What made you decide to tell this story now?
The book began as a private project for my daughter, as a response to living with her life-threatening medical condition. Soon after she was born, she was diagnosed with an immunology disorder. Death, then, is a constant risk in our house. I must continually think about how best to defend her from it, from the moment she wakes to the moment she goes to sleep. I wanted to write it for her, to help her feel less alone.
Why did you adopt a non-chronological approach for the book?
The structure of the book — a series of snapshots of my life, at different stages — allowed me to write a memoir that reveals as much as it conceals. There’s an awful lot that isn’t in the book: details about my friends and family, for instance. I didn’t want to write a memoir that traded on their privacy. I also wasn’t interested in writing an account of my life that began in the traditional way, with my birth, moving on to my childhood and adolescence, and so on. I have always viewed chronology as a brand of tyranny: I don’t believe that human minds and memories operate by such rigid, sequential rules. We’re a great deal more complicated and nuanced than that.
Given how many near misses you’ve had, do you live in fear of the next incident or are you sanguine in light of your proven ability to dodge the bullet? The Sylvia Plath epigraph suggests you might be feeling a kind of defiant triumph.
Triumph is something I don’t feel. I certainly don’t believe that I have any particular abilities to dodge or trick death: I think I have just been very lucky. Many of the instances describe survival due to the hands of others — doctors, friends, parents. I don’t fear the next incident any more than anyone else. We all know that it will happen to us one day. I just hope, like most people, that there might be a bit more time on the clock for me.
How do you account for the presence of mind you were able to summon to save yourself from a life-threatening encounter while working abroad at the age of 18? Was it the threat of violence you experienced on a daily basis at school, or did something else come in to play?
The experience of being bullied makes a person hyper-alert to the threat of violence. You learn to pick up on cues or signs of what is coming and you devise a number of ways to divert it. When you are in a threatening situation, you switch to an atavistic survival mode. What I’ve found surprising in such moments is how strong is the will to survive; the physical body will assert its need to continue, no matter what. I think that is what has always stayed with me from the ‘I am, I am, I am’ lines in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: she is toying with death but her heart, her body, her blood overrule her.
How do you feel these incidents have fed into your writing, if at all, apart from the literal scenes that you’ve adapted for fiction, such as the girl in the hospital bed overhearing her condition being described?
I think that any brush with death changes you and becomes part of who you are. You come back from the brink altered and with a new awareness of your own fragility. You continue on with a sense of how permeable is the membrane between life and death. It’s inevitable that certain experiences I describe in this book will have filtered into my fiction, in both literal and indirect ways. There are incidents, like the near-drowning in India, that are echoed in my novels. I don’t often write autobiographically — I prefer to make things up — but there will be the odd scene that might be recognisable, to the very eagle-eyed…
Your children have also had their share of life-threatening events. In your book you say, ‘We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’ Do you think many people would recognise themselves in this description, or have you found they would rather not acknowledge how vulnerable we actually are?
All of us have had our own brushes with death, some people more than others, and there will also be moments when we’ve come close and not realised it. There’s a universality to such experiences but everyone deals with it in their own way.
You’ve had some of your most frightening moments in the sea. What keeps drawing you back there?
A friend of mine told me that every time she started a chapter with the sea in it she wanted to shout, ‘Maggie, get out of the water! Now!’ I realise that the book makes me out to be a slightly reckless swimmer and perhaps I am. I love swimming, though, especially in the sea. I could never give it up. I am a lot more careful these days.
Similarly, how hard a decision was it to have more children, following the near-carnage of the birth of your first one?
It wasn’t hard at all. I knew I wanted more children and I wasn’t about to let that imperious obstetrician get in the way. It took me many years to have my second child and I don’t know if what happened during the birth of my first had anything to do with that but I was always sure I wanted more.
Your experience of the medical profession has been very mixed, but some health professionals had a profound effect on you, including the team that helped mobilise you again after you contracted encephalitis and even a nurse who refused to leave your bedside when you received a visit from Jimmy Savile. You are now heavily dependent on medics again because of your own daughter’s health. How does this make you feel, especially given the state of the NHS?
The NHS is a brilliant, beleagured, battered institution. I wouldn’t be alive without it. We are beyond lucky to have it and the way it is being squeezed and denuded by funding cuts is shocking and horrible. The last few governments’ mishandling of it has been grim to watch. Will we only realise how fortunate we were when it’s gone? There is nothing like seeing an A&E team swing into action to save your child: I have been reduced to tears by this. The relief and gratitude you feel at such moments can never be measured.
Did you enjoy writing a long piece of non-fiction, do you see yourself writing more in the future?
Writing non-fiction, instead of fiction, felt both strange and familiar. The nuts and bolts of constructing a paragraph or a sentence are essentially the same in both genres, so the actual rhythm of writing was identical. I kept finding myself pulled up, however, by wayward fiction habits. ‘Maybe I should switch this scene to Spain,’ I would catch myself thinking, before remembering with a jolt that I could do no such thing. That I had to stick to — horror of horrors — the truth. I can’t imagine I will ever write another non-fiction book, but then I also said I would never write a memoir, so perhaps I should never say never.
Are you more apprehensive about how this book will be received than when you’re publishing a novel?
It’s always nerve-wracking when something that began life on your hard-drive, in the privacy of your bedroom, goes out into the world. I suppose this book feels more exposing than a novel: readers will know that this is me, that this actually happened. There’s no mask to hide behind, as with fiction.
Your book combines two narrative threads, one about Lexie and the 50s arts scene, the other a more domestic present day setting. Did you develop them independently or create the two contemporaneously?
I wrote them pretty much in the order they appear in the book. The book is about two people living in the same city, separated by half a century. It touches on the idea that the recent past is still with us so I couldn't really have written them separately - Lexie and Ted and Elina are, after all, very much entwined by the end. Each section, I found, had its own natural length and if a Lexie-and-Soho part was coming to an end, I began to think about what might be happening with Elina and Ted.
It was the photography of John Deakin that first drew you to the earlier period (and one of his portraits is used on the jacket of your book). How did that start you thinking about writing about the era?
I saw an exhibition of Deakin's street photography years ago at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. They are beautiful works of art, with a mesmerising stillness to them. I returned to the exhibition several times, buying more and more postcards that I pinned up around my study walls. I wasn't sure what - if anything - I would do with them. I just knew I needed them. What struck me was the city behind his subjects was so familiar yet so strange. The bohemian scene of 1950s and 1960s Soho existed for such a short time; all traces of it now have been swept away. I wanted to write somebody into Deakin's portraits, a bit like the process of airbrushing in reverse. I began to wonder what it would have been like to arrive in that Soho from somewhere completely different - a rural, respectable background. And this is how Lexie Sinclair came to be.
How do you go about researching the period detail of 50s Soho?
There is a lot out there about 1950s Soho purely because its artistic output was so significant. Paintings, photographs, journalism, novels, plays. I not only read the historical and social background to Britain in the 1950s, I also immersed myself in 1950s art, design, fashion and, of course, novels. I've always been of the opinion that you can learn anything you want from novels. I needed to pin down the exact cadences of 1950s London speech because people spoke so differently then. So I read and re-read the work of Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark and they taught me not only how to construct a reasonably convincing 1950s dialogue but also many things I didn't realise I needed to know. Where you kept your plates and pans if you lived in a bedsit, for example, or what colour stockings rebellious girls wore in 1957.
You were a journalist before you became a full-time writer. Do you think you would have preferred to do the job in Lexie's time?
It would have been exciting, certainly, to be on Fleet Street when it was still the epicentre of journalism in Britain. But it would have been hard, to say the least, to be one of the first female journalists in that world. I can't even begin to imagine the glass ceilings those women were up against. For Lexie's Fleet Street career, I spent hours trawling through the newspaper archives, tracing the career trajectories of pioneering journalists such as Mary Stott, Lena Jaeger, Jill Tweedie and Katharine Whitehorn.
Elina and Ted's story opens with Elina recovering from a particularly traumatic birth. Did you draw upon your own experiences in childbirth in writing about that?
To an extent, yes. Elina isn't me and I'm not her, but I did borrow certain medical details from my son's birth for the scenes when Elina remembers what happened to her in hospital. The temporary memory loss she experiences when she's unable to recall the birth is entirely fictional: I could remember it all only too well. But the perfect recall ultimately turned out to be useful, I suppose, as without it I couldn't have written those chapters.
Both Ted and Lexie's lover, Innes, seem to be able to indulge their own feelings more than their partners'. Is the responsibility of motherhood more binding than that of a father?
I'm not sure if I'd agree that Ted and Innes can indulge their feelings more than Elina and Lexie. I think Elina and Lexie both forge their own ways in life and follow their hearts; I don't see either of them as constrained in any way. Innes' marriage is one marred by difficulty, infidelity and unhappiness so I'm not sure it can be compared to his relationship with Lexie or that between Ted and Elina. I don't know about the relative responsibilities of motherhood and fatherhood; all families are so different, after all. In my experience, the father-child relationship has always seemed a slightly looser bond than that between mother and child. But my children are still quite young and that may change in the years to come.
Many of your books feature characters with dark secrets, often relating to the family's past. Do you think it's possible to get under the skin of a character without some exploration of their upbringing?
I don't think of it as upbringing, more as context or bedrock, perhaps. Where you come from and who your family is makes you who you are, whether you like it or not. It's inevitable, for me, that you'd want to give the reader some idea of who your character is and was and why they are the way they are.
Which other writers do you admire most?
Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Charlotte Bronte, Leo Tolstoy, TS Eliot, Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Molly Keane, Philip Roth, James Hogg.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be working on next?
I'm rather superstitious about discussing projects I haven't finished. I worry that the act of talking about it will somehow remove the desire to write it so I am insanely secretive about anything I'm working on. I don't even tell my husband. I've found myself in the unusual situation of having started two books and I can't see yet which one will win the race to be next. At the moment, they're both neck and neck and, if I'm honest, it's driving me mad. I wish one would take the lead and then I can put the other one away for a couple of years.