Katie Marsh is the author of My Everything and A Life Without You. Before writing novels, she worked in healthcare, and says her novels are inspired by the bravery of the people she met in hospitals and clinics across the country. She lives in south-west London with her husband and daughter. (Interview by Jade Craddock)
Ouch. What an opening question! Here goes… It’s the story of bride-to-be Zoe, who leaves her own wedding to help her estranged mum Gina, only to discover that she is not the mum she remembers. Gina is losing her memory, and might soon forget to keep the secret that Zoe has been running from for years. It’s a page-turning story of rediscovery and family secrets and about making the most of every single moment – and every scrap of love – that you have.
When I thought of the premise, I knew the book could only ever really work if its main focus was Zoe and Gina. I was a relatively new mum when I started writing it, so the joys and the fears of motherhood were very much at the front of my mind and I was itching to explore them on the page. The romantic storyline very much plays a part in Zoe’s journey, but it is her past and her relationship with Gina that are really holding her back from true happiness. As such they were naturally the main focus of the story, supported by the structure of a Zoe chapter followed by a Gina letter to mark each of Zoe’s birthdays as she grew up.
Gina flowed very naturally for me as a character – she was absolutely my favourite character and I never struggled to imagine my way into her point of view. I love her heart, her humour and her complete inability to keep her mouth shut. Zoe was more of a challenge – at the start of the novel she is troubled and reined in, and it took a while to warm her up. However, I have every sympathy for her, and I hope that readers will too as they follow the story and see how much she has been through before the novel even starts.
I loved writing them, though towards the end they did frequently make me cry (but then, many things do). I write letters to my own daughter, Evie, every year on her birthday as a way of marking the enormous changes that she makes from year to year, and so the idea came directly from that.
I didn’t – though many readers appear to be big Lily fans. I wanted to explore the sibling dynamic between the sisters, and for Lily to provide a calmer comparison to the more uptight Zoe, but I knew the main focus had to be on Zoe and Gina, as there was so much of their story to tell.
My Granny had Alzheimer’s in her eighties, so I knew a fair bit about the disease from living through that. However, it wasn’t early-onset Alzheimer’s – which tends to progress far more rapidly – and so I did a lot of research with specialists, GPs, patients and families to ensure I got the medical details correct. It is such a vicious and poignant disease – many of the families and carers I interviewed described it as seeing their loved one being ‘buried alive’ – but equally they all spoke of moments of hope and when they could suddenly reconnect with the person they had once known.
Yes. Readers may not agree but I think that by the end of the story, Zoe and her sister have tried to do their best for their mum, and during my research so many people told me that with Alzheimer’s disease of any kind that’s all a family can do. Equally, I remembered that we had moments of laughter with my Granny right up to the end – listening to a piece of music she remembered or talking about how her handsome nurse was ‘her young man’ – and I wanted to reflect that in the storyline.
It sounds clichéd, but I think this book made me realise how important it is to make the most of now – not to spend years focused on a future that you may find you have no control over. Zoe spends years ignoring her mum’s existence, only to rediscover her just as she’s losing her memory. Life gives you constant surprises – both good and bad – and I think my carpe diem urge has got even stronger since writing the book.
I worked in the NHS for ten years, so my writing world is very influenced by that. I saw emotional extremes all the time in the hospitals and clinics where I worked, but equally I saw a defiant humour and a bravery that stays with me still. I don’t write about illness to deliberately raise its profile – though this can be a useful side effect. Instead I write about illness because of what it brings out in people – courage, kindness and a strength many people never know they have until they become ill.
I have wanted to be a writer since I was five, when I took a notebook into the duck shed (I grew up on a trout farm), and announced I was going to write a book. I think it had the gripping plot of a girl getting stung by a bee and being sprayed with Waspeze (as – predictably - I had just been). Luckily it never got further than my notebook, and I didn’t start my first novel until I was thirty. Then it took nine years (and two more novels), to get into print. Now I juggle writing books with being a mum and I still freelance as a healthcare writer here and there, but it’s such a dream come true to know that the stories I write will be in print one day.
Wonderful. The other day I was sitting in the rooftop café at Carmelite House – where my publisher Hodder & Stoughton is based – and talking about the plotlines in my third novel. The sun was shining and I had one of those moments where I looked down on myself and couldn’t quite believe where I was. Obviously I have moments of extreme self-doubt like most authors, but I love the buzz when the words finally behave themselves on the page, or when a reader messages to say how much they loved a book or a character. I can’t imagine those feelings will ever get old.
I spent five years writing My Everything before it was accepted by Hodder & Stoughton, but it still went through one final edit before it came out. From this I learnt the value of working with an expert editor, and this made me less nervous about writing A Life Without You in only a year. Also, I was incredibly hyped about My Everything coming out. I didn’t sleep much, I feverishly checked my Amazon rankings, and I lived on wine, cheese and Oreos. This time round I was much calmer – I knew that I was proud of my book and that once the book was out I couldn’t really do much except focusing on writing the next book and bracing myself for the weekly sales figures email. As to what I’ll take away – I really enjoyed writing the mystery element of the book – the secret that tears Zoe and Gina apart – and trying to create the page-turning tension that propels the story forward. I hope that all my books from now on will share that kind of momentum.
How entirely unglamorous it is. Ninety percent of the time it’s me in my pyjamas with my laptop and a cold cup of coffee. Not exactly wafting around launches with champagne, as the majority of my friends seem to think…
I have two more books on the way with Hodder – coming out in 2017 and 2018. I am currently doing my structural edit on Book 3, which I’m really excited about. I have been wanting to write it for years, and while I can’t give you too many details at the moment, I’d love to come back and talk about it when it’s ready to go if you’ll have me?!