Tuesday 26 of September 2017 was that special day when I saw my novel as a book, with a life of its own, for the first time.
I held it, I smelt it and I even started reading it – not so much to check that things are all in place but to experience it as a book, almost as if it were a novel by someone else. It does feel different: the lines are shorter, the pages not as long, there’s no double spacing!
I started writing this novel in 2012 in the peace of rural Wales. To make myself go forwards, I anchored it in real time. Of course, real time got ahead of me, and I found myself taking notes on the weather, the cricket scores, important events. The idea was that the people in the novel, particularly the narrator, eleven-year-old Michael, would respond as a real person to things going on in the world. It probably doesn’t matter to anyone else, but you can time the murder by the cricket commentary, if you care to look back and work it out. The idea was that these things from real life would not be an intrusion or dominate but give texture and a sense of reality to my first long work of fiction. Later, I pared away what was not needed, wanting to keep the novel moving forwards – but it was a help to me at the time of writing to reflect the world around me, the world around young Michael.
The origin of the title goes back further. My late husband once nearly killed me with his dodgy electrics when I was making chicken soup. I told him I’d write about it one day. And now I have. The book is also dedicated to him: to Mike.
Mike died in 2010 and the short stories I wrote after that were often drawn closely from life: grief burrows so deep into the body and mind it’s hard to ignore if you’re someone who writes from the gut as well as through imagination. I had been working on a different novel while he was ill – a way of keeping myself together – but after he died I couldn’t go on with it. Just had to start again from the place where I was.
For some months after Mike died, I was effectively homeless. I felt so little care for myself that I allowed myself to be savaged by a dog, while trying to protect two others. It ripped into my right hand, my writing hand. When I saw that gaping wound and my own bones it brought me up sharp. Would I ever hold a pen or touch type again? I was lucky. I can do both though my hand aches and the scar is there to remind me. The pain of grief was so intense that I didn’t notice when it turned into the pain of an ovarian cyst, which grew as big as a rugby ball before I was driven to do anything about it. That brought me so close to the idea of my own death, that I decided after all it was better to live and to make what can be made of being in the world.
So at last I got back to our house in Wales, and having already climbed back onto the writing horse I decided to try a new novel. I knew it would have to say something about grief because that was my world, but I wanted to give myself the perspective of distance: I chose a narrator as far from my own experience as possible, a boy, who turns twelve in the middle of the novel. I wanted to show something about the ways those who are left behind after a death cope and do not cope, and what things hold people back: a sense of injustice for one thing. And what greater injustice is there than a life taken before its time? How can anyone begin to accommodate the reality of such a death until the answer has been found: who did this and why?
So here is my novel – part murder mystery with its elements of psychological suspense, part meditation on the process of grieving and the meaning of family, filtered through the consciousness of a person as far removed from myself as I could get without choosing an alien – ready to be served up to the world. I hope someone out there will like it.