Richard and Judy ask Jane Shemilt

Richard and Judy ask Jane Shemilt

In real life you, like your heroine, Jenny, are a GP and your own husband, like Jenny’s Ted, is a neurosurgeon. This is your first book, so did you decide to write, very successfully we should add, about what you know?

That was the starting point, although imagination soon took me, as it does, to a different place a long way from familiar territory. I know about hospitals, I trained and worked in one, as my husband does now. I understand exactly what it feels like to work so hard and so late that, like Ted, you can hardly stand up at the end of the day. I remember the smell of the sluice and the scrub room, the long ward-rounds and the patients in bed, frightened or in pain. A hospital encompasses so many different experiences: some will be giving birth; there will be others who are dying. For a neurosurgeon there are many tense hours in surgery where everything hangs by a thread, while the relatives wait, needing to talk afterwards. That was the totally involving world which claimed Ted every day. I know even more about Jenny’s world. I know what it felt like to spend just a few minutes with a patient when you need an hour, and I can instantly recognize the atmosphere in a waiting room full of people; the palpable fear and the boredom. I’ve felt the relief when someone gets better, whether from an earache, depression or a heart attack, the anxiety and sorrow if recovery stalls. I hoped that the privilege of having been there with my patients would give the writing an authenticity that readers could relate to; after all, most people have been to the doctor’s. But there was another reason I was inspired to write from the world I know. At the heart of the patient–doctor encounter is story. You never know who will walk through the door into your room, or what narrative will start to unfold as you listen. It is always unpredictable, always unique. There are common themes nevertheless, and I was particularly interested in one of these. So many patients come with a story underpinned by grief or loss. Loss of someone they loved, a child, a partner, a parent; loss of something central to themselves, their physical or their mental health and all the losses that may follow from that: relationships, job, identity, and peace of mind. I began to wonder how they coped, what gave them the strength to endure and carry on, often with extraordinary grace. This was the starting point for Daughter, a book that set out to explore both loss and resilience.

You also have five children, who you thank in your acknowledgements. Did they advise you on what can go wrong in a teenager’s life?

Having some of my children sometimes around centred me throughout the whole writing process. If I hadn’t had family to look after and look after me, I would have been unfed, wild-eyed and sleepless, scribbling away at 3 a.m.! My eldest daughter told me to write in the first place, making me promise to go on the Bristol Creative Writing Diploma and then the Bath Creative Writing MA; courses that made all the difference. My second daughter cooked, walked the dog and tidied up. The boys did the IT and my youngest read the manuscript. Not only did I thank them in the acknowledgements but also, along with my husband, the book is dedicated to them. Without them I don’t think the book would have got written. I didn’t need to ask my children if there were things they didn’t tell me, because I knew from my own teenage days that of course there were. My mother knew almost nothing that was going on in my ‘real’ life. We had a good relationship, sure, I was a (relatively) good teenager, but my inner life, my friends, what I did and what I thought were my secrets. Secrets are important, a crucial part of growing up. To explore what can go wrong in a teenager’s life, I played instead the magical, scary game of What If. What if my daughter didn’t come home when she said she would? What if, beneath the smooth and shiny surface of family life, something very different was going on? Something dangerous. What would that feel like? What would I do? How would I cope? How would I help? To answer those questions was the moment to unleash my imagination.

Do you think that all of us middle-class, busy, professional parents mislead ourselves about our kids and their true happiness?

Any parent can get it wrong or think they have. We don’t need to be middle-class, busy or professional as Jenny and Ted are in order to mislead ourselves about our kids; we can get it wrong whoever we are and even if we are at home all the time. I think a child’s happiness depends less on a parent watching them, and more about the kind of person that parent is, and whether the child is allowed to become the person they want to be. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy for well-meaning parents to think that they know their children well enough to tell what path will lead to their happiness, often conflating their children’s goals with their own. Some parents may want to promote creativity, an ecological lifestyle, travel and freedom while all the time their children may crave a conventional life. Things that seem key to other parents could be job satisfaction or financial stability; these wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of their children’s agenda either. This was the mistake that Jenny and Ted made with Naomi. It took a long time for Jenny to realize that her daughter was different to the girl she thought she was; that Naomi had been searching for something other than the life her parents had. For their daughter, true happiness lay somewhere her parents had never even imagined. Perhaps the parents who do it best, the really clever ones, are the parents who don’t presume to know everything about their children; parents who let their children work out the meaning of true happiness for themselves, and then how to find it. Daughter is for all of us who know how difficult it is to be that clever.

We won’t give away the end, but do you see a future for the family? A sequel, perhaps?

One thing I’ve learnt is never to say never. At the moment, although there is uncertainty at the end of Daughter, Naomi and Jenny’s stories feel complete. I have since written another book about a different family with children, this time set in Africa. I am hoping very much that it will appeal to the readers who have enjoyed Daughter. The character of Ted still interests me though. He had an important part to play but was less centre stage and of course, as Daughter was written from Jenny’s point of view, we never quite knew what he was thinking. What will he do now? Who is he with? Where will he go? I find myself intrigued by these questions, so who knows? I might just have to catch up with him again at some point and find out the answers.