I did my second ever author event earlier this week, at The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London. Hurry up and finish your own book so you can do the same. It is like throwing a cocktail party, only without having to polish the glassware, fiddle about with canapés, or indeed do any work at all. Unless you count writing the book in the first place which I, for one, would caution against. Far better to park the pain, self-doubt and abject terror, and enjoy the fruits of your hard labour instead.
Just not as much as I did that night, perhaps. I don’t think I got the author etiquette stuff right at all. I mingled, for heaven’s sake. I milled about. Both friends and strangers alike were chatting away to each other, wine in hand, and I, forgetting who I was (an author, no less, cue pinching of flesh to see if I was real), joined in, leaving journalist Clare Longrigg, who was hosting the talk, looking serious and important in her interviewer’s hot seat (masquerading as a comfy cane chair).
I now think I should have been aloof and mysterious, affected a little author hauteur. How do literary heavyweights, like Marilynne Robinson, say, or Richard Ford, play it? I suppose they are usually on a public stage, and make an entrance. There’s a payment counter in The Owl Bookshop. Next time, I’ll crouch beneath it and pop out, Marilyn Monroe-style, at the strike of seven. That would be an entrance, of sorts.
I will admit to feeling nervous. You know that feeling you have when you are writing a book, the sickening one where you realise that every sentence you have written is baloney, boring, just unspeakably bad? That’s what I felt before I stood up to read an extract from my book, Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss, Square Peg, January 2018.
The book is a story of two parts – my childhood and my experience of head and neck cancer in 2013/2014. I was, on both counts, a very reluctant storyteller, initially at least.
I’ve resisted writing the full story of growing up as an orphan following the death of my American father when I was five and my English mother when I was nine. Why? Largely because being an orphan is shameful: you’re an outsider, staring through a closed window at the family life within, and also because I never stopped to identify the salient ingredients in my own story: a neo-Victorian tale, some Roald Dahl adventure and misadventure, an E M Forster do-gooder as a lead character, and some social history both in the UK and in the USA. There’s a wicked aunt, too, and secrets and lies. There’s a whole load of stuff, most of which I’ve doggedly put behind me, not least the fact of my orphanhood.
Then I got cancer.
During my treatment, my then 15-year-old son said, ‘Are you going to write about having cancer?’ That boy has the measure of my ego. I am usually well up for talking about myself. “No way,” I replied, and I resolved then and there not even to talk about it if I got better, let alone to write about it. Cancer, I thought to myself, you will never define me.
Besides, my way – the orphan’s way – is to deal with things, and then move on.
Don’t make a fuss. Don’t look back. Get on with it.
But the cancer both made me look back, and made me someone else. The whole wretched business was like short, sharp regression therapy I did not sign up to: I came face-to-face with a nine-year-old, motherless self, and I wanted nothing to do with her lest she curse my children. My dead mother got in on the act too. When I was practising how to break the news of my cancer (or the C-word, as neither my husband nor I could even utter the word) to my two sons, she photobombed the scene. I pictured the boys either side of me on the sofa in the kitchen, and there she was, perched on one arm, just like she had been the last time I saw her in the hospice in Brighton in 1973. Talk about choosing your moment.
I wrote the story that I never intended to tell through my child eyes, and as I did so, my mother-eyes grew sharper. I saw many things for the first time, including the very essence of my story, namely love. The love when I was little, then its absence, and then the yearning.
In the book, I switch between the past and the present in an attempt to show how the hardest thing about my cancer experience was the way history seemed to be repeating itself. My worst fear played out right in front of me: I was going to be lost to my teenage sons in the same way my mother was lost to me. The boys’ story flashed before me: first the love, when they were little. And then the absence of love. And then the yearning.
The measure of love
It didn’t turn out like that. I got my happy ending. And in the process of writing about how I got there, I squared up to those latent feelings of shame. I saw how shame and vulnerability are linked, and that love, whilst it cannot obviate either, enables you to endure, and itself endures. The love I feared my boys would lose if I didn’t make it is bankable. I now have the measure of love.
That’s another reason I would urge anyone else to write their story: you never know what you will discover, not to mention what a top night you’ll have when your local bookshop invites you to come and talk about it. Fellow writers, it’s your turn next. What’s stopping you?
Oh, and one more thing. If the answer to that last question is fear, the fear of writing baloney or of being boring, let me tell you that I came home that night to an email from a reader who attended the bookshop event.
“Your book is beautiful,” she wrote, “and resonated with me in many ways, even though I haven’t had cancer nor I have been orphaned. But of course it touched on my childhood loss and trauma and opened a window into what close friends may be enduring.
“It brought me close to them.”
Her email made me think of E M Forster and his admonition, “Only connect!” It is the epigraph of his novel ‘Howard’s End’ and the clarion cry of open-hearted Margaret Schlegel. Only connect. It’s another reason – in case you need another one – to write your book.