Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pain on the Page

I wrote about our son with huge trepidation. As a novelist, honesty has always been my goal: get it down as it really is, not as you would like it to be. In writing this story, I had to write and think about things I found very difficult, very intimate, sometimes shaming. I had to describe how it felt to watch your child – previously the gentlest person you could think of – kick down locked doors in fury because he’d been denied money. I also had to put myself in Mary’s mother’s place and, holding in my hands the pitiful little journal where she described burying one child after another, acknowledge that our life was not so bad. Our boy was still out there. We had hope.

I finished the book. It took some courage to show it to my son, but I knew I had to. His response – typically generous and imaginative – is described at the end. A writer and a musician too, he understands that you write what you have to write. What he probably doesn’t understand is my impulse to share our experience with other parents. But for me that has become paramount. Not nearly enough is known or understood about skunk. There were times when we thought we were going mad. When other parents shared their (identical) experiences with us, it proved a lifelineBack to that thorny question of how far it is acceptable to use personal pain and family trauma as fuel for fiction.
Julie Myerson's The Lost Child has recently attracted a great deal of controversy (e.g.), and the publisher has now brought forward the publication date to take advantage of the tide of outrage it has created. Minette Marrin in The Sunday Times said it was :
... a betrayal not just of love and intimacy, but also of motherhood itself ...
(And don't you just love Marrin's first line? :
A family into which a writer is born is a ruined family.)
In the book Myerson (who was longlisted for the Booker in 2003) details her painful relationship with her son, Jake, and her decision to change the locks on the family home because of his use of skunk cannabis (apparently a genetically modified version and up to 30 times stronger than the usual stuff). To get an idea of just what she had to contend with, take a look at this extract from the book and this piece from The Telegraph. Another extract, which I lifted the quote above from, can be found here. (Am I the only one reminded of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin?)

Jake Myerson, who now works in the music industry, sees matters in a very different light and told reporters :
What she has done has taken the very worst years of my life and cleverly blended it into a work of art, and that to me is obscene. I was only 17, I was a confused teenager, I was too young really to know who I was or what was happening. What she describes in her book are a series of incidents, it's not who I am and I find it very sad that she feels the need to tar me with the 'drug addict' brush. She's been writing about me since I was two, and, quite frankly, I'm not surprised by anything she does any more. She's a writer and like a lot of writers she is wrapped up in her own world - even if the worlds they are creating aren't quite true, they become true to them anyway, and I wasn't prepared to let her world colour mine any more.
Anyway, this is all excellent publicity for the book ... just when we thought the market for misery memoirs was shrinking!

Worth reading is Charlotte Northedge's in The Guardian piece on the fallout of miserylit for the author's nearest and dearest. (Star readers will spot that the piece was reproduced in today's edition.)

Postscript :

Worth reading too is Geoffrey Myerson's account.

An interesting point from Neill Denny in The Bookseller :
The important overall point for the wider book trade is that the episode has served to underline the primacy of the book in our media hierachy. Would Myerson's revelations have counted for so much had they been expressed through any other media? A book confers a status and finality on a story that even now news­papers, television, the internet, radio—you name it—can only dream of. Remember that the next time you hear some media pundit glibly predicting the death of the book.


Anonymous said...

"A family into which a writer is born is a ruined family"

Never a truer word. More people have been ruined than made successful by writing. If you don't need to write, if you can hold a day job without thinking of your next book, don't do it. Your life will be better, you will have money, you will have friends, you will have a spouse, a family, a future. Be a lawyer or architect or doctor or something.

bibliobibuli said...

yeah and the really downside of it is you might actually have to write a book (or even have a single story or article published) so people believe that you are a writer! just think if you sacrificed all the other things and never managed to produce ANYTHING!

Anonymous said...

All writers draw ideas from family, friends and then they work those experiences, situations into fiction and the story takes on a life quite different from its original source. Julie M's reasoning is greatly upsetting - he's her son - he's barely 20 and she's just about demolished, pulverised him. Why this need to tell the whole world the 'truth' as it were? Ah, silly me, it's the publicity, stupid. I think it's obscene too.

And Sharon, I agree with your comments above - the ultimate nightmare for every 'writer'.


Anonymous said...

Sharon, you so cranky hahaha! :-)))

I like it!! :-))

- Poppadumdum