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Friday, July 1, 2022

Novelist Julie Myerson on sharing her children’s secrets: ‘I’ve got in so much trouble’ | Julie Myerson

Few writers have published and been damned with quite the ferocity Julie Myerson was back in 2009 for her memoir The Lost Child. The book, which included descriptions of her 17-year-old son Jake’s cannabis addiction and her painful decision to lock him out of the family home, was debated everywhere from Mumsnet to newspaper opinion pages – “a betrayal of motherhood itself” – and even the House of Commons. Extended family members were doorstepped and Jake was approached by a tabloid to sell his story at a time when he was extremely vulnerable.

“A little bit of me broke,” the novelist says, looking back. She was no longer able to drive, and certainly wasn’t able to do live radio or TV (she had been a regular commentator on the BBC’s Newsnight Review). “It was terrible. My anxiety reached peaks that were just unmanageable. It was so shameful for me. I felt I had brought terrible things on my family through my work.”

Now she has written another book about parents struggling with a teenager’s drug addiction. Narrated by a writer, it is called Nonfiction: A Novel. Why has she returned to a subject that left her so badly scalded?

“I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got in so much trouble in the past,” Myerson says, almost to herself, as we settle in the jewel-coloured living room in the Camden townhouse she and her husband, playwright Jonathan Myerson, have recently renovated. A gallery of photos of their three, now grownup children (Jake, Chloë and Raphael) line the stairs. Their collie dog, Rabbit, waits patiently by french windows overlooking the garden with Jonathan’s state-of-the art office-shed at the bottom. “Why am I jumping straight in?” she asks, tingling with nervous energy.

Julie Myerson in 2004 with her children, from left, Jake, Chloë and Raphael.
Myerson in 2004 with her children, from left, Jake, Chloë and Raphael. Photograph: Zoe Norfolk/Camera Press

Myerson got back late the night before from a holiday with Jonathan in Sicily. The author, who will be 62 next month, is recovering from a hip replacement, following a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer during the Christmas lockdown of 2020. The past five years have been dogged by ill-health, starting with the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome, which she believes was caused by the furore over The Lost Child.

She might have been forgiven for retreating and writing a historical novel or a thriller, both of which Myerson has done very well over a career spanning nearly 30 years and 14 books. Indeed, she has published three novels since The Lost Child: Then, set in a post-apocalyptic London, which ends with a mother smothering her children (no prizes for guessing what’s going on there: “I was still in a place of some trauma when I wrote that novel”); a crime novel, The Quickening, and The Stopped Heart, a gothic mystery with even more than Myerson’s usual quota of dead babies. As she quips, you can recognise a Myerson novel by the number of illicit affairs and dead children, and Nonfiction is no exception. Myerson thinks it is perhaps her best, although it is the one she has wrestled with the longest. There are plenty of knotty issues raised, right from that tricksy title: Nonfiction: A Novel (her publisher suggested the subtitle to avoid confusing booksellers).

“This book is completely made up. It is also completely true,” Myerson says, helpfully.

Writing about your family, even as fiction, is a fraught affair as Hanif Kureishi and Rachel Cusk have found to their cost. To do so again seems not so much to be writing from the wound, but picking it open. Courageous or reckless, she says her new novel is her “riposte” to all those who vilified her back in 2009. “It makes you brave having had cancer,” she says (she finished the final edits in hospital days before her mastectomy). Obviously she would hate for her family to be targeted again, but if the book is going to be attacked in the same way as The Lost Child, she says part of her thinks, “Bring it on. Because this is who I am. This is the writer I am. This is the person I am. That isn’t the same as saying it is nonfiction, because it is not.”

So why call it Nonfiction? “I was lying in bed one morning reading the paper and I said to Jono, ‘I’ve had an idea what to call my book,’ and he didn’t know what my book was and said, ‘That’s a great title.’ I liked the word. I think fiction tells the truth often more than nonfiction does,” she explains. “I think it is quite a cool title.”

Really? “Did I know as I wrote it that people would be thinking it is about us? Yes of course I did. Yes. Absolutely deliberate. It is a tease of a title.” She has tried “to write a novel about some of the hardest things that there are to say about writing, which is that sometimes you do feel your writing damages the people you love, and obviously I’m a really good example of that.”

Myerson first got into trouble for writing about her children over an anonymous column for this paper that ran from 2006 to 2008, called Living With Teenagers. Her children were between the ages of 14 and 17 when it started, and the column took in everything from temper tantrums to pubic hair, with a lot of swearing in between. It was a huge hit (when she was in hospital people still told her how much they identified with it) and later became a book, with the subtitle One Hell of a Bumpy Ride. She regrets letting it run for so long without telling her children: “We got that wrong … but it was an innocent mistake.” When they were very little she had written about them in a column for the Independent, appearing alongside Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Later, they would read these columns aloud at the dinner table, because the antics of their younger selves were so funny.

In the altercations over The Lost Child, Jake accused his mother in a tabloid interview of being “addicted” to writing about them. Now she is returning to a subject so close to home, you can’t help but wonder if he had a point. “I’m addicted to trying to be as truthful as possible about the world that I see around me,” Myerson says.

“I’ve always wanted to write things that feel brave. That make people slightly uncomfortable. I like reading work that makes me slightly uncomfortable. That’s why I write. I want to be on the edge of what is OK. I don’t want to hurt anybody I love, of course not. But I need to be as honest as I possibly can.”

Julie Myerson sitting in a rich gold velvet armchair in a room with purple walls and deep pink curtains
‘I’ve accidentally hurt people I would rather not hurt, but I didn’t do it with a bad heart.’ Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian

The Lost Child had begun as an investigation into the disappearance of a 19th-century child called Mary Yelloly, but Myerson found herself “too distracted and distressed” by the crisis at home not to write about Jake, so she “let the two strands weave together on the page, just as they seemed to in life”. (No one bothered much with the Mary Yelloly bits; in fact very few of her critics had actually read the book at all, as proofs weren’t even available – something that’s “going to give me grief to the end of my days”, she says.) It describes the couple’s decision to turn Jake out of the house – “No parent asks a child to leave except as a last terrible resort,” she wrote – along with well-documented incidents such as Myerson ending up in A&E with a perforated eardrum after her son struck her.

A while after The Lost Child, Jake came home and things seemed to be getting better. But then, like the daughter in Nonfiction, he started using heroin (Myerson only mentions this because Jake revealed it in a further newspaper interview in 2014).

While Nonfiction might not be explicitly Jake’s story (the child is a girl), like many of Myerson’s novels it imagines the worst-case scenario: a tragic possibility that for a long time seemed all too real. People had stopped talking to them because of what was happening with Jake, she says. She used to imagine a day when someone asks, “‘How’s Jake?’ And I say, ‘Oh he died.’ And they say, ‘I’m so sorry. How’s your work going?’ People just couldn’t talk about it.”

But Myerson is adamant that she is writing the mother’s story: “I would never try and write about what it is like to be the teenager.” It is about parents who’ve had an addictive child: “I could not possibly have written it had I not experienced being the mother of somebody suffering from addiction.”

The book is dripping with maternal guilt: “I’ve been a bad parent to you, I’ve been selfish, neglectful. Again and again I’ve put myself first … I’ve lied. I’ve been greedy. I’ve said yes to things I shouldn’t have said yes to. I’ve hurt the people I love,” the narrator confesses in a self-laceration that goes on for pages.

“You cannot have a child addicted to a substance – your darling child who you have done everything possible for, put fluoride on their teeth, got them to school, done homework with them, and tried to excite them about the world – and not feel the most immense guilt. Although all the addiction books tell you it’s not your fault,” she says. “Jake at the age of eight was the most switched on, responsible, communicative and happy boy. It devastates you as a parent.”

Although she is clear she didn’t want either The Lost Child or Nonfiction to be read as campaigning or issue-driven books, she feels middle-class families need to talk truthfully about skunk cannabis and heroin: “So if my novel provokes a bit of that, that is entirely good.”

The other drug Myerson wanted to explore in this novel was writing: “It’s difficult for families living with a writer. It’s very difficult having a mother who is a writer. You want to be a good person and parent. But you really want to tell the truth,” she stresses. “I don’t know how you square it, really.”

As her daughter, Chloë, pointed out, it is “a sort of meta-novel”. “I’m not quite sure what ‘meta’ means,” Myerson muses now, but a conversation on the ethics of fiction runs throughout the novel as the narrator reflects on her craft, teaches creative writing and talks to fellow writers. Anyone who has ever sheltered from the rain in the yurt at the Edinburgh festival or tiptoed through muddy fields at Hay-on-Wye will enjoy the scenes set at book festivals, mischievously inviting readers to wonder about the identities of the female poet or pompous journalist. “Good, you are supposed to wonder,” Myerson says, clapping her hands together.

Julie Myerson at home in London, sitting in a corner with bright pink walls.
‘I do think men are far less often accused of mining their own real lives in their fiction.’ Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian

In one central scene at a book event, the narrator is pushed to admit she has had affairs, because they appear in her fiction. “I do think men are far less often accused of mining their own real lives in their fiction,” Myerson says. For the record, unlike the narrator in Nonfiction, she didn’t have an affair, “and I wouldn’t tell you if I had”, she laughs. “The more things you put in that are fictional the better, because it distracts people,” she says. Although she will say that the marriage in the novel is based on her own: “Jono is such a good man.”

As if on cue, Jonathan bounds in from the garden. He is off to meet a man about a musical, though he hadn’t mentioned it to her before. There is a bit of chat about who is going to walk the dog. “All marriages need their mysteries,” he calls back as he leaves.

But ever since her first novel, Sleepwalking, which she published in 1994 when she was 34, written while she was on maternity leave after having Chloë and pregnant with Raphael, her real life has seeped into her fiction. Beginning with the suicide of the heroine’s father (Myerson’s father killed himself the night Chloë was born – although the two events were not connected), Sleepwalking is the story of a woman who has an affair late in her pregnancy. “I try and write about the things I find most difficult to imagine happening,” she says. Hence all the dead babies. She is most proud of Laura Blundy, her 2000 historical novel about a Victorian woman haunted by the loss of her son. “Who could have known that years later I’d in effect lose my son, or almost lose him,” she says. “I seem to have this need to talk about loss.”

The other big loss in Nonfiction is that of her mother, who died when Myerson was in the earliest stages of writing the novel. All cigarette smoke and catty comments, the narrator’s mother is the standout character and the one Myerson is most prepared to own as being drawn directly from life. Spiteful incidents, such as sending Myerson her baby photos because she didn’t want them any more, really happened, she says. Myerson’s mother never liked her writing, or her husband, even though they’ve been together for more than 30 years. “She said she was ashamed of everything I’d written. She was very competitive with me and couldn’t be proud. It has given me a lot of pain,” the author says.

Myerson chose to cut off nearly all contact with her mother, and didn’t see her before she died. She was forbidden from attending the funeral, and told there would be people there to send her away if she tried to come. “I’ve had to wrestle my way out from under her to some extent, as a person, as a writer and definitely as a mother.” She would never have published the novel had her mother still been alive, she says (although, as she points out, she had already begun writing). “My mother would have been appalled by this book.”

Yet Myerson describes her childhood as “inspiring” rather than miserable. The eldest of three sisters, she was “a very shy, very anxious child”. She credits her mother with turning her into a writer by making her excited about books; ironic, given that she hated Myerson being published. When she was 12 her mother left her father for another man; a “brave” thing to do, Myerson says, as her father was hitting her, which the young Julie witnessed, “so I suppose you would class that now as unhappiness, but I didn’t feel unhappy”. After being made to pay her school fees by a court when she was 17, her father told her he never wanted to see her again. They didn’t meet for many years, until Jonathan insisted they take a newborn Jake to see him: “he wasn’t very welcoming,” she says. He killed himself on New Year’s Eve, within hours of Chloë’s birth. “It sounds more dramatic than it is,” she says matter-of-factly, as they were estranged at the time. She was cut out of both her parents’ wills, something that “hasn’t happened to anybody else I know”, she says.

Despite all this, Myerson has never had proper therapy: “All my children think I should talk to somebody,” she says. She winces at the idea of writing as therapy, but does think part of the artistic process is to make something “constructive and positive” out of trauma; indirectly, all her novels have been a way of coming to terms with her past. She suspects that the experience of having cancer, of being forced “to really peer into an abyss”, will inevitably surface in her work. “That shapes you as a person and a writer.”

It’s a funny thing getting older, she reflects. Looking back, there was a time when she thought she might become the bestselling, award-winning writer she had longed to be since she was eight (when she wrote fan letters to Daphne du Maurier): “Then you begin to realise time has passed and maybe it is not going to happen. There are all these great young writers coming up, and you suddenly realise you are one of the older ones.”

At events she is often introduced as “prize-winning”, she says, “and I think, I wish”. It particularly irks her that she has never even been longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. “People always think I am posher and more successful than I am.”

Given the shrillness of the attacks against her, it’s hard not to think Myerson was partly punished for being pretty and appearing on TV to talk about books and art. Antonia Fraser, who’s featured in her share of gossip columns over the years, told her: “This has only happened to you because you are blond’”, she recalls. “I’m only a bottle blond,” Myerson adds, laughing.

But she will never stop writing: “I’m still this very strange little person who used to shut herself away in her bedroom with an old typewriter that I got from my grandfather and write these things that I had to write.” Both Chloë and Raphael have inherited the writing gene – Jake is a musician – and she is quite prepared to see herself in a novel at some point.

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Has Jake read Nonfiction? (Much was made at the time of the fact that when Myerson and Jake met to discuss The Lost Child, he said “I can’t stop you publishing it.”) He has been sent the new book, but she’s not sure he has read it. “I wish any of my children would read my books,” she laughs. She is confident that he is in a much better place now, “he’s not an addict”, and that he would respond very differently today. They are in regular contact and she is currently helping him do up a flat. While Jake is “still working himself out in a way”, they are all much happier. “We feel like a family again.”

She feels Nonfiction has drawn a line under The Lost Child, “which I may or may not get away with, but it feels good to have written it”. She refuses to apologise for her books again. “Now that I’m in my 60s and have had cancer, which may or may not come back, I’m just going to relax and carry on doing the thing that I do best.” she says. “I’ve accidentally hurt people I would rather not hurt, but I didn’t do it with a bad heart.”

Two things are clear: she is devoted to her writing and to her children, and, as she discovered, sometimes it is impossible to serve both masters. There is no right answer as to what a mother can write, she concludes. But it is an important question to raise, and that is what she set out to do with this book. “I’m saying, Can a writer ever be trusted with their own story? My answer would be no. You can’t trust a writer. You can’t know if they are telling the truth or not. How much came from real life and how much didn’t,” she says. “But Nonfiction is definitely a novel.”

Nonfiction: A Novel is published by Corsair at £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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