The Next Big Thing
I have been been tagged by poet and blogger Abegail Morley to answer set questions relating to my memoir of cancer, Love for Now. I have tagged two poets to continue the series, whose details are at the foot of this post.
Where did the idea of the book come from?
Love for Now did not begin with an idea but an illness. As I have written elsewhere, there wasn’t a plan. I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Valentine’s day, 2006. A week before that date, I began writing a diary which detailed the events –being hospitalised, scans, biopsies, diagnosis– which were evidence of my rapidly deteriorating health.
I would sit at the end of each day, propped up on pillows on my bed, and try and recount what had been said and done to me as faithfully as possible. If you are interested in knowing these things, I wrote longhand in A4 French exercise books, on tiny grid squares, with an old LAMY fountain pen given to me years before by one of my brothers. I filled three and a bit of these by the time I stopped writing.
The final, published version of Love for Now is much shorter than the diary in its entirety, beginning one week before my diagnosis and ending with an entry in late October of that year.
What genre does your book fall under?
Love for Now is a memoir, written in the form of a diary.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a film version?
It is odd to think of who might play ‘me’ in a film. For a start it needs to be an actor without much regard for their appearance or their image. For most of the film they are going to look bloated, waxy and bald.
When I was diagnosed most of my male friends joked that chemotherapy wouldn’t be too much of an issue in terms of hair loss, as my genes have done a fairly good job of that already. On these grounds I think Ade Edmondson would be perfect for the role.
Tamsin Greig would be perfect in the role of my wife: she has a fantastic range, from comedy to vulnerability to towering rage, all of which the part needs.
My ward doctor, Karl, is a central character in the film. I need a young, tall actor who can do a lot of posh swearing but who can also move suddenly to great tenderness. I’m going for Tom Hiddleston.
For my consultant, Felicity Carr, I need someone who can move from determined sparkliness to no-nonsense directness in a blink. I’d love Imelda Staunton to play her.
I could see Dawn French as one of the bloods nurses.
Having recently embarked on the screenplay for the book, this is a very timely question and one I have been returning to a lot in recent weeks.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I began writing on February 7, 2006, and decided to stop in November of that year. The editing took longer than the actual writing.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In the first instance I wanted to record what was happening to me. But as I went on writing it became more of a debt of honour, not so much to myself as to the process of writing about something so enormous and life-changing.
I found that stories about cancer, in the culture at large and which had probably always been there, began to follow me around. I felt surrounded by it. Writing about this was, to use Robert Pinsky’s phrase, somehow to ‘answer’ this new situation which I had not chosen. It became something of an act of resistance.
What one sentence would sum up your book?
The subject of Love for Now is cancer, but its imperative is to live life to the full: let’s make the most of each day, whilst realising each one is so short.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It contains everything you want to know (and do not want to know) about the physical ordeal of treatment for cancer.
It is also a sustained enquiry into the language of cancer, specifically war metaphor.
The book also questions what it means to be a writer -I had a book of poems out while I was ill- with no ‘profile’ to promote.
It is a hymn of love to my family, to Frasier re-runs, and to broccoli.
Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
I am deeply grateful to Richard Willis of Impress Books for taking Love for Now on.
The poets I’m going to tag:
If there is one difference I hope to make with Love for Now book it is to challenge the overwhelming use of war metaphor (‘Today saw the passing of X, after a short/long battle with cancer…’) to describe cancer. This is inadequate for three reasons.
Firstly, let me assure you, after a day on a chemotherapy drip you feel the battle is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself.
Secondly, the notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre. Please may I respectfully suggest that this is balls.
Thirdly, the idea of cancer as a battle unnecessarily romanticises cancer as a disease when there is nothing romantic about it. Consider the short sentence above, used almost always in the past tense and when someone has just died. Even though the battle has been lost we persist in reassuring ourselves that the deceased has ‘given it everything’. Like so much that is said about cancer by people who have not had it, it is uttered more to reassure the speaker than those having treatment for the disease.
If cancer is a battle, let it be one for the doctors and researchers, who can at least go home in the evening without throwing up their lunch.
Love for Now is a book-length diary of cancer, its treatment, side effects and consequences in the life of one family.
I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, on Valentine’s Day, 2006. I was 42.
I was told that my treatment had been successful, six months later, in October that year. I have now been in remission from the disease for just over six years. I am now required to visit the hospital where I was treated just once a year for check-ups.
The diagnosis, when it came, was a shock, but not a surprise. I had woken up on New Year’s Day feeling very sore down my right hand side. I thought I had slept in a draught. You can imagine the level of sympathy I enjoyed that morning as I searched the house for pain-killers. My protestations of having been sensible the night before fell on deaf ears.
The pain grew worse. I spent the first full evening of that year in A&E, having tests. These proved inconclusive, and were to persist in doing so, as I was hospitalised a week later, and again some weeks after that. Much later, once my tumour had been found and identified as malignant, my GP told me it was ‘lucky’ that it had been growing in an area so full of nerve endings, otherwise they might not have found it so swiftly. This made me wonder what a slow diagnosis might look like.
I suspect everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has a similar story to tell in that it involves many tests, a lot of false starts and hours of rather fruitless phone calls to friends and relatives giving descriptions of events that are beyond imagination.
I had two diagnoses. The second and more formal one was in an office, with tissues and a computer screen. The first came in a phone call, late on a Friday afternoon. I was at home, having just picked up one of my children from school. I had been promised a result of my biopsy a week earlier, and having heard nothing decided to ask if there was any news. The doctor was brief and to the point, merely confirming that it was what they had suspected: lymphoma. She paused and asked if I had a pen as she needed to give me details of the doctors I was to see next.
A great numbness came over me. Outside, very normal things were continuing to go on without me: a car being parked, a mother pushing a buggy with a toddler in tow. My first thoughts were not about dying, or heaven. I was much more exercised about keeping control of the news for as long as possible because my daughter was away on a school trip and had taken the sole mobile phone we possessed at that point. I did not want her receiving sympathetic texts from relatives when we had not told her face to face. I tried to continue reading the newspaper I had put down, but couldn’t. It was the last concentrated reading I was to do for months.
You can read the complete article here: I found no poetry in you, full article
Thank you to all my readers for following this blog. Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and see you in the new year.
If you have a friend who is diagnosed with cancer, the best thing to do in terms of what to say (or not say) is take your lead from them. Do use the word cancer. Do not assure them you know they will make it. And certainly do not say it is not fair.
I would also try to resist the temptation to say ‘If there’s anything I can do…’ as that puts the onus onto them to come up with a solution to a problem they did not ask for and when they will be at their most stressed and least creative.
Make suggestions which they can say yes or no to, however daft they sound. Put them in control.
On Thursday I took delivery of my new book, my journal-memoir of my own experience of cancer nearly seven years ago. Celebrating it on the weekend with the gang of friends who showed up with help when we needed it, I thanked them for that: showing up. As Woody Allen says, it is 80% of success.
The odd thing is nearly all of them said they couldn’t think of a single thing they did which was helpful. One friend from church organised a meals rota from friends in the neighbourhood. These would arrive in a cool box by our front door (in throwaway containers so the kitchen did not clog up with dishes) on the day of each chemotherapy treatment and for the two days following it, on every single cycle, from February to June. My children developed a taste for puddings. Another took them to hang out at their house, just to be with friends. Another drove us into hospital each day of my treatment so that we would not have to pay the car park fees.
Another wrote cards on the days of treatments, nothing profound, just little notes really. Being a words person, this was more than enough.
You get the idea.
So: don’t leave it to your friend to decide how to take you up on your kind offer because if they are British they will go blank and not want to put you out.
Looking back, I now see we were not left alone. That is the greatest gift we received. It consisted of time, words, music, silence, food and brownies on the doorstep. The simple things.
I’m still grateful for them.
I would also try not to refer to cancer as a battle, but that is another blog post.
You can buy Love for Now here
You can read about my diagnosis for cancer here
You can read about my remission from cancer here