Why did you decide to write about the very emotional theme of infertility? Was it a personal experience or that of someone you know?
I remember the exact moment when I had the idea for Dear Thing. I was painting my bathroom and the phone rang. It was a close friend of mine; she and her husband had been going through their third round of IVF, which was the last round they could afford to have. They had had nearly two years of injections and tests and drugs, precious few embryos and chemical pregnancies, hope and despair.
But I knew that they were letting go of their dream. I knew exactly how hard that is. We talked for a while, and I put down the phone, and I picked up my paintbrush again, and I thought, ‘I so wish I could carry that baby for them.’ Even if they’d thought that was a good idea, I knew that I couldn’t possibly do it.
Like many of our friends, my husband and I had waited to start a family. At age thirty-five, I fell pregnant almost right away. We were delighted. I told all of my family and close friends. I was even more delighted that one of my friends, Kim, was also expecting in the autumn. I pictured shared pregnancy wobbles, swapped maternity clothes, long conversations about baby names, walks with pushchairs.
At ten weeks, I started to spot. On the phone, my doctor told me to wait the weekend and come in if I hadn’t stopped. When I made the appointment on Monday, his first words to me were, ‘Have you lost the baby yet?’
The scan showed that I had a missed miscarriage; the baby had stopped growing weeks before. The ultrasound technician held my hand as I sobbed. I will never forget her dry, warm hand, the compassion on her face in the darkened room. I had my second miscarriage that summer. In October, several weeks early, Kim gave birth to triplet boys: two identical, one fraternal. They had to spend some time in hospital in special care. The babies and their parents needed all the support they could get.
I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t offer help, or go shopping for gifts. I knew it was unreasonable; I knew it was selfish. But those three beautiful, perfect small boys were everything I wanted and did not have.
I spent a year avoiding pregnant women. I had to turn off the television when it showed a baby. I didn’t want to be someone who envied other people, but I couldn’t help it. I cried at work, at home, driving in my little car. My husband was hurting too, but not in the same way. He loves me, and he supported me, but he hadn’t felt the sense of something growing inside him, and then that precious thing being gone.
I talked to woman after woman who had lost their children before birth, or soon after: my friends, my colleagues, my grandmother. I heard every word of comfort that doesn’t help much. More than that, I learned how much we women who want to be mothers share the same hope and the same sadness. The sharing did help.
My third pregnancy ended on Christmas day. We were opening gifts at my parents’ house and I felt the cramping and the rush, and I knew it was over. I didn’t lose the hope, but I did lose the innocence. I knew not to sign up for baby e-newsletters or buy any tiny clothes or post ecstatic news on Facebook. I knew never to say ‘congratulations’ too early. When I fell pregnant for the fourth time we went for the first scan, at eight weeks, expecting to see nothing. But there was a tiny heartbeat, nestling deep inside my body. Eventually, as the weeks went by, I let myself believe that my dream was going to come true.
Our son was born just before the following Christmas. Carol singers came into the hospital and sang ‘Silent Night’ to him as he lay sleeping in his plastic cot. They probably thought I was sobbing because I was crazed with hormones and happiness. Which I was – I so was – but I was remembering, too.
Those were the things I was thinking about three years later, when I got off the phone with Anna after her third and final IVF attempt. I knew what her grief was like, and I wanted to help heal it. But I knew that my body, and my emotions, weren’t strong enough. All I could do was share with her, like other women had shared with me.
It did give me a book idea, though. For me, Dear Thing is as much about female friendship as it is about infertility and mother – hood. It’s about sharing emotions, and finding strength in that.
When the book opens, Ben’s wife Claire is irritatingly perfect – beautiful, with a happy marriage and gorgeous home. Then you reveal her secret tragedy – infertility – and she becomes human and much nicer. Do you think enduring such sadness can make someone a better person?
To me, Claire isn’t perfect. I see her as deeply, fundamentally insecure – she begins the book by taking a test, which she ultimately fails. As a perfectionist she is very hard on herself, much harder than another person might be. She finds it difficult to relax and be herself. I think this takes a toll on her marriage, her friendships, and her happiness. It’s all a brittle shell, which she’s constantly polishing to make people believe that she’s okay. Romily certainly sees her as perfect and intimidating, though, so she appears that way at first, because you’ve perceived her through Romily’s eyes. And hopefully as the book goes on, you get to understand Claire better, and forgive her some of her brittleness. I don’t think that enduring sadness necessarily makes you a better person. I think it makes you sad. But I do think that Claire grows and changes through the story. I think by the end she has accepted that she’s flawed, and even embraced that and found it liberating.
Romily is a great character. Her offer to be a surrogate for Claire and Ben makes her emotionally terribly vulnerable. Is she your favourite character?
Yes, I love Romily. I love Romily and Posie as a family unit even more. It’s funny, as I am probably more similar to Claire in a lot of ways, and I really identify with her. But Romily has a self-deprecating joy and passion that I like. She’s so vulnerable and yet she refuses to show that to anyone. In a way, she’s quite similar to Claire, although she appears to be completely different. Both of them have to learn not to be self-contained and to let other people in. Although I’m full of admiration for the extraordinary women who can act as surrogates, I’ll admit that Romily is not a particularly good candidate. She thinks she can approach it scientifically and stay detached, but of course she can’t. She can’t even stay detached from science. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she has the best intentions. Some of the research for this book was quite painful to do, but researching Romily’s job was an utter pleasure. I got to spend some time inhaling naphthalene and examining Victorian insect cabinets, and there is a whole backstory to Amity’s collection which never made it into the book.
Are happy endings – like this one – important to you?
Happy endings are important to everyone, I think. For example, I didn’t tell you what happened to my friend Anna, who decided to abandon IVF. She and her husband adopted a lively, beautiful little boy, and they’re the most wonderful parents. Although they had a terrible experience of infertility, it led directly to a better future for that one precious child. That’s the sort of thing that makes you believe in happy endings in real life – although of course, for them, it’s only a beginning. In fiction, I think that happy endings are redemptive. Some people mock them; they believe they’re glib, or unrealistic. But if a happy ending is hard-won, if it comes out of depth of emotion and it isn’t predictable, it’s hugely satisfying. Life can be hard. I see nothing wrong in reading to feel better. Dear Thing begins with a reference to fairy tales, and traditionally they all have happy endings. But they contain a lot of harsh stuff too: death, pain, torture, unfulfilled love, neglect. The line ‘Once upon a time, when we still believed in wishes’ is from Grimm’s Fairy Tales and to me, it’s very sad and true. It tells us that despite the happy ending that we know is coming, the time for believing in magic is now over. We’ve learned better; we’ve grown up.One of the marvellous things about writing and reading fiction is that for the space of a book, we can believe in wishes again.