Author Q&A:
Salley Vickers

Grandmothers
(Penguin)

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Fiercely independent Nan lives a secret life as a poet, glamorous Blanche finds her rebellious streak, and bookish Minna finds common ground with her surrogate granddaughter through reading. Three very different women navigate their relationships with the younger generation in this latest novel from Liverpool-born author Salley Vickers.

Many of the characters in the novel reference difficulty with their own parents/children but an affinity with their grandmothers. What is it about the parent-child relationship that is so fractious, compared with the grandmother-grandchild relationship?
Parents shoulder the responsibility of their children’s future without any clear idea of how the future might unfold. Grandparents have already run that gauntlet and seen the surprises that the future brings and are thus more able to take the longer view. I was an anxious mother but have enjoyed the ease of being an unworried (and indulgent) grandmother, often irritating my children by blithely telling my grandchildren: “Never mind. It doesn’t really matter.” I am nowadays aware that matters that seemed so important when my kids were small  (school, exam results, popularity with peers) often count for very little in the long run. My son, the arch-atheist, who refused to take any exams, GCSE or A levels, ended up doing two degrees, one at Cambridge, and becoming an Anglican priest. The other, who was supposed to be a mathematician, is now a children’s writer of the popular Madame Pamplemousse books. Who could have predicted that? Certainly not their mother.

An earlier novel of yours was called Cousins and you write extensively about family relationships. Was Tolstoy on the mark with “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” or is it a soundbite?
I’d hesitate to suggest Tolstoy was a soundbite merchant but I think happiness comes in many different forms – perhaps unhappiness has more possibilities since, as a species we are more inclined to accentuate the negative. I often speculate what evolutionary purpose this serves. I, for instance, take far, far more notice of bad reviews than the praising ones and the newspapers’ predilection for bad news over good, since we are more interested in the former than the latter, is well known.

The grandmothers in the novel are affected by lost loved ones and unsatisfactory relationships. Do you think their reactions to these experiences would have been different had they been born, say, 20 years later?
Maybe. Nan’s husband turns out to be gay and he might have never made the step of marriage 20 years earlier. On the other hand, it wasn’t an unhappy marriage and neither of them regret it. Blanche marries a rather dull man for safety and with no profession to sustain her. Her life might have been very different if she had grown up with greater opportunities. She has a flair for art which might have taken her to art school. However, the circumstances of her childhood, parents conducting a vengeful divorce using her as tennis ball, are probably what caused her flight into safety and that sort of history, sadly, might be as true today as 20 years ago. Minna probably wouldn’t have left school at 16 had she been born 20 years later. Or she could well have done a degree as a mature student. Of course she still might. Let’s hope she does. That might be another book.

There are many secrets and lies in Grandmothers. Is it possible or even desirable to live a truly open and honest life?
It takes great courage not to lie to oneself. Most of us do – I know I do, though it is one of my abiding, if floundering, aims not to. But I agree with Nan, who feels she has done her duty by her grandson, Billy, once she sees that he has learned how to lie because lying is often necessary, especially for children, for reasons of self-protection. In adult life it is known as tact, of course.

In April you wrote that you hoped to get Covid-19 so you could go on to use your psychotherapy training to help others. Did you? And would you be interested in writing about coronavirus?
Sadly, the jury’s out as my test showed I was borderline, which means I may have had a mild dose. I have in fact written about Covid-19 in one of the broadsheet Sunday papers. As before, it was misunderstood – many people failed to note that I’d said I was willing to resign my right to an NHS bed or ventilator and accused me of trying to bring the NHS to its knees – but as a writer one gets used to being misread. My main concern is that the climate of fear which has been unnecessarily whipped up will be injurious to your children’s mental health. Fear is easy to arouse but very hard to dispel and as a therapist who worked closely with serious trauma sufferers I am all too conscious that it can lead to a lifelong disability.

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