Can you sum up What I Couldn’t Tell You for us?
Laura is hanging out on a hot summer’s evening with her boyfriend Joe. They are blissfully in love – but the evening descends into chaos as Laura is attacked and left in a coma, and Joe disappears. In fact, he’s missing. So who attacked Laura? Was it, could it be, Joe?
Tessie, Laura’s sister, is selectively mute. She can’t talk outside her house, but she can listen, and it seems she is the only one who might be able to piece together what happened to Laura on that fateful night.
I would describe What I Couldn’t Tell You as a crime story and a love story. A story that shows us how hard it is to be able to say the things we need to say, and how important it is to find a way to say them.
Why did you choose to give your central character Selective Mutism?
I first heard about Selective or Situational Mutism (SM) when listening to the radio. A young woman called Sheri Pitman was being interviewed about her past experiences of SM. She hadn’t spoken outside of her own home for a period of 9 years because of it. I’d never heard of Selective Mutism before and was intrigued to find out more. And it struck me almost immediately after listening to Sheri that a story with a first person narrative could give a young girl with SM, a girl like Sheri, a voice in the outside world that she wouldn’t otherwise have. I loved the idea that a story could do that. So in answer to the question I would say that SM chose me for Tessie’s story rather than it being the other way around.
How does having a central character who can’t speak affect the storytelling? What are the advantages? What are the problems?
Part of what was so exciting about writing this story was also what brought the greatest challenges in the telling. I worked hard to get Tessie’s voice just right, and this was definitely the greatest challenge of all. I wanted her voice to be realistic, authentic, and it took research, time and some graft to find it.
Of course once I did, plotting a crime story in Tessie’s first person narrative structure presented yet more challenges, but some of these I had anticipated. I’d already experimented with how I might overcome the issues around dialogue before I got to a first draft, but the challenges in the storytelling weren’t limited to dialogue alone.
I learnt from my research that there were other logistics around Tessie’s SM that I needed to accommodate in the plotting – how she got to and from certain places on her own, and how she communicated outside of speaking, by texting or writing for example. This all obviously added an extra layer of complexity to the plot, and I can only hope that I have been able to stay true to the representation of SM in the story whilst also meeting the demands of my plot.
Tessie finds herself in a dangerous relationship – is that something you decided to explore when planning the book?
In writing Billy and Tessie’s relationship I came to see that I had two people who were suffering under the weight of being unable to truly express themselves, and this suffering was somehow intensified by how they began to feel about one another.
I always knew that Billy was damaged, that life was difficult for him, and I always knew that in one another Tessie and Billy would be able to see the capacity for love in a way that neither of them had ever experienced before. I didn’t plan to explore a dangerous relationship when I started to write the book, but Billy’s voice definitely became more urgent as I wrote, and he became more dangerous as a result.
How important is it that the reader feels sympathy for Billy?
It was essential to me that the reader feels a sense of understanding, of compassion, for Billy. One of the things that interested me in writing this book was attempting to challenge on some level our notion of what a so-called ‘bad boy’ really is. Billy without doubt behaves badly – his behaviour is shocking at times in the story – but I wanted to give him context so that the reader see him as a whole person, not someone we might see by their actions alone.
How important was it that the story ends hopefully for Tessie?
It was incredibly important for me that despite the darkness throughout the story there was an ending that shone some light. I knew that given what the characters go through there were no quick-fix happy endings for everyone, unless I somehow was able to bring in a magic wand! But perhaps in a sense Part Four is my magic wand. By projecting forwards by 6 months at the end of the story we can see how life goes on for each of the characters, and in that future place there is hope, and for Tessie in particular, that sense of future hope was essential.
What I Couldn’t Tell You is published by Usborne, 978-1-4749-0307-3, £6.99 pbk.