Well, I promised you a hiatus, and boy did I deliver. What happened there?
Well, at the time I stopped blogging, there were two things going on:
First: I was dealing with an undiagnosed case of PTSD. It didn't get diagnosed until later that year, by which time it had been going on for four years, which is a lot of time I just didn't have it together to write, and honestly only hazily remember at all. My mental health was pretty much all to cock. It was postnatal PTSD; ironically enough, I got the news that my last book had been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award the day before my son's induction was scheduled – and after that induction, for a long time, there wasn’t enough left of me to do anything about the career that seemed to be going pretty well. After I got diagnosed, I got some treatment, and it was only after that I was able to write anything, and for a long time it was just little bits of stuff. Before that, the inside of my head wasn't a pretty sight.
Second: the point at which I vanished from the Internet was the month my son’s diagnosis of autism was confirmed. He was three years old, bright and beautiful and full of joy, and everyone adored him. They still do; he’s eleven now, and it was just before his eleventh birthday that he was also diagnosed with ADHD. (It's not uncommon for these to go together; along with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, epilepsy and all sorts of other neurodivergences; they often crop up in the same people and/or the same families.)
So there I was, with a perfect son, but we were looking at a double-black-diamond kind of perfect while most other parents were coasting down the bunny slope. A lot needed to be sorted out to get him supported, which meant wrestling with an education system not at all set up to work well for kids with special needs, and dealing with an outside world of prejudice and bureaucracy, as well as needing to learn a whole ton of specialised parenting skills quick smart. Everything else had to go on hold.
I wanted to be writing, but I was firefighting instead. And that went on for years.
Well, I still have PTSD – I always will, trauma kicks open a door in your head that never really closes – but I’m about as on top of it as I’m going to get. And my lovely boy is thriving; there are always going to be new fires to put out, but we know the drills now, and we’re about as much on top of it as SEN parents ever really are. (Special Educational Needs, that is. And the answer to how on top of it we ever get is, ‘About as much as any imperfect human being is ever on top of their parenting.’)
You live that life, though, and after a while it starts you thinking along different paths.
One day I was watching CBeebies with my son – and by ‘watching’, I mean the television was on, he was racketing around the room and occasionally glancing at it, and I was hoping he might see something he liked, maybe add something to the short list of things he enjoyed. Something came on – an episode of Tweenies, I think – in which a character visited a ruined church on the Isle of Man.
People had started to build it, she said, but during the night, the fairies ripped the roof off it. The builders had another go, but the next night, the fairies weren’t having it: off came the roof again. They tried over and over, day and night, build and destroy, and in the end, they gave up. Now all that stands are the walls of a church the fairies wouldn’t allow them to finish.
No one knows, she said, why the fairies didn't want a roof on the church, but clearly they didn’t.
‘What do you mean no one knows?’ I thought. ‘Isn't it obvious? The first time the fairies saw the church, it didn’t have a roof on it. So clearly it wasn’t supposed to have a roof, because if it was meant to have a roof, it would have had a roof. But it didn’t have a roof, so it shouldn’t have a roof. What’s so hard to understand?’
And thus, from a mind honed upon many thundering dramas over such apocalyptic issues as The Door Is Closed When It Should Be Open, You Took Off Your Glasses And They’re Supposed To Go On Your Face, and The Toothpaste Is On The Wrong Side Of The Sink, a certain . . . whim . . . started to emerge.
It took a long time. I’d forgotten how to write novels; I began with scraps of stories about the same people, watching them do this and that, playing with imaginary friends to cheer myself up on the difficult days. The stories started to get longer; the work started to hold me together.
I wasn’t writing any literal depiction of neurodivergence; I don’t have ADHD and I don’t think I’m autistic, so I can’t speak from the inside. Or not entirely; I did have a neurodivergent baby, after all, and while he gets some of that from his dad, I’m the one who fell in love with that dad. I a few traits that often go with autism - in particular, I have sensory sensitivities and special interests. A neurodivergence coach once looked at a form I'd filled in for someone else and asked that someone, 'Have you considered you might have dyspraxia? I'm just looking at the handwriting . . .' And I'm certainly clumsy, which goes with dyspraxia (and that does run in my family): put me at the top of a staircase with no rail, and wander off; I’ll probably still be there when you come back. I probably have, as I like to put it, 'a little spice in my sauce.'
But the idea of feyness – not the Victorian frilly wings, but the old folk tales of cold-weather, intransigent, flint-willed creatures of the land – had thoroughly caught my attention.
The thing is, neurodivergence and feyness have a long history together. Contemporary ND people often relate to the myth of the changeling. And the old stories of the changelings – some of which are horrible, horrible accounts of child abuse – do sometimes describe children who nowadays would be referred for a paediatric assessment. More than that, though, there’s the simple fact of the fairies: they seem irrational, but they aren’t lawless. Instead, they have rules of their own, which they hold to implacably, but which a normal person may not understand at all – until they cross them.
I was living in a home with more than one kind of person in it, living by more than one set of laws. I got that.
And we all play in our own ways. Finally, I felt like playing again.
The book I wrote, In The Heart Of Hidden Things, is not meant to speak for anyone except myself. It came from a place of learning to enjoy quirks, of fighting through a world that truly doesn’t care if your beautiful child is hurt and demeaned, of knowing what it is to worry about your children, of having fiery energy that couldn’t be let out anywhere else, of wanting to go home. A lot of my childhood was spent in the countryside, and my son’s needs meant that for years we couldn’t leave London, and like many books, I think it came from homesickness and needing to create a place where I could go.
People talk about fantasy as being ‘escapist’, but I don’t think I believe that. What this book was, for me, would be better called ‘respite-ist’: you go away and take a respite break, and then you have to come back and deal with the things and people that need caring for. I’m with Jeanette Winterson: ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’ So I wrote to grow places in my imagination that life had been breaking; I wrote to make myself laugh again. I’d been a hidden thing for a long time, but I felt able, at least, to stop hiding from myself.
All of which are my own reasons, of course. I could cheerfully suggest everyone read the book because it would please me, but I don’t expect that would get me very far. What I would say is that I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
The title of the book is taken from a wonderful poem by Charlotte Mew, herself no stranger to the worry that goes with family members whose brains aren’t the way the world expects them to be. I’ll finish quoting the part I used for an epigraph:
Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering . . .
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.