Is Julie Myerson’s love affair with Southwold on the wane?
PUBLISHED: 11:47 20 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:47 20 February 2016
Archant © 2011
Author Julie’s new book is another chilling tale set in Suffolk.
Suffolk wove itself into the fabric of Myerson family life, a second home on the North Sea coast an invigorating contrast to London for writers Julie and Jonathan and their three growing children. Happy memories were laid down; visits anticipated. But time moves on and things change. Children become adults and craft their own lives. New dreams and routines emerge without us realising.
Julie hasn’t been to Southwold for about 18 months now – something that once would have been unthinkable. She went there as a child herself. Crikey, she’s even stood with the local dignitaries outside the town hall during the Christmas lights switch-on.
“We rented the house out last February, I think it was – with an agency,” she explains. Does she miss it? “No... We have another little place somewhere else which we’re doing up.” So why has Suffolk slipped into the background?
“It’s lots of things. We got rid of our car quite a few years ago now, in order to be green. We decided we couldn’t justify having a car, with air pollution in London as it is.
“We didn’t need a car in any way, except that the journey to Southwold was a little bit difficult. I think it was the changing of trains. I got really sick of that journey where you change trains at Ipswich and if you’re even slightly delayed you miss your connection (and have to wait) two hours at Ipswich. And that would mean you missed your bus connection.
“We suddenly realised ‘This is crazy, but we don’t want to go and get a car.’ That was the main reason. But, also, life changes all the time, and I think you have to let one thing go and start doing something else; and, actually, we found the change really nice. We may sell it eventually, but, at the moment, it just makes much more sense financially to rent it out. It’s nice to feel it’s being used.”
Other things have dulled the shine, slightly. “I also got very saddened with how Southwold had changed with all the multiples moving in. Tesco and WHSmith and everything. Southwold is not the place it was 15 years ago, which I feel is very sad.” Even so, the magic is still strong. Julie says daughter Chloe (she and her two brothers are in their 20s) was showing signs of wanting to visit again. “There is something wonderful about having one place where you go to, and then your children go there and your grandchildren. That would be amazing. But I still think you need new adventures. New adventures keep you young!”
So it’s not “Goodbye Southwold”, any time soon? “At the moment, because we haven’t got to sell it yet, possibly not. I don’t know. I’m very fond of the place, obviously. I’ve got an awful lot of ties to the place.”
Including literary ones.
Something Might Happen, her 2003 novel, was about a murder in an English seaside resort bearing more than a passing resemblance to Southwold and how the killing had an impact on the locals as well as – obviously – the family and friends of the victim.
Now we have new tale The Stopped Heart – chilling and full of psychological suspense. I couldn’t read it late at night, on my own, as the house creaked. I blame tiredness…
The story centres on a remote cottage on the edge of a Suffolk village that hasn’t been lived in for years. For Mary and Graham Coles, who have experienced every parent’s worst nightmare, it offers the hope of a new start as they try to deal with the horrors of the past.
But the house has a turbulent history, as this twin-track novel shows us. One hundred and 50 years earlier, a raging storm brings a red-haired stranger. The young man virtually becomes part of the family… though farmer’s daughter Eliza is discomfited by the notion of an evil presence.
Back in modern Suffolk, the grieving Mary Coles begins to sense something in her house: childish whispers, unexplained footsteps, and a young red-haired man in the orchard…
The setting is Southwoldish, says the author – “in made-up countryside vaguely in that area. It’s nice spending time in my head in Suffolk. I love that landscape.”
She admits it could be any rural spot, really, “but that’s the countryside I know best”. Flat landscapes. “With my work, sometimes I need a new landscape. So maybe I’ll write about somewhere completely different next time. Maybe I’ve ‘written Suffolk’ enough. I don’t know.”
So how come so many of her stories have a psychologically-chilling edge? “When someone says it’s therapy, I say ‘No, it’s not therapy.’ I don’t think fiction should be therapeutic; fiction should be a bl---y good story, written as well as you can possibly write it.
“But having said that, if I wasn’t allowed to write these novels, I don’t know quite who I’d be, and I’d be less happy. In that sense I suppose it’s therapeutic, though I hate the word.”
She does write about things that frighten her. “Looking over the abyss, at what might be, I find… partly it’s simply that it’s drama. I want to write about difficult things. I want to write about what it might be like to experience something that I haven’t experienced.
“People assume that if you write dark stories you must be dark, but, actually, far from it.”
Crimes such as child abduction and murder are mercifully rare, but when we read it in the news, we surely all wonder how we’d cope. “It’s the possibility of the dark things that can happen. That’s what I’m interested in exploring.”
The Stopped Heart was influenced by the 2012 shooting at The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when 20 children and six members of staff were killed.
“I was just beginning the novel and I found myself thinking ‘Would it be possible to write a book about a school massacre?’ I remember watching the news and thinking that what began as a normal day, young children going off to school, ended like that. It haunts you for a while. I don’t know how it cannot.”
Julie was writing the “Victorian story” but it wasn’t going as well as she’d hoped. She thought about the fictional cottage and suddenly imagined 21st Century folk living there. She began the parallel story and it became her longest novel.
A rail trip to Suffolk also helped. “At Ipswich, or maybe just after Ipswich, a little girl got on the train. She turned to her mother and said ‘I used to be a dog, didn’t I?’ I made a note in my notebook of some of the things she said, and the character of Lottie came from that little girl.”
Julie was in the middle of this book when we last spoke, two years ago this month. She wasn’t giving anything away, then, but did say “The reason I write, actually, is to try to find out what I want to say.”
The author laughs. “That’s definitely still true!” So what did she want to say with this one?
“Saying I do it to find out what I want to say makes it sound like I know in the end what I did want to say, and I’m not sure I ever really do!
“It’s more that I’m very aware there are some writers who are yearning to express something they want to talk about, and that’s why they write. I think, for me, I go in there knowing almost nothing and explore something that feels very amorphous and hard to get a handle on. That process of finding it, and the story, is why I write books.
“It doesn’t mean that by the end of it I really know what it’s about. I don’t! Sometimes I’ll read a review of my book that tells me something that is true but which I hadn’t quite worked out. Some of the best reviewers will tell you what your themes are! I know that makes me sound as though I’m working in the dark the whole time, but that’s what I find exciting about writing.
“I’m also aware that every book I write seems to be about intense loss. I’m still not quite sure why that is. I was talking the other day to someone who tried to make out that it was because of things that happened in our life with our children, but actually that’s not true, because I was writing like this when our children were very little. I don’t know where it comes from.”
Well, she did have her moments, herself, as a child, surely? Parental break-up; being rejected by her father; his later suicide.
“I suppose so. I had a very difficult relationship with my father, and I had some loss there, but no more than a lot of people. And I’m not really conscious that that’s where these books come from. But, of course, I can’t prove it isn’t; and in a way I’m happy not to know.”
I’m convinced I was born with many of my fundamental traits, rather than them being stamped on my personality by life.
“Actually, it’s interesting. As you get towards the age I am, 55, what I am aware of is I’m much more like the 10-year-old I was. Through your 30s and 40s you’re growing up and experiencing life and becoming a parent. There were a lot of intense changes. Actually, I feel now I’m back to being that girl I was before all that. Which is a strange feeling. I’m very aware of that. In a good way, mostly.
So what was 10-year-old Julie like?
“She was very strange! I think my mother would testify to this. I was very much my own little person. I was very dreamy, slightly eccentric for a 10-year-old in the sort of things I used to think about.
“I remember being quite aware of the dark side of life. Quite anxious. That makes me sound depressive; not at all. Very excitable. Very happy. Optimistic. That’s exactly what I am now. I think in a 10-year-old child it was perhaps a little bit strange, some of that. I suppose, I don’t know, ‘emotionally hyperactive’?”
That lifelong anxiety (“not depression”) is nowadays kept nicely in check by at least 10 minutes a day of mindfulness-based meditation. She began it six years ago and hasn’t missed a single day since.
It’s funny – in a good way – because Julie always seems incredibly happy, even though life has handed her more than her fair share of challenges.
Even if by some magic we could live our lives again, armed with the wisdom we’ve accumulated the first time around, she wouldn’t take many different paths, though.
“Even the bad things that have happened in my life, and the bad choices, they’ve all been done for the right reasons and they’ve made me who I am. I’m not sure I could have done them very differently. I don’t have regrets in that way, actually.”
Gosh. That is a very optimistic attitude. “I am, actually. I think I came to terms with myself a very long time ago. Maybe that’s what it is. I like this life.”
There have been bumpy days. A quick scamper over old ground reminds us of discord seven years ago, involving elder son Jake, after The Lost Child thrust domestic strife into the public arena. There was also criticism when it was revealed Julie was the author of an anonymous national newspaper column about living with teenagers, which also put aspects of family life out there for public consumption.
Julie, at that time a regular guest on the BBC’s Newsnight Review show, had a strong public profile and copped a fair amount of criticism for (in the eyes of some media commentators) betraying her children. Today, she limits media interviews. Having written about her family, she accepts people are going to be interested, “though I do wish, sometimes, they would leave it alone…”
Happily, she says Jake now lives close to their home in Southwark, to where they moved about a decade ago, from Clapham. They see a lot of him. Daughter Chloe lives down the road but is often visiting, and youngest child Raphael lives at home. “I’m glad we can be here as a place to come back to.”
Her next novel is well under way. Another “dark” story, perchance?
“It’s not, actually. I’m trying to keep the body-count down! But I always say that when I start. My only book where no-one dies is Out of Breath. I decided I wouldn’t have a single person die in it, and then someone pointed out there is a dead person in it. But he’s already dead. So that’s all right!”
For Julie, “the beginning of a novel is like you’re in a room and it’s dark. You know there’s something there but you can’t see it. As you write, little lights are coming on, and it’s so exciting seeing the outline of shapes that are there. Although I know they’re coming from my head, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels they’re outside of me and I’m getting to see them.
“That’s definitely why I write.”
The Stopped Heart is published by Jonathan Cape at £12.99
• Julie Myerson was born in Nottingham in 1960
• Studied English at Bristol University
• Did secretarial course
• Got job at the National Theatre in London
• Used to arrive early to do her own writing on an electric typewriter!
• Met husband-to-be Jonathan there
• A dramatist and writer himself, he was working as a director
• Julie began ‘properly’ to write a novel when on maternity leave
• Debut novel Sleepwalking came out in 1994
• It was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction