The Independent Magazine, Books Interview, Sat 2 August 2003: reproduced with kind permission from Christina Patterson.
Julia Darling recently won Britain’s biggest literary prize. Christina Patterson talked to her about poetry, cancer and a healer called Doris.
Julia Darling grew up in the house in Winchester where Jane Austen died. Surrounded by tourists peering in at the windows and by ‘boys and gowns and clever men’, including a father who taught physics at the College and three brilliant swotty brothers, she herself was neither scholarly nor demure. ‘I went completely the other way and got expelled all the time,’ she confesses with an impish grin. ‘Once, I ran away for a week and there was a sort of national search. And,’ she adds, ‘I got in terrible trouble with the Jane Austen Society for putting up radical posters in the window.’
It was an unlikely start for a writer who has recently scooped the UK’s biggest literary prize, the Northern Rock Award worth £60,000 over three years. At the time of the announcement, in March, Darling had only published one novel and a book of short stories. ‘Everybody is encouraged to submit what they’re working on,’ she explains, ‘so you know you’re up for it against all your friends.’ When the phone call came through she was, she says, ‘quite breathless. It makes you feel like your corsets are undone. I never thought I was anxious about money and I always seemed to have enough to do what I wanted – have a cream bun, whatever – but I did have a kind of low-level anxiety about money. When you know you’re going to get something in two years it’s sort of gone, and it means you can think in a bigger way.’
Clearly this is not a writer who is going to use her prize-money for a swimming pool for her house in France. Instead, she’s splashing out on a research trip to Brazil, to observe the ministrations of John of God, a healer who does operations in the jungle with rusty blades and no anesthetic. The research is for the novel she’s currently writing, but she is hardly an impartial observer. Eight years ago, when she was 38, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later, after undergoing a cocktail of chemotherapy, hormone treatments and a double mastectomy, it came back with a vengeance. She was driving her daughters home from a party when she brushed against a lump in her chest-wall. It turned out to be a tumour the size of an orange and she was told it was inoperable. Friends told her to ‘put her affairs in order’. Three years on, she is still here and danced at a party last night till three. She has rushed to meet me after spending the day watching a TV crew working on an adaption of her latest play. This is not a woman at death’s door.
Julia Darling’s first novel Crocodile Soup, was published in 1988. I reviewed it and remember being struck by its fresh and funny take on the familiar territory of childhood angst and its legacy. ‘By the time I was eight… I had already been haunted, nearly eaten by a crocodile, maimed by mother and murdered an au pair,’ Gert, the narrator, observes cooly. As an adult, she revels in the solitude of her job cataloguing Egyptian artefacts. After spotting Eva, the museum’s tea-girl, doing a solitary tango in the stuffed bird-room, she falls passionately in love. Domestic bliss does not ensue.
Darling wrote the first draft in four months. She was already a playwright, doing ‘worthy things’ in political theatre and women’s groups in the North East, where she has lived since 1980. ‘If you wrote anything self-indulgent then everyone would tell you off and be horrible,’ she explains with a wry smile ‘so I thought maybe that will keep a part of me happy.’ The stories proved so popular that she decided to send them off to an agent. ‘And then the classic thing happened. Agents were all saying ‘marvellous stories’, but a soon as you finish the novel, let us know.’ Darling took them literally. She took her daughter and new (female) partner – her portrayal of the radical lesbian scene in Crocodile Soup is not purely academic – to Australia and sat down to write the book.
The first draft was, she says, ‘hectic and episodic and bonkers as well… I had no synopsis, no structure, no working method at all.’ It took nearly four years to sort it out and when she finally sent it off she ‘felt like hiding under the table.’ The book was duly bid for, published and well reviewed. At the time I assumed the nameless town was somewhere in the South. In fact, says Darling, the novel’s semi-satirical portrayal of the museum’s makeover had much to do with the North East’s cultural and economic renaissance. “It’s to do with the whole of Newcastle being done up all the time. At the time it seems to me that nearly all the buildings were having new lobbies.’
We’re sitting in a newish lobby ourselves, in a corporate modern hotel on Newcastle’s recently renovated Quayide overlooking the grand sweep of the Tyne. Later we wander down to Baltic in search of a Sandinavian photographic exhibition and a table at the restaurant. The restaurant is fully booked, and so are the next three we try, including the one at the theatre in which Darling is currently writer in residence. Eventually we find a fish restaurant that can squeeze us in. Newcastle on a Monday night is clearly not quite as I remember.
In her new novel, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter, the old and the new bits of the city jostle alongside each other. Mac, the eponymous taxi driver, is part of the old world. He has been driving taxis for 20 years and is bored and frustrated by a life that was only ever meant to be provisional. After his wife, Louise, is sent to prison for three months for stealing a shoe, he finds himself in (baffled) sole charge of his teenage daughters. Stella, the elder daughter, helps round the house and does her homework. Caris, the younger one, bunks off school, hangs around the Vale and falls into company that starts off bad and ends up extremely dangerous. Inarticulate and emotionally inept, Mac wished at times that he could “make Cars wear a veil” and send her to one of those “places in America for troublesome teenagers.”
It’s a funny and touching portrayal of a working-class family which “just muddles along.” The idea came, says Darling, from “philosophical discussions” she had with taxi drivers who talked about their children. “I thought ‘I bet these people don’t talk to their families at home’,” she confides. “I wanted to write something that was a bit like a parable or a fairy story that was very rooted in ordinariness.”
If the Taxi Driver’s Daughter is a fairy story, it is at least partly rooted in fact. The novel’s most surreal stand – a tree in the Vale that gradually fills with shoes – is a real local phenomenon. Shoes started appearing in a tree in the Vale where Darling lives “and then the Council took them down because they said they were dangerous and would drop on somebody’s head”. But they continued to appear and the tree of shoes became a symbol of defiance as well as a “longing for magic”. “I didn’t want to explain it too much,” Darling confesses. “I wanted to write about the people I saw and talked to.”
It was while writing the novel that she rediscovered poetry. When her children were little, she was part of a women’s poetry group called the Poetry Virgins, who did poetry readings “in odd places, like AGMs”. In more recent years however, she had come to feel that poetry was “just something I did when I was younger”.
In a late tempt to claw back some of the academic credibility she spent her adolescence avoiding, and following a residence at the university, she started doing the MA in poetry. Her room was right opposite the hospital where she was being treated. “When you go through a chaotic illness when everything’s out of control, you can use the forms of poetry to control things. It was hugely liberating,” she reveals.
The result of this cathartic process is Sudden Collapses in Public Places, a collection of poems dedicated to the staff and patients at the Northern Centre for Cancer Treatment. The poems, like the fiction are fresh, funny and moving, full of energy, zest and defiance. “Be late. Be sordid. Eat six pies” the narrator advises in an anthem against worry. “Or trick them by being euphoric.” Another begins “For my healer shall wear pink cardigans/ and she will be called Doris” and ends “I will close my eyes and hear marching songs/and I shall fear no evil. Even though I walk/through the valley of death.”
Later over our precious fish supper I hear more about Doris and her “eiderdown hands”, Doris who lives in a bungalow in Tyne and Wear and reads the Daily Mail. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction and stranger than poetry, too. I’m rooting for Doris, for John of God and, most of all, for Julia Darling.