J. had died, and the news shocked me. Our relationship had been intense when I was at university, but we’d parted on bad terms. Learning of her death nearly twenty years later from a mutual friend made me feel desperately sad that I had not said goodbye.
At the time, I was working on an education book – I had successfully published several – but I was blocked after hearing this news. I fell into a writerly depression: what was the point?
I ruminated about our passionate but difficult affair in the late 1980s. It was still the last gasp of the analogue age – a decade before laptops, pre-digital cameras and smart phones – and I had no photographs, videos, Facebook status updates, only a set of dog-eared spiral notebooks in which I wrote my diary in my loopy italic handwriting. Digging out my notebooks from the attic jogged my memory, and I began writing a memoir about knowing J. all those years ago. My depression lifted a little but then returned when I felt that I was not communicating the energy, the joie-de-vivre of our time together.
Eventually I gave myself permission to start inventing, turning my own life into a story. It was only then that I found I was writing my way out of the gloom. A new character formed, Ellida (pronounced El-leada), a composite of people I have known and J. The situations that I described were heightened amalgamations of events in my own life. I recast my friends from university as characters, and conjured up a “real” time when I penned a mime play on the summer solstice on a wooded crest of the Sussex Downs, written in response to the terrible hurricane of October 1987. Hundreds of people flocked to see the play; it was both a moment of triumph and humiliation for me as I swallowed a lot of magic mushrooms and had a bad trip. In Who Do You Love, Ellida rescues Nick — the version of myself who appears in the narrative — in a way that echoes, but doesn’t duplicate, what happened in my own life; but Ellida makes the lanterns for the play in the novel, just as J. did in “real life”. There’s a mingling of the truth and fiction which I hope gives a sense of my feelings at the time.
Nick and Ellida visit his grandparents in Northumberland — just as J. and I visited my grandparents in Northumberland. Writing these sections of the novel was the most emotional of all writing experiences I’ve had. I found that writing about them and their dilapidated farmhouse in Northumberland and roaming that incredible wild landscape with its ruined castles and sand-duned coast with my lover was intensely cathartic.
The novel went through many versions as I tried to perfect it for publication. Pam Johnson of Blue Door Press read it in a late draft and was very helpful in suggesting some key motifs that might be threaded through the novel. She was concerned that the wife in the novel, Hadley, was not sympathetic enough; she suggested some ideas which really helped with building a more rounded character. She also pointed out to me the importance of Thomas Hardy’s “At Castle Boterel” in the novel, and showed me how I might emphasize this more clearly. Jane Kirwan pointed out that I needed to illustrate the grandmother’s formidable intelligence more subtly. Both Jane and Pam have been very supportive in helping me find a good cover for the book: working with Sam Sullivan at http://newingtondesign.com/ has been great. The latest cover idea is posted at the top of the article. Being part of Blue Door Press has been a revelation; I have worked with several publishers before, but never had this sense of working with kindred spirits. After 7 years of working on it, Who Do You Love is now ready for publication; it’s truly been a psychic journey for me, taking me through a whole gamut of feelings from despair to joy.