Welcome back to the Story Behind The Story series. I’m delighted to share Anne Goodwin’s fascinating story behind her recently published novel Sugar and Snails .
I’m in my very first meeting with my publisher, going through what needs to happen before my debut novel is released into the world. We’re agreeing deadlines and who does what, and it’s all going swimmingly until we come to the item “story behind the story” which I’m supposed to write two months before launch day. Gulp! The whole reason I write fiction is that I don’t want to write my own story. In fact, I thought that was what fiction was for.
Six months post publication I’ve found a way of talking and writing about the person behind the novel. In fact, with a mammoth five-week blog tour and over a dozen follow-up articles, you might think I’ve become addicted. Yet I’ve held a lot back. When Gulara invited me to write a guest post for this series, I retrieved my original document on the story behind the story and was surprised to find one theme I hadn’t yet covered. Since the invitation had arisen through her post on owning vulnerability, I thought this might be the place to share a bit more of mine.
The year I turned fifty, I decided to celebrate with a long distance walk: 190 miles across northern England from the west coast to the east. As the route begins only a few miles from where I grew up, I arranged to meet up with a bunch of old school friends the evening before I set off.
About a dozen of us met for a meal in the pub we used to frequent after school. I’d kept in sporadic touch with a few of the women over the years, but I hadn’t seen some since I was fifteen. Amid the lively conversation, I spent a lot of the time sitting staring, overwhelmed by how I could detect within these middle-aged faces the teenagers they’d once been.
Driving back to where I was staying, a thought – more like a message – pinged in my brain: I’m not dead! Now, I was as alert as anyone to how bizarre this was. Yet I couldn’t dismiss it so easily; it seemed to express an important truth about what it means to be me.
I’d come very close to death at fifteen. What I hadn’t realised, when I’d picked myself up and got on with living, was that something in me had died and I’d been carrying a dead part along with me ever since, almost like a phantom limb. I’d been physically and mentally broken, tossed in the air and brought back to earth with a bump, landing in a totally new and alien place. Yet, for three and a half decades, I’d had little success in putting this experience into words.
Three weeks after this crazy revelation, I began writing the novel that was to become Sugar and Snails. The story emerged organically, undergoing multiple transformations before finding the form in which it is published. Part of the difficulty was that Sugar and Snails is a novel with a secret at the heart but, in the long process from inception to publication, I had forgotten how that secret was a metaphor for the dead part of me. My novel went through various convolutions before I could bring that part to life.
Diana, the narrator of Sugar and Snails has to kill off part of herself to become the woman she needs to be. Death pervades her memories of her childhood, from the role-play games of Romeo and Juliet and the funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians to the symbols of the Catholic Church. Her relationship with her father has been shaped by his being away at a funeral on the day she was born, and the unhappy fate of his former army pal comes to skew his parenting decisions.
Midway through the novel, Diana has a dream which echoes an earlier scene in which she tells her best friend’s daughter a bedtime story (p179-181):
Once upon a time there was a little girl called Diana … Diana loved to dress up in her ballet tutu and cavort and caper all day long … But something always got in the way of her dancing, and his name was Andrew. Diana and Andrew … shared the same birthday, and the same bedroom, and the same desk at school … They were joined at the shoulder blades, back-to-back, so when Andrew walked forward Diana had to walk backwards, and she didn’t like that at all. There wasn’t much about Andrew she did like. He was always in the way, spoiling her dancing, distancing her from the other girls. Diana believed that where she was attached to Andrew was the place from which a little girl’s wings would grow. Without her troublesome twin, she wouldn’t just be able to hop and skip and jump more freely, she’d be able to fly … She’d never dance gracefully with Andrew clamped to her back. Finally, she asked the doctor if he could help. But the doctor… said she and Andrew had only one heart between them. If they were separated, one of them would die.
I’m afraid you’ll have to read the novel if you want to know whether Diana can find a way to fly. But I can confirm that, as my own therapy eased me towards a less troubled relationship with my troublesome past, the ending of Diana’s story became somewhat more hopeful. I’ve given her a hard time but, complex as the repercussions of her teenage decision prove to be, I did give her a choice.
We all have parts of ourselves we’d rather disown, so you don’t need to have dabbled with death to identify with the theme of transformation in Sugar and Snails. For me personally, the transformation of my vulnerabilities into a physical book and its positive reception also has the potential to transform my relationship to myself, reminding me I’m far from dead.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.