“Ever since Mum bundled me into the Mini when I was five, having shovelled into the boot her suitcases, high heels, her share of the baked beans, plus her unopened books and a belief in a better life, warts have been growing on my fingers. For the first couple of years it was just one, on my right-hand Peter Pointer, but since I turned eight, they’ve started to multiply like mushrooms in rain…” (from What a Way to Go).
A few elements drawn from my childhood experience of my parents’ divorce have found their way into my forthcoming novel, What a Way to Go (published in the UK on 7 January 2016 by Atlantic Books). It was always my intention with this fiction project to write about how a pre-teen is affected by divorce, but also death and depression. In composing the novel, I felt that some of my own home truths were just so resonant that I chose to recycle them…
For example just before they separated, my parents entered and won a competition promoted by Heinz where the first prize was a brand new bright red car, presented to them along with several tins of beans. That image - of a car filled with tins of beans - was my imagistic springboard into immersing myself in the prose.
I also wanted to translate just one or two of my own emotional truths into fiction. I allowed my twelve year-old protagonist Harper to voice what it sometimes felt like for me when I had to divide myself between two parental homes. I wanted to find moments of beauty in something that seemed to be 'faulty', a theme which radiates throughout the novel: Harper’s home life may be far from perfect, but the characters make do, mend and manage.
Like Harper, as a child I had a non-contagious skin condition, verucca planus – more commonly known as warts. One wart appeared on my hand in the same year as my parents separated. Over the following ten years, they grew in number to the point where I had thirty. At school, I would be told off for shrouding my hands with my cardigan; the blue sleeves were always in need of re-stitching where I would worry at the hems with my fingernails. I dreaded going to weekly piano lessons, because there was no escaping them as my hands were poised over the keyboard. I hated those warts.
We tried everything to make them go away - from painting on pungent ointment, to the GP freezing them, to homeopathy. In the end, it was hypnotherapy that cured the condition. Aged fifteen, I had an eight-week course of hypnosis. The therapist taught me how to self-heal. Within two weeks of training myself into deep relaxation before sleep, and then telling the warts to go away they disappeared, never to return again.
In writing What a Way to Go I wanted the landscape to be one of emotional honesty, showing contours of happiness and sadness, writing both tragedy and comedy. Most of all, I wanted to show what makes the characters appear at first sight to be ‘faulty’, only to reveal the beauty inherent within them. I suppose, at some level, that writing this book was ultimately about creating something positive out of something painful. Rather than cursing bad luck, I wanted Harper to cherish it instead.
Exchanges between the characters in What a Way to Go are often quiet, sometimes loud, but always truthful. Beating at the heart of this book is one twelve-year-old’s journey in coming to terms with the grown-up world around her, warts and all.