This week Another Way to Fall goes on general release and I’m really hoping that readers fall in love with my heroine Emma as much as I have. She is a young woman who has barely tasted life but is forced to face her own mortality when the brain tumour she thought she had beaten returns.
I have to admit that I felt distinctly uncomfortable creating a character who had cancer but it was a story I had to write because the basic premise had been drawn from my own experience. When my son Nathan died, it wasn’t only that sweet little boy who had been stolen from me but his entire future, and for a while, mine too. I desperately wanted to know what he might have gone on to achieve if only he had been given the opportunity but at three years old, I had only the merest hint of the man he was meant to be.
Nathan was a little charmer, I knew that much at least. He was chatty and mischievous but he could also be quite shy. He hid behind his Thomas the Tank Engine sunglasses during our lengthy stays in hospital and occasionally when a new visitor came to see us he would simply say, ‘me too busy.’ He wasn’t perfect, he cheated at cards and he had an eye for the ladies. He fell in love twice, once with my nephew’s girlfriend Paula and later with his nurse, Pat. But these were only tantalizing glimpses of the life he might have led and I was left to imagine how those empty pages in his life’s story might have been filled.
In Another Way to Fall, Emma gets to fill the empty pages of her life by writing the story herself. She finds answers to all of those ‘what ifs,’ and for me that was very satisfying despite the book being an extremely difficult one to write. It took many, many drafts because I put a lot of pressure on myself to do justice to the story, not for the sake of my fictional character but out of respect for those people who are forced to face the realities of cancer and in particular those with high grade brain tumours. I might have the misfortune of being able to write a story like this from a mother’s perspective but I couldn’t claim to know what was going on inside Emma’s head, either from a medical or an emotional point of view. That was when I turned to BT Buddies (http://www.btbuddies.org.uk) and I am indebted to the time and effort Natalya Jagger took in helping me with my research. It was important to me and I think to Natalya too, that my book was based on reality. There are no miracle cures in the real world and there couldn’t be for Emma. Her fate was sealed in many respects from the very beginning. I don’t claim to have all the finer detail correct and there has been some poetic license in terms of Emma’s seizures but I can only hope Another Way to Fall has captured at least a fraction of the real life battles faced by brain tumour sufferers. If you get a chance, please visit the BT Buddies website and give your support.
When it comes to writing fiction, there’s only so much you can draw from personal experience and knowledge before you have to start knuckling down to research. It’s a necessary evil that sometimes slows down the writing process but then there are certain subject matters where you can only count your blessings that you don’t have firsthand experience. Another Way to Fall is about a young woman with a brain tumour and as well appreciating my own good health as I built Emma’s world around her, I also felt a huge weight of responsibility. I had to do justice to my heroine and more importantly the real life sufferers of this insipid disease. I had to put the research hours.
Now I’m the first to admit that with my fledgling career as a writer and a full time job, finding enough hours in the day can be a struggle so it’s a godsend when I can enlist the help of others and with my second book I was lucky enough to find a wealth of information and advice from someone who surely had better things to do with her time than answer my endless questions. Natalya Jagger set up BT Buddies (www.btbuddies.org.uk) after her friend’s daughter was diagnosed and later died from a brain tumour. She is undoubtedly an amazing woman with a generous spirit which she extended to me. We certainly agree on one thing, the story of someone battling a brain tumour should respect the harsh realities and not trivialise or twist facts. That being said, I have to accept that my account will be flawed. I don’t know if writers are meant to admit to that but the truth is, even with the best research, I still can’t know what it’s really like for sufferers, I can only imagine and I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do, to create a story that will be inspiring and not depressing, to reflect the inner strength and bravery that can be found in real life and to give some insight into a family dealing with a cancer diagnosis, something I do have experience of. More than anything I want readers to admire my Emma rather than pity her and to love her as much as I do.
Continuing on the subject of research, I should confess that it’s not all as onerous as it sounds and sometimes it can broaden horizons. In Another Way to Fall, Emma gets to create an amazing life for herself and amongst other things, explore the world. In the first draft this included going off to Iceland and it was only when I started researching the country that it became one of my own dream destinations. Sadly, Iceland didn’t make it to the final cut although to counter this I did make reference to New York which was where I took my daughter Jess for a celebratory holiday after getting the first book deal. But where fiction failed, reality succeeded and at the time of writing this blog, I’m on the flight home after an absolutely amazing week in Reykjavik. I didn’t get to see the northern lights but maybe next time…and I really do want to go back…the mountains, the volcanoes, the geysers, the lava fields, the thermal pools, the waterfalls, the glaciers, the blue lagoon…I could go on. It was all breathtaking and I wasn’t deterred in the least by the driving rain, low cloud or lack of daylight – it’s only given me an excuse to go back again during summertime.
I’m sorely tempted to bore everyone with tonnes of photos but I hope these two reflect the two extremes of my experiences on holiday.
I know I’m in danger of sounding like I’m working for the Icelandic tourist board but it really is an incredible country and even though there’s a lot to be said for blazing sunshine and sandy beaches, this is one holiday I won’t forget in a hurry and one that might just make it into another of my stories one day.