Why Julie Myerson keeps on exploring our worst fears
PUBLISHED: 11:12 06 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:12 06 December 2016
Archant Â© 2011
Lovers of the modern novel may well put a Julie Myerson book on their Christmas wish-list. Paul Simon talks to the Southwold based author about writing with honesty and realism about the things that terrify us
Southwold-based author and critic Julie Myerson just keeps on doing it. ‘It’ being the willingness to explore in literary form our worst fears in a breathtakingly honest manner. In Something Might Happen, her 2003 novel, the seaside town’s comfortable self-assurance is shattered by a violent murder. Other Myerson output includes Then, which details the dumbed bewilderment of a handful of survivors of a cataclysmic event that results in a perpetual winter, and The Touch, when a befriended tramp violently turns on his helpers.
With The Stopped Heart, published earlier this year, Myerson recreates the anguish of parents who have lost their children. Mary and Graham Coles have moved to a quiet Suffolk village as they seek sanctuary after the murder of their two young daughters. Yet Mary’s heightened awareness of her surroundings causes her to become increasingly aware of noises and visions that pass others by. These resonances relate to events that took place over a century before, when the menacing James Dix corrupts and imperils the lives of young Eliza and her family. I ask Julie how influential the county was in the genesis and construction of this book.
“I did write quite a lot of the book there, but sometimes you can write about a place more vividly when you’re not there. I wrote Something Might Happen before we’d ever lived in Suffolk. I just spent a lot of time there in my head, and looked at postcards, and often that’s enough.
“It could have been based somewhere else. But I do think that would have made it feel like a different book. The rural Victorian stuff was also based on research I did that was specific to Suffolk, though my way is always to read and think a lot, and then discard it all and make things up!
“The Suffolk countryside, that landscape, is important to me. It has an atmosphere. I chose not to set it by the sea as I didn’t want to feel I was re-writing Something Might Happen. I also get an interesting sense of claustrophobia from inland Suffolk. It gets so hot, the stifling hedges, the grey country roads, flat fields, huge sky – I wanted all of that.”
At times, the choking, cloying squeeze of events in the book is almost too much for the reader to withstand. How challenging was the content to create?
“No emotional toll, not really. If anything, some of the tough things that have happened in my life, and even some that are happening as I write, find their way into my novels and somehow rest in a kind of peace there. Which is a relief. I need to write these novels and feel fantastically lucky that I’m able to.” So how does she relax, gain a sense of perspective, away from writing?
“I do a lot of gardening! I really am obsessed with the soil, love being around things growing and getting my hands dirty. Gardening has saved me in all sorts of situations - I think it’s the closest thing I have to a faith. I feel like the real me when I’m gardening. And for me, writing and gardening have one very important thing in common – I love them so much that I completely lose track of time while I’m doing them. That is a real luxury and a blessing.
“The Victorian story, especially Eliza’s voice, came very easily. The modern story was harder. Especially the abduction and murder story. I did a lot of reading around the subject, and very much wanted to write something serious, yet entirely fictional, about something which we usually only hear about in the news.”
Julie is clear, though, as to what she is trying to avoid in terms of genre.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a thriller, or entertainment. I really, really hope it doesn’t. I tend to write about the things that frighten me, and the experience of parents who’ve gone through that, thankfully rare, set of circumstances seems to me unimaginably terrifying.”
She was certainly unfazed by the technical challenges of threading the two stories together and the impact of Eliza’s upon Mary’s life.
“I never seem to have a problem with that! It’s partly experience. This is my 10th novel, but to be honest I’ve always done this intermeshing thing through instinct. When I’m deep in a story and really listening properly to the voices, I just know what needs to come next.” The novel also employs a different voice for Eliza, in the first person, to that of Mary’s third person positioning.
“I think I thought that by writing her in the third person, I could take a small step back and view her as someone separate from me. But oddly it didn’t really work like that. In some ways there’s something about writing in a third person voice which takes you even closer in. In extreme and distressing situations, I have sometimes found myself ‘out of my head’ and viewing myself as if I was someone else. I think when writing in the third person you can also say things which you might not say in the first person. You can almost ‘see’ a little more.”
The Stopped Heart ends on a note of acceptance, rather than fulfilment, with many questions left unanswered. It is a profoundly moving, if not an easy, read. Did Julie Myerson hold her readers in view during the crafting of the book? Again that trademark honesty. She suggests that it is holding true to the story that is her real service to her readers.
“I don’t like to tie things up too much. To me that feels false. I would like to think that there’s a fluidity to the ending, a sense of possibility. A writer who I really like and admire wrote me a lovely email about it where she said she loved the ending because it showed that love is redemptive and stronger than death, but also offers no easy solutions to Mary’s suffering.
“I don’t find that bleak, I find it real. It’s how life really is, for me anyway. If I can somehow convey that, then I’m happy”.