Mrs Smith ~ officially launched!

Thank you to everyone who came along to the launch of Being Mrs Smith last week - what an evening it was! Thank you to Blackwells Bookshop, Edinburgh (particularly to Ann, their lovely events manager) and to my amazing writing mentor, Claire Askew, for asking me such great questions. I'd like to share them here, with my responses.

Over to Claire!


Tell us about the book!

It’s been described as a hero’s journey, and although that wasn’t what I intended to write, I do like that take on it, with Mr Smith as the hero. A hero’s journey involves going forth and encountering challenges, slaying dragons and facing our fears, so it definitely fits that model. In our case the journey starts with the common enough scenario of a medical crisis, and it takes us to the Amazon jungle, leading us to healing on the level of the soul.


How did you and Mr Smith meet?

I first set eyes on Mr Smith nearly twenty years ago in a lecture theatre, when we were both first-year undergraduate mature students. I remember thinking ‘there’s another mature student – I wonder who he is?’ But it was another four years before we spoke, and about six months after that I began to think that maybe there was something special about this man. You could say it was a slow burn.


What was the process of writing the book?  Did you journal?  How much is based on memory?

I didn’t journal, no. I had been blogging on the subject of Mr Smith’s treatment choices and the impact on our lives for about a year up to the point we went to Peru, and I thought those old posts might be useful, but in the end I didn’t use them at all. I just sat down and wrote it chronologically from memory. I’m aware that memory can be unreliable, so how can I claim it as a true story? Well, it will be different to other people’s versions of the truth, but it’s true to my memory, and I think that’s as much of a claim to truth as any of us can make about any story.


What was the process of moving away from 'conventional' medicine and the NHS?

First of all, I’m a big fan of the NHS and very glad it’s available to us all when we need it. Like any other professionals, they have their own ways of doing things, and often they’re mysterious to the rest of us. I feel that there was – if not a mismatch, then maybe a failure of communication at times between us and the medics, both in terms of what we needed to know about what they wanted to do and what they thought about what we wanted to do. And when they could offer us no hope, it was an easy decision to move away towards something that could – and that was when the real healing started.


The role of women in the book is interesting!  The book is about Mr Smith, it's his story -- but it's also your story.  The narrator is a woman, many of the most pivotal characters are women, and there is a part in the book where the powers of women are extolled.  Yet the top shamans you met were all men.  Can you talk about this?

On first glance, the Peruvian shamanic scene looked very patriarchal – although there are female practitioners, we didn’t meet many of them. But we found that the different roles the women played were valued equally – for example, the woman I call Sofia was very knowledgeable about the natural environment and the supplementary medicines that we used. The Shipibo tribe operate an equal society, where the woman who does the laundry and the man who sweeps the floor are recognised as much for their contributions as the elder shamans. So while in our experience there seemed to be a gender split, it didn’t reflect any lack of respect for women and their roles.


You use Mr Smith and Mrs Smith in the book throughout, instead of first names, which is really effective and powerful.  What's powerful about being called Mrs Smith?

I didn’t take Mr Smith’s name when I first married him – a decision that he fully supported. It was when we were given shocking news at the hospital that I decided, instantly, that I would be known from then on as Mrs Smith. It was a show of solidarity and a recognition that we were now one unit, working together, so it made sense to have the same name. Although this story is unique to us, in a lot of ways Mr Smith represents Everyman, and what better name for Everyman than Mr Smith? For me, the power in being Mrs Smith is that I got to be the woman who walked Mr Smith’s path with him and held his hand through it all.


Have you always wanted to write?  And how about Mr Smith, do you think of him as a writer?

Yes! I started writing stories and poems when I was very young and hoped to be a writer one day, and I’ve written bits and pieces on and off over the years. Now seemed like the right time to write a book, because this was a story asking to be told! As for Mr Smith, yes, I have clear evidence of his gift as a writer too!


What's your next book?

It’s about some of what I’ve learned about life, the universe and everything over the two years since the events in this book.


Finally... if you could meet your Self from the beginning of Mrs Smith's journey, what would you say to her now?

I’ve never been one for giving advice, especially when it’s not been asked for, and she wouldn’t have listened anyway, but if we can stretch the imagination a bit further and assume that I was, and she did, I’d suggest to her that she accept more the reality of what was happening and learn not to be so fearful. I would tell her that she has more strength than she’s ever realised, and I would tell her that no matter what, all would be okay.

If Memory Serves

Today as I pottered around the house, I stumbled on a radio programme about memory: about how unreliable it is, how commonly we believe in memories that are false, and the ethical implications of manipulating others to create memories of events we know didn’t happen.

That got me wondering about the nature of memory and its relation to truth, and I turned to my notebook to explore my thoughts on the subject. It’s what I do to try to get my head round things, but truth is such a tricky subject and I’m no expert. So I wonder whether there’s any validity in the several pages of musings that now grace my desk.

Validity is so tied up in truth, and truth is so intangible. Memory, as the man on the radio tells us, has been demonstrated to be fallible, and so much of what we claim as truth depends on our memories of how things happened. And yet I have the nerve to claim Being Mrs Smith as a true story.

I stand by that, even though I’m open to the possibility that there are some factual inaccuracies. If memory is unreliable, then I’m in trouble. I wasn’t keeping a journal and, although I thought that the blog I was writing would be a useful resource when I came to draft the book, I ended up not using it at all. There are definitely errors of chronology, but in this case, they’re not important enough to impact on the validity of the story.

A few slight factual inaccuracies don’t concern me too much; I’m willing to be corrected if something turns out not to have happened in the way I say it did. It’s for the story that I claim validity, and my story is as valid as anyone else’s.

In both parts of the story as I tell it – the European part and the South American part – there are real-life characters who each have their own version of events, and if they told their stories too, theirs, like mine, would no doubt be influenced by the limitations and inventiveness of their memories. I sometimes wonder how I would appear as a character in their narratives. I suspect that some of the medical staff in Part 1 might remember me as someone they’d rather forget, and who knows how the impossibly exotic South American shamans might portray us ordinary Smiths?

Some, or maybe all, of these versions of events, will be open to dispute, but they will all have validity. Knowing that truth is always subjective, I’ve tried to stick to the facts as I experienced them – or as I remember experiencing them – but I am aware that in doing so I’ve shown some people in a positive light and others less so. Still, the truth as experienced by others may be different to mine: Some of those characters that I’ve drawn as less than sympathetic might be heroes in someone else’s eyes. Disagreement doesn’t imply that one version of events has less truth in it than another.

I think I have a pretty good handle on Mr Smith’s view of things, since I reckon I know him just about as well as anyone knows another human being, but though he wouldn’t dispute anything I’ve said, even his truths aren’t always in agreement with mine. It would make for a pretty boring relationship if they were.

I haven’t come to any conclusions on how memory, validity and truth are interrelated, or on how we can reconcile our different experiences of the same events. But I do know, and this is absolute truth, that every word of Being Mrs Smith is true. I know this because I lived it, and it is in the living of it, more than in the memory of it, that I make this claim.

Trusting The Story

Trust is a strange thing, isn’t it?

People have been asking me why Mr Smith and I trusted in the people and the practices we did. Why did we trust the medicine men before we’d even met them? Why did we trust in ayahuasca and not in chemotherapy?

What is trust anyway, and what does it mean to trust? With people, we usually confer our trust in proportion to their demonstration of the character traits we think of as trustworthy. We form a mental checklist: do they keep their promises? Can someone we already trust vouch for them? With methods, we might ask, what’s the track record? Are people seeing the results we want?

If those are the necessary conditions for trust, what were we thinking, Mr Smith and I, when we went to the Amazon in search of healing? We trusted people we’d never met, people we knew very little about and practices we’d never tested.

Well, we weren’t really thinking at all, by the time we set off. Somewhere along the line, we’d given up on that. Rational thought had only got us so far: when we thought through all the possibilities presented to us, they led us to places where we really didn’t want to go. So, we stopped thinking and relied more on our intuition instead.

I’ve always felt that thinking is a bit overrated anyway. How many of us have chosen our friends and lovers on that basis? No amount of data or deliberation can settle the things that matter most, and the decisions before us mattered more than most.

So it was intuition and not rational thought that led us into the jungle. It was the same intuition that had brought us together and kept us together. It wasn’t the people we didn’t know or the practices we hadn’t tried that we trusted – it was ourselves. It was our ability to write our story, our way, and before we wrote it, we had to allow ourselves to live it.

We didn’t have much information to base rational judgments on anyway. We didn’t know anyone in our situation who’d done what we went on to do, so there was no precedent to trust in and follow. In any case, there was no-one in the same situation as us – like all human experience, it was unique, and only generalizable up to a point. So, with only our intuition to guide us, we went forth with something of a pioneering spirit. The folks at home, watching and willing us to do well, needed something to trust in too, and thankfully, they trusted in us. They formed a fine team of cheerleaders, and nobody ever invoked a rational argument to question our judgment.

We didn't set out to be trailblazers. We were simply following our own path, trusting in our intuition to guide us along our chosen route. Some of those we met on the path have become very dear to us; others turned out to be people we wouldn’t have trusted had we known them better at the outset.

It’s just as well we didn’t know them better. It’s just as well we didn’t use the standard checklist of trustworthiness before we embarked on this adventure. That might have overridden our intuition and prevented us from trusting in our story. Because it’s the story, and not the characters, that deserves our trust. It’s the trusting in the story and in the living of it that brings us completion in the end.

Making the Heroine's Journey

One of my favourite endorsements for Being Mrs Smith describes it as a ‘hero’s journey’, where the hero goes off on a quest on which he encounters dangers, slays dragons and returns home wiser than before. I like that framing of our story, and in my view, there’s no more worthy hero than Mr Smith. But there’s more than one kind of journey, and I find myself called again, to embark on another. This time the journey is my own, and although I have Mr Smith’s loving support as he had mine, no-one but me can navigate this path.

I like to think of the writing of this book as the first chapter of the heroine’s journey. This is the journey on which, ravaged by the dénouement of his story and stripped bare in its aftermath, I am tasked with finding my way to whatever mystery lies waiting to be unveiled at the end of this new path.

Being Mrs Smith, and my part in the hero’s journey, taught me the futility of any attempt to define such a thing. I’ve learned that we don’t write our stories – we live them. They grow organically and it is our participation and not our narratives that grant us our place in them. I don’t know the extent to which we change the story by our participation – how can we know how things would have turned out had we acted differently? But I do know that the story of Mr Smith’s hero’s journey carried us more than we carried it – or at least that’s how it felt.

It's in the telling of our stories, though, that we learn. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote Being Mrs Smith. I wrote it for my readers, to accompany them on their paths, and I hope that they find it a worthy companion. But, at least in part, I wrote it for me, because I needed to. In the following months, I needed to be quiet; to contemplate, to withdraw and to recharge, to order and make sense of what had just happened. After that, I needed to see for myself, from a different perspective, how naked I had become. I needed to prepare for the heroine’s quest to find new threads with which to clothe myself again – threads to fit me as well as those I wore for Mr Smith when I went with him on his journey.

I haven’t found them yet. So far, I’ve taken tiny steps along the path, and from here it looks long and wide and, in places, treacherous. That’s okay. I’ve learned, from the telling of the hero’s journey, that I am stronger and more courageous than I knew. We find this out only when tested, and together, Mr Smith and I passed the test.

We did it. And if I can hold the hand of a hero, I can become the heroine I need to be to navigate my way through this new journey. I’m claiming my heroine status now. I must, if I'm to find those new threads. The new story demands it, and it is the new story that carries me forward.

For Anyone to Read

So the story is told. And the designers and editors and printers and who knows how many others have been busy behind the scenes, and the labours of the aftermath year will soon be released into the world for anyone to read.

Of course, it’s not the whole story – I doubt even the most prolific memoirists have told their whole story. Some things are best kept private, and I’m sure everyone is too involved in the specifics of their own lives to be very much interested in ours. Aside from that, there are incidents I’ve missed out and behaviours I’ve played down, for two reasons I suppose. First, they just didn’t fit with the narrative as it was emerging. Secondly, I’ve wanted to treat people fairly, even when they acted in ways that challenged us, and I’ve been careful not to be judgmental or bitter. Those qualities simply don’t belong in a love story, or at least, not in our love story. Definitely not in ours.

I haven’t told all, but I have tried to be honest, and I hope I’ve owned up to my own personal failings as they impacted on events. Mr Smith, of course, has no failings, or at least none worth mentioning. Really, none. Rites of passage of this order and magnitude have a way of dissolving any perceived shortcomings, and even if they didn’t, there’s not a single instance of Mr Smith so much as squeezing the toothpaste in the wrong place or leaving the seat up. Really, I can’t think of any. And I hope that as you read, you get to meet a courageous, funny, intelligent and compassionate man – the kind of man who can easily overlook the failings of others and inspire his flawed wife to play them down in a book.

But I have exposed my own imperfections, for anyone to read about along with the discoveries of my heart, mind and soul. It’s not the whole story, but it’s enough to feel that I’ve laid myself – both of us – bare, for anyone to read about. And that feels just a wee bit scary.

So I’m feeling the fear, and as I’m feeling it, I’m finding that it’s not really fear at all. I’ve felt real, heart-thumping, soul-shattering fear – it’s one of the things I’m laying bare – and if I can feel that, I can feel whatever it is that you feel when you put yourself out there and launch a book for anyone to read.

Even so, I might just allow myself a little wobble on the 24th of June. Wish me luck.