Tell us about yourself in two sentences.
I am a reluctant decaf drinking early riser who loves being outside, hates spreadsheets and spends a huge amount of her life putting things on the stairs in an attempt to tidy up. I have written three books and have a fourth due out next Spring.
Can you share a little about your writing process to us?
I’m afraid my writing process is revolting. When I’m really in the thick of it, I wake up at 4am and work through until my son wakes up, which is usually about 6.30 or, if I’m lucky, 7. This is my golden time. Something about everyone else being asleep, the thin early morning light and the sense of expectation gives me incredible focus. I will often write a thousand words or two in those two hours. Then, during the day, if my son is at school, I will use the time to either answer emails, pitch pieces of journalism, perhaps look back over what I wrote in the morning. As a result, I do a lot of writing in the dark, in bed, in my pyjamas, creeping downstairs and wondering if I can get away with putting on the kettle. I try very hard not to go back and rewrite too much before I have a first draft. Instead, every day, I push forward. I might read the last few paragraphs, to get me in the mindset but then I just start writing, writing, writing. The editing can happen later.
Can you tell us why you felt compelled to write Holding the Baby?
Holding The Baby is the book I’ve wanted to write for five years, if not my entire life (as becoming a mother has always been such a strong and complicated urge). When my son was just a few months old, I remember looking around at my life and thinking, ‘This is the most seismic thing that has ever happened to me.’ It is the greatest creative act, the most unsettling change in identity, the most universal experience and a furious lesson in the way society treats its most essential and most vulnerable citizens. Originally, back in 2018, I pitched a book answering all the questions you’re not supposed to ask – Do I hate my baby? Will I ever have sex again? Why can’t I stop crying? That transformed into The Panic Years but a few years later, I returned to the idea. I felt that I was coming out from behind what I call in the book ‘the partial eclipse’ and so could see the arc of it for the first time and knew I had to document it and write about it. Early parenthood is such a profound and common and funny and political experience – I keep saying that if we can have 10,000 books about the second world war or being a premiership footballer, than we can certainly have a few thousand more about motherhood and early parenting.
Why do you think the post-partum period is so under resourced and under acknowledged?
In my more cynical moments, I think that if we actually acknowledged the work that is early parenting, then the whole capitalist model would crumble to dust. Because this is 20-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job that involved blood loss, partial nudity, manual labour, acute stress, confinement, several meetings a week with outside agencies, amateur medical treatment, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech therapy, sleep deprivation, cleaning and administration. It should probably be illegal. It is also the single job without which, no other industry can operate. Unless someone is bringing up children and looking after children, there would be no work force; and those people who have children wouldn’t be able to do their job unless someone else was doing that childcare. No farming, no politics, no sport, no culture, no construction, no mechanics, no chip shops, no restaurants. All of these things exist because someone has done the unrecognised and unpaid labour of raising children.
In a perfect world, how would we care for new parents?
Holding The Baby culminates in a manifesto in which I break this down point by point. Essentially, we need to recognise parenting as work and remunerate it as such (people throw around the figure of £31,000 a year and that’s as good a starting point as any); we need access to free childcare for all; compulsory shared parental leave; to reclaim public spaces for parental use – both green space and the built environment; secure, affordable and high quality housing; subsidised food for children and early parents; mental health support; free public transport for people with babies; post-natal classes as well as antenatal classes; and joined up care from health services. Some of these would be so simple to introduce, others more ambitious. But as I’ve said over and over and over again, if we can improve things for new parents, then we will improve society at large.
Both The Panic Years, and Holding the Baby are deeply personal memoirs, can you tell us how it feels to share so much of yourself with strangers, and how you set your boundaries?
Ever since the moment I got pregnant, I have felt very protective about my son’s privacy. I don’t share personal details about him, I don’t post identifying photos of him online, I don’t use his name or really describe him much at all. But I am an open book. These books are about me and my experiences and I am very happy to share those in their entirety. The fury, the loneliness, my body, sex, my mental health, my friendships, the whole shooting match. Any time I mentioned anyone in the book, I sent them the chapter and checked that they were happy with it, before I even sent it to my editor. But I don’t really feel shame – I grew up in a house where everything was discussed and so it comes naturally to me to be open and honest about my experiences. Because I know that my experiences are, to some extent, shared by every reader. I want them to know that someone else feels the way they feel, has confronted the same issues and is there to stand beside them. And as a result I am incredibly lucky to get beautiful messages every day from readers who tell me that I have made them feel understood, given them comfort and put into words something they experienced but struggled to describe. Also, as a journalist I’ve been doing this for nearly two decades, so I’ve had a lot of practice at setting my boundaries.
You also released your first fiction novel, Square One, last year. How did your experience writing a fiction novel differ with your non-fiction work?
I absolutely loved the process of writing fiction. I wrote Square One during lockdown and it was such an incredible treat to be able to transcend my everyday life and enter into this alternative world of Hanna and Iain, their flat, their sex lives, the river, pub gardens and illicit dates. I am currently working on a new novel about half siblings and, again, have loved conjuring these people and their world from concrete details of personal experience and the fabric of my imagination. With fiction, you don’t carry the weight of responsibility for other people’s real lives. When I’ve interview someone about their infertility, or experience as a refugee or psychiatric hospitalisation, I know I have a duty to represent them fairly and accurately and to do a serious, responsible job of putting those words out into the world. With fiction, they’re all made up! I can make them say and do what I like. It’s total freedom.
Describe your writing spot for us.
In those dawn and pre-dawn writing hours I will either be propped up in bed, in the dark, squinting into a low-lit screen; or I will sneak out of my back door and go down into the shed at the bottom of our garden to write. When I see other writers going off to Venice or Berlin or New York to ‘work on their book’ I always wonder if I’ve missed a trick. All my books have been written surrounded by the detritus and demands of my life; looking after my son, doing the laundry, making dinner, tidying up, buying more cheese, hanging up the towels, cleaning the toilet. I write in snatches of quiet surrounded by a chaotic, prosaic life; I don’t take myself off to a villa to thing great thoughts.
What books have you recently read and loved?
In terms of fiction, I am just reading Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu and it has absolutely torn me apart. It’s a wonderful story about 1930s China and migration.
The Northern Irish novelist Susannah Dickey makes me laugh out loud with her prose and characters.
In non-fiction, Rob Delaney’s book A Heart That Works is one of the most poignant, funny and essential books I’ve read in a long time. I admire Clover Stroud and recently re-read The Red of My Blood. I also loved Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera and would recommend it to anyone living in an English-speaking country.
What book do you always recommend to others?
When someone I know is struggling with fertility issues, I always recommend Adrift by Miranda Ward. If someone is feeling sad, I recommend PG Wodehouse. If someone wants to know what makes great non-fiction writing, I’d always go back to Bill Bryson. A book that I recently loved and would recommend is The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser.
Tell us what reading means to you…
I’ll tell you a secret – when I’m working I actually find reading a bit tricky, because I can sometimes feel like I’m accidentally absorbing the prose style of whatever I’m reading. When I was last in New Zealand I was reading the collected Sherlock Holmes and honestly, my emails home got a very peculiar Victorian flavour.
But ultimately, reading is transport. It can transport you to another place, into another body, to another time, across political, physical and class borders. Reading is also the key that unlocks the world. When I started training to be an English teacher, I remember thinking that if every child I taught could understand a letter from the council or bank, or write a good email to their boss, let alone read a novel, then I could materially improve my community and our future. Then I got pregnant and had to shelve teaching. But maybe one day!
What is the one tidbit of advice that has stuck with you throughout your career?
When I was about fifteen my English teacher, Alistair White, told me to cut my sentences in half. It is, to this day, the best bit of writing advice I’ve ever received.