I’m very pleased today to have my old pal and former colleague at The Times Rebecca Ley on The Spike. She has written this absolutely terrific/horrifying book called For When I’m Gone, which is based on the premise of a woman with terminal cancer (scream emoji) writing a manual for her husband on how to take care of the kids.
I mean, I had to read most of it through my fingers, from behind the sofa, because I am such a total emotional coward. I live in denial. If you are braver than me about that kind of thing you will love it.
Also, just a general note: there are a lot of authors with new books out at the moment and it is a really bad time to have a book out as there is no promotional circuit to work. Though I wonder how many books those kind of tours sell, I know it’s a big deal to publishers. What I’m saying is: if you like books, please perhaps look especially at new books out this Autumn and buy one or two if you can as they’re all in a real funk about it.
Anyway back to the matter in hand as Rebecca answers some typically challenging questions from me.
Tell us a bit more about yourself – where are you from. Kids? Pets? Star sign?
I grew up in a deepest, darkest Cornwall. A tiny cove called Porthgwarra just around the corner from Land’s End. Idyllic until the age of twelve. I now live in Hackney, pretty much the diametric opposite of where I was raised. I’ve got three rowdy children under ten and a long-suffering, borderline obese tabby cat called Nelson. I’ve worked as a journalist for various newspapers for the last sixteen years. I’m a Pisces, for what it’s worth.
Why have you chosen to write about this incredibly bleak subject when you know full well it will traumatise me
It wasn’t a one-woman mission to traumatise you, I promise! To be honest and this might sound weird but I didn’t really decide to write about this subject. It kind of imposed itself. I started writing a book about something else and it became this. I think so much of writing happens in your sub-conscious. So many women get breast cancer – including both of my older sisters. As we’ve discussed, my cultural tastes tend towards sincerity. I don’t like farce as much as you do. I wanted to write a book that reflected modern life as I see it. To be brutally honest about motherhood, ageing, marriage, frailty, sibling relationships. My own literary preference isn’t for thrillers hinged around improbable murders. So many more women die of breast cancer than get viciously tortured. If you’re going to bother, why not write about that reality? It is horribly sad. But the book is also a love story and I really hope it’s uplifting too.
In terms of family life, what did you find most challenging during lockdown
I’m a card-carrying introvert. I go mad if I don’t get time to myself. So parenting three children is hard at the best of times. Lockdown has been incessant. Also my husband, Andrew, a newspaper reporter, has been working from his ‘office’ on our double bed throughout. I’m used to having space to think while idly applying make up but he is always there, tapping away on his laptop. Torture. Also, my favourite yoga studio was shut for a long time. I missed it.
How did your experience with motherhood inform your novel?
It’s integral to For When I’m Gone. Motherhood is brutal. It makes you so aware of mortality. You can’t shirk it. You realise that things are so much more fragile than you had ever truly fathomed. Both of my sons were in intensive care after birth. It was terrifying and exhausting. So I wanted to write about how visceral motherhood is. Blood and guts stuff. But then there’s the love, too. It’s transformative. And the novel is hugely informed by that. How loving alters us. I’ve always been a really anxious person but my anxiety has actually lessened considerably since having children. There are so many things I can’t control, I can’t believe I ever thought I could.
I also wanted to look at how we easily slip into roles we couldn’t have imagined pre-birth, how motherhood skews our sense of our selves, our ambitions. I was also keen to write about a mother who is clearly deeply flawed in many ways but still adores her children.
Parenting is hard. I’m so much more forgiving of my parents now than I was in my twenties and I wanted to touch on that shift in perspective, too. The challenge of trying to preserve a sense of yourself while meeting the needs of others – and how far it’s reasonable to go in trying to do that.
If you personally had to write a handbook for Andrew, what would be on page 1 – and has it changed since you started writing the book?
Page 1 would start with the love. The gratitude for what he’s already given me. I know, pass the sick bucket, but it’s true. He has changed my life and is the kindest, funniest, hardest-working person I know. My novel is a love letter to him. But I’d also have to leave clear instructions for the washing machine.
What’s next for you?
I’m just about to embark on ghosting the memoir for a Syrian refugee called Hassan Akkad. He’s remarkable and I am really excited about the project but also daunted as there is a very tight turnaround. Also I am writing my second novel which is hard.
Tell us about the last thing you bought that you were really excited about (could be shoes or a hairband or some tickets somewhere…)
I bought some black Converse hi-tops. Converse are back baby!
What are you having for dinner tonight?
My husband did the most recent shop so it’s down to him. Fingers crossed it’ll be steak and chips.
For When I’m Gone is available HERE