How do you know so much about early-onset Alzheimer’s? Did a friend or relative have it?
Mostly I did a lot of research, but a few years ago my mum became very ill over several months – years even – and many of the symptoms mirrored dementia. It was so frightening and distressing to see the person I love the most, altered by her condition, losing memories that mean so much to her, and more than that, it was awful to see how frightened, lost and distressed she was. We were lucky, because eventually her condition was diagnosed: a cyst on the brain, which thankfully was operable and gave our mum back to us. But an experience like that stays with you. And a few months before starting the book I was at the supermarket, loading the contents of my trolley onto the belt at the checkout, when I realised that the older lady in front of me looked lost and anxious. It was almost time for her items to be scanned but she seemed to be searching for something. I asked her if she was OK and she said she was waiting for her husband to come back, but that she would be fine, because he always came back and took care of her. She said the trouble was she didn’t always remember what he looked like. I told her that I’d wait with her until he came back, packed her stuff up for her and, sure enough, within a few minutes her husband had returned with something he’d forgotten. Later, just as they were about to leave, he thanked me for talking to her. He said people often just ignore her. But what they don’t know is that despite everything she is going through, she still feels, and thinks, and worries, and wonders – she is still a person. That moment stayed with me, and also the idea that she knew her husband loved her, and that she loved him, even if she didn’t know who he was.
How, considering Claire’s devastating condition at such a young age, did you manage to convey hope, warmth and laughter, as well as sadness?
If I am completely honest, I don’t exactly know, but I am very glad that hope and laughter comes across! I think the answer might lie in Claire, the lead character. She is absolutely my most favourite character that I have ever written. Fearless even when she afraid, honest, funny and loyal, she is a devoted mother who’s fought hard for everything she has and she is a passionate lover of life. Claire would never be the sort of person to take the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s lying down while she was still able to have some control, and knowing that really helped shape the dynamic of the book. Claire takes such joy in her children and her life that even in the darkest moments there is always a ray of hope, waiting to break through, and that all comes from her, her warmth and humour.
Despite the knowledge you must have acquired from research, the emotional stretch of the book must have been daunting. Did you instinctively know how Claire would be feeling?
It was tough, and I was scared. And I got it wrong a lot of times. (There were a lot of drafts!) I think it helps that I am an experienced writer now. I couldn’t have written this book at any other time in my career; I had to wait twelve years to be able to attempt it. The most useful research I did was to read first-person accounts from people living with Alzheimer’s. It can be easy for people who don’t have an intimate knowledge of the disease to assume that those who have it aren’t aware of the process of deterioration, but in fact that’s not the case; the intellect, wit and imagination of those in the early stages is undiminished. Reading lively, funny, inspirational first-hand accounts gave me the confidence I needed and allowed me to get Claire’s voice right. Also, I knew the only way I was going to make her really authentic was to pour a lot of myself into her. As a result, this is a very personal book, maybe the most personal thing I’ve ever written. Many of Claire’s memories, as detailed in her memory book, are mine: the wedding, the school play, the daisy chain. I lived and breathed her, laughed with her and wept for her. I made myself consider what it would be like to know that I wouldn’t be able to be around for my children growing up, and to feel the devastation of that knowledge. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have the courage to face up to that and do everything you can for your family, while you still can. One of the most defining themes of the book is finding hope in a situation where there is none, and it was Claire that had the strength to do that.
How do you see life continuing for Greg, Claire’s husband, and her two daughters, after her inevitable demise?
In the beginning of the book, there is an excerpt from the Philip Larkin poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, and I think it’s the sentiment in this poem that really points towards the future of Claire’s family after she is gone. What will remain of her is love. The love she felt so keenly for her children, and her husband, and the fierce love they had for her. I think Claire will always be there, in some way, in the way her children grow up and tackle life, and of course in her memory book. Greg is an amazing dad and a lovely man. I think he’ll keep a close eye on Caitlin as she embarks on her own journey into parenthood and developing a relationship with her biological father. I think Claire would have wanted him to live life to the fullest and be happy, so perhaps after a few years he might meet someone else – although he’ll have Ruth and the girls making sure she is up to scratch! I think Esther will grow up as feisty and as funny as her mother. She will look back on the memory book, think about the mum she remembers, and listen to stories from her family, and know how much her mum loved her. Claire was determined her girls would be typical Armstrong women: strong, decent and kind. I think Claire’s family will miss her terribly, but I think they will all be better people because of her. If there is one defining theme throughout this book, it is how the way we live our lives leaves a legacy, imprinted on the world, which carries to future generations, even those that haven’t been born yet – and the importance of that legacy in how we try to live the best way we possibly can.