I was sitting in the hospital waiting room when I found the leaflet.
I’m sure a story of sorts had existed in my head by then, because I had originally visualised The Book of Us as a series of letters between two best friends, one with a baby, begging for forgiveness, the other trying to pretend she’d moved on with her life whilst feeling like none of it was quite right.
But the story changed in the hospital waiting room. I’d found a lump in my breast and was waiting for an ultrasound. My partner sat there, drinking crappy coffee, reading the newspaper and pretending he wasn’t worried. This had happened once before, and it had been nothing, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad sign. (And oh, the ridiculousness of guilt when you find yourself to be fine, as you’ve wasted NHS time by being okay). So no, I wasn’t panicking yet, but as with most things as an author, you find a ‘what if’ and you let your mind wander down that road.
The leaflet I found was one of the many excellent resources provided by Macmillan, and it was about travelling with cancer. How to make sure you could still travel safely, what to consider, how to move forward. I thought, of course – the thing everyone says they’d do if they got sick is travel. And this must mean people actually did it.
Something about that was comforting, and I stuffed the leaflet in my bag as I went through for the ultrasound. Everything was fine and there was nothing to worry about. But I went home thinking about where I would have travelled if I had been sick. How I would have acted and arranged my life, what I would have regretted.
And then somehow, a story was born. A story about two women who loved each other, who had that sort of obsessive, two-halves-of-a-whole friendship until something had torn them apart. Something that felt like betrayal but may have actually just been growing up and growing in different directions. That’s a different sort of heartbreak altogether.
And I thought about a young woman, one who’d been vibrant and lived every moment and regretted nothing, and how a woman like that would deal with dying. Whether she’d be stoic, or chaotic, continuing to live each day or raging against the dying of the light.
Whenever I get too in my head, I think about what I’d like people to say about me when I’m gone, and of course it’s the boring stuff, because that’s what matters. Being kind, and loving and loyal. Being brave and funny and smiling a lot. People remember your smile, it’s often the thing I think about the people I’ve loved and lost.
And then I thought about this character, Cassidy Jones, and how much that would piss her off. Because being reduced to simple, friendly words when she held worlds within her would have really flipped her pancakes. Here was a woman who sang karaoke on a bar top at midnight, and could burp the alphabet and once refused a proposal from a diplomat’s son, and when she was gone you’d talk about how kind she was?
I don’t write this to be maudlin. I was safe that day and I have been incredibly lucky so far in my health and my life. But it was that moment of ‘what if’ that birthed a story. That birthed a person, a character, who was incredibly real to me for the months that I wrote her, and I hope very real now to those who read about her.