Renovating your much-neglected house works as a metaphor for rebuilding your life after you lost John – both attending to the things you weren’t able to pay attention to when he was ill and finding a way to rebuild while still holding on to your memories. What made you decide to merge these two things in the book?
The book became possible only after I noticed the metaphorical parallels between my home renovation and my grieving. Before then I kept a few notes sporadically but had not thought about attempting a longer work. After about six months, I realized that the process of renovation – fixing the rising damp, rendering the newly plastered walls, and painting the smooth surfaces – echoed the sorts of movement between internal and external surfaces, structural and cosmetic changes, that I experienced in that first year or so of moving through the world without John.
Your memoir reminded me of Joan Didion’s book about losing her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking – in its honest, clear-eyed examination of the grieving process. Have you read that book and if so, did it influence you at all?
First, let me say that I am thrilled for my book to be mentioned in the same sentence as Joan Didion. As I struggled with the realization that what I was trying to do was to write a memoir, I read several examples of the genre, and hers was one of them. I admire the pared precision of her language, and her approach to structure, both in her memoir and in earlier books.
It must have been challenging to write this book. Did the writing process act as a kind of therapy for you, or did you find it a struggle?
Certainly I found it cathartic to write down some of my experiences, and was relieved to find myself at different times laughing and crying at things I had written. But reliving some of the most difficult intimate moments of my life with John was harder than I could ever have anticipated. The struggle to turn the raw material of life into a story worth reading was a huge challenge, but an intellectual rather than an emotional one.
You worked as an editor in the book industry for a period before you wrote the book. How did this experience affect the writing process, if at all? Did it make you hyper-aware of what you were doing – and if so, did it help or hinder you?
I have always been my toughest editor, so during the writing process I had to hold back from constantly revising and editing sentences as they first landed on the page. Editing books takes a level of intuitive understanding of structure and pace, so I guess that knowledge helped me to shape my book as it emerged over time, but the writing and editing processes are quite different.
Who are your writing influences? Who do you read?
I read slightly more non-fiction than fiction – my favourites include Joan Didion, Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Henry James , Ian McEwan, Oliver Sacks, John Banville, W G Sebald. I am endlessly impressed with humour writers, especially P G Wodehouse, Alan Bennett, Clive James, David Sedaris. I’m a big fan of structure in writing, which I trace to my classical music training as a young girl. Currently I’m reading Alice Munro’s Views from Castle Rock and Oliver Sacks’s new book, Musicophilia. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope that readers find in my story something that moves them, that resonates with an experience of love or profound loss that they have had, or that illuminates an aspect of human experience to which they have not previously been exposed.