All she has left is her sanity. Will the asylum take that from her too?
In 1939, Matilda is admitted to Ghyllside hospital, cut off from family and friends. Not quite twenty, and forced to give up her baby for adoption, she feels battered by the cruel regime. Yet she finds a surprising ally in rough-edged Doris, who risks harsh punishments to help her reach out to the brother she left behind.
Twenty-five years later, the rules have relaxed, and the women are free to leave. How will they cope in a world transformed in their absence? Do greater dangers await them outside?
The poignant prequel to Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is a tragic yet tender story of a woman robbed of her future who summons the strength to survive.
When I began working in a psychiatric hospital in the mid-1980s, I was shocked to discover that there were elderly patients who had been shut away for decades after giving birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child. Their predicament inspired my character Matilda, the heroine of my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, and the prequel novella Stolen Summers. But I didn’t want to overlook the injustices men experienced in the early twentieth century, so decided to create a character traumatised by the First World War. What if his underdiagnosed PTSD was exacerbated by racism? When I turned to Black Poppies by Stephen Bourne to help flesh out his character, I discovered an aspect of Black British history I’d known nothing about. Matilda and Eustace meet at the Friday evening dance in the asylum. In this extract, Matilda is saddened to learn of how her compatriots have treated a man who would have willingly laid down his life for the mother country.
People often think I’m joking when I mention World Toilet Day every 19th November. But 3.6 billion people living with inadequate sanitation is no laughing matter. Unsafe and unsanitary toilets can damage people’s health and inhibit access to education. They also pollute the environment. At this time of year, I like to acknowledge my good fortune in having clean facilities, unlike many in poorer parts of the world. And unlike my characters, Matilda and Doris, who, in a mental hospital at the end of the 1930s, had to use bathrooms that would make most of us gag. Unfortunately, denied pens and paper, a night-time visit to the toilets is the only way they can get a letter to a friend on another ward.
A naive teenager discovers she’s pregnant; what is she going to do? Hopefully she has a partner, friends, sympathetic parents or other adults to help her decide. But what if she hasn’t? And what if she lives in a time when her options are few? There’s no safe abortion; nor could she, as a single woman, bring up the child. The best she can hope for is to disappear for a while, have the baby adopted and try to get on with her life. But she might not be so lucky. It’s not so long ago that unmarried mothers were not only vilified, but shut away in institutions until they were mere shadows of their former selves. My rage at historic injustice, and my fear of her return to those dark days, inspired my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, and the prequel Stolen Summers, which opens as my character realises she isn’t going home.
When I first envisioned my character, Matilda, she had been in an asylum for fifty years. Locked in her own world, she was aloof from the other patients. But I knew she couldn’t have always been so isolated. Did she make friends when she was first admitted to the hospital at nineteen? I’m curious about how friendships can develop between people forced together by circumstance, people who would have little in common in their ordinary lives. So I put Matilda – polite, proper and rather posh – side-by-side with Doris, who is rough, tough and worldly-wise. On their first encounter, they’re suspicious of each other: Matilda thinks Doris is an uncouth bully; Doris thinks Matilda is a snob. That’s their relationship in this extract but, as time goes on, it’s their mutual support that enables them to survive.
Although I’ve worked in mental health care and studied the history of psychiatry, I actually discovered some of the weirder treatments through fiction. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, based on author Joanne Greenberg’s own experience, introduced me to cold pack treatment, when patients would be tightly bound in cold wet sheets and left fastened to their beds for hours. I imagine I’d be traumatised if subjected to either of this treatment, but I doubt it was originally envisaged as torture. So, when I decided to include this in my novella, I tried to present a balanced perspective. While Matilda, my protagonist, feels terrified, trussed up like an Egyptian mummy, her friend, Doris, feels soothed as a swaddled baby. I didn’t include the wet pack scene to sensationalise the Victorian asylum. My fiction is primarily about character and this is one of the ways I illustrate the women’s different personalities. Yet, despite their differences, they’ve developed an almost-unbreakable bond.
In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect. Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return. As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace. Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home. A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart? In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.
What drives people to advocate for the vulnerable? Janice, the social worker in my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, wants to put the world to rights but she has multiple blind spots that get in the way. But her heart’s in the right place, and she’s passionate about improving the lives of the psychiatric patients she worked with, having been inspired by her personal experience of being adopted and by a pioneering social worker who discovered a scandal involving children told they were orphans and shipped to Australia without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
We all get those nights now and then when we can’t get off to sleep, especially after a particularly busy day. When Matty, the fragile central character in my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, leaves her bed in the middle of the night, it feels like an adventure, until she discovers she’s locked out her hospital ward.
We all know how first impressions matter. Apparently, we form an impression of another person within seven seconds of meeting. I wonder if that applies to places too. Either way, I felt it was important to capture my character’s – newly-qualified social worker Janice –first impressions properly, both of the asylum when she attends a job interview and of Matty, the patient who is this novel’s beating heart. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my own experience in a similar role is to do so. It was lovely to get an endorsement from a reader who felt I’d achieved this: “Goodwin’s description and writing is superb … In just one paragraph she encapsulates the atmosphere of Ghyllside, the psychiatric hospital in the story.” But you don't need to take Honestmamreader’s word for it. You can check it out for yourself!
Many years ago, travelling through in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, I came to relish the traditional South Asian chai, boiled with milk and sugar, spiced with cardamom and cinnamon, and a malted-milk biscuit on the side. Now I prefer herbal teas, or weak Lapsang souchong or Earl Grey. Although I can drink what in the UK we call ‘builder’s tea’, strong enough to stand a teaspoon in, I appreciate I have a choice. Almost everyone drank tea in the long-stay psychiatric hospitals, where I worked, when I wasn’t travelling. But, while staff could make a cuppa how and when they wanted, patients were served tea at set times with milk and sugar already added to the pot. It made life easier for overworked nurses. Sadly, through apathy or through illness, the patients had lost the capacity to complain. It was as far removed as you can get from a Japanese tea ceremony, but I thought the ritual of tea would be a good way of illustrating the stultifying atmosphere of the Victorian asylum. So there are 78 references to tea in this novel; here’s newly-qualified social worker Janice learning about the system the hard way.
What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a journalist? It’s not a trick question! My character, Matty, perceives the world differently to other people. Since it would be much too depressing to accept she’s spent all her adult life in a psychiatric hospital, she is convinced she’s an heiress in a stately home. So how does she rationalise the psychiatrists who come to assess her mental state? That’s easy: in her mind they’re journalists after the latest gossip on a society heiress. If you were in her position, wouldn’t you want to think the same?
You’ve no doubt heard of Marie Kondo's rules for tidying but, back in 1989 when my story is set, my character Henry wouldn’t have done. As he’s a hoarder, she’d have a lot to teach him, but would he listen? I doubt he’d have made much sense of her advice to keep only those things that bring joy. Nevertheless, by the end of the book – no, this isn’t a spoiler – he might have learned that “Life truly begins only after you have put your house in order.” – Marie Kondo You have to read the novel to see how he gets that message. In the meantime you can catch his struggle to tidy his mind by tidying his drawers.
My novel is called Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, but home can mean different things to different people at different stages of our lives. Is home where we feel safest, or where we spend most of our time? Matty has spent fifty years in Ghyllside hospital but, with few possessions and little personal space, it’s not the kind of home any of the staff would choose to live in. Yet, in her head, she’s a society hostess and the grand building is her family’s stately home. Henry lives in the house he was born in almost sixty years ago. But it doesn’t feel homely without his sister, who left five decades ago and has never returned. Janice, in her early twenties, has her own flat, but she still thinks of the house she grew up in, and the one she shared with friends as a student, as her real homes. Here’s Janice visiting her parents on her birthday and reflecting on the un-homely atmosphere of the hospital where she has just started work.
Are you going on holiday this year? Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, most people like to get away. My character, Matty, had only one holiday in her lifetime, to the British seaside resort of Blackpool with her brother and stepfather. In the 1930s, things were rather sedate, but she did get to go dancing, where she was swept off her feet by a handsome young man. To find out whether anything came of the holiday romance, you’ll have to read book!
Do you remember the story of the New York heiress who performed at the Carnegie Hall, despite her lack of talent? Double the delusion, subtract the wealth, and you have the unlikely heroine of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Matty is as charming, kind and grandiose as Florence, but her tragic life means she has much more need of her alternative reality. Here’s how the reader meets her in the first chapter. Can you tell where she really is?
Writing a novel about people with severe mental health issues, I was determined not to contribute to the negative stereotypes. But I couldn’t completely ignore them in a story set at a time when there was a lot of anxiety and opposition to community care. So I satirised the prejudice in the neighbourhood committee established to prevent former psychiatric patients moving into the area. If you’ve ever been to a chaotic meeting at work or at home, you’ll have an idea where this is heading. In the UK, we have a saying “couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”. I think it fits this.
I tried out several titles for this novel before settling on Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. High Hopes was one I clung onto through more than one draft. I liked it, because all three point-of-view characters are confident their dreams will be fulfilled, despite evidence to the contrary. Janice is sure she can reunite Matty with her family after fifty years of estrangement. Henry is sure his sister will come home. However, only Matty’s beliefs are considered delusion, because she’s a psychiatric patient and Janice and Henry are supposedly sane. In this extract, Henry is sure his boss has summoned him to sound him out about a promotion. Someone’s going to be disappointed …
My novel didn’t come alive until I nailed the setting. When I started writing in 2014 I placed my characters in an imaginary landscape, but they kept going astray. It wasn’t until the fifth draft that I realised my native Cumbria would be ideal. The final settings are mix of fact and fiction. I based the asylum on the long-stay psychiatric hospital where I worked in the 1980s and 1990s. I based the unnamed town, where Matty and the other residents might be moving, on the place where I grew up. I had to adjust the geography to fit the story, so I included real local landmarks to produce a stronger sense of place. A local historian helped me with the backdrop to the scenes set in the 1930s. The region has a distinctive local accent and dialect, which I also drew on in the writing, although my main character is said to speak like the queen. I included just enough to enhance the flavour, without alienating readers from elsewhere. Readers from four continents attended the online book launch and the novel has already earned praise from early readers in the US, New Zealand and Spain. It’s wonderful to think there’s a piece of my birthplace on bookshelves around the world.
Back in 2020, as we learnt the new lexicon of lockdown, editing Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home proved the perfect stay-at-home project. It required the ideal amount of mental energy, being demanding enough to distract me from anxiety without overtaxing my locked-down creativity. The story is set in Cumbria in the 1930s and 1990s. A world away from the coronavirus pandemic, or so I thought. But, as I delved into the novel, I discovered interesting echoes of the world beyond my desk: A deadly virus Self-isolation Online connections High hopes No point Keeping busy Bathroom behaviour In this extract, we see how the AIDS crisis has sparked a young woman’s interest in a career in social work.
Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is about a brother and sister, separated for fifty years, and the ardent young social worker who seeks to reunite them. I started writing in 2014 but, although I didn’t know it, the seed was sown almost thirty years before. My first job on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a long-stay psychiatric hospital. On my first visit to a continuing care ward, housing older women who had been resident in the hospital for many years, the Sister, who had also been there several years and was as institutionalised as the patients, got one of the women to sing me a nursery rhyme, and I wondered what kind of crazy place I’d come to. Everything is material for a writer; in fact, fiction can upgrade real life. It took me a while, but you can see what I made of that excruciating experience in this extract, made more sinister perhaps when I swapped the nursery line for comic verse.
This novel is about a woman who has spent all her adult life shut away in a mental hospital. To the staff, her history starts with her admission at twenty, but there’s more to Matty than that. As a child in an English coastal town in the 1930s, she was happy. Although poor, she felt rich in her mother’s love. It wasn’t until the final edits that I agreed with my publisher to start the novel with a short prologue, revealing her ambitions. How did her life go so terribly wrong?
What shapes the way we see ourselves? An administrator is forced into early retirement; a busy doctor needs a break. A girl discovers her sexuality; an older man explores a new direction for his. An estate agent seeks adventure beyond marriage; a photojournalist retreats from an overwhelming world. A woman reduces her carbon footprint; a woman embarks on a transatlantic affair. A widow refuses to let her past trauma become public property; another marks her husband’s passing in style. Thought-provoking, playful and poignant, these 42 short stories address identity from different angles, examining the characters’ sense of self at various points in their lives. What does it mean to be a partner, parent, child, sibling, friend? How important is work, culture, race, religion, nationality, class? Does our body, sexuality, gender or age determine who we are? Is identity a given or can we choose the someone we become?
After a career as a clinical psychologist, it’s not surprising that I often write about disturbed minds. While that disturbance can stem from mental trauma, it can also originate in physical illness or trauma. This is especially the case when strong opiates are required to manage the pain. I wondered what kind of hallucinations a man might experience when he finds himself in a hospital bed with ample time to ruminate on his past mistakes. Would he be haunted by the women is disappointed: his daughter, his mistress, his wife?
As a psychologist, I’m intrigued by memory; how the most vivid recollections can actually be false. People aren’t necessarily lying when they claim to have been present at an iconic event when they were miles away; it could be that they’ve heard so many stories about it, it seems real. The false memory phenomenon is particularly tricky in situations which are difficult to process, for example in cases of childhood trauma and abuse. That’s what I wanted to explore in my short story “Across the Table”. My character thinks it will be cathartic to confront her abuser, but she gets more – and less – than she bargained for.
I’m fascinated by how the ordinary sits alongside the extraordinary; in particular how, after the worst has happened, we carry on. But, while we may learn to live with it, trauma never completely disappears. It can return to haunt us in the most banal circumstances, mentally dragging us back to a place we thought we’d left behind. When Elsa, newly widowed, decides to volunteer at a luncheon club, there’s one task she is determined to avoid. But that doesn’t go down so well with her colleagues who don’t appreciate the demons they’re unleashing when they badger her to take her turn at washing-up.
My career in the health service has taught me a lot about the sometimes surprising dynamics between vulnerable people and those they rely on for help. Some accept help graciously, some resentfully and some find clever ways of getting the better of their carers. This playful story is about a woman who can’t leave her flat without support, but she’s never been one to let others take control. So, when the vicar lady comes to visit, she can’t help herself. And her dog, Rufus, is the perfect ally.
I grew up in a culture where parents didn’t tell their children they loved them. They showed their love in other ways. But not all parents managed this. Some felt their love to be so precarious, so brittle, so intimidating, they had to hide it away. We also had a tendency to keep our best stuff for special occasions. Children might have toys they weren’t allowed to play with for fear of breaking them. Homes, however small, might have a separate room preserved for guests. The ‘best’ crockery might be thick with dust before it was used again. We might outgrow our ‘best’ clothes while they still seemed new. The idea for this story came to me with an image of parental love as a physical object deemed too special for everyday use. What would it be like to have a father whose notion of love was a golden chalice his daughter was forbidden to touch? Would that love feel real to her? Would she know how to love herself?
I used to live on the street with more cars than parking spaces; a first world problem, but frustrating at times. Driving home one evening, scanning the street for a space, I imagined someone sitting in a car waiting for me, someone I wanted to avoid. I’ve never had a stalker, but I can easily appreciate it would be a bigger problem than finding somewhere to park my car. I imagined the lengths I might go to in order to avoid them. The anxiety. The dread. So I wrote a story about a stalker but it didn’t go the way I thought it might. When I discovered the stalker’s identity, it became a different story altogether.
When the other children threw rocks at her, my narrator was glad her mother thought her special. But she’d be safer being ordinary. Especially in a culture infused with superstition.
When I read an article in a magazine about a woman whose dearest wish was to be an amputee, I knew I’d have to write a story about it. But what angle to take? How to show respect for individual choices while acknowledging the horror many might feel about someone willingly losing her perfectly functioning limbs? So I wrote it from her family’s perspective as they struggle to accommodate to her decision. I think it works, as did the judges of the competition awarded it second place.
If we reach for the stars, do we risk burning our fingers? Is it safer and saner to keep our feet firmly on the ground? In this poignant short story, a vulnerable man becomes more estranged from reality as he contemplates soaring through the sky keeping company with birds.
Have you come across those dolls that don’t just look like babies, they scream and cry and piss and puke like them? They’re not toys, but teaching aids: infant simulators designed to demonstrate the realities of premature parenting. This story is about a teenager who really wanted to get it right, but missed the chance to practice on a doll.
I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an article on sex tourism, but the one that sparked this story – about wealthy white British women paying for black male partners in the Caribbean – stuck in my mind. Did it signify female empowerment or the continuing exploitation by the rich of the poor? I also wondered if anyone other than the tourist and sex worker would be affected by such an arrangement. Might the man have a partner lurking in the background? How would his sideline impact on their relationship after the tourists went home? I wouldn’t normally write a short story from three points of view, but it worked for “The Arrangement” as the transaction becomes more complex with each added layer.
At fifteen, she made a life-changing decision. Thirty years on, it’s time to make another. When Diana escaped her misfit childhood, she thought she’d chosen the easier path. But the past lingers on, etched beneath her skin, and life won’t be worth living if her secret gets out. As an adult, she’s kept other people at a distance... until Simon sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, the city that transformed her life. She’ll lose Simon if she doesn’t join him. She’ll lose herself if she does. Sugar and Snails charts Diana’s unusual journey, revealing the scars from her fight to be true to herself. A triumphant mid-life coming-of-age story about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be. Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize.
When it seems the world is intent on self-destruction it’s worth remembering the positive social changes of recent years. Attitudes to LGBTQ identities have become considerably more tolerant during my lifetime with gay marriage and trans rights – isn’t that worth celebrating? Even as recently as 2004, when this novel is set, some people felt compelled to keep their identities secret. My character, Diana, hasn’t dared to come out to her best friend. But Venus has been alert to cues and, in this scene, has come to the conclusion Diana is gay. No, that isn’t a spoiler: Diana keeps her secret for a few more chapters yet.
Diana, the narrator of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, wasn’t afraid of being airborne. So why did I send her on a Fear of Flying course? Because, while not averse to flying in a literal sense, she was grounded by inhibition. Fear of intimacy, fear of sex, fear of revealing her true self. Is that what stops her from boarding the plane?
When Diana arrives at her friend’s house for Sunday lunch, she joins the two children kicking a ball around in the garden. Diana’s soccer skills make her a hero to seven-year-old Ellie, who begs her parents to invite Diana to come on holiday with them. The family would love to have her company, but Diana declines. Diana doesn’t have a passport and hasn’t left the country for thirty years. She daren’t tell her friends why she can’t travel abroad. So she leaves them to fill the gaps. But it isn’t a fear of flying. Or it is, but not in the way you’d think. I got the idea for this from something that happened to me while travelling in South America. At a border crossing miles from an embassy, I turned the pages of my passport and got a nasty shock.
In a recent online event with fellow author Mia Farlane, she asked me about my decision to open the novel with a character in crisis. She saw my opening pages as a challenge (and a compliment) to the reader, trusting them with this, right at the start of the book. In reply, I admitted I could have made it easier for myself by revealing Diana’s secret right from the start, but I wanted to introduce her as we’d meet her in real life. I also wanted readers to be able to identify with her, without any preconceptions they might have about her particular identity getting in the way – because there are commonalities for any of us who’ve ever felt uncomfortable in our own skin. I also wanted readers to have the pleasure of discovering her secret at their own pace. After dozens of false starts, I found that kicking off at a crisis point was a way of illustrating her vulnerability, and hopefully inciting sympathy, without giving too much away. You can catch the event replay on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ5CfwddmxQ EXCERPT TRIGGER WARNING: self-harm
When my main character, Diana, meets Simon at a dinner party, she thinks he’s a wimp. They disagree about whether it’s possible to watch the sunrise behind the pyramids in Cairo: Simon, who’d love to visit if he could pluck up the courage, says the complex isn’t open to tourists that early, yet Diana distinctly remembers doing so as a youngster. That memory didn’t make the final cut, but I’m still rather fond of it. Here’s a taster: I bought my ticket from a man with a stripy scarf knotted around his head. Teeth chattering in the morning chill, I wandered towards where the other tourists hovered, staring towards the two pyramids silhouetted against the sludgy-grey sky. I didn’t mind that no one acknowledged me, that I was the only child, the only person without a camera. An awestruck sigh swept through the group as a finger of pink stroked the horizon. Soon the sky was streaked with orange and red and cameras began to click. I moved apart as the golden globe came into touch: the sun god Ra, the daily miracle of life. High on the sense of mystery and natural beauty, I was certain everything would work out fine. Mr Abdullah was going to fix me so I’d never have to worry about anything again.
Fairy tales are far too important to be reserved for children. In their abandoning mothers and happy-ever-afters they are conduits for our most basic desires and fears. From Cinderella to The Ugly Duckling they reflect the dreams of transformation that can haunt us at any stage of our lives but are particularly prevalent in adolescence as our bodies and minds undergo the dramatic transformation from child to adult. Perhaps it’s this identification with, and fear of, transformation that makes tales of vampires, werewolves and zombies so popular with teens. Sugar and Snails isn’t a fairy story, nor is it for children, but it is about particularly a radical adolescent transformation and its repercussions. Although the exact path my character takes is an unusual one, I hope that her desire to shed her own life and start afresh is something with which most readers will readily identify. Who hasn’t ever wished they were slimmer, more athletic or more beautiful? Who has never daydreamed of being born into a different family, a different country, a more exciting time? Who hasn’t gone to bed hoping to wake up in the morning to find their problems have miraculously disappeared?
When a friend was in labour with her second child, another friend (T) and I took turns looking after the five-year-old. T had got the call to collect the little girl from school and put her to bed, while I went along later in the evening. Chatting as we changed shifts, T remarked on the fun they’d had with her request for stories from T’s childhood. Inwardly, I shuddered. What would I have done in T’s position? Although I could remember happy times from my childhood, I couldn’t think of a single story that would soothe or amuse a little girl who was anxious without her parents. I drew on this experience to illustrate my character Diana’s struggle to integrate her past and present identities. When she’s asked at her best friend’s birthday dinner party to read her daughter a bedtime story, she is flummoxed when Ellie asks for a story about when she was a little girl. Having her past identity for three decades, it’s impossible for her to come up with a story that doesn’t entail a degree of dissemblance. Also, in common with others whose early childhood hasn’t given them a secure foundation, her memories are fragmented, with any happy memories that might be suitable to share refusing to cohere into a proper narrative.
Walking was integral to my debut novel since its inception. I began the first draft on returning home from a long-distance walk across the breadth of England, and dedicated it to the coast-to-coasters who joined me along the way. I also made Leonard, my main character’s father, a walker, avoiding church and the demands of family life by heading to the hills. While I relished my research trips plotting his routes, Leonard didn’t have such an easy time of it. The space to think brought disturbing memories of his early adulthood as a prisoner of war, which strongly influenced his behaviour as a father. When I cut the parents’ points of view from the novel, I also had to let go of most of Leonard’s walks. But one remained, told this time in the form of Diana’s memories of childhood; a rare day out that started well and ended badly, Leonard being decidedly intolerant of the ten-year-old’s terror of the cattle encountered en route. As my own fear of the beasts is the main impediment to my solitary walking, it made sense to gift that bit of my autobiography to Diana and create a scene illustrating the problematic attachment patterns originating in her childhood.
Given the complexity of the developmental tasks of adolescence, I’m sometimes amazed so many people come through unscathed. But I’m particularly interested in the casualties: those who, despite maturing in years, remain psychologically stuck in that limbo between childhood and adulthood, too wounded by the experience to move on. In this novel, I explore the physical and psychological challenges of adolescence, and the interaction between them. As adults, we can underestimate how confusing puberty can be: your own body leaking menstrual blood or semen, and changing shape at an alarming rate. But those physical changes can also provide the catalyst for other changes more under the young person’s control as they experiment with hairstyles, tattoos and outrageous styles of dress. This playing around with different ways of being is part of the process through which the child creates his or her adult identity. But some adolescents, like my character Diana, don’t feel safe to play with who they are. Some parents and teachers can’t tolerate the adolescent’s inconsistency: needy and childish one moment, exaggeratedly independent the next. I believe this ambivalence lies at the heart of the process of becoming our adult selves, and what makes it so precarious. The failure to play with identity can stunt growth or lead to radical changes from which there’s no going back.
Standing in line at some dusty South American border crossing in the late 1990s, I discovered an error in the demographic details in my passport: the letter M for male was printed under sex. Despite the document having got me safely through several borders already, I was anxious. What if the immigration officers queried my identity? What if they wouldn’t let me through? My mild anxiety of being “outed” alerted me to the way in which daily life was unnecessarily complicated for people whose official gender contradicted the gender they perceived themselves to be. Not only on a passport they might use a couple of times a year, but on their driving licence, health service records and job application forms. If the essence of maleness and femaleness is contested, why insist on classifying people by a binary concept that could be a source of pain? At the beginning of the twenty-first century, when my novel is set, that was the case for too many of my fellow citizens, and moved me to try to write the story of one of them.
A few years before I began writing my debut novel, I read a newspaper report about a distinguished academic, a professor with a PhD in psychology, who had died of anorexia. Two things were shocking about the case: firstly, the stark contrast between the confidence and competence she showed to the outside world and the depth of vulnerability hidden inside her; secondly, that she had managed to keep it secret for so long from colleagues, friends and family. And yet, on another level, I wasn’t shocked by the story at all. I knew lots of people who were highly successful professionals on the outside and a morass of neuroses underneath. Let’s face it, I was a bit like that myself. My own experiences of hidden vulnerabilities fed into my character, Diana, also a psychology lecturer whose academic understanding is of little help to her in managing her own life. The source of her vulnerability is a secret revealed in the course of the novel, but its effects are apparent from chapter 1. Diana has self-harmed since childhood and, when a relationship crisis threatens her sense of self, she slices through the scars in her forearm. I found this one of the most difficult scenes to write, not because I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation, but because I could.
Many of us take stock of our lives in middle age, asking ourselves whether we’re on the right path. What has become of our childhood ambitions? How can we ensure we don’t waste our remaining years? My midlife crisis made me a writer; my character Diana’s has her assessing the impact of the decision she made at fifteen. Will she find the courage to grasp the opportunities available or will she continue to hide who she is? As the novel opens, things aren’t looking great …
What does it mean to have a daughter? How does it feel to be one? A child carer would do anything to support her fragile mother. A woman resorts to extreme measures to stop her baby’s cries. A man struggles to accept his middle child’s change of direction. Another uses his daughter to entice young women into his car. A woman contemplates her relationship with her father as she watches a stranger withhold his attention from his child. Mothers of daughters, fathers of daughters, daughters from infancy to middle age. Three award-winning short stories plus a couple more. You’ll never think about daughters the same way again. Prize-winning short stories from the Polari Prize shortlisted author of Sugar and Snails.
Sometimes, like a fantasy pancake, a story creates itself before a writer’s eyes. The central strand of this story – a father’s refusal to join in his young daughters play – was served up to me in a doctor’s waiting room several years ago. Like the narrator, I was saddened by what I saw, but I had the advantage of being able to transform that sadness into a story. Childhood neglect often haunts my fiction, and I know from my work and my own experience how this can have long-term effects. Although I have strong feelings about it, I’d hate to write a preachy story. So I was delighted when a reader got in touch to say that not only had she enjoyed this story, it had helped her to understand and enjoy her child. I can’t imagine a better outcome! CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
I originally wrote my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, from three points of view, but was eventually persuaded it worked better if I cut out my main character’s parents’ perspectives. Most of the deleted scenes remained in the refuse bin, but I was able to recycle one of my favourite scenes in which the father smokes a water-pipe in a dark cafe in a North African country as he tries to adjust to his middle child’s transformation. The resulting story won the Ilkley Festival short story prize and also appears in my book-length collection, Becoming Someone. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
I always worry about child carers, looking after a vulnerable parent when it’s meant to be the other way around. If asked – and I’ve only seen interviews on TV when they are praised for their devotion – they insist they're glad to do it, but I’m sure their sacrifice takes its toll. Perhaps if the welfare system gave more support to the parents, these small people wouldn’t have to sacrifice their childhood. Mummy and Me, my first ever short story competition winner, a full ten years before I published my debut novel, is narrated by a little girl too young to realise the tragedy of her own situation. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
What can a mother do when her baby won’t stop crying? Eve hits on an unusual way of silencing baby Felicity, with explosive repercussions. In this disturbing story, I explore the damage frazzled mothers can do, despite their best intentions. Although there’s an element of fantasy, it’s true to the dark side of parent-child relationships which is often overlooked. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
One summer back in my student days, I worked at a pickle factory in a village in Germany. The nearest supermarket was across the border in the Netherlands and, if we overslept and missed the bus into town, we’d hitch. On one such occasion, a seemingly reasonable guy took me on a diversion down a quiet country lane … I’ve always wondered if I had a lucky escape. CHECK OUT MY WEBSITE FOR A FREE COPY
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