The Story of My Face was both easy and difficult to write. It was easy in that Natalie, the main character/narrator, and her story, came to me very forcefully early on in the writing process. I didn’t have too many of the usual writerly doubts. Natalie, albeit vulnerable and needy, has a streak of steely determination at her core and it seemed she would make me complete the book even if I did not want to – so why not give in gracefully?
The difficult part was writing the book in scraps of time between having two babies. One of the many things that interested me during the writing of the book was to explore how our actions bear fruit over time. So part of The Story of My Face is set during Natalie’s adolescence, part when she is in her forties, and another section of the narrative takes place long before she was born. Dealing with a story that has three intimately connected plotlines in three different time zones is a challenge at the best of times, but much, much harder when you have had months of interrupted sleep. Once, out of sheer exhaustion, I found myself actually writing all over again a chapter I had already completed.
Natalie and her story insisted on research that stretched from the moon landing in 1969 to the religious culture of nineteenth century Finland. I was finally forced to learn how to use the internet. As well as that, I was able to travel for real: my then eighteen-month old daughter, my husband and I spent a couple of months courtesy the British Council in the north west of Finland. Becky was bundled up in warm and waterproof layers to dig the snow while I worked. All three of us were amazed by the milky, turquoise-green of the frozen sea.
Natalie is a neglected child looking to attach herself to a family. She is a figment of my imagination, not a real person. It was something of a shock, then, to meet her. The Story of My Face was complete and I was feeling both a faint sense of loss and a sudden surge or freedom. We were on our way back to the UK from abroad, and booked in for one night at an airport hotel with a small outdoor swimming pool. I had been in the water no more than a few moments when a girl in bathing suit, perhaps ten or eleven years old, emerged from one of the rooms bordering on the pool. Of course, I noticed immediately that she had Natalie’s wild red hair, her opaque, freckled complexion. She clearly couldn’t swim and launched herself awkwardly into the water, emerging right next to where I was standing.
‘Hello’ she said introducing herself, and then began with a seemingly unstoppable series of questions. ‘Where are you from? How long are you here? Are you married?’
I had the sad and uncanny feeling that she had been sitting in that shadowy room with its curtain shifting in the breeze, just waiting for someone like me to come along.