Last month in Chase I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Susan Elliot Wright, author of The Things We Never Said – a tale of strength in the face of adversity which wouldn’t let me go to bed. This is Susan’s first novel and I was delighted to learn that her second is due out next summer. Susan was hardly sitting around waiting for her fiction deal and when the phone call came, it wasn't in the most salubrious of surroundings - but it didn't make the moment any less sweet.
The Things We Never Said…
It’s 1964 and Maggie has woken up in a mental asylum. One distracted look, she’s advised by a sympathetic inmate, one choice word to a nurse and she’ll be whisked off for seizure inducing ECT with as little fuss as if she were going to the dentist. When Maggie realises that she’s had this treatment before, that the one thing she needs to get her out of this place is her memory but that’s being destroyed with every dose, she forces herself to remember what the combination of the ECT and a specific trauma have made her forget.
Meanwhile, Jonathan, a good-hearted but frustrated teacher, is struggling to maintain focus in a modern day secondary school where a teenage pupil is bullying him through a provocative show of her breasts and an infamous pupil is whipping his classmates into a frenzy at Jonathan’s expense. He doesn’t yet know that his response to this intolerable behaviour will spiral his life out of control. As Jonathan surmises later, the laws of teaching seem to be contrary to the rest of society and he’s guilty until proven innocent. Throw into the mix his angst about impending fatherhood and his regrets about his less than perfect relationship with his recently deceased father and you see why Jonathan’s finding life pretty tough at the moment. Perhaps this isn’t the best time to have the link between him and Maggie revealed but the connection is to prove valuable to both.
Un-put-down-able is easily used when describing great books but this is absolutely true of my response to The Things We Never Said. I read it in three sittings, emerging from each emotionally battered and sleep deprived. The circumstances bestowed upon Maggie and Jonathan are not for the faint-hearted and I found the dual narrative and inter-weaving of the plots very well-crafted. I was keen to learn about its author’s motivation and inspiration for the story so was delighted when I had the opportunity to chat with this Sheffield-based writer, Susan Elliot Wright.
Susan explains that she has always been fascinated by the question of nature versus nurture and how people behave when the control over their life it taken away from them. Although Susan only had the bare bones of the plot before she started writing, she always knew that these themes would be at the centre of her story.
Susan is also fascinated by the environment and its effect on our actions. It’s no accident that weather plays such a strong role in the novel, indeed, one of its pivotal moments takes place during the famous Sheffield Storm of 1962.
“I heard fantastic stories about the storm,” Susan says. “I describe Maggie seeing a garage flying through the streets of Sheffield in the novel and this is something which actually happened in Sheffield that night.”
Susan really enjoys research and as well as the weather and local history, studied the story of mental asylums. Attitudes and treatments were becoming more humane in the early sixties but nonetheless, people could still find themselves in a mental asylum for situations where today they’d receive sympathy and therapy. Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT) was being carried out all too regularly to ‘calm’ depressed women but it often suppressed their memory, a truth which Susan uses to good effect in the novel.
For Jonathan’s story, Susan’s many teaching friends gave her such a great insight into the education system that readers have assumed she was a teacher herself, “That’s a huge compliment,” says Susan.
When I ask Susan if she’s always written, she smiles. Her CV is certainly eclectic. She’s enjoyed being a civil servant, cleaner, bar maid and washer-up before working as a chef’s assistant - something she adored until RSI recently forced her to give it up. Susan currently tutors creative writing but has also worked as a journalist and features editor and, most tantalisingly, a cake decorator.
With several promising ‘near misses’ and re-writes along the way, Susan’s route to publication of The Things We Never Said, took her from the gem of an idea in 2005 to her launch date in May this year. Even though she can put her name to hundreds of articles and a non-fiction book, fiction has always been her ambition.
“I’m loving it,” Susan says when I ask if she’s enjoying being a first time novelist. Her novel’s launch day was one of torrential rain which seems quite fitting for an author with a passionate interest in the weather, even if Susan was convinced everybody other than her family, her agent and the loyal friend from Waterstones would stay at home that evening. She didn’t need to worry, extra chairs had to be put out for all the guests and the 50 books allocated to the launch weren’t enough. Even the pen used for her book signings ran out.
The day Susan found out she was going to be published was not quite so grand, she recalls.
There was a missed call from her agent. ‘I have news,’ a message said, ‘good news.’ Later, as Susan was leaning over to scoop up her dog’s deposits into a poop bag, she chuckled to herself, wouldn’t this be the worst time for her agent to call back? The phone rang. It was her agent. As she tied together the ends of the poop bag, Susan learnt that Simon & Schuster UK were to publish The Things We Never Said.
Susan has already submitted the first draft of her second novel to her publishers who’d like to launch it next summer. The book is loosely based around motherhood, guilt and adoration and again takes place across two eras – the present day and that very hot summer of 1976. Personally, I can’t wait.
Susan has two signed copies of The Things We Never Said to give away. Click Chase Magazine, page 73 to enter the competition. Hurry! The closing date is 15th August.