When the lovely folks at BBC Radio 4 asked me to write a short story to be broadcast over the Christmas period, I quickly got thinking about how to express the reality of Christmas as it is really lived. Yes, I adore all the festivities, from mince pies to Santa hats (scroll down for more on this!), but the Christmases we all actually experience tend to be more like an episode of the Royle Family than a Waitrose advert. Family life these days is a complicated business, with step-relations, new marriages, etc etc – so often, too, we’re navigating a complex web of relationships over the turkey and goose-fat potatoes. This story, then, examines one woman’s experience of that web, when she is forced to host the ex-husband she hasn’t seen for years for Christmas Day… The story, read by the amazing Tamsin Greig, was broadcast on Radio 4 in December 2016.
Sometimes we writers find inspiration in the smallest things. That’s how it is for me, often, anyway – a scrap of lyric, or a photograph, or a conversation overheard on a bus, will lodge itself in my brain, and a story will slowly, over time, start to coalesce around it. That happened with this story, which I wrote after seeing a fascinating Paul Klee retrospective at Tate Modern in (as I recall) 2014. On one of the introductory panels in one of the rooms, I read a throwaway line about how Klee, as a young man, had had many lovers, one of whom had borne him a son out of wedlock. The son, so the panel said, had died in infancy. No further information was given – and I, speculator to the last, found that I couldn’t stop wondering about who the woman had been, and how that life-shattering event had affected her. So a year or so later, I came up with this story, set in Munich in 1933, in which Klee – or a fictionalised version of him, anyway – appears alongside his erstwhile (and entirely imaginary) lover, Asta Vogel. The wonderful US website Read It Forward posted it in August 2016, with a set of beautiful illustrations: an example, I hope, of the internet offering a really special kind of considered, well-designed long-form read.
As a long-term lover of all things Christmassy (an obsession my husband Andy, luckily, shares; each December, we deck our house out to look much like Santa’s grotto, minus the elves), I was over the moon when the lovely people at Stylist magazine asked me to contribute a short story to their 2015 festive fiction compendium. After a few days of pondering subjects and characters, the first line of the story that became ‘Blue Spruce’ popped into my head one morning. The protagonist, Sylvia, is a woman in her 70s who has lost her husband, and is trying to make sense of what Christmas can mean without him. Click here to read the stories written by the other five authors – including Paula Hawkins, Jojo Moyes and Sarah Winman – on the Stylist website, or on the link below to read my story.
The Sunday Express very kindly asked me to write a short story for their magazine, S, to tie in with the publication of The Versions of Us. The word limit was 900 – otherwise, the subject was up to me. This is what I came up with: the story of a young mother whose day is interrupted by the arrival of a letter from an old friend. My starting-point? The sound of the post arriving on the mat in the hallway downstairs. Inspiration really can come from the most unlikely places.
I wrote this short, thousand-word piece after returning from my honeymoon, which we spent travelling around New England. One of our stop-offs was a log-cabin hotel on the banks of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Over Sunday brunch, we listened to a jazz band, and stared out at the water, marvelling at how rare and special it all was. At the next table, meanwhile, a man in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt performed a monologue on his career in banking, his financial status, and how terrible his charmed life had really been. The woman he was dining with sat silently. This is her side of the story – as I imagined it, anyway.
Folk music is one of my great passions, and the song The Trees They Do Grow High – recorded, most famously, by Joan Baez and Martin Carthy – is one of my favourites. My late stepgrandmother, Anita, used to sing it, as does my stepsister Miranda (she has a gorgeous voice). In 2013, for an event called Wildflower that my husband Andy put together – a night of “twisted folk and tall tales”, mixing music and spoken word – I wrote this story, inspired by the song, and its sad (of course) tale of a woman married off to a much younger man. I actually sang the song that night, too, but luckily for all concerned, perhaps, I have no recording of it. You can read the lyrics that inspired the story here.
This story came out of a piece I read in The Guardian’s Family section (I love that section – there’s so much brilliant material in there for any writer). A grandmother had written a letter to the grandson she’d never met, and compared the pain she felt at never knowing him with an acquaintance she’d struck up, as a child, with a stranger on a bus. It was a strange tale, and I found I couldn’t shift it from my head – so I ended up writing this story, exploring loneliness, isolation, and how it might feel to long for a child whom you may never be allowed to meet.
This image has been adapted from a furniture catalogue designed by Richard Hollis and produced by the furniture manufacturer Finmar in 1962.
Image courtesy of the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University, www.moda.mdx.ac.uk.