This month featuring the memoir, No One Comes Close, by Julie Newman.
Fiction often brings to the surface a lie that the protagonist believes. Perhaps she believes she’s unlovable, for instance. In the process of writing No One Comes Close, did you uncover any lies that you’d been clinging to? And if so, did writing your story help you come to terms with the truth that the lie(s) had been hiding?
I think what springs to mind here is how much my ex-husband loved me. I was under the illusion that he didn’t care, that he spent more time tinkering about with cars and down at the pub than with me, but when the proverbial hit the fan I realized I had destroyed him. This was undoubtedly one of the worst aspects to deal with. It made me examine my motives, not only at the time but whilst writing the memoir.
Has your daughter or you ex-husband read your memoir? Have you gotten any kind of unfavorable reactions from anyone you know?
Neither my eldest daughter or my ex-husband has read my memoir, as far as I know. I’m not in touch with either of them. I cleared it with Ron’s sister and sister-in-law, asking them if they had any concerns about my publishing the memoir. I told them I was changing all the names except mine and Ron’s and they were fine with it. (His sister has since read the book and sent me a lovely email afterwards.) But unbelievably my sister sent me a ‘Howler’. This was such a surprise because I didn’t think there was anything in the memoir that would upset her.
What motivated you to write your story?
When Ron got in touch with me after twenty years in 1987 I was absolutely flabbergasted. I thought ‘this kind of thing only happens in books’ and I decided there and then to write my story, however it worked out. Added to that, Ron often said he would write a book, so I felt I owed it to him too. Just a pity he will never read it.
Talk a little about your writing process. Are you a disciplined writer who has a set time and place to write? Did you set a deadline for the first draft? Some writers prefer to write in longhand, others directly into their computers. Which method works best for you?
I don’t dedicate a time of day to write – I write when I feel like it which is most of the time! If I’m not writing something new I’m editing or rewriting. I like critiquing other writers’ work too. I have learned a lot through this process. Usually I get my first ideas down on paper, then transcribe it to the computer and restructure it as I go. There is probably a shorter route but this works for me.
When I began my memoir in 1997 I wrote it all longhand chronologically taken from my old diaries. I filled three A4 notebooks but not knowing how to proceed from that point I put them away in a cupboard for ten years. I had certain concerns about letting it out into the world, rather like a parent when their offspring leaves home. I had always enjoyed creative writing but I knew I needed a new set of skills to do my memoir justice so I enrolled in a creative writing course called ‘Finding Your Voice’. This was run by author Jenny Alexander in a village in Cornwall where I lived. I was so inspired by the six-week course that I wrote an article titled ‘A Day Trip to Ely’, (where I had moved from) and sent it to This England magazine. To my delight and amazement they accepted it for publication. I have since had eight more articles published with This England and Evergreen.
I joined various writers’ groups in Cornwall. Indeed, I found it a very productive county. Whilst living there I enrolled on other workshops and writing courses including ‘How to Write Historical Short Stories’. This was run by the Caradon Hill Area Heritage Project to attract attention to South East Cornwall. I have two historical short stories published in anthologies. The first one ‘Vanished Without Trace’ is set in the English Civil War. The second, ‘Hell in a Pocket’ was written to commemorate the 100 years since the beginning of the First World War.
During this time my memoir was screaming to be let out so I finally decided to transcribe it to the computer and restructure it. I experimented with first person POV and third person and decided on the former. Did I want to write in past or present tense? I decided to write in past tense during the flashbacks and present tense during the time I actually spent with Ron in 1987. I wanted to make this part more ‘immediate’. I also had to decide if it would be a novel or a memoir. After much consideration I chose the latter. By now I had far more experience of writing using all of my senses. I needed to put my heart on the page, to let my readers see it through my eyes. It was a lengthy process but very enjoyable. It took me a total of twenty years from the first pen on paper to publication.
Who would you choose to play the main characters in your memoir if it were ever to be made into a movie?
This is something I have often thought about but I have never found anyone young enough for the leading roles in 1966. I have researched and come up with a few names: For the seventeen-year-old Julie, Olivia Holt. For the thirty-eight-year-old Julie, Rosamund Pike. For the nineteen-year-old Ron, maybe Thomas Brodie-Sangster. For the forty-year-old Ron, Dan Stevens. (Downton Abbey). Every time I watch a nostalgic, atmospheric film I imagine what No One Comes Close would look like as a movie. It gives me goosebumps.
What was the hardest part or parts of your memoir to write?
Without a doubt my father’s death was the hardest. I had never really addressed this trauma, had locked it away in a dark corner of my mind, but actually writing about that fateful day I found very cathartic. I wanted to convey the horror of that day, the worst day of my life. Added to that, writing about the last day I saw Ron had me in tears. One of my favourite quotes is, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. It was very important to me to make my readers feel the emotion in both these scenes.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring memoirists who long to tell their stories but aren’t convinced anyone would be interested?
Go for it! I had a lot of naysayers telling me I shouldn’t write my memoir for different reasons. For a long time I tried to publish the traditional way and approached various literary agents and publishers but they all said ‘Who would want to read your memoir? You’re not famous. You haven’t done anything amazing in the public eye.’ So I decided to go down the self-publishing route and used CreateSpace. I’m very glad I did.
Excerpt from No One Comes Close
EASTER MONDAY 1987
Mal told me this morning that he’d had a terrible dream – something big and grey pulling him out of bed. He wrestled with it. It was all he could do to fight it off and he showed me the bruises on his shoulder to prove it! When he woke up he thought the demon was still in the room; he sensed it at the foot of the bed but couldn’t see its face. I can’t believe this – it’s as if there’s a spiritual force trying to part us.
We hang around the house doing jobs that have mounted up: cleaning cars, cutting lawns. I feel detached from my body as if I’m on auto-pilot. The atmosphere is strained all day.
Then, just before we go to bed, Mal sits on the edge of the sofa, his clasped hands on his knees and looks me straight in the eye.
‘Right, what’s going on? You got someone else? I know something’s wrong cause your character’s changed.’
Like a giant tsunami the words gush out before I can think – everything – how I knew Ron twenty years ago, how I got in touch with him and how unbelievable it all is, like something that only happens in books. The earth seems to stop, time suspended. Mal sits wide-eyed, dumbstruck.
A larger than usual gulf has opened up between us. Unspoken words hang in the air. I am no longer a part of you. We are strangers.
‘Right,’ he shouts, ‘that’s it. You’ll have to get yourself sorted out and go! You can tell Grace in the morning. And you can phone him in Australia and tell him that I know!’
Oh God. What have I done?
I start to shake uncontrollably. An inexplicable force has picked me up, spun me round and dropped me in the same place but on the other side of time. I want to turn back the clock, start again, approach it differently. But too late, the damage has been done. There is no way back.
He turns to me as he opens the door to go to bed. ‘I knew this morning – that grey thing – it was warning me.’
What will I do now? Where will I go? What about Grace? What will she think of me?