Not Strangers

Good things and bad things often arrive together in life. I think that was what I was trying to say when I wrote “The Tooth Fairy” several years ago. I was recently diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma cancer and I’ve been undergoing chemotherapy. It’s very heavy medicine, in which you are carefully poisoned to within an inch of your life in an effort to defeat the multiplying cancer cells. I’ve spent the last few weeks feeling like a brick wall has collapsed on me; that and being frightened by the gaunt face of the stranger in the mirror.

And yet a glut of wonderful things too, at the same time. When I announced my illness on Facebook I hardly expected the flood of goodwill messages, letters, emails, exhortations to be strong, appreciation of my books, prayers (secular and religious), gifts and cards sent to my home – from friends and strangers alike. I felt quite overwhelmed, and if a bit tearful I blamed it on the steroids. It also made me reflect on the complicated relationship a writer has with a reader. Readers whom you think are strangers are actually on intimate terms with you and it was heartwarming to hear from so many people.

My friend and fellow author the brilliant Iain Banks was diagnosed with cancer around the same time. He didn’t have the recourse to chemotherapy that I have and I was knocked sideways by his death. He was an author and individual I admired very much. His “The Wasp Factory” somehow made it possible for me to write “The Tooth Fairy” and I was very glad at the time of publication that Iain was incredibly generous in giving me a cover quote.

But I said there were many other good things happening, and there are. My new book “The Year Of The Ladybird” was published this month. It is set in the year 1976 and is very loosely based on my experiences of working two summer seasons at a holiday camp in Skegness. 1976 was a year of drought. There was also an uncanny swarm of ladybirds, biblical in their impact. I remember municipality men with tanks of accelerant on their backs, detailed to sweep the dead ladybirds into mounds two foot high before incinerating them. It was also a year in which right-wing politics in the UK had become menacing. The parallels with right-wing politics in the UK today hardly need underlining.

Anyway, early responses to the book are better than I could have hoped for. And I was too unwell to sockpuppet any of them myself!

Meanwhile “Some Kind of Fairy Tale” was shortlisted for both the East Midlands Book Award and in two separate categories for the British Fantasy Award.

More good news came with a Hollywood deal for my book “Smoking Poppy” and with a contract with Random House in the US for “The Year of The Ladybird”, though it will have a different title. The Year Of The Ladybug doesn’t cut it.

Emilie Simon, too, completed another song around a lyric which I wrote for her, and I just love it. When it is released properly I will post a link.

So with all these great gifts of love and friendship and appreciation, not to mention film deals and award nominations and music, it seems impossible to complain about a spot of life-threatening cancer. Really, I’d love to rant and rave about the injustice of it all, (in the way I like to rant and rave about social injustice in this country) but I can’t. There is a shocking and beautiful indifference at large in the universe, and I just have to work with it.

And because you are even reading this I am tremendously moved. As for the battle: I’m fighting hard. I feel I have lots of stories left to tell. I have lived these last twenty years by my imagination. Everyone who has ever bought one of my books has helped me to do that and now that I am at a sharp point in my life I am amazed and indebted that you have made possible such a thing.

Readers are not strangers.