What can you tell us about your new book Lacey's House?
Lacey’s House is the story of two very different women, Rachel - a young woman trying to escape a difficult past and Lacey - who is simplistic, childlike and viewed by the local villagers with suspicion. On the surface the women couldn’t be more different but they begin to be bound together by threads of similarity, until events come to light that leave Rachel questioning where the truth really lies.
The story is inspired by your grandmother's life, so please can you expand on this for us?
Originally I intended Lacey to be a humorous, light-hearted character and the story was to be set in a care home, but as I started to design the characters I found myself being drawn towards the experiences of my maternal Grandmother who had suffered from depression and was lobotomised in the 60’s. My Grandmother had lost two of her children, Brian died at the age of five of meningitis and Pat died of pneumonia on her first birthday. She also had a series of miscarriages. I think that, at the time, the expectation was that she should just get on with it, that she had three other children and surely they should be enough. But she couldn’t carry on, her grief naturally weighed heavily upon her, until she could no longer escape it.
I started thinking about the hidden stories that we all have, the tales that hide behind our smiles or frowns. My Grandmother lived independently into her 80’s and those who knew her would never have been able to guess what she had been through, she was incredibly independent, funny, smart and gentle and yet she had been brutalised in the name of medical treatment.
Although Lacey’s experiences are very different from my Grandmother’s, Lacey’s character is rooted in the secret’s that we keep, the faces that we show to others and the truths that we hide deep within us.
You won the 2012 Luke Bitmead Bursary so how did this make you feel as an unpublished author?
It’s hard to describe how it felt to win the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I was thrilled to have been shortlisted as I have a tendency towards self-doubt as far as my writing is concerned. In reaching the final ten I felt that maybe I was on the right track after all, that writing was a potential future for me.
I was looking forward to going to the awards ceremony and meeting other writers and having a night out and that was all. My daughter asked me if I was going to write a speech and I said, “Of course not, I’ll never win.” And I believed that totally, so much so that when I was announced as the winner I went into a bit of shock. I can’t really remember the time after the announcement, other than that I hugged everyone within reach.
Later, I remember sitting down with Elaine Hanson, Luke Bitmead’s mother, and having a deep conversation about how she had set up the Bursary in his name and how much it would have meant to him. I found it impossible to vocalise to her just what winning meant to me.
Even after a few months have passed, I still can’t quite believe that I won and that I am in the position of walking into book stores and seeing my book on the shelves. It is a dream come true and I am still a little overwhelmed by it all.
Depression was treated with electric shock therapy and lobotomies in the 60s so how much research was required for this novel for the medical element?
Some of the research was a mix of internet surfing and library book reading, I gathered information about the logistics of how lobotomies, particularly trans-orbital lobotomies, were performed and the impact of electric shock therapy on memory but the main part of the information regarding lobotomy came from conversations with my mother who recounted for me how it had been to witness the impact of the operation on my grandmother; how she could no longer move independently, how she could no longer speak, how she had sat silent and mute as my brother had fallen down the stairs in front of her and how they had all suspected that she would never recover.
For me, the most important part of the story to relay was the personal side of it, the emotional impact and the devastation that such traumatic treatment could cause. For every lobotomy performed, I knew that there was a family beyond it that had fallen apart and I could convey that more accurately because of my own and my mother’s experiences.
Why is it that grief binds people together?
I think that, at its heart, grief is an isolating thing. It is so deeply experienced and so weighty that you can feel utterly alone in your carrying of it. To walk alongside others that share your grief in no way minimises your own devastation but, in time, it can give you a sense of community and togetherness, a sense that others have gone before you who have felt the same. Perhaps there is also a part of us that needs to witness someone else’s survival through such trauma, a shared sense that if they can make it through to the other side, perhaps we can too. And just as we need people to laugh with and talk with, we also need others to cry with, people who can be our mirrors and reflect for us the sorrow that we hold.
Maureen Lee said that the reader cares deeply about your characters, so how do you achieve this so well?
I feel truly honoured that Maureen said this and it is a little difficult to answer this question because I am not altogether sure. I know that as I was writing the book I found myself getting quite emotional about some of the things my characters were going through and perhaps it helped that I cared deeply about them myself.
I found Lacey, in particular, an absolute joy to write, the complexity beyond her simplistic facade, the depths of her and the difficulties of her life story. When one of my test readers told me that part of her story made them cry, I took it as an incredible compliment and then had to admit that I had cried when I was writing the same chapter.
I worked for quite a few years in social care, with teenagers who were having a particularly challenging time and in order to help them I had to understand their thought processes and get beneath their skin. I think that doing so gave me a certain empathy and understanding which almost certainly helped in the construction of both Rachel and Lacey.
Why is that people who live solitary lives are often deemed as 'crazy' like Lacey's character?
I think that it is simply because we are, by nature, tribal beings. We need commonality and shared experience; we need each other. Therefore if there is someone that is separate from the rest of us, either by accident or by design, then that person may engender suspicion within the group. Most people hate to be completely alone and therefore lack empathy with someone who is, the solitary person will stand out as being unusual and may act as a mirror for the fears of others, creating negativity and awkwardness.
Tell us about your writing background?
I was an avid reader as a child. In a house of 5 children, reading quietly in my room was a way of finding peace and at a young age I learned to love the way sentences were constructed and how one well-placed word could change the way I was feeling. The written word was like a kind of magic to me.
I wrote stories and poems for fun and when my Mother asked me what I would like for my 11th birthday I said a typewriter. Ten years later for my 21st birthday, I was given a word processor. It seems that writing is a common theme throughout my life.
Over the years I have started several books and stories and I have written a few articles. Lacey’s House is the first book I completed.
Ruth Dugdall said that there is something in this novel for every woman, is this something that you set out to achieve?
Ruth has given me a huge compliment in saying that. I wanted to create a story that had strong, believable female characters that readers could relate to. Equally I wanted to perhaps give some insight into those among us who are different or unusual in some way.
Emotional well being and emotional dysfunction are issues that can be divisive and carry a lot of stigma. It is something that I have worked with closely for several years and I know that one in ten of us will experience some kind of mental health difficulty. In Lacey I wanted to create a character who was loveable, interesting and sympathetic, who had a story that the reader cared about in spite of the emotional difficulties she had experienced and in Rachel I wanted to create someone who could go through the worst thing imaginable for her and yet come out the other side and find the inner strength to carry on regardless. If female readers can find something in Lacey’s House to relate to or care for then I am incredibly grateful to them for seeing in the characters and themes something worthwhile.
What is next for you?
I am about to start editing my second book, Union of the Senses. The story centres around the main characters, a young woman called Sarah Phillips who lost her family in a car crash in her early teens and Ellie Wilson a girl with an abusive background who was at school with Sarah. The crash leaves Sarah with amnesia and a condition called synaesthesia, a blending of the senses that means she can taste words. As Sarah pieces her life back together again, she is unaware that she is being watched. Union of the Senses is a story of secrets, obsession and the lies that we are told.
Alongside my writing I am also in the process of setting up support groups and sharing circles for women in my local area. Through my social and mentoring work I have discovered a profound need for women to be given the opportunity to express and share their difficulties in a safe and confidential space, where they can be supported without judgement or expectation. It is something I feel passionately about and the groups will hopefully be up and running by the end of this year.
Joanne Graham is the author of Lacey’s House, published by Legend Press on 1st May 2013, available in paperbook and ebook.