LAURA JARRATT has written four young adult novels to date. SKIN DEEP was a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize nominee and BY ANY OTHER NAME was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Laura lives in Cheshire, England with her husband and their children. TWO LITTLE GIRLS was her adult debut.
Interview by Sandra Hoover
Q. Where did the inspiration for this story come from? Did you draw any part of it from real life experiences?
Laura: The inspiration actually came from two missing persons searches that were in the newspapers at the same time. One was a young mother who had gone into hiding with her child and the other was a man who had left his family and driven his car into the Welsh hills and killed himself. Those two stories sparked the idea for the book, and while I changed the gender of the suicide victim, I immediately knew Cerys’s story as soon as I thought of her. She arrived as a complete character with her storyline absolutely decided. Lily evolved in a similar way but a little more slowly.
I was going through perimenopause while writing the book but it was based more on the experiences of others than my own. It was a complete coincidence that as the book came out in the UK, the subject of menopause had really started to be talked about more openly. I also have friends who are going through that experience of children leaving home for university and all the emotional turmoil that brings. There probably is a little of me in Cerys’s daughter’s story as I still remember how glad I was to leave home at 19 to go to university and how frustrated I felt at my mother being so sad about it. When I look back on that now as a mother myself, I wish I’d behaved differently.
Q. Lily and Cerys are both desperate mothers running from something or someone. While they’re decades apart in age and at different stages of their life as mothers, they form a tentative bond. What makes each mother special? Why were they your choice of characters through which to render this story?
Laura: Cerys was a revelation – as I’ve said, she arrived fully formed. As soon as I thought of two storylines of mothers who had disappeared from their families and what would happen if they met, she came into being. I think what makes her special is that she’s that perfectly normal mother who goes through a really rough patch. Nothing that happens in her life is anything that most of us couldn’t relate to on some level and many women really struggle with this phase of life. If her menopause hadn’t intersected with her own bereavement and then empty nest, she would not have got to that point of despair, but as it all comes at once, it became too much. I’m quite interested in the idea that everyone has a breaking point. Life has, I think, taught me that. I don’t accept that some people are so strong that it never happens to them. I really believe that breaking down can happen to anyone in the wrong circumstances. Most of us are fortunately lucky but there has been a rhetoric that makes us better or stronger people. I don’t subscribe to that; it makes us more fortunate, but no more. I work with a lot of different people in many different circumstances in my day job and while we can learn coping techniques and some manage some stresses better than others, nobody is immune. In my experience, breaking points come when too many adverse factors occur at once and this is what happens to Cerys. She reaches her dark night of the soul at the start of the book, and then she battles back. I once read a phrase from somebody who had had a breakdown, and he said ‘Breakdown equals Breakthrough, if you let it.’ That has stayed with me and that’s what the reader will see Cerys experience. She needed change in her life and she made that happen.
The character of Lily comes a lot from my previous work with troubled children. There is a real need in her to be loved and to be worthy but she has no self-belief. Children who have experienced trauma, especially rejection, often carry that imprint and their battle is to overcome it. It doesn’t leave them but they can find a way to understand it and move on with the right support around them. I wanted to show this being possible for Lily while still keeping it real. Cerys gives her what she has never had but also she finds it hard to trust because she’s been let down and that’s a typical feature of her upbringing. What I love about her is that she also understands the need to protect her own child from that. She’s a very strong young woman, even though she doesn’t know it. The others see that in her.
Q. Without Saying Goodbye tackles some weighty issues including the many trials and tribulations of motherhood, spousal abuse, empty nest syndrome and extreme depression. Why did you choose to highlight these issues in this book? Do they have any special significance in your life?
Laura: For me, issues always come from the characters. In this case the inspiration behind Lily’s story came from some press speculation around a real-life disappearance. I have friends who have experienced coercive abuse in their relationships and seen the impact it has had on them. The physical response Lily has around her fear of her husband is based on that.
The absolute need to protect your child is something that is very real for me personally. I’ve written about it before but I think it’s such a huge part of being a mother for so many women and it’s something mothers have sometimes been shy in acknowledging to each other, as if they’re almost ashamed of that terrible fear you carry from the moment they are born that something will happen to them. There’s a lovely meme floating about that illustrate this for me: it’s a dad throwing a young toddler in the air, and the dad sees it as a few inches, the child as a bit more, and to the mother, he’s thrown her several feet into the air. It made me laugh because I recognise that in myself. That need to look after my child dictates my whole life and has done since conception. It fascinates me how much we change when we have children. That’s why I love writing about it now. Before I was a mother, I wrote teen fiction and loved doing that but the dynamics of mother/daughter relationships are so interesting to write about.
I’ve never personally experienced extreme depression. I’ve had low moments with PMT but nothing like Cerys experiences. However my husband has suffered with a very serious and rare autoimmune condition that affects his brain, and that can present in the early stages as depression. This has been really tough for him and all of us in the family. That will have influenced, of course, how I feel about depression and recovery. It’s important to always have hope and I wanted the book to bring that.
Q. The setting for Without Saying Goodbye is Wales. Why did you choose this setting? What makes it work for this story?
Laura: Initially, it was because one of the inspirations for the story came from the sad death of a man who drove into the Welsh hills, abandoned his car and killed himself. The idea of it being in Wales came from that. I have Welsh family by marriage and we have often holidayed and been on day trips in the locations used in the book. Anglesey is somewhere we have a great affection for and I felt instinctively that it would become their safe space to find each other and grow. It’s on the edge of Britain and was the retreat of the Druids in Roman times and so has been a place of safety before. We live in the Welsh border so it was good to be able to travel over to research locations in more depth. It’s such a great spot that the locations and landscape having a key role in the book became a natural thing.
Cerys’s sense of healing surrounded by nature is definitely something I experience. I was born in a city but escaped as soon as I could. I should have been born on a farm, I think, and Cerys finds herself again in that environment. Because she went back to her childhood hills to die, I knew that it would be part of her healing process to be back in that world again. The character of Dilys came from that need. Dilys wasn’t a planned part of the book at all. She appeared one third into the writing process and refused to take a back seat, which is very much her!
Q. Several of your books appear to be domestic thrillers as in stories featuring family members – mothers/children, spouses, siblings, etc. Is it fair to say this is a reoccurring theme for you? If so, why? What is it that draws you to these type characters?
Laura: Yes, absolutely, it is a reoccurring theme. They say you should write the book you want to read and this is what I have realised I do. Characters and dynamics fascinate me. I’m a people watcher, so I love creating families and their interactions. But books need a plot or it becomes too introspective and boring for me so I like to throw challenge at them and see how they react. I am more interested by ordinary people than those on the extremes so the type of characters I meet every day are who I write about when I’m writing for adults. For children, which I only write for fun at present to amuse my daughter, I do like to throw in some more dramatic types. Children’s books bring tremendous fun and I wish I had more time to write them.
It’s always really awkward when an editor queries, ‘Would x really do this?’ because my plot comes from the characters. But several books in, I’ve realised the answer is ‘Yes, they would…but I’ve obviously not shown their motivation well enough,’ so that editorial input is really valuable.
Q. Talk to us about what’s next for you. Are you working on something you can share with readers?
Laura: I’m writing two at once at present but I’ve had a big hiatus as my husband has been very ill over the last two years so I’ve been proceeding slower than normal.
I’m really excited by my adult novel, which is another domestic thriller, exploring the relationships between a granddaughter, mother and grandmother and a decades-old killing. Their dynamics are pretty toxic to all of them and it’s a journey of growth. I’ve wanted to write this one for ages and didn’t quite have the sequencing of the plot worked out until now as it crosses decades and interweaves different characters’ backstory with the present. That’s technically quite difficult to get right so it needs time to percolate in my brain.
I had started writing a different book, which is another reason for my slow pace, but I abandoned it as I felt it was too dark for me to write at this point, and possibly too challenging for my audience. I’ve no regrets with that now. Sometimes it happens like that and it’s just not the right concept for me or for its time. The one I have switched to instead has been bugging me as an idea for a long time and I feel in my happy place writing that.
And I’m writing a children’s book series for my daughter. I haven’t shown it to anyone but her yet. This is purely for pleasure but it may have some legs for publication. I absolutely love it and I would have adored this at her age. It’s a fantasy crossover with a warrior princess and ponies. Little girl heaven!