I’m always very happy to have the very lovely Kate Long here. One, because she’s unquestionably one of the nicest people I know in writing (her post on loving words is brilliant) and, second, because it usually means she has another book out – and that is always a good thing because her books are brilliant.
A little while ago she published Something Only We Know and I thought that the perfect opportunity to invite her back to talk about how it came across and the themes it deals with. It sounds good, as you’ll see…
“Researching a serious illness is always a challenge. I knew from accounts I’d read in the past that anorexia nervosa is a complex and painful condition which can last for years and, in extreme cases, prove fatal. But I also knew that a lot of sufferers recover – to a degree. The grip of the condition loosens, even if it never slackens off entirely, and life shifts into better balance once again.
Much has been written about teenagers experiencing the fiercest phase of an eating disorder. There’s less, though, about what happens later on in life, when those teens become adults with wider responsibilities and a different range of pressures. It so happened that, during a writing course, I met a woman whose daughter had been through just such an experience, and she was keen to tell me what had happened. She spoke with great frankness and courage about how hard it is to watch someone you love suffer in that way, and what kind of questions you ask yourself as a parent. Are you to blame? Was it the way you brought her up? If she loved you, surely she’d eat? If you loved her enough, shouldn’t you be able to cure her? A few months later she introduced me to her daughter, now a mum herself, who bravely explained to me what the illness had been like ‘from the inside’.
And so began the idea for my novel Something Only We Know. Helen, aged 30 and a recovered anorexic, is not the narrator. The story’s told from the point of view of her 23-year-old sister Jen, who describes what it’s like for the family to have to work around Hel’s domestic rituals. Their mother watches nervously, in case the illness seems to be taking hold again, and Jen sometimes feels she herself might as well be invisible. But at the same time she loves her sister, despite the frustrations. Aren’t all sister-relationships complex and contradictory, to some degree?
‘What would you say was the main thing you discovered about anorexia from writing the book?’ a fellow author asked me a few days ago. I told him: ‘That it’s no one’s fault.’ And it seems to me, it’s a crucial message. Towards the end of the novel, where Helen’s mother admits she always secretly believed Hel could control her condition, Helen tells her, “Anorexia’s a full-blown mental health disorder, not an exercise in family-hating bloody-mindedness. Don’t think it had anything to do with you.” That final understanding between them allows Helen to step away from her parents, and in turn allows them to let her go.
I never set out to write an “issues” novel. The characters came to me themselves, with their pasts and baggage in place. But I owe a debt of gratitude to the real-life friends who generously let me into their own experiences, and helped me shape my story.”
Something Only We Know is published by Simon and Schuster and is out now.