The thought seemed to appear from nowhere as I stared out of the window of a train at London’s endless terraces of houses, and yet, as soon as it was there, I found myself imagining two people: the vivacious, curious girl and reserved, slightly awkward boy who would become Tess and Gus.
I have always been intrigued by the random quality of our lives, by how many fleeting encounters we have, or almost have, that can change what we do or where we go or who we love. Some of my very closest relationships could so easily not have happened. Like my best friend in New York, who I’ve known half my life, ever since we were working in neighbouring apartments – she as a cleaner (to support her ambition to be a singer), me as a babysitter (because it was a good way of spending a summer in the USA). We met because she knocked on my door and asked to borrow my vacuum cleaner, and we’ve been as close as sisters ever since. Or like my husband, who I’d bumped into at friends’ parties for years and never liked, but who one day appeared at a party at my flat and never left! In the albums full of photos I have with friends or family in beautiful, iconic places – the Ponte Vecchio, the Empire State Building, Waterloo Bridge – there must be hundreds of people in the background whose lives intersected with ours for just that moment. And we are probably on the mantelpieces of many people we have never met, or perhaps met just briefly when – in the days before the selfie – we handed over our camera and asked, ‘Would you mind . . . ?’
When I’m on a crowded train, or in a cinema or at a concert or football match, I always find myself wondering how many of the lives have glanced against mine before, or will do so in the future, and whether, as Tess asks in Miss You, ‘. . . if we all had a tracker device, a tiny light that you could see from space, then everyone’s paths would loop and intertwine?’
Once I’d had this idea for a story about connecting – or failing to connect – I felt it was a particularly millennial theme. In an era of such rapidly expanding connectivity, could it still be possible for two people not to meet each other? And so I decided to start the story in 1997, just before the millennium, a year in which the UK experienced enormous public optimism and unprecedented public grief. These two emotions are central to Miss You. When we first meet them, Tess and Gus are eighteen. They are both excited, if a little apprehensive, about what the future will hold for them, but they are also both recently bereaved, and missing important people from their lives.
The inspiration for the setting of the book – Florence and London – came from my love of these two cities. But I wasn’t really aware, until I found myself talking about my passion for Italy on my first visit to my UK publisher, how often inspiration can be totally unconscious. I found myself reminiscing about my first visit to Italy in a camper van at the age of twelve, and how, after a chilly and perilous journey over Alpine passes from France, I’d fallen in love with the enveloping warmth of the Italian sun and the Italian people. We’d eventually arrived at our destination, a campsite just outside Florence, after dark, and woken up to a breathtaking view of the city the following morning. I have visited Florence several times since, and in 2011, as a treat to celebrate finishing his GSCE exams, I took my son for a mini-break there. Thinking that perhaps a fifteen-year-old boy wouldn’t like Renaissance art quite as much as I do and would need something else to do, I chose a hotel with a pool on the roof. On our first night, as he swam, and I sat by the pool sipping an Aperol Spritz, I found myself thinking how very different his first experience of the city was from mine. My gaze wandered beyond the iconic cupola and campanile of the Duomo, in the direction of the campsite where my family had stayed, and there, high above the city, I spotted the floodlit façade of the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte. I hadn’t even had the idea for Miss You then, and yet that image must have settled somewhere in my mind, because at the beginning of the novel Tess wakes up in that campsite, Gus is staying with his parents in that hotel, and their first almost-meeting happens in that church!