” Jo said.
“[I wrote] something that scared the pants off Jo... I mean that in a metaphorical sense!” Paul said.
Eventually, he became involved in the magazine from afar, reading submissions, and the pair interacted over other creative writing sites.
“She would see my name and I would see hers, and I would compliment her on the piece that she wrote, and she’d do the same. We’d ask what we thought of such and such’s piece and so on,” Paul said.
“We just had to talk. Dialogue was always there, it grew organically.”
That was until one fateful night (or day, depending on the continent) in 2011 when the pair cornered each other over a Word document.
“We had this conversation just on Google Docs, where she could type something and I could type something underneath it,” Paul said.
“We were having a conversation just going around and around in circles, both of us wanting to say … you know…”
Paul said it took three hours of messaging before one of them caved and shared their feelings.
“Again, when you are living across the world from each other you’re wondering is there any point in saying ‘I really like you’?”
“We still have that print out copy of the conversation. Jo printed it out because it was cute.”
It wasn’t until 2012 when Jo and Paul actually met in person.
“Well, I was going to take a course to teach ESL and my boss wouldn’t give me the time off, she said you have to quit. So I quit. Paul said you can come study here [in Australia] and offered a spare room," Jo said.
“I thought that’ll be great because I can study for three months and then teach in Asia. But I never went to Asia!”
Paul said the moments before meeting Jo at Sydney airport were scarier than any Stephen King novel.
“I am sitting there an hour-and-a-half after the plane has landed thinking, ‘Do I leave?’, ‘Did she not come?’” he said.
“You can always put a book down. You can't put life down and go, ‘well let’s skip a chapter’.”
It turned out Jo’s plane had been delayed in landing and by the time Jo got through immigration, her luggage had been taken off the turnstile and put in lost and found. The pair were eventually united.
“I don’t remember any of it because I was so nervous but Jo tells me that we came out of the airport and as we caught the train to Central I put my hand on top of hers, which was holding the suitcase, and she thought ‘yep, that’s it’.”
The pair hit it off and before the expiry of Jo’s six month Australian travel visa, Paul proposed.
Then Jo had to return home.
“You don’t realise how much you want to be with someone until they’re gone,” Paul said.
From the end of 2012 until October 2015 Paul and Jo travelled between Australia and Canada for as long as travel visas allowed.
They got married in Australia in May 2014, and enjoyed a honeymoon in Canada but then had to go 8-and-a-half months without seeing each other – and Jo was pregnant.
You don’t realise how much you want to be with someone until their gone.Paul Phillips
“That was probably the toughest eight months I have ever had until I went over for Vianne to be born. And then I had to come home again alone,” Paul said.
As they waited for the paperwork to come through they returned to communicating over the internet at any chance they got, navigating the sleepless nights of parenthood as well as a 14 hour time difference.
“That whole thing of Jo basically being a single mother for six months… is just amazing. I have no idea how that was,” Paul said.
“Which is why of course Vianne used to come with me to the bookshop with me all the time because I missed those months, I had to catch up.”
In October 2015 Jo finally had her temporary residency visa and could stay in Australia with Vianne.
Just a few days ago, and eight years after Jo and Paul met, Jo was granted her permanent residency in Australia.
Now living in Hartley, the pair says the relationship was definitely worth the distance and heartache.
“It’s been a long journey,” Paul said.
“But it also just makes you appreciate every other moment too. Like when you wake up in the morning and they’re there next to you and it’s just like ‘oh thank god’.”
Jo and Paul plan on celebrating Valentine's Day with Vianne who will turn three in March.
“We’ll have dinner at home, we like to celebrate Valentine's Day as a family,” Jo said.