This is a very emotional book. What made you decide to use the tsunami as plot device?
I thought long and hard about how Jake would have been killed. The death of a young adult on a gap year is, sadly, not an uncommon thing – a cocktail of freedom, risk, that feeling of invincibility kids have, and new exciting places can place people like Jake at risk. I used the tsunami because I was interested in the contrast between the vastness of Jake’s death and his family’s bereavement to them, and its relative insignificance in the face of the sheer numbers of people who did die in the tragic events of that day. I also wanted to give Bill ‘something to do’ – he gives money and time to the clean up operation, and that becomes part of his grieving, and thus a part of what drives him and Maggie apart.
Why do you think so many happily married couples are torn apart by the unexpected death of a child, while others manage to hold their marriage together?
The death of a child is thought to be the biggest ‘threat’ to the survival of a marriage. But there are many others – from financial worries and redundancy through to adultery. I believe there is an element of luck in the longevity of any marriage, and what life throws at you is a part of that, as is the ways in which people grow as individuals through their lives. I saw Maggie and Bill’s marriage as being pretty normal before Jake’s death – that is to say quietly happy, but with the inevitable cracks that develop in every relationship as time and life take their toll. Without an apocalyptic event, those cracks aren’t too dangerous, and probably don’t threaten the success of the marriage. But their tragedy seeps into those cracks and spreads them, weakening the structure so that it eventually implodes. Some of it has to do with the different approaches Bill and Maggie take to their grief – Bill confronts it, and Maggie hides from it. I imagine that two people who grieve in similar ways might stand a better chance of surviving the blow. But my reading about the subject of grief really showed me what an entirely individual experience grief is – there are no rules.
My word, you like to wring the tears from your readers, don’t you?! Do you blub a bit yourself while writing the more affecting passages?
I always cry at some point when I’m writing (and not just because I’m stuck and/or late!). It’s my litmus test – if it doesn’t make my sternum ache and tears well, I can’t expect it to do that to anyone else. And I definitely want my reader to be moved – that is how I make my connection. I’m the sort of person who likes to feel vicarious sadness sometimes – I love a weepy novel or a film, and a good cry. But I confess that this one was sometimes a bit too close to home – putting myself in Maggie and Bill’s shoes forced me to confront how I would feel if their tragedy befell me, and that, as every parent knows, is your worst fear made real. There were days during the writing when I would lurk in the front hall waiting for my teenage daughters to come home from school so I could hug them close (this mystified and slightly irritated them, of course!).
What’s next? Are you planning a novel that for once means we can keep our tissues in the box?
Next for me is a novel about marriage. As an institution, it’s a rich vein of storytelling, and I have several different stories I want to tell within one book. The central couple are, through their work, in a position to advise and counsel a great many other couples on being successfully married, but behind closed doors, they have unresolved issues of their own. That’s what fascinates me most about marriage – we sometimes think we understand (and thus feel free to judge) the relationships between, for example, our parents and our close friends, but marriage, it seems to me, is like an iceberg – most of what is happening is below the surface… I can’t promise there’ll be no need for tissues at all, but I can promise that I’m not killing anyone central off in this one. With me, though, however bleak a situation may seem, there is always a redemptive arc and a sense of hope at the end.