Jess, a young woman with a background of mental health problems, checks Facebook one day to discover her timeline has skipped forward 18 months to a day when friends and family are posting tributes to her, following her marriage to a man she has only just met and her subsequent death. Jess then has to work out whether the posts can possibly be true or are only in her head. And, if they are true, can she avoid her own death? After I’ve Gone (Quercus, £7.99), the latest psychological thriller from the Yorkshire-based novelist looks at how Facebook has introduced us to social grieving and whether we would live our lives any differently if we knew how and when we were going to die.
What does Jess’s ability to see into her future allow her – and you – to do in addressing a familiar and dismal pattern of domestic violence?
As a journalist I’ve interviewed so many women in domestic violence situations who said: “I wish I’d known it would come to this.” I’ve covered court cases and heard how the perpetrators had always promised there wouldn’t be a next time. By allowing Jess to see into her future, I gave her that ability to see where it would lead and allowed myself to illustrate how many barriers there can still be to women leaving – particularly when there are children involved.
Is there a parallel between Jess’s isolation over the Facebook messages that no one else believes exist and the isolation that grief can produce?
Definitely. It was important to me that no one else could see the posts apart from Jess because I wanted her to experience that isolation and also for her and other people to question her mental health. People who have a history of mental health issues often find others are quick to dismiss anything they say. Jess had found her mother’s death very difficult to deal with, it had pushed her over the edge, and I think one of the reasons grief can be so isolating is that we don’t always respond to death in the same way as other people. But grief is such an individual thing that everybody should be allowed to go through it in their own way.
The novel is told from the points of view of Jess, and Lee’s mother Angela. If Lee could have seen his future, what might have happened?
I’d like to think that Lee would have changed his behaviour too but, sadly, that might not have been the case. There are many instances where perpetrators have moved on from one victim to the next and never confronted the consequences of their actions. That’s why I think it’s so important to support charities like the White Ribbon Campaign, who work to change male attitudes to domestic violence. It should not be seen as a women’s problem.
Parental relationships are a strong theme in the book. Is there a tension between parental love and doing what is right?
I believe parental love is an unconditional one. However, I also believe that we should be able to separate behaviour from the person and say we don’t like the way a child is behaving, even though we still love them. I understand any parent wanting to protect their child but I don’t think you are doing children any favours if you stand by and watch them hurt others without intervening.
Being able to read the grief of loved ones on your timeline might affect the way you live your life but would only be the modern equivalent of hearing the eulogies at your own funeral. Has social media changed our existence fundamentally or just accelerated it a bit?
I think social media is changing the way we talk about death and it is making us more open about it, which is long overdue. Eulogies are a brief part of the funeral service but there is an awful lot of grief to get through either side of that. What social media allows people to do is share their grief from the point where they find out a loved one has died until many years later. The idea for this book came after I lost two friends and was introduced to this modern phenomenon of social grieving. People seem to be more able to talk openly about their grief online and it’s really heartening to see that a couple of years later, family members still feel able to say they are struggling to cope and get a lot of support from friends on Facebook, whereas in the past, people didn’t like to bother people with their grief once the funeral was over with.
Jess and Lee both come from around Leeds but experience the city in completely different ways. How has the city changed since you’ve been in West Yorkshire?
I lived in Birmingham in the early nineties when it was going through a massive redevelopment and renaissance, and Leeds is doing something similar at the moment. As with many cities, it’s the well-off who are benefiting most at the moment but hopefully the plans to rejuvenate the Quarry Hill cultural quarter and other areas will soon start to have a positive impact on many more people.
Having written about domestic violence as a journalist as well as a novelist, are you surprised by the revelations of abuse and harassment at Westminster?
Sadly, not in the least. The culture of misogyny and sense of male entitlement are a problem across all levels of society but it is so important that Westminster sends a clear message that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. We then need to do a lot more work in schools around consent and respect to ensure that attitudes change for the better.