The question I get asked a lot is: where do you get your ideas from? And in the past, the answers have been easy.
‘A farmer and his skulking dogs in Exmoor’ (The Atlas of US / Before I Say Goodbye)
‘The underwater forests my uncle told me about’ (My Sister’s Secret)
‘A walk in the park with my daughter.’ (No Turning Back)
‘A documentary about houses falling into the sea’ (Her Last Breath)
It was different for The Lost Sister though. The answer is very personal to me, you see. And one I hold close to my chest. But now I feel I can share it.
The Lost Sister opens with an author watching her daughter play on the beach, seemingly happy and content. But it’s quickly apparent there’s a restlessness there. A hint of an internal struggle. And though Selma and I are so different in so many ways, in creating her, I drew from my own struggles at the time.
You see, despite my life being everything I wished for - working as a full-time author, having the daughter I always dreamed of, being in a happy marriage and being so blessed with a wonderful family and group of friends - there was this weird niggling darkness inside.
For example, I would be on holiday, watching my husband and daughter giggling over something. I tried to join in the fun, but there was a numbness that dominated my mind.
There were also times when I’d be sat in my office, surrounded by copies of the books I’d written, receiving emails from readers thanking me for writing those books, and that numbness would return. I’d stare at my screen, and I’d feel nothing for the words I was writing and the career I'd carved out for myself.
The depth of my dispassion scared me.
I knew something wasn’t right. I presumed it must be depression. I tried to do what I could: changed my diet, exercised more, took breaks. But still, it would return. And it wouldn’t be there all the time. Often, the cloud would disperse and I would feel again, taking joy in everything I was supposed to. I thought maybe, maybe, the darkness wouldn't return.
But then I would see the cloud approach, and my heart would sink. I could literally pinpoint the moment the cloud descended. I thought about escaping. It feels awful writing that now. But during those times, I really thought about just running away from it all.
And that’s when the character of Selma came to me. Selma represents the person I became when the dark cloud descended. Not in every respect, I added a few fictional embellishments (and may I make it clear, her husband is nothing like mine!). But the general vibe was there, especially that desire to escape, a desire I decided to write about instead of do. It gave me some respite, like I was the one doing the escaping.
Over the months I wrote The Lost Sister, I poured myself into the novel, just as I did with The Atlas of Us / Before You Say Goodbye to help me when I was battling with infertility. Once again, writing a book became a form of therapy for me. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was a chance the darkness wouldn’t go away. At least before, I’d got pregnant eventually, so the awfulness of infertility, though something that will always be there for me, grew distant and quiet.
But I had a feeling there would be no release from this darkness I was feeling.
Then one day, I heard a radio show with my favourite presenter, Emma Barnett. She was talking to Laura Murphy, the co-founder and director of Vicious Cycle, a group focused on bringing attention to Pre-menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). As Laura talked about the symptoms she experienced, it was a complete lightbulb moment for me: I was suffering from PMDD!
PMDD is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which causes an array of emotional and physical symptoms every month during the week or two before women start their period. And the symptoms she described matched mine.
I can’t tell you the relief I felt at finally being able to pinpoint what was wrong. It gave me the strength to visit my doctor that very week and he advised me to try a low dose of antidepressants.
Combined with the relief writing brings, the difference has been amazing. I’m not saying all cases can be cured with a few pills and a creative outlet. But for me, it was what I needed and I now feel a million times better.
But Selma will always be a reminder of how I once felt… and how so many millions of women still feel each day. She’s a character that will draw mixed responses. Though fascinating, I wouldn’t call her likeable. But I would say she is the best character I’ve ever written. Never before have I truly drilled down into the depths of myself, my darkest moments, to create a character in a novel I've written.
So here’s to you, Selma. I hope as many people as possible get to read your story… and my story.