Tell us about the inspiration for this novel.
Experience has taught me that life is anything but predictable and I wanted to write a story that not only dealt with the fragility of life but also touched upon the miracles of modern medicine which give so many families hope. My son’s only chance of survival when he was diagnosed with leukaemia was a bone marrow transplant and, with no family match, we were lucky enough to find an unrelated donor. I never had the chance to meet this unknown hero, although I did write to him to explain that while Nathan lost his fight, his efforts hadn’t been in vain. For a time we had hope, and that mattered so much to my family. The Goodbye Gift is my way of thanking a complete stranger for his amazing act of kindness.
Tell us about the experience of writing three different principle voices (five if you count Anya and Lucy). How did you go about creating these characters?
Even though I’m a writer, most of the time there’s only one voice in my head and that’s my own. Understandably, when I do sit down to write, it can be a bit of a challenge immersing myself in the thoughts and feelings of imaginary characters, especially when I’m making them act and behave in ways that wouldn’t necessarily come naturally to me. And because I was dealing with so many characters in the Goodbye Gift, it did get a bit crowded inside my head at times.
Julia was probably the easiest character to write because she was the nearest in age to me and my friends. She likes art which is another thing we had in common, and while I can’t claim to have some of the good qualities I gave her, in some ways I would like to be more like her.
Phoebe and Helen were a little more tricky and for different reasons. Even though they were the same age, they had completely different attitudes to life and had been influenced by vastly different past experiences. Helen comes across as older and more mature which is understandable because she is a single mother with a responsible job. I deliberately made Phoebe’s character a little more difficult to unravel, only revealing aspects of her past much later in the novel. My intention was that once the readers knew more about Phoebe, they might be more understanding of her actions.
You always put your characters through the wringer emotionally. Do you find this affects your own emotional behaviour?
With a tight schedule, I write every day and so I’m never too far removed from my stories and my characters. The issues I write about and the emotional journeys my characters go through are intense at times and the subjects often very serious, so you might assume that I’m a rather solemn person. To some extent, that’s true, and not just because of what I might be writing at the time. Losing my son altered my perspective on life and changed my priorities, and I’m continually reminded of what tragedies other families face because I volunteer for a helpline that supports bereaved parents. That being said, there’s only so much seriousness one person can handle. It may not come out so much in my writing but I don’t take life, or myself, too seriously if I can help it and once in a while my irreverent sense of humour does come out in the odd scene. I do love writing cheeky characters like Beryl who Helen meets on the bus home from work.
Organ donation is a tricky moral question. Do you feel like there is a clearly right or wrong answer?
Organ donation is something I’m quite passionate about, and while I was writing The Goodbye Gift, I took a lot of interest in the debates and campaigns surrounding this subject. There has been much talk about changing the registration process for organ donors in the UK, so that people opt out rather than opting in and this change has already been implemented in Wales. There appears to be a good argument for an opt out system given that there are so many people who would be happy to donate their organs when the time comes but never get around to adding their details to the Organ Donor Register. If a change in the system increases the number of donor organs then it has to be a good thing, however, what I think you might lose with an opt out system is the opportunity for people to make a positive declaration so that their loved ones are left with no doubt that they wanted to be donors. Whichever system we use, the most important thing is that families do know our wishes. So if you’re reading this and you haven’t had that conversation yet, what are you waiting for?
Was it important to you to keep the reader in suspense as they read the book? And how did you set about doing this?
It wasn’t just the reader I was keeping in suspense when I began writing The Goodbye Gift – even I didn’t know how it was going to end. I put off deciding which character would be the organ donor until I was about two thirds of the way through the first draft. Because I was writing a story that reflected the unpredictability of life, I needed to write about Julia, Helen and Phoebe as if I expected their lives to continue as they were planning. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of setting up one character to reach a neat conclusion in their life because that’s the whole point of the novel – the future can’t be taken for granted. The accident scenes interspersed throughout the book did come later and by that point I did know who would die and deliberately held back certain details to keep up the suspense.
Did you have to do any particular research for this novel? Can you tell us about it if so?
Even though I include very little reference to the organ donation procedure itself in the novel, I did research as much as I could about the process. It was very moving and inspiring to read the accounts of families who took the decision to donate their loved ones organs, sometimes knowing the donor’s wishes, and sometimes not.
With so many main characters in the book, there was a lot of other research required, particularly in relations to their jobs and interests. Fortunately it didn’t all involve leafing through books and scouring the internet. I had some lovely meals in The Elephant in Woolton Village as well as a fabulous day visiting Martin Mere Wetland Trust. I also made time to go to the Andy Warhol Exhibition which I probably would have missed if I hadn’t been so eager to share in Julia and Phoebe’s love of art.