I’m so excited to introduce this week’s writer in the attic, début author, Polly Phillips, as we recently spent a balmy Perth evening together, along with another couple of Perth authors, talking writing and books and life.
Polly’s post today continues those themes and is poignant and beautiful – about the pandemic, the death of her father and the salvation of writing through her grief.
Polly Phillips currently lives in sunny Perth with her husband, daughter and much-loved rescue dog. She is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen and Dubai before settling in Western Australia. Her début novel, My Best Friend’s Murder, won the Montegrappa Writing Prize at the Emirates Literature Festival in 2019 and was released in Australia at the beginning of 2021. Her second thriller, The Reunion, about a woman hell-bent on revenge, will be out in 2022.
Writing as therapy
Ernest Hemingway said writing is sitting at your typewriter and bleeding. At the other end of the creative spectrum, Taylor Swift likens composing songs to keeping a diary.
Clearly the idea of writing as therapy is nothing new. While the thought of being the next Ernest Hemingway or even Taylor Swift definitely appeals, I’ve already had a lot of therapy.
When I finished my first book, I was finally at a point in my life where I didn’t think I needed any more; I just wanted to write another twisty, page-turning thriller. I didn’t need therapy in the process.
Until 2020, when the global pandemic left me clinging to my second novel like some sort of literary comfort blanket. Ironically, it turned out that writing my novel wasn’t just therapy; it was an emotional life support.
When my brother rang from drizzly, overcast London last April, the sun was blazing in Perth and I was walking in a park, brimming with editorial ideas. It felt like a world away when he told me my dad had been rushed to hospital. He said the doctors thought it might be a urine infection or perhaps a stroke. He urged me to talk to him, saying I might not get another chance to say goodbye.
I thought my brother was being melodramatic and was still hopeful my dad might recover – he was strong; he was a fighter. He was our rock. And at least he didn’t have Covid.
Until he did. When I spoke to my family the next day and they told me the doctors had diagnosed Covid, any hope for my dad’s recovery ebbed away.
Australia had already closed its borders and British hospitals were overflowing. Covid was tearing through my father’s body, ravaging his organs and I had no way of getting back to see him.
Just over a week after he was admitted, my dad died. I had to say goodbye over the phone. I still haven’t been able to see the rest of my family and I have no idea when I’ll get back to London. Some days, writing is the only thing that helps.
I know many people found it hard to write through the pandemic; I found it hard not to. As soon as my husband was at work and my daughter was at school, I literally and metaphorically closed the door on everything else. As a child, I’d escaped by reading a book; as an adult, I escaped by writing one.
I wrote when I didn’t feel like it, I wrote when the words wouldn’t come, and I wrote when the words that came were rubbish. It filled the gap and, as a result, my second book was finished a lot quicker than my first.
Like my début novel, My Best Friend’s Murder, The Reunion is a domestic thriller, about a woman who goes back to university to get revenge on the gang whose actions nearly destroyed her as a student. It’s been tremendous therapy because although it’s set in the UK, there’s no overlap between the lives I’m writing about and the life I’m grieving for.
That said, my grief still escapes in small ways. I’ve chosen to write about Cambridge, a city my dad loved to spend time in. Like me, the main character in The Reunion has no surviving parents and, like me, she’s immensely frustrated about the lack of control she has over her own life. Writing it down has helped me process and come to terms with that – luckily without needing to enact any grand revenge plans in the process.
I’m not sure what my parents would have made of my books or whether the books themselves are the better for being part of a therapeutic process. I do know that 2021 is expected to be a bumper year for books, with agents being inundated with manuscripts and more début novels being published than ever. Cynics have said that being in lockdown has given every man, woman or dog the time to write the book we all have inside of us.
I see it a different way: necessity is the mother of invention, so perhaps it’s not that people have found the time to write a book, but that they need to. Maybe it’s not just me (and Ernest Hemingway and Taylor Swift) who uses writing as therapy.
This is the reason I’m looking forward to seeing all the books coming out in 2021 – because they prove that something positive can come from a negative if you look hard enough. I know that’s something my dad would agree with.
Polly has kindly donated a copy of My Best Friend’s Murder to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of the social media posts about Polly’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 15th April, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.