My latest novel, The Art of Unpacking Your Life, is the story of six old friends who get back together for a holiday, a safari in the Kalahari.
It is actually about the dark secrets we all keep, even from our closest friends. The subjects that remain taboo: adultery veering towards bigamy, surrogacy, physical violence by wives towards their husbands, professional dishonesty.
I am fascinated by people’s unspoken thoughts, particularly in a relationship. Yet I was struggling to find the right form for the large cast of characters in Unpacking, until I re-read Virginia Woolf. Once I was free to roam from character to character, scene by scene, I could play with the difference between what was physically happening to the group and what they were actually thinking.
For several years before I started writing the novel, I was like a schizophrenic, wandering round the streets, mumbling to my characters and littering Post-it notes about their lives. They became intimate friends and I was deeply attached to them. But I had no idea where to place their story. I tried setting the novel in Sardinia. However, Europe wasn’t removed enough to force their lives to unravel. Unexpectedly, my brother took me on a trip of a lifetime to a reserve in the middle of the Green Kalahari. Landing in a ten-seater plane in such profound remoteness, I knew I had found their place.
I regularly borrowed a room in a friend’s Home Counties hotel, usually packed with hen parties or weddings, or both. The staff labelled me as an oddball, who had probably left my husband, possibly also my children. It was a small back bedroom with a dressing table that improvised as a desk, which I always pushed to the window overlooking the garden. There, I worked almost without sleeping, and wrote the first draft in four months. Subsequent edits took more than double that time, though.
When it was finally finished, I profoundly missed my six main characters. I think that it had a great deal to do with writing in the multiple, third person perspective. I was in everyone’s head. And it was a wrench to leave them all behind.
I hope you enjoy reading the book and would love to hear what you think. You can listen to me reading an excerpt below.