For today’s Sunday Sojourn, I am joined by author Helen Victoria Anderson, who I ‘met’ virtually via the email chain of Elementary Writers. Over to you, Helen…
Did that really happen?
Normally, I am a writer of fiction. I started out by writing short stories and flash, graduating to completing a full-length novel. Occasionally, I expressed myself through poetry, but even in verse I could hide behind personae, adopting narrative voices which may or may not have been entirely my own
Readers always seem fascinated by the extent to which a story or poem is based on ‘reality’. It is often the first question a writer is asked, when sharing a piece – even other writers find it hard not to ask or make assumptions about the writing’s basis in ‘fact’, despite knowing perfectly well that this is not the point.
My first (still-to-be-published) novel, Gloriosa Superba, has autobiographical seeds, in that its central protagonist is suffering from post-natal illness. However, I hope that eventual readers will quickly realise that I have taken my own experiences to the extreme, by developing a series of ‘what ifs?’ (Let me be clear: I have never been remotely tempted to steal a baby, and my own (now adult) son is very much loved) To me, writing has always been about creativity, whereby sticking to ‘the truth’ has been less important than giving my characters and stories an emotional authenticity.
But these past three years have been far from normal.
In July 2013, my apparently healthy 14 year old daughter Georgina was diagnosed with liver sarcoma. I immediately knew that this was something I had to write about. I wrote in a journal, most days, as the catastrophe of her metastases and terminal prognosis unfolded. When she died less than 4 months later, I kept on writing for myself. Writing was – and is – a crucial tool in my survival as a bereaved parent.
To start off with, I wrote purely for myself, in order to make some sense of this crazy (senseless) situation. I found that I needed to bear witness to this terrible loss of my clever, kind, beautiful girl. I carried on writing fiction and poems but my grief infiltrated every letter I scribbled or typed, no matter how hard I tried to play around with other topics. Georgina’s story – or rather my story as her mother – became the only one I had to tell.
So I took the decision to face it ‘head on’. After considering at what point to look back on what had happened – and through what kind of lens – I decided to go with a bald transcription of the diaries I had kept as my daughter slipped from my grasp. Some of the entries don’t show me in a positive light but they were kept in, along with the brutal bits and the mad reflections and the raw, blistering pain.
I dared myself to stay vulnerable – not to embellish or narrate my record of events, feelings and thoughts. I dared myself not to build a shell around myself on the page. In real life, I say “I’m fine, thanks”, and then kick myself for not telling the truth: “This is hard. Crappy. Sometimes, I think I’ll never bear this”.
My faithful paper-and–pen/keyboard-and-screen combos gave me my voice back. I’d stress that this is only my own version of events, which others might remember differently. This is not an empty disclaimer – I sought permission to mention other people and they were very generous in granting it.
It took me several months to push Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir out into the world. All that labour, with the danger of being met with unimpressed faces at the end of it. I worried that people might criticise it as self-indulgent, but this turned out to be unfounded.
People tell me – virtually and in the flesh – that my book moves them. Other bereaved parents find it a comfort to see the chaos of their own ‘new normal’ mirrored in my writing. Those who have not experienced this particular brand of loss tell me that it gives them insight and renewed perspective. I love it when readers mention an obscure detail of the text that especially resonates or provokes thought. There hasn’t exactly been a thunderclap of applause, but there is a definite murmur that tells me I have been heard.
I don’t know if I’ll regret it in future, this laying bare of my wounds. My journey is far from over, but, right now, the fresh air feels good on my skin.
I’m back to writing fiction. Writing my latest novel, All Hushed, I am having fun creating characters and playing round with made-up scenarios. I am enjoying allowing myself to conjure up and create, again. There are autobiographical seeds in this work, too, but it is very much a crafted piece of make-believe. I am merging experience with imagination – chopping bits out and dropping bits in. Cranking up the drama and the tension.
But there is no longer any question of ‘hiding’ behind fictionalisation. The past three years have taught me to speak up – for those I love and for myself. So, in my ‘new normal’, I am writing with a with a new boldness. Whether my projects are fact or fiction (or some indefinable permutation), they will always come from the centre of me. You have my word – even when that is terrifying or none-too-pretty.
Helen Victoria Anderson’s Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir (Slipway Press, 2015) is available from Amazon (Kindle £1.99 and paperback £7.99) It is also on sale at Saltburn Book Corner, The Guisborough Book Shop, Marske Post Office and Drake The Book Shop Stockton.
In memory of Georgina, a donation will be made to Make A Wish UK from the proceeds of Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir
Helen Victoria Anderson is a writer of contemporary fiction, memoir and poetry. A former civil servant and local government officer living in the North-East of England, Helen has an MA (with Distinction) in Creative Writing from Teesside University. Helen won First Prize in the InkTears Flash Fiction Contest 2015, and in the Bridgwater Homestart Short Story Competition 2013 judged by Dame Margaret Drabble. She enjoys mixing ‘dark’ with ‘light’ to make ‘thought-provoking’. Helen is married, with a grown-up son. She blogs at http://www.helenvictoriaanderson.co.uk.