Question 1: This is your debut, and many debut novels are a long time gestating. Was that the case here?
Before I wrote A Song for Issy Bradley I was writing short stories. After I fi nished my collection, Sweet Home, I decided to have a go at writing a novel, but I was nervous and a little bit commitment-shy about writing something so big. I decided to begin in a familiar place, with a short story. There was a particular short story I’d written that I thought had the potential to grow into a novel. The story consisted of the scene where Jacob Bradley digs up a dead bird. I took that story and I imagined what came before and what came after. The novel took me about two years to write.
Question 2: You convey grief compellingly well. Do you have personal experience of that particular emotion?
Thank you! I think most people have some experience of grief. One of my children was born with a mitochondrial disease and died as a baby, so I know how it feels to lose a child, but in very different circumstances from the Bradleys. The aftermath was different for me, too – I had to keep going because I had a twenty month old son who, unlike the Bradley children, couldn’t fend for himself. As a writer, I’m interested in grief. People respond to loss in very different ways which makes it a fascinating thing to explore. When I imagined a novel about the loss of a child, I worked through a series of what-ifs. What if the mother couldn’t cope? What if the father coped by trying to carry on as if nothing had happened? What if no-one was keeping an eye on the family’s teenage children? What if the youngest child believed in miracles? Then I imagined those things.
Question 3: There is much laughter amid the tears here. You obviously believe that joy and sadness can be comfortable travelling companions.
Absolutely. As a reader, I fi nd that my favourite books tend to be those that manage to be both funny and sad. Although we might like it to pause, life motors on during times of sadness. In the aftermath of something awful it might feel like we’ll never laugh again. It can come as a bit of a shock when we do, but it can also be tremendously comforting to realise that another emotion is able to push past the sadness, even if it’s just for a moment. Years later, it’s the old sadness that occasionally pushes into the present. We always watch The Muppets Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. There’s a scene where Bob Cratchit (Kermit the Frog) addresses his family: Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it. I am sure that we shall never forget Tiny Tim, or this fi rst parting there was among us. The bit about the fi rst parting there was among us gets to me every time. I sit there, bottom lip wobbling; poor Kermit – I mean Bob. No matter how long I live, I imagine that particular moment will make me sad (and I expect I’ll always laugh at Rizzo the Rat and the singing vegetables, too).
Question 4: So . . . that’s the debut done. What’s the follow-up going to be?
I’m working on a second novel. It’s about a single dad and his twelve-year-old daughter. It’s been sitting in my head for a while now. I know the story, but I’m still dreaming up the details. I’ve been interviewing bus drivers and thinking about the huge amounts of stuff we accumulate and why some of us fi nd it hard to throw things away. I’m also toying with the idea of learning the ukulele as part of my research! I don’t want to talk about the plot of the new novel – chances are that it will change a lot, anyway – but I’m interested in what happens when, for any number of reasons, women struggle to be ‘good’ mothers. It’s something I touch on in A Song for Issy Bradley and I’m interested in examining it in more detail. I’ve also been thinking about how parents decide which parts of the past to tell their children. How might a parent talk to their child about the past if it is full of difficult things? I’m also thinking about truth. How important is it to tell the truth? Is being truthful more important than being kind? The dad in my new novel is going to wrestle with these things. I’ve made it sound like a very serious book, but I hope it will be funny, too.