Somewhat bigger than a Christmas card

When people find out about my partner’s diagnosis, after the initial shock and condolences, they usually end a difficult conversation by saying ‘let me know if there is anything I can do to help’. In those first few shell-shocked weeks, all we could was thank people for their offer and say no. Because unless someone happened to have a cure for lung cancer in their back pocket, what could anyone actually do? I was also determined to keep things as normal as possible for our two boys, so I asked friends and colleagues to respect a rule of no cards or gifts. If our house suddenly turned into a florists, (as it was in danger of doing) it would only confuse and alarm my children.

So when a woman on twitter DM’d me for my address I very gently gave them my stock reply. Thanks but no thanks, we are trying to keep things normal for the boys, so no gifts please. Mortified that she had offended me, she explained,

I have made you something out of wool that is somewhat bigger than a Christmas card. It will always be for you (because that’s the way that making something for someone works), but I shall happily keep it safe for a different time.

Worried that I might have upset someone I’d never met and who was only trying to be nice, I made an exception and sent her my address. After all, whatever ‘it’ was, it was made of wool, so the boys would probably never notice.

Then last week a parcel arrived. We have lots of parcels arriving these days: new curtains and cushions and tables and chairs as I desperately try to improve the domestic space in which we are increasingly confined. But this one was different. It had a handwritten label for a start. And when I opened the box, I pulled out the most exquisite gift I have ever seen or held. My partner gasped. What is that?

Something more than a Christmas card…

It was a blanket. A blanket of soft, rich wool, crocheted into squares of gold, green, cream and brown, patterned with flowers and bordered with grey. We opened it between us like a book, marvelling at the weight and width of it. We turned it over, clasped it to our bodies, inhaling the scent and texture of it, wondering at the time and skill that went into its creation.

My partner was overwhelmed and could not believe that I had never met the woman who had made it for us. I explained that she was @christinejolly, a woman who I had followed for a while who also happened to be the partner of one of my favourite authors @jameshannah who wrote The A-Z of Me and You. James and I share an agent, (Sue Armstrong) I explained. I’ve met him once at the agency summer party and both he and his partner have been so supportive of me on twitter. But I have never met her. Christine is, by the ordinary rules that govern life, a stranger. And yet she gave us this incredible gift. She also gave us a card, in which she wrote:

‘I know I can’t make things better, so instead I decided to make a thing. This blanket is very hardy and has witnessed both Trump’s victory and Ed Ball’s Gangnam style salsa without unravelling. It is more than happy to be dragged along the floor towards a morning coffee in a cold garden. This blanket will not ask you how you are. It will not tell you about a friend of a friend who cured their cancer with only wheatgrass and blueberries. I hope it can be a weight around your shoulders that is of your own choosing. You can hide under this blanket if you want to. It’s big enough for two if you sit really close together.’

When the boys came home from school, I made a point of sharing the blanket and the card with them. Because I have finally realised that gifts are not something to hide or be afraid of. This extraordinary blanket and the time and thought that went into it enabled me to say to my children, ignore what you hear on the news: see how good and kind people are; how lovely and thoughtful ‘strangers’ are.

In just a few days, the blanket has become part of our family life. I am usually up first so I lay it over my legs in the kitchen whilst I sip a cup of tea and wait for the house to warm up. My 12yo snuggles under it whilst he watches his iPod and later it moves to the front room where I lay it over my partner whenever he feels the cold. As I do this, I remember how two years ago I first read The A-Z of Me and You and wept at the tale of a young man in a hospice, who clung to a crocheted blanket and the memories it contained.

In her card, Christine said that she couldn’t make things better. But she was wrong. Every morning the first thing I see when I come downstairs is her blanket draped over the sofa. The sight warms me. And when I lay it over my partner, he feels the weight of kindness.

A photograph doesn’t really do the blanket justice but I wanted to share this beautiful gift  with you. And of course, to thank Christine. It is indeed somewhat bigger than a Christmas card and we will treasure it. Always.

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Adaptations

Seven weeks ago, my life followed a predictable if hectic pattern: up at 6am for a fight with the boys over the bathroom, serving up breakfasts and instructions (get dressed/brush your teeth/hair) before leaving my partner to sort out the mess as I dashed for a train to London. Once in London, there was lots more dashing to do: back to back meetings in different parts of the city, hundreds of emails, texts and booked calls before dashing back to Birmingham, arriving home around 8 or 9pm for a quick chat with the boys (have you done your homework?) and my partner (did you pick up my dry cleaning?) After much shouting and begging, on a ‘good’ day, the boys would be in bed (or at least in their bedrooms) by 10pm, when I would sit at the kitchen table to work on my MS whilst eating supper, before going to bed at midnight, wired and braced to dash away again in just six hours time. Round and round we went like a high-speed record player, until seven weeks ago, my partner was diagnosed with lung cancer and everything stopped.

I wrote about that dreadful day in an earlier post https://johoganwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/the-cough/ and for a couple of weeks after the diagnosis, it was like living with a needle stuck at the end of the record, the once booming sound track to our lives reduced to a dull and ominous clicking. But gradually things have started to move again, albeit at a different pace. The day we got the diagnosis, I stood down from my London job and was fortunate enough to be offered a less demanding and largely home-based project by my understanding employer. Instead of being focussed on my career, I now fit my work in around my role as a carer for my partner and children, with deadlines determined by medicine schedules, temperature checks, meals and rest times. Everything – everything – depends upon how well or poorly my partner feels.

Once every three weeks, my partner has to spend an entire day having powerful chemicals administered into his veins in an attempt to stop the relentless division of cancer cells. He has just had his second cycle of chemotherapy and we are learning that this makes him feel extremely tired and grotty for the first 5-7 days, despite the copious amounts of medicines to be administered before/with/after food to combat nausea, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea and vitamin deficiencies. The following week, his chemotherapy symptoms start to improve as the toxins pass through his body but half way through the cycle is also the point when he is most vulnerable to infection. Chemotherapy destroys all of your cells – the good and the bad. So we take his temperature three times a day because if it reaches 38 he is at risk of a life-threatening infection and is required to go to hospital within the hour. The third week is perhaps the best but also the most nerve wracking because that’s when he has more blood tests to check that his cell count is high enough to withstand the next cycle of chemotherapy. If not, then we have to wait at least another week until they are – another week when the cancer cells might be dividing unchecked.

I have written before about our fears https://johoganwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/firsts-and-lasts/

but this week we have more hope. At the time of his diagnosis, my partner could not do simple things like get dressed or go to the bathroom without provoking terrible coughing episodes that left him breathless, exhausted and frightened. Unable to walk more than a hundred yards, our lives rapidly narrowed and things seemed very bleak indeed. Since his second dose of chemotherapy, the cough has greatly reduced and he can walk further and longer (although we still measure in yards, where once we used to count the miles on our long-distance walks together). We won’t know whether the chemotherapy is ‘really’ working until we get the results of a scan in a couple of weeks’ time, but right now, we have hope.

Meanwhile, we are adapting our life and home. We are making the bathroom more accessible and reorganising our (limited) living space to take the stress out of everyday tasks. I have painted my first room, drilled and undrilled my first screws and even built a bookcase. More importantly, I have stopped ‘dashing’ off and started making time for my family. I am here when the boys arrive home from school, so whilst their dad rests I can talk to them about their day, cook their dinner and help them with their homework. Instead of just telling my fifteen-year-old to be more organised, I have helped him to sort his GCSE notes into folders and created a dedicated space for his revision. Instead of arriving home late, hungry and irritated by the apparent domestic chaos, I now appreciate all the time-consuming, thankless but necessary tasks that my partner used to do (although I draw the line at ironing and shoe polishing).

But beneath all the change, some things remain constant. We still argue about bedtimes, homework and PE Kits but with our new sense of perspective, these exchanges evaporate rather than escalate. My partner and I now have real conversations rather than just swapping information. Fear has blown away the clutter of a twenty-six-year relationship, exposing once more the roots of our love. We are kinder to each other. Softer. Truer. (Although we still disagree about the necessity of ironing).

Everyone has been so unbearably kind. Family, friends and colleagues have inundated us with offers of help and sympathy, as you might expect. But we have been taken aback by the kindness of strangers: taxi drivers and workmen can see how sick my partner is and treat us with gentle and discreet care. The countless messages I have received via twitter and this blog offering support, cakes, kind thoughts and personal stories from people I have never met has been truly uplifting. And some days, we really do need lifting up.

Our lives have changed so much over the past seven weeks and there are more changes to come over the next seven. There is a new bathroom to fit and furniture to buy and rearrange – not just to accommodate the disabling effects of cancer but to make more space for love and kindness. We also have our son’s sixteenth birthday to celebrate and Christmas will be followed by my partner’s fifty-seventh birthday.

But important though these milestones are, the key dates on our calendar are now the third and fourth cycles of chemotherapy. These life-saving chemicals and their toxic side effects will determine not just how we live for the next few weeks but for the rest of our lives.

 

Herself talks about HIMSELF

When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahoney is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl and on the back, someone has written:

‘Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co.Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you’

So begins HIMSELF, as we follow Mahoney back to Mulderrig, ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ to find out what happened to his mum.

When I finished reading HIMSELF, I immediately pestered author Jess Kidd for an interview because I was so desperate to know how a debut author could write something so incredibly original and brilliant. I also wrote a review:http://tinyurl.com/hf3e4t9. Even though she didn’t know me, Jess agreed to meet up and discuss all matters literary over a glass or a two. But grotty life stuff got in the way of lovely fun stuff, so this interview was conducted via the magic of email, but hopefully I will get to meet this very special writer one day soon.

Q1) I was lucky enough to read a proof copy of HIMSELF seven months ago and it is still so vivid in my mind. In my review, I called you ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers. So my main question is the one that everyone who has read it wants to ask: HOW DID YOU DO IT?

Thank you so much, I love the idea of being ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature’ and it completely sums up the process of writing this book! I knew I had certain ingredients that I wanted to use, these being; a crime/mystery plot, a magic realist narrator, a small-town setting and a cast of eccentric characters, I just had to find a way to blend them all. But always I was looking towards telling the story of the characters I had come to really love in the best way I could.

I was lucky enough to have been awarded a bursary to study for a PhD in Creative Writing and this provided me with the permission to write experimentally! I looked at how to go about writing cross-genre fiction, concentrating on crime/mystery and magic realism. I examined how other writers used magic realism, which is a fascinating narrative mode, and thought about how I could absorb all these influences and theories and go about create an original piece of fiction. I didn’t worry too much about taking risks, I just tried to tell the story that was as compelling as possible and evoke a setting that was as vivid as possible and hoped everything would fall into place!

As a reader I love books that play with conventions and subvert them a little, I also like that ‘rug pulled out from under me’ feeling. I think I was very much trying to create this experience for the readers of Himself by bringing together disparate styles and genres, ideas and emotions. I think of all the elements balancing the comedy and the violence was the hardest and took the most thought.

Q2) Everyone who reads HIMSELF will fall in love with the characters. The charismatic Mahoney, the hilarious Mrs. Cauley and the tragic, compelling Orla – they are all extraordinary and yet completely believable. Which of them came to you first and did you struggle to get their voices and motivations right?

Mahony arrived first in a short story. It took me a little while to get to know him because although he’s a charmer he’s also quite a self-contained character. For me, one of the novel’s central questions is whether Mahony can move from being alone to being loved. Sometimes this journey was hard to get right, just because I was trying to explore very different sides of him – the damaged Dublin orphan and the self-assured stranger. As I was writing Mahony I often felt like a lot of his past was hidden and sometimes this could be frustrating. It was only when a poet friend of mine asked ‘what does he keep in his rucksack?’ that I got an inkling of how Mahony had been spending his time in Dublin!

Orla’s story was one I had wanted to write for a long time. Originally, I was only going to set the novel in 1976, but increasingly I found myself wanting to take the reader back to Orla’s time. It felt important to show what had happened to her more directly and these chapters were amongst the most upsetting to write. As a single mother, I felt a very personal investment in her story, which came out of a few different accounts of the treatment of unmarried mothers during this time period. In response to these accounts, I started to ask a series of ‘what if’ questions: (‘What if she refused to leave town?’ ‘What if she wanted to keep her baby?’ ‘What if she threatened to tell everyone the name of the father?’). And so Orla’s tale unfolded.

Mrs Cauley arrived in a very different way. Of all the characters I’ve ever written she came fully formed, knocking on the door and letting herself in before I could even answer! Her voice was there from the first – because she immediately started heckling me. I initially wrote long exchanges of dialogue between Mrs Cauley and other characters just for the fun of it. Although I knew from the start what she sounded like and had an outline of her history a lot of her past is still unknown to me. In this way she’s a little like Mahony, there’s an air of mystery about her, which is odd because I invented her! I would love to explore her past and find out what makes her tick, especially as there is the suggestion that she lived through interesting times, arriving in Ireland as an immigrant and becoming an actress at The Abbey Theatre. Also, I just miss writing her!

I think my writing is driven by character and place. Plot is something that takes a bit more thought and is often accompanied by swearing and post it notes. But saying this, I also quite like shaking up my carefully plotted ideas and turning them on their heads. I also like those moments of blissful revelation when you finally solve a plot problem or just begin to understand exactly which direction you’ve been heading in.

Q3) Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer (this is the bit where we want to hear that you wrote 22 books and they were all rejected and then finally you cracked it. PLEASE don’t tell me this brilliant debut is your first and it took you six months!)

I’ve always written, as a young child I especially wanted to be a playwright, I was fascinated by acting and how an on-stage world could be created. I dropped out of college to have my daughter and continued to study with the Open University, taking a module in creative writing during this course. It was at this time that I began to think seriously about creative writing as a career. From there I embarked on an MA in Creative Writing Studies with a view to teaching in the prison service, I felt that in this way I could continue to write and help support other people to write too. The MA had a large teaching component but it also allowed me to workshop my short stories, and receive that all-important feedback. I began to teach undergraduates and adult learners and got a profound sense of satisfaction in doing this. When I received a bursary to study for a PhD in creative writing I decided to use the opportunity to experiment with genre and forge an original piece of work, first and foremost. I would worry about publishing when it was finished!

Combining work and study and writing was often very difficult and for much of the time I was a single mother. I always worked jobs that would allow me to keep studying and writing and got used to living on a low income! I was relieved to finally finish my studies.

Armed with a prototype novel I approached a few agents and was lucky enough to receive some really positive feedback and interest. I had submitted to Susan Armstrong after identifying her interest in Irish writing and magic realism and she read the first few chapters and called in the manuscript. She has since said that my covering email gave very little away. I think I struggled with how to pitch such an unusual novel! I do remember writing the synopsis and think that it would be easier to write another novel. Sue and I then worked together to shape and restructure the book for publication and after a few nail biting, floor-pacing days the book found a wonderful home with Canongate.

Q4) What – if anything – is your writing method. Are you planner or a pantser?

I’m all of the above, the way my writing day pans out depends on any number of factors. A plot monster might send me rushing to clean the kitchen floor or reorganise the cupboards (drastic actions, I’m not a fan of housework). Or else a new character might have me up half the night writing epic exchanges of dialogue. Sometimes I have to drag myself to my desk and make myself sit down at it, at other times I have to force myself to leave it. But I invariably start with a plan and that gives me something to deviate from. I welcome all deviations. If I’m really stuck I’ll have a nap, if that doesn’t work and I’m desperate, I’ll do the ironing.

Q5) What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it?

I love reading poetry. Sometimes just a combination of words or a vivid image sets me off. Then it’s a case of being awed by the beauty and power in the way a writer has constructed something. This inspires me and makes me want to find my own patterns and phrases. Whenever I feel daunted by the acres of blank pages, I just concentrate on enjoying the look or sound of a string of words.

I also love getting feedback on my work. This makes me want to keep going and trying new things – just the idea that someone out there is connecting with what I’ve made is so inspiring. I’m new to Twitter but already I find it good way to feel connected to the reading and writing community.

For me there is a difference in the way I approach editing and the way in which I tackle planning a piece of writing. On brand new projects, I like to get quite immersed and I could easily lock myself in the shed for a few months and not talk to a soul. Then emerge into the light, blinking, when I’ve a rough plan in place and a fair bit of it written. But when I’m editing and the bones of the story are in place I’m far less reclusive and more likely to answer the phone!

Q6) The dead are as important in the living in HIMSELF and it made me wonder whether you ever seen someone who has passed on and/or do you believe that others can?

I was brought up on ghost stories, some of these entities were elusive or malign, but the ones I found most interesting just wandered about commenting on proceedings. I think that’s why there is a great deal of exchange between the living and the dead in my fiction. This means that ghosts are not just fleeting spirits, they also have a communicative role. One of the things that struck me quite early was the idea that the afterlife was really just a repository of stories – of once-upon-a-time lives and deaths. As I grow older what strikes me most is the idea that ghosts most strongly represent a sense of the past made present, history irresistibly returning again and again. Because ghosts never die they most powerfully represent what haunts a community or an individual.

As a small child I thought it wholly plausible that the world was full of dead as well as living people. I was fascinated by that idea and that fascination has stayed with me although I’ve yet to witness something tangible first-hand. My second book features a clairvoyant and some supernatural themes and I very much enjoyed researching it! If anyone needs a volunteer ghost hunter then pick me, I’d happily sleep in the most haunted of houses.

Q7) What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal?

I would say keep going. Above all else, keep creating. Working on several projects at once has always helped me, along with making contact with other writers, in my case, through teaching or studying creative writing. During the rocky times on the long road to publication I concentrated on the work not on the future!

Q8) Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?

Above all else I want to continue developing as a writer, finding new and original ways to tell stories. I am now working on my second novel Hoarder, a contemporary crime novel set in London. This has been great fun to write. I have also written a fast-paced, pretty eccentric, crime novel set in Victorian London, which I’m very excited about. These novels have some things in common with Himself, such as the use of magic realism and the supernatural, but they are also very different. I also have plans for a collection of short stories and a screenplay.

Thank you so much for answering my questions so honestly and for writing such a brilliant book. I am so glad that HIMSELF is finally published and I would urge anybody who loves great stories beautifully told to read it. You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Himself-Jess-Kidd/dp/1782118454

Firsts and Lasts

Cancer diaries always have a timeline, don’t they? Each post labelled week one, two etc. as the author plots their perilous journey through illness, treatment and recovery. But where to start? If the start of our ‘journey’ was the week we were told he had cancer, then this is week three. https://johoganwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/the-cough/ If the start was when The Cough first began, then this is probably month eight or nine. But if you measure our beginning from when we first met and kissed, then this is our twenty sixth year.

This has been a week of firsts. I went back to work for the first time since the diagnosis. Everyone in the office had been briefed not to mention it unless I did and so it was OK. I didn’t cry once, which gave me a false sense of security for the rest of the week as I told myself I was over the worst.

We visited the Chemotherapy Ward for the first time for a pre-assessment, spending a generous and unrushed hour with our funny and gentle nurse from Zimbabwe. But the visit to the ward made me weep in a way that work didn’t. So much kindness. Oh Lord, the kindness.

I went to parent’s evening for the first time by myself and struggled not to sob in the assembly hall as I realised that this may be my future. Slayed not by the thought of going by myself but potentially having no one to return to and report on what the teachers said. For who else will be as interested in our children’s progress and peculiarities as their father? Their history, their narrative is something we hold between us like a shared banner. I cannot imagine holding it alone.

It was also potentially a week of lasts. My partner is a massive football fan but because he has been so ill and his team is far away, he hasn’t seen his team play for months nor visited his mum. I didn’t want him to go – he really isn’t well – but he’s worried that he will be worse after chemotherapy and that this might be his last chance to see them. So after some ‘debate’ we agreed that he would go this weekend before Chemotherapy starts. He went yesterday with our 15yo son whilst I stayed home with our 12yo. And after a week of being fairly task driven and dry eyed, I Could Not Stop Crying.

This was my first Friday night without him since the diagnosis. Another first that I am terrified will become the norm. No one to share a bottle of wine with, to discuss the boys, work, my latest book idea, his thoughts on politics, our predictions for GBBO. The potential sinkhole that may open up in my life was exposed and for the first time I felt truly overwhelmed. I genuinely do not know how I am going to cope with what the future may bring. How am I supposed to keep putting one foot in front of the other for my boys and not fall to my knees in a tsunami of grief?

Tomorrow I will be fine. My partner will be home and we will focus on getting ready for his first chemotherapy session and enjoying the last days before it. I will remind him and myself of all the reasons to be hopeful and focus on all the many practical tasks I can do to make things easier. And I will mean it. I will feel it, because I am generally a resilient and optimistic person. I am not giving up. But I am also an honest person and right now I am just very upset and scared.

 

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The Cough

Neither of us can remember when it started. February? March? Certainly before Easter. In the spring, it was ‘just’ a cough: ‘an expulsion of air from the lungs’ as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, a grate of sound that heralded each morning and night and was quickly forgotten about in between. There was no breathlessness, no pain, no reason for him to stop going to football matches or caring for our children. No reason to suspect that The Cough was about to change our lives.

Except The Cough wouldn’t go away. I told him to go to the doctors, little nibbles and nags as routine as his coughing that I threw over my shoulder as I ran to catch a train. But it was still ‘just’ a cough. We bought throat pastilles, changed the bedding, dusted the books.

Still he coughed.

I think I started to worry in May. I saw a poster that urged anyone with a cough that lasted more than three weeks to go to the doctors and through the twist of panic, I fixated on the words ‘and breathless’. My partner wasn’t breathless – I kept asking him – but I noticed he was doing less. The grass went uncut. He drove rather than walked to the shops and sometimes he’d fall asleep on the settee.

Eventually he went to the GP and we were both surprised when she diagnosed pneumonia and sent him for an urgent x-ray. My partner still seemed well – apart from The Cough. He took a course of antibiotics whilst we waited for the results of the x-ray and we carried on. The x-ray showed shadowing but this was typical of pneumonia, so when The Cough didn’t go away, he was given more antibiotics. Whilst we were on holiday, he took a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly he was unable to walk more than a few steps without collapsing into a coughing fit that literally took his breath away. He spent the holiday bed bound, the family trapped and terrified in a cottage far from home by The Cough.

The summer was lost in a series of appointments, scans and tests, waiting and coughing, coughing, coughing. After five courses of antibiotics, it clearly wasn’t pneumonia. But my partner had never smoked, so we thought it would turn out to be some rare, debilitating but ultimately curable autoimmune disease. So when the consultant sat opposite us and told us that the results of the biopsy confirmed it was lung cancer, we were shocked.

I think we all imagine these scenarios and wonder what we would say or do. I can confirm that it is exactly as the TV shows and books depict it: people and their voices seem very far away. Your face burns, blood rushes through your ears, stomachs plummet. You think/pray that you have misheard or are in a dream, as the life you thought you had fractures and falls away.

In that particular moment, my partner reminded me why I loved him. He gasped. Nodded. Then in his soft, kind voice, he apologised to the Consultant and the nurse for the fact that they had to give him such terrible news and hoped he hadn’t ruined their day.

I was less noble. ‘But we have young boys,’ I wept, as if that somehow entitled us to an exemption from disease and the heartache it will bring.

That was ten days ago. Ten days during which we have had to tell family, friends and our lovely, lovely boys. Ten days during which we have experienced a flood of kindness, sympathy and understanding that has been truly humbling. Everybody wants to help, but sadly there’s nothing that anyone else can do.

Bit by bit we are recalibrating our lives. I have given up my Big Important Job that turns out to be not important at all. I am learning the value of all the things that my partner used to do: getting the kids breakfasts and packed lunches together, making sure they take their PE kit when they leave and that I am here when they return. We have spent the week enjoying the gentle pleasures of cafes and pub lunches, holding hands and talking. Listening. All the things we were – shamefully – too busy to do before.

We lurch between hope and fear depending upon the latest article we have just read but neither of us can think about the diagnosis for more than ten minutes at a time. It is too overwhelming. I am throwing myself into domestic tasks: buying and cooking food as a barricade against the disease, obsessively searching the internet for new bathrooms and houses in an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Until today, I haven’t written. I wasn’t sure I could or should. This is a test run and I am not sure if I will share it. I usually quote Nora Ephron who said ‘Everything is copy’. Only sometimes, it isn’t. I could claim that I am writing it for others (please go to the doctors if you have a cough!) But in all honesty I am writing this for myself: trying to wrap a bandage of words around the wound of what has happened in the hope that reducing it to a paragraph or a page will make it less frightening and more bearable.

Cancer narratives tend to be written in the language of battles but the anger and sense of injustice that this implies simply doesn’t resonate with us. My partner has a very rare form of cancer that looks like an infection on an x-ray. It is nobody’s fault that he is so ill. It is just very, very sad.

In the coming weeks my partner will begin a course of chemotherapy and having lost my mother to cancer a few years ago, we have no illusions about what this will entail. But the past ten days have made us realise the importance of hope. And that what matters is love.

Always, love.

 

 

 

 

 

YA literature – where are the boys?

This weekend I took my 11yo and 15yo sons to @YALC. Actually, that’s not really true. My sons took me to Comic Con and in between forking out a small fortune for Dragon Ball-Z figures and watching them play ‘retro’ arcade games I managed to persuade them to accompany me to @YALC on the second floor every now and then.

I write YA. I read YA. Some of my best twitter buddies and heroes are YA authors, so @YALC is perfect for me. A room full of YA books, friends and writers – what’s not to like? In the post-conference wave of love and euphoria, it seems churlish to focus on a negative but the reaction of my 15-year-old son to the conference kept me awake last night like a piece of Scrooge’s badly-digested cheese.

First, let me establish my son’s credentials. He read The Hobbit aged six and by the time he was seven my bedtime reading skills were redundant as he worked his way through the Harry Potter series. As he grew older, he became the literary equivalent of the Hungry Caterpillar consuming at least three novels a week. He read his first ‘YA’ novel aged ten (Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman), read all of John Green’s novels when he was twelve and last year polished off the entire Game of Thrones series in a single summer.

But then he stopped. At first, I thought it was just a GoT book hang over. George R Martin is a tough act to follow. I bought him other fantasy books but they languished unfinished by his bed. He did have some success with Stephen King but then homework and mock GCSE’s kicked in, leaving little time or inclination for reading. I read that this was common: that the pressure of school work makes once prolific readers fall off the book wagon in their mid-teens but that they generally rediscover their love of reading in their early twenties. Maybe like the hungry caterpillar he had consumed too much and needed some time in his cocoon before emerging as a literary butterfly.

I think I was secretly hoping that @YALC would entice him back into YA books. With so much of his life taken up with friends, school, sport, sport and sport, books were the one thing we had in common. But within minutes of entering the second floor where @YALC was held I could feel his hackles rising. We circled the venue searching for people I knew and books to buy. Or at least I did. My oldest son grew tense, prickly and moody. ‘Can we go now?’ is all he kept saying.

After a bad-tempered exchange and some flippant remarks on both sides, we eventually had a calmer discussion over lunch. Initially dismissive of his criticisms of my beloved YA community, I was struck by one observation he made. ‘YA is not a genre,’ he said. ‘It is a marketing category. The key thing the readers have in common isn’t their age but the fact that they are all women.’

What my 15-year-old-son saw when he visited @YALC was a room full of young girls and middle-aged women like his mum selling, buying and talking about books. What he didn’t see was himself. I argued with him (as I often do) that he shouldn’t let that bother him, that he should just care about the books. But the books, he argued, are all about women too. Look at the covers, the titles, the lead characters. It is all about love triangles and endless internal monologues. Why aren’t they selling more fantasy books, he asked, gesturing to the (mostly male) fantasy community around us. Why aren’t they trying to get any of these (boys) upstairs? Then he dismissed his own question and returned to his food with the damning fact that ‘none of my friends read, anyway Mum. None.’

I am not saying my son is right (that’s my job, after all). But he has made me think. I worry, as I often do, about his concept of masculinity, about whether he has absorbed the subtle culture of misogyny that makes men dismissive of female dominated activities. I worry that he lacks the confidence to follow his own interests regardless of what his friends think and fret that my 11yo son (currently oblivious to gender) will soon follow the same sheep-trodden path. I worry that I expect too much of him, who at fifteen is desperately trying to understand what it means to be a man and negotiate a path towards it.

I worry.

I am sure there are lots of great books out there for young men that I simply haven’t found yet. And I am sure there were other young men at @YALC who had a great time. But still. His comments have stuck with me as the truth often does. I am currently writing a YA thriller and although I am trying to make it appeal to both sexes (and my 15-year-old son claims to like it), it has a female protagonist and star-crossed lovers and I suspect if it ever finds readers they too will be women. As the mother of two sons who worries about the (lack of) boys reading, I sometimes think I should write a book that would appeal to them. But I can only write the stories I want to read.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The majority of YA authors are women. The majority of our agents, publishers and booksellers are women, so we get excited about the same kind of books. Is it any wonder then that the majority of our readers are women too? Are we in danger of creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber where we only speak to ourselves? I have not touched on other equally important aspects of diversity as others are more qualified to comment but these thoughts apply across the board.

This post is not a criticism of YA literature in general or @YALC in particular. It was a fantastic weekend and the people who worked so hard to make it happen have given so many people so much pleasure. YA literature is one of the most exciting and vibrant categories of fiction today. It is more than a genre: it is a community. But a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.

For once, I am not pretending to have all of the answers. But I think my fifteen-year-old son was right to ask these questions.

 

 

 

 

Why my 77-year-old dad loves Middle Grade fiction.

MG booksOn the outside, the council house we grew up in looked just like everybody else’s: we all had the same colour door (green), with black slate tiles and beige, narrow bricks. But inside, our house was different. Inside, we had books. Not a huge amount by today’s standards, and with the exception of my dad’s prized Reader’s Digest collection, most were borrowed from (and promptly returned to) the library. But we were a family of readers, with my dad the most passionate reader of all.

It wasn’t the books per se that he loved, but the landscape of dreams within them. Our meagre bookshelves were eclectic: Austen and Wilbur Smith sat alongside Shakespeare and James Clavell, vying for space with the histories of ancient civilisations and guides to mushroom picking, bird spotting and wine making. We had a respectable dictionary and Thesaurus collection for the daily crossword competitions and in the days before google, friends would knock our door to borrow them.

Our little oasis of books helped lead me to university, where I read what the English Literature course told me to, and in the holidays, my dad would share with me his latest book haul from charity shops and car boot sales. I fell in love and eventually had children, so I saw my dad less as I got older, but when we did meet up, ‘What are you reading?’ became our instant re-connection.

I have told you all this in order to establish my dad’s credentials as a reader, because I am about to tell you that this 77-year-old man loves Middle Grade fiction. I absolutely shouldn’t have to do this, but there is such ignorance about children’s literature, that I feel it’s necessary to clarify that my dad still has all of his mental faculties and is a prolific and discerning reader.

When my mum – his wife of 47 years – died a couple of years ago, books became even more important to my dad. Books are now his companions, his heart-salve and distraction. My brother and I take turns to visit him every weekend, and so, once a fortnight I take my dad out for lunch, and whilst he eats his gammon, egg and chips, we swap and discuss books. Some of his favourites this year have been All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.

Every fortnight, my then ten-year-old and fourteen-year-old sons nodded politely away at my dad whilst they guzzled their coke. Then last year, my youngest brought along Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, a fantastic and moving series set in prehistoric times, seeped in magic and survivalist skills. My dad’s eyes lit up when he described it, so my son gave him the book. And oh, he loved it. My dad devoured the whole series, and for months, he and my son had long and gorgeous conversations about wolves, woods and magic.

When the series ended, my dad pined for more. We gave him Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, which he wept over, Varjak’s Paw by SF Said, which he (and my son) raved about, and Holes by Louis Sacher. He adored In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll and Rooftoppers and Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Time after time he has met us with tears in his eyes as he discussed the books with my son, wondering why they have been restricted to the ‘children’s’ category when they were such sophisticated, well-written and moving stories. He still reads ‘adult’ literature (he is currently reading – and loving – Himself, a stunning soon-to-be-published debut by Jess Kidd), but he also loves the Middle Grade books that my son gives him. In fact, he makes no distinction between the two: all he wants is a compelling and well-written story that touches him in some way.

Watching my dad – a prolific reader – discover a whole world of books he knew nothing about made me realise how many adults are missing out on tremendous stories just because they are categorised as ‘children’s’. Yet the potential for ‘cross over’ between grandparents and grandchildren must be huge: both are at the vulnerable extremes of life, with an empathy and emotional accord that unites rather than divides them.

But the best thing about my dad reading ‘Middle Grade’ books isn’t just that he was exposed to great literature: they reminded him of the child he used to be, and despite an age gap of sixty-five years and an increasing digital divide, they’ve helped create and develop a genuine connection between my father and my son.

Next week my son will give my dad his latest favourite book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. And my dad won’t ask him whether it is ‘adult’, or ‘YA’, or ‘Middle Grade’. All he wants to know is, ‘Is it any good?’

Like so much ‘Middle Grade’ literature, the answer – of course – is yes, it’s brilliant, and my 11-year-old son can’t wait to share it with his 77-year-old grandad.