Authonomy, while I was garnering opinions on my YA novel, Samael.
Simon’s Choice is an unusual and very brave book that deals with one of the great taboos – a child dying. But there’s a twist.... here’s the pitch....
Doctor Simon Bailey’s previously perfect life is shattered when his seven year old daughter is given months to live. Whilst he can almost come to terms with her impending death, he cannot stand the idea of his child facing death alone.
“But Daddy, who will live with me in heaven?” she asks.
He answers her question in a moment of desperation, testing his marriage, his professional judgement and his sanity to the limit. He offers to go with her.
Despite its subject matter, this actually isn’t a hard, gloomy read. It’s thought-provoking and, while certainly tugs at the heart-strings, it manages to have moments of wonderful humour. I was keen to know more about how Charlotte wrote this book and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi, Charlotte. First of all, could you tell us a little about you?
I'm 29 (hanging on to my twenties by my fingernails, 30 in a few weeks.) I live in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire with my husband Simon (yes, I really am that unimaginative) my two children, Arabella and Alexander and my cat Deborah-The-Bad-Puss.
What gave you the idea for Simon's Choice?
A friend and I were chatting in his van one day. He was talking about how his world revolves around his daughter and he said that, if she was dying, he might 'offer to go with her'. It sent a shiver down my spine and I thought "There's a book in that." I sat down and started writing it that afternoon.
You say in your author's note that it's not based on personal experience. I think many people will find that incredible as it seems so 'real'. Do you know parents of children with leukaemia?
No, thank God. Nor did I speak to any. I've always had a bit of a knack for empathy. I can get inside people's heads. I probably spend far too much time thinking about how I feel and how others feel. I had a fair idea of how I would behave (Melissa, the mother, is partly me) and I knew how my real Simon would behave. There is a lot of Simon in Simon!
As parents, it's all too easy to flinch from reading about children being ill or dying. Wasn't this a terribly hard book to write, as a mother?
I was pregnant as well! I started the book in my 7th month of pregnancy and finished it when Alexander was a newborn - often with him on my lap. Yes there were many times when I thought "Christ. Should I really be writing this? Am I tempting fate?" Certainly I now have a deep understanding of what it must be like to be losing a child and I can only pray it never happens to me. That said, I was interested in the mundanity that continues in one's life during such times. Your precious child is dying and the washing up still has to be done. I find that very striking.
I was very keen that the book shouldn't be maudlin. I hope that I have managed to temper the more upsetting aspects of the book with a little humour and some more light-hearted vignettes. That also provided light relief for me!
I love the depiction of Madron House, the children's hospice. Presumably you visited places like this? It sounds incredibly upbeat and really rather wonderful - is that the reality or are only a few like that?
I've always been aware of Martin's House Hospice in Wetherby near Harrogate. However Madron House (Madron is the patron saint of pain relief, so I thought it was apt) is entirely fictional - I made a lot of stuff up and it might even be slightly idealized - but generally children's hospices are wonderful, upbeat places. The work they do is stirling. The larger percentage of their funds have to be found through fundraising. If you ever see them fundraising, please do try to find a quid or two. To use a tired old cliche, every penny counts.
How DO you think you should talk to children about death? Other people's and their own?
I live next to a graveyard, which has prompted quite early discussions with my 5 year old daughter. She knows that we all die - normally of old age but we can have accidents or get dreadfully ill - and she knows that our bodies, or overcoats as I explained it, get put in the ground. (I think I'll deal with cremation at a later date!) There is absolutely no point in trying to skirt around the issues of death. Children have wonderfully open and positive minds. I told my daughter that we would all meet up again in heaven and that death was in many ways wonderful as we get to see people and animals we wouldn't be able to see in life. That may be rubbish of course and it is up to her to decide what she believes, but for now, she's happy.
Death is such a taboo - and children's death above all - do you hope books like yours will help us talk more readily about it? I clearly remember my father dying when I was ten and nobody – but nobody – talked about it.
When I was thirteen, a friend's father died of cancer in the school holidays. When she came back to school, none of us spoke to her. We didn't know what to say. I remember rushing out of the common room so as not to be left alone with her. She went from being popular and surrounded by friends to being a bit of a loner for the rest of her school career.
I swore to myself many years ago that I would never, ever do that to someone again. I'm not sure that Simon's Choice will have any effect on the world and the way we deal with death, but I certainly learnt a valuable lesson and perhaps Simon's Choice was part of putting that right.
Simon and Melissa find people avoid them, as they don't know what to say. What SHOULD you say to parents in a situation like that?
Nobody likes an uncomfortable conversation, but shying away from those who are grieving is emotional laziness. If you bang into someone you know, ask how they are feeling. Remind them that you are there if they ever want to talk but also try to bring something into the conversation that isn't all about death. I know that many people who are grieving also find that other people seem to think it is wrong for them to do normal things - or to even be seen laughing. Sometimes people will welcome a break from their sorrow. Offer to go to the cinema. Include the grieving person in a trip to the pub or football match. They may well say no, but it will mean a lot to still be asked.
Simon is comforted by his faith - are you a religious person? How does your faith (or lack) affect your parenting?
I'm on the atheist side of agnostic. Our children are brought up as Christians though - Arabella goes to Sunday School and I keep my skepticism to myself. It is for them to choose their own beliefs when they are older. Even if they do not believe, our entire culture is lain on the foundations of religion and so it is important that they know the stories, hymns and rituals that most of our artwork, politics and music is steeped in.
Porridge, the family's Labrador, is a great character....hmm, is he drawn from real life???
Ah - I thought you'd like Porridge, Jane. No, he's completely made up but I noticed that dogs in books always seem to be incidental characters. In real life they are so much more important - a large Labrador is a big part of family life - hence Porridge gets a starring role.
What are you writing now? Is it going to be very different?
The working title is 'Scared to Death'. It’s about a Theatre Studies teacher in a super-elite school who plays a silly prank on his students. A girl (whom nobody realised was bulimic) has a fatal heart attack. It asks the question, would she have died anyway or was she 'Scared to Death'? We also explore his past and what has shaped him as a person. I like character driven novels. I like to explore personality - people fascinate me.
Huge thanks, Charlotte. Most important of all - how can we buy your book?
It is out of stock on UK Amazon right now but hopefully will be back soon. However you can buy it from Amazon.com here
Charlotte also blogs and you can find her on Twitter
And let me know what you think. What would you do if you were in Simon's position? How do you talk to children about death and illness?