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.