A few weeks ago, on The Durrells, Larry Durrell had a book launch. Only one person attended, and only because he’d been promised cake.
I also had cake, and fizz, and was overwhelmed when around 80 people attended my book launch this month. I’ve learned, after years of the usual rejections and knock-backs, never to take a single reader for granted. And a book launch is special, some writers even compare it to having a baby. If My Sister & Other Liars is my baby then I was pregnant for 7 years! It’s true that I abandoned the manuscript, wrote two other books, but kept returning to it. “What is it about this book?” one writer friend asked me, “Why can’t you just let it go?”
No, I couldn’t let it go. Here’s why:
All of my other five novels are based on `big` cases, sensational ones that rocked the nation. My first novel, The James Version, is based on the murder of Maria Marten in the Red Barn. Humber Boy B is inspired by the Jamie Bulger case. Nowhere Girl takes the germ of the Shannon Matthews story and transplants it in Luxembourg. Alice, in The Sacrificial Man, is a British version of the German cannibal killer.
My Sister and Other Liars is also based on a real case, but an unknown one that took place in a town I can’t name because I don’t know it. Seven years ago, by chance, I saw an interview with a teenage girl, whose sister had been attacked and hit her head, rendering her brain damaged. She had no memory of the attack and the police had no leads. They were closing the case. The teenager said two things: firstly, “someone in this town knows what happened to my sister and they’re not saying.” True, that. Look at the (excellent) recent programme Little Boy Blue, about the tragic murder of Rhys Jones. A significant number knew who’d shot him, they just weren’t saying.
Second, she said, “He could be next to me in the queue for chips. He could be driving the bus I’m on.”
This poor girl was haunted by these two things, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her or her predicament.
She became my protagonist, Sam. And as Sam decides to find her sister’s attacker there are devastating consequences. Sometimes, it is best not to discover the secrets that surround us and Sam becomes obsessed, and sick, facing the chaos of lies and misinformation that surrounds her sister’s attack. This manifests itself as anorexia, a disease about control.
I didn’t know I was writing about anorexia until Sam was recognisably ill. My editor first named it, and my research opened up a world of water-loading, excessive exercising, pro-Ana sites, blue and brown kitchens and the stories of girls dangerously close to death. I learned that of all mental illnesses, anorexia has the highest fatality rate. And these details wound their way into Sam’s story, despite warnings from editors that it would make the book a `marmite` read.
What I felt I couldn’t do was to tone down this part of the story: I owed it to the girls and their parents who’d shared their stories with me. And I owed it to my readers.
So, the book is born. And if you are reading this then maybe you are part of its journey, which is now beyond my control. Off Sam goes, into the big wide world. I’m sending her on her way with love.