What’s Your Book About? by Alice Peterson
‘What’s your book about?’ is a common question for any writer. And it’s so important to be able to give a brief punchy answer – not waffle on before eyes glaze over. It’s a deceptively hard question because a book can be about so many different things, have numerous characters and a complicated plot and subplot. Yet the heart of the novel should be simple and easy to express in just a few words.
The idea for If You Were Here came via a contact of my mother’s. For the sake of confidentiality, I have changed her name to Sally. ‘My closest friend, Sally, has Huntington’s Disease,’ she told me, ‘and she really wants you to write a book about it.’
Huntington’s Disease (HD) is an inherited condition that damages nerve cells in the brain. If your mother or father has it, you have a 50% chance of getting it too. If you are at risk, there is the option to take a blood test to determine if you have inherited the gene or not. It truly is like the toss of a coin, and the majority of people (something like 80%) decide not to find out. I was told Sally had taken the test in her 30s and discovered she was positive. She was now in her early 50s.
Initially I was cautious about meeting Sally. I wondered how something as devastating as HD could possibly entertain a reader. But I knew so little about HD and felt it important to find out more before I made up my mind. That day, I met someone warm, vulnerable, articulate and courageous. Sally and I talked about her decision to take the test. She confided that with hindsight she wished she hadn’t, as the results had removed all hope. Yet she had felt it important to know, at that time, as she wanted another child. ‘Another child?’ I said. ‘I have a son,’ she replied in almost a whisper. ‘And I still haven’t told him the truth. I live with the guilt every single day.’
This is when I realised I had a story. I began to wonder what would it be like for her son to be left in the dark. How would he react when he did eventually find out his mother had HD, and that he too was at risk? Initially I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t told him? Surely it was the right thing to do? Yet the more we spoke, the more I could see that she felt alone and scared of her own future, and the implications for her child. In an ideal world, we all share, communicate and support one another. Yet, sadly, that’s not the world we live in. Sally came from a family where they didn’t talk at all about feelings or emotion; anything difficult was swept firmly under the carpet. She confided to me that she’d always tried to find ‘the right time’ to tell her son, but was slowly realising there never was one, and the longer she waited, the harder it was becoming. Understandably, Sally wanted to remain anonymous; she did not want me to write about her life. This gave me the freedom to create a story, instead, based around the secrecy of HD and the impact it has on families – a theme which is apparently very common in the wider HD community.
So this is the premise for If You Were Here: my protagonist, Flo Andrews, is 26, engaged and about to move to New York with her high-flying fiancé, but on the eve of her flight, her grandmother Peggy tells her that her late mother suffered from HD, and not only that, but she too, has a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Flo is angry, shocked, scared of telling her fiancé, and struggling to make any sense of this new landscape in which she finds herself. As she struggles to decide what to do next, she has to face the life-altering question her mother faced years before: if a test could decide your future, would you take it?
Since writing this book, Sally has now told her son. His reaction was similar to Flo’s, but Sally tells me that slowly they are mending bridges and working it out, together. He is ready to look after her, no matter what, and his girlfriend is standing by his side. So, if someone asks me, what is If You Were Here about, I don’t say it’s about Huntington’s Disease, even though the story very much shines a light on having this condition. Every single novel I have written in the past has touched on disability, but in my experience people aren’t defined by their illnesses. They are defined by their resilience to overcome. My last book, A Song for Tomorrow, isn’t about Cystic Fibrosis. It’s about a girl who dreams of becoming a singer, despite all the odds being against her. In the same way, If You Were Here isn’t about HD. As Sally and her son show so poignantly, along with my characters, it’s about the strength of the human spirit, and having the courage to overcome adversity.
If You Were Here by Alice Peterson published in eBook on 2nd May 2019, and publishes in paperback on 22nd August 2019.