Anne Gildea: ‘The first draft was insane. It was so angry’
The autobiography of the comedian Anne Gildea is both a visceral account of breast cancer and a glimpse into a hard childhood
“But, frankly, doing the documentary filled up a space I used to wish could be filled up by a partner. It made it less lonely, because I didn’t have a partner and kids and stuff.”
The book went through four drafts. “It was very hard to get the tone right,” she says. “The first draft was insane. It was so angry. It was very dark. If it had been a painting it’d be a load of muddy oils.”
Why was it so angry? There is a long silence. Gildea’s book is not only a visceral account of breast cancer but also, in part, an examination of early family life.
She writes of being uprooted from suburban Manchester at five to a dilapidated inherited farmholding in rural Co Sligo. “I was raised in a glorified shed,” she puts it in the book. “The notion of home never came into it.”
“The anger was about things in the past,” she answers eventually. “There are sentences in the book that were originally 7,000-word chapters about childhood.”
One of them is this: “I regularly recalled something my father repeated throughout our childhood, that we, my brother, sister and I, were nothing but financial liabilities.”
The chapters about her early life make for uncomfortable reading. You can see shadows in the text but not what those shadows conceal. It’s as if she was undecided about how much to reveal of the “four damp-dripping, crumbling walls of that hated house” that “contained an unravelling of family.”
In fact I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse? is really two books: the account of her illness and a devastating sliver of unfinished memoir.
“The first thing I thought about when I got my diagnosis was that house,” she says. “It’s been the core motif of my life. All my life I’ve had nightmares about the house I grew up in.”
She says she didn’t write in more detail about those early years because she didn’t want to hurt anyone. The struggle between the desire to tell her story and the desire not to alienate her family is evident in the text.
Neither of her siblings has read the whole book. “They were both very worried about it, so I kept pulling back and pulling back about the early stuff.”
The book is dedicated to her parents, neither of whom has yet read it either. “I’ll send my mum a copy. She lives in England. I’ll send my dad a copy, too, but will he read it? I don’t know if he’ll be really interested. I dedicated it to them because I think that my parents’ greatest gifts to me were my siblings.”