“A stroke had crackled through her brain five days ago.” I wrote this sentence about Carrigan’s mother in April of 2013. It was the first chapter of my new novel, The Intrusions – Carrigan has just got a call from the hospital. They ask him to come urgently. He arrives to find his mother unresponsive, locked inside her own brain.
Exactly a year later, April 2014, I received the same call. My father had just had the first of the three strokes he would undergo over the next two years.
It felt surreal. I’d chosen a stroke for Carrigan’s mother because I didn’t know anyone who’d suffered from one and it didn’t seem to be tempting fate too much. But that’s the nature of writing. Many novelists comment on how things they’ve written have a tendency to come true. William Burroughs was convinced of it.
But maybe the answer’s a lot simpler and our unconscious knows things we don’t? Maybe the worst fears we have about those we love are buried so deep inside they only manage to slither out through the medium of fiction? I don’t know. I only know that this happens far more than it should – that every novel I’ve written has had a time-bomb inside of it that would later explode in my own life.
I spent a couple of months visiting my dad in hospital. I sat by his bed and said the same things to him that Carrigan tells his mother in the novel. When I wrote those scenes I was in the lucky position of being unfamiliar with hospitals but when I was sitting in the room with my father, it was exactly the same room I’d described a year earlier. I would come back every day from the hospital and sit down to redraft but there wasn’t much new detail to add.
There’s a scene near the end of The Intrusions where the doctor takes Carrigan aside and tells him that his mother is no longer responding and that there’s nothing they can do. A year ago to the day I’m writing this (January 8th, 2016) I had the exact same conversation with my father’s doctor. She was telling me that the damage was too severe, that he would never wake up or, if he did, never recover fully. I listened to her and nodded, the words almost exactly those that my fictional doctor tells Carrigan. When I answered her, I found myself using the words Carrigan does.
You reach your mid-forties. You still think a mid-life crisis is all about fast cars or a new passion for mountaineering but what they don’t tell you, what they never tell you, is that the biggest crisis for most of us in middle age is the slow degeneration and ultimate death of our parents. Though both my parents were healthy when I started writing The Intrusions, they weren’t young and, subconsciously, I suppose I was preparing myself for the worst. Write what you don’t know you know I always tell creative writing students – It used to excite me; these days, it scares me a little.
The Intrusions is published by Faber