Friday, September 18, 2015

KATE LONG: Something Only We Know

We are delighted to welcome Kate Long to the blog today. Kate shows how one character, invented during a creative writing lesson, led to her latest novel.

Kate Long
Helen Crossley stepped out of my head and onto the page during a creative writing lesson I was teaching. The class had been considering ways to flesh out characters, and we’d all done an exercise together. My own attempt had produced Helen, and though at first the only two aspects I could see were her anorexia and her striking red hair, she quickly began to fill me in on the detail of her life.

She was thirty and still living at home. Her mother was understandably over-protective, and her father baffled by her illness. Her sister Jen, eight years younger, seemed distant and busy. Helen’s best support – the man who’d got her through the very worst of the illness and the bleakest times – was stable, patient, loyal Ned, who’d spent the past twelve years helping her recover.

And yet she nursed a shameful secret. For all Ned’s devotion, she remained obsessed by her first boyfriend. She could not stop imagining where he might be now, if he’d married, whether he was happy. What’s more, she understood that before she could move on and get out into the world as an independent adult, she’d have to address the past – whatever damage it might inflict on those around her.

So that was Helen. But then I thought, was it actually her story? Somehow I felt it wasn’t. It seemed more interesting to me to look at the issue of anorexia from a bystander’s point of view. I began to think about Jen, and what it might be like to grow up with such a fragile, enigmatic older sister. Helen was beautiful and ethereal, and always the focus of attention. Their mother’s eyes were on her continually. Ned (lovely, lovely Ned) was at her beck and call. Obviously Jen loved Helen; sometimes, though, she couldn’t help feeling pushed aside.
And when you threw into the mix her other problems – a bullying boss, a career going nowhere, a thoughtless, uncommitted boyfriend – then it became clear that in her own way Jen was as vulnerable as Helen.

I knew the sisters would have to unite to help each other, but that there’d be a cost. If Jen enabled Helen to confront that first, painful romance, there was a terrible risk the eating disorder might be triggered again. At the same time there was the problem of Jen’s friendship with Ned growing ever closer and confused. I wanted to explore the psychology of manipulation and collusion that exists within so many families.

In the end, Something Only We Know grew into a novel about how you balance what your heart desires against the duties you owe to family and sisterhood. Do you hurt those closest to you to get what you truly feel is yours? Or do you keep your mouth closed, and sacrifice it all? Is a sister more important than the man you know is right for you? Only Jen and Helen together can find the answer to that one.


Thank you, Kate. Another great book to add to our ‘to be read’ pile.
The RNA Blog is brought to you by,

Elaine Everest & Natalie Kleinman

If you are a full member and would like to write for the blog please contact us on


Rhoda Baxter said...

This sounds really interesting.
Kate, years ago, on the BBC Get Writing site, you posted a piece where you likened depression to a duvet. More than ten years on, I still remember it, so it was pretty powerful. It remains one of the best descriptions of depression I've read. I thought about it a lot when writing Peter in Please Release Me.
Just wanted to say thanks!


Kath McGurl said...

A brilliant novel, and it's lovely to read about its genesis. I'm particularly interested to hear you started with Helen.

Rhoda - I also remember that duvet (or blanket?) depression piece on GW. Very powerful.

Kate said...

Thank you both! That's very kind. Thrilled to know something I wrote became in influence in another piece of writing.