A book - and baby came too!
LET'S get one thing straight from the off: the travails of Sarah Bilston's fictional heroine are not her own. Although both were confined to bed during pregnancy, there the comparison ends.
LET'S get one thing straight from the off: the travails of Sarah Bilston's fictional heroine are not her own. Although both were confined to bed during pregnancy, there the comparison ends. The author is keen to point out her marriage doesn't require urgent maintenance and her relationship with her mum is just fine, thank you very much!
“People think that because it's written in the first person it must be you; but the mother character isn't my mother and the husband isn't my husband!” she laughs, her brightness belying the fact one of her young twins was up from 3am until six, adamant he needed to be fed and hang the hour.
In Bed Rest, her debut novel, lawyer Quinn “Q” Boothroyd is told to put her life on hold or risk having her baby three months prematurely. As biscuits and mindless daytime TV begin to fill her days, she's forced to take stock of just about all the fundamental aspects of her existence - small matters such as why does Tom appear more keen to spend time with his BlackBerry than his wife? Were all those hours she's been putting in at work really the be-all and end-all? Why are her sister and mother driving her nuts?
Sarah was prescribed 11 weeks of bed rest when expecting first child Maisie, who was born in 2004. But instead of having to unpick relationships with her nearest and dearest, she saw the experience as a opportunity to write.
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“I was talking to my husband one day and we thought it would be a fantastic premise for a novel because bed rest is something that is quite common but not many people know about. And it does impose interesting constraints on a writer: how do you make a novel set in one room interesting? It's the Rear Window phenomenon - the Hitchcock film - of somebody observing life rather than participating in it.”
The nitty gritty was, she said, either made up or gleaned from other mums-to-be who were advised to rest.
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“In normal life you can kind of keep the dark recesses of your mind at bay, if you know what I mean - through routine. When those things go, everything can flood in: it's you and the four walls. I thought that could be quite a dangerous experience if you felt you had some secrets there and some skeletons in the closet you hadn't really come to terms with.
“I have to say - and I hate to sound horribly smug - but I don't really have those. It was a bit of a novelist's trick rather than an autobiographical experience!”
The book was published nearly a year ago in the United States and is now out on this side of the Atlantic. It struck a chord with many American readers, though provoked others: “Why is this heroine complaining about the burden of pregnancy when she chose to be pregnant?” they demanded.
“I thought that was a really interesting response. I heard it several times; as if, once you'd decided to be pregnant, then everything else should just be tea and cake: that you should just be thrilled every single day no matter what pregnancy throws at you.
“This was a wanted pregnancy, of course, but that doesn't mean you don't have ambiguous feelings; that you don't sometimes feel ambivalent, or frustrated and angry.
“That was actually the point of the novel, in a sense: 'Look, if this happens to you and you have a high-risk pregnancy, you might feel this way - and it doesn't make you inhuman.' It's absolutely human, and mothers feel all sorts of things about their children. They love them to bits; but you can feel angry, sometimes, and that's normal. I wanted to chart that full range of feelings.”
Despite the “not autobiographical” tag, it's hard for the outsider to gauge where Q stops and Sarah begins. Quinn lives on through a web blog “written” by her. If the two women were circles in a Venn diagram, there would be much overlap - in thought patterns and opinions at least.
What writing the book most definitely did do, says Sarah, was get her very interested in the phenomenon of bed rest and its consequences.
“I did quite a bit of research online and I got involved in organisations that support women on bed rest, and I got quite passionate about it. I felt there were a lot of women out there who were really struggling on bed rest: who felt enormously guilty about the burden it was imposing on their family, on their husbands - maybe the impact of lost wages on the family - women feeling isolated, getting depressed.
“It can be so extreme; it does often mean you can't get out of bed for 24 hours a day, often for months and months on end. I wanted to communicate in the novel something of that: to make it clear that this isn't a picnic.
“People hear 'bed rest' and think 'Ooh, marvellous; I fancy a break myself.' But if it's four months, and you're just not moving, and your family is struggling and your husband is in over his head, and your children are miserable, and you're in great pain . . .
“I wanted the novel to be fun, but I did want to get something of the seriousness of bed rest out there. Even though for me it could have been a lot worse - Daniel (Markovits, a law professor at Yale Law School) worked at home a lot and I had a huge amount of support, and because of the job I do I felt more able to get on with my normal life - I felt I wanted to get out there what it was like for most people. I had a bit of zeal about that.”
She's not even sure bed rest always works. Of course, doctors act in good faith, but Sarah's talked to a researcher who suggested the medical community underestimated the side-effects. For one thing, she claims, there's an increased risk of thrombosis. We ought to be sure it works, she argues, before we recommend it.
She also points out that the amount of bed rest varies region by region and doctor by doctor. More studies are needed on its effect and efficiency, she suggests.
In Sarah's case, she had bed rest for both her pregnancies; the 11 weeks first time around being followed by 15 weeks with twins Karl and Rosa - born last October - because it seemed she was going into labour after 22 weeks. There was another six weeks of rest after delivery because of pre-eclampsia.
“The first time, I followed the instructions to the letter. I was told 'Don't even make yourself a bowl of cereal in the morning.' The second time around, I wasn't willing to be quite so . . . I didn't exactly run marathons, but I thought 'Yes, I'm making my own cereal in the mornings!' Then I would rest for part of the day. But I wasn't convinced enough that it was going to work to be willing to put my life totally on hold.”
On a lighter note, she laughs that “everything” surprised her about motherhood. “How hard it is, for a start! The sleep deprivation is one thing. I think before I had children it was one of those things that I thought was almost a joke.
“The other thing - and it probably sounds a bit cheesy - is how much you love your kids, how much they become so central to everything, and how protective you feel. I feel I would wrestle a lion to the ground if necessary.”
Passionate about stories when a girl, and one of those children who would read with a torch under the bedclothes, Sarah had started writing before her own youngsters appeared on the scene. A children's novel, set in East Anglia, was her first attempt at something full length: an early effort she might pull out of the drawer in the future and see if she can do anything with.
Academic writing was second nature, of course, because of her job as a college lecturer. In 2004 she had a book published on representations of adolescence in Victorian literature. “I loved to write, but the sad thing about academic work is that, unless you're incredibly successful, about six people read what you have to say!
“I felt myself drawn to writing fiction that would, hopefully, make people want to read as I had wanted to read, rather than this high-falutin' stuff.”
With academic work, every sentence has to be carefully measured and thoroughly researched, “whereas with fiction you can just luxuriate in the pleasure of writing a sentence. It's not that you don't think it through and think carefully about it - I love coming up with a nicely-crafted sentence - it's not that it just flows out of the pen; but you can enjoy the pleasure of writing every day, instead of parcelling it up into something you're going to do in eight months' time.”
A sequel is planned. Sleepless Nights will pick up on Quinn's life, but from a different angle, a few weeks after the birth of her child. “Some background characters come into the foreground.”
Being able to dovetail teaching with writing is rather a happy place to be - and Sarah feels she now has the chance to forge a career as a fiction writer. “It's kind of a dream come true, frankly.”
Bed Rest is published by Sphere at £12.99. ISBN 978-1-84744-012-9
Web links: www.bedrestdiary.co.uk www.sarahbilston.co.uk
THANKS to understanding and accommodating employers at Trinity College, Connecticut, where she's assistant professor of English literature, Sarah Bilston is able to enjoy a reunion with Suffolk - the county in which she grew up.
She's in England until August, her husband currently on paternity leave, and has already been back to East Anglia. Her mother, Barbara, still lives near Stowmarket - in the house she moved to more than 30 years ago.
What does mum, a Church of England rural dean, think of the novel, bearing in mind Q's own difficult relationship with her mother, not to mention The Modern Woman's Things To Do Before Hitting Thirty tick-box list - including “have sex three times a week”? Does she raise an eyebrow or have a good chuckle at such things?
“Oh, yes. She's my biggest fan. She's been amazing. She's always one for a laugh, my mum.”
The academic-turned-author misses Suffolk enormously: friends and family, obviously, but also the county's geography.
“There's nothing like the big Suffolk sky, and Suffolk in August is just a joy: the wonderful time when you have a totally blue sky and a field of corn. But life moves you in different places.”
For about half a dozen years that place has been Connecticut, with Daniel a professor at Yale Law School. Sarah initially had a teaching role at Yale, in women's and gender studies, before switching to a liberal arts college in the same state.
They live in a small town called Durham. It's quite a rural area; when Sarah's mother visits, she remarks how similar it is to her corner of Suffolk. “There's a house in Bacton that's the spitting image of the house we have in Connecticut. You can see how people took the architecture out with them,” says Sarah.
A nearby town is called Essex; another Cheshire. A Norwich isn't far away, while a map also shows a Colchester.
Connecticut skies are not as big as Suffolk, however. “It's a little more hilly. It has its own appeal, but the wide fields, and the lack of hills (in East Anglia) does make a particularly huge sky, I think. Actually, the closest place I can think of to it in America is Texas, which is where my husband's family live now, and again you get this sense of an enormous sky, because of these even bigger fields.”
Sarah's parents bought their house in Old Newton in 1972 and she was born the following year. After the local primary and middle schools, Sarah went to Ipswich High School at the age of 11.
She did her BA and MA at University College London, in English literature, and a PhD in Victorian literature at Oxford from 1995-2000. It's there she met her husband-to-be.
Daniel was born in England but spent most of his life in the U.S., though he also grew up in London, where his novelist brother lives.