I interviewed Sue Hampton, author of 37 books for all ages, ambassador for Alopecia UK and climate activist about her latest novel Intact . I wanted to know how far my wife’s novel draws on real-life experience.
In Sue’s words, “Intact is the story of Mags, whose husband leaves her as she is about to turn sixty… As her life restructures itself again she remembers the foster child, Georgie, who loved her but was rejected by her father because he wasn’t a ‘proper boy’. Perhaps she can find him again, and recover the person she was meant to be.”
Leslie: Intact, is about a woman, approximately your age, who begins a relationship with a non-binary, cross-dressing man, so how autobiographical is it?
Sue: I wouldn’t have written it if I wasn’t with you, Leslie. I would have felt ill-equipped. But you aren’t Georgie; in fact you are two very different humans, just as I am in many ways unlike Mags. She’s (even) more eccentric and impulsive than me, and a great deal more direct and earthy. Although Georgie shares your sensitivity and depth, he lacks your openness, sociability and strength. Therefore the relationship they have is almost nothing like ours – except that like them we have been in the Rothko room at Tate Modern a fair few memorable times. Like Georgie, we have both taken part in Stop the Arms Fair. We are both climate activists, but in the novel Georgie is a step ahead of Mags, whose personal crises dominate.
Leslie: The past plays an active part in the present in Intact. In recreating childhood scenes, how much did you draw on your own history?
Sue: The social contexts of my own experience are authentic, of course, because I too was a child in the Sixties. I model the seaside on Frinton, but really it could be any rather bleak British beach. I used to help Mum free the peas from their pods like Mags and although I never had a tree house (and would have been too scared to climb up to it) I was highly imaginative and spent a great deal of time in my own created worlds. There are striking contrasts, though, because I adored my father. So Daddy, aka Mr Mean, is sheer fiction. As a child Mags is feisty. I was quietly compliant – but with a strong sense of justice and nothing to rebel against. In my reading, though, I admired characters who did.
Leslie: Can you explain the title ‘Intact‘?
Sue: When Mags and Georgie meet again after more than half a century, they both wonder whether their connection as young children can possibly have remained intact. The novel explores the power of the past – which oddly, becomes more vivid and important as we grow old and wish we could go back to the garden where we grew up and find the house just as we left it. But of course more urgently than that, we long to recover who we were and those we loved but have lost. I know that my love for my father, intense in childhood, has since his death remained intact, unmuted, a fundamental part of me. So I believe that strong feelings can endure through all kinds of changes, if they are key to whoever we are and will, regardless of time and circumstances, remain. Mags has had a complicated and challenging life, and Georgie’s traumas have made him vulnerable, but there’s a sense in which all this living has left their core selves intact, which makes it possible for them to renew the bond they shared.
Leslie: Why did you set Intact in the autumn and winter of 2018?
Sue: I was writing it from early 2017, and setting it in real time, but I wanted it to be more current than that and to update it by including the changes in the world as the climate movement emerged, with Greta and XR and that IPCC report that gave us eleven years to turn things round. But I have already written a novel about rebels and the rebellion – available as an e-book – so I didn’t want to re-tread the same paths. So I settled for a context in which certain characters are waking up to the crisis in a world that largely still sleeps.
Leslie: Will Intact be your last book?
Sue: By the time I’d finished it, that was the intention – partly because I consider it my best work. Partly because of circumstances beyond my control which make adding titles to my collection a little pointless when it’s harder and harder to sell them with fewer school bookings and other events. And partly because the climate crisis calls me to be as active an activist as I can be, in the short time that remains for the planet and for me as a less-than-robust older woman. That compulsion is as strong as ever but lockdown has kept me at home with a desire to spend this unexpected time creatively. And Intact could be said to cry out for a sequel. So I have begun one, although part of me hopes I never have enough time finish it.
Next week I interview illustrator James Mayhew who paints to music in concert halls and creates books introducing children to great art.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
- Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.