Cancer, Covid and finishing my first novel

‘It felt good to have something to concentrate on other than the two great calamities’

Gill Darling: “The parties, gigs and festivals that I would have had to go without were all cancelled. Everyone had bad hair, so my lack of hair didn’t feel like such a loss.”

Gill Darling: “The parties, gigs and festivals that I would have had to go without were all cancelled. Everyone had bad hair, so my lack of hair didn’t feel like such a loss.”

 

The day I took the phone call from my publishers to discuss putting out my debut novel, Erringby, my hair started falling out. I’d had the first of six rounds of chemo 18 days previously.

I’ve been writing, on and off, for much of my life. In 2016 I took voluntary redundancy from my job and had the luxury of not having to work for a year or two. I completed a novel. It didn’t find a publisher. I wrote another one, a coming-of-age story set in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with shades of Great Expectations. I don’t have an agent, so I sent the opening chapters and synopsis off to small indie publishers who take unagented submissions.

I was diagnosed with synchronous bilateral breast cancer (translation: they’d found dodgy stuff on both sides, plus in my armpits) just before Christmas 2019. It’s a rare event, accounting for somewhere between 0.3 per cent and 12 per cent of breast cancers. The day after my diagnosis, I got an email from Fairlight Books asking for my whole manuscript. I wasn’t in any state to work on tidying up the novel. I attached the whole document to an email, hit Send, and more or less forgot about it until I had an email from one of Fairlight’s editors six weeks later asking if I was available to talk on the phone.

I had a publishing deal, but I also had a lot of work to do on the book that would become Erringby. The publishers praised my writing style, and loved the novel’s premise, but wanted changes to the opening, and there were too many character points of view. Most dauntingly, the book was too long. Way too long. I needed to prune it by about 20 per cent. Anxieties started piling on. Would I be physically capable of delivering an edited manuscript? Chemo brain, I was fast learning, is most definitely a thing. Would my author photograph, taken a year previously, be acceptable, or would I have to be immortalised with a bad beanie hat and no eyebrows?

I explained my health issues to Fairlight, and they were very understanding and offered me flexibility, but I was determined to turn my book in on time.

I had a holiday booked in the Dales with four writer friends. We had a wonderful week in the interstice period between Storms Ciara and Dennis, now relegated to a distant footnote in 2020 UK history, and I started work on my edits. One of my fellow writers is from York, and we talked about the case of coronavirus found in a visitor to university accommodation there, and hoped it wouldn’t spread any further.

I think I was in denial about Covid for a while, kidding myself it wouldn’t affect me. I carried on commuting to my part-time job in Manchester city centre. Eventually, with my health issues, I realised I needed to take this thing seriously and agreed with my employer that I would work from home. The next day, lockdown was announced and my office closed its doors completely.

Every night on the news bus drivers, care workers and frontline medical staff were dying. There was talk of intensive care beds running out, ventilators being rationed. I wondered: who decides who gets one? As a 56-year-old woman, would I get one? For the first time since childhood, I felt frightened of an external force. Staff at the Christie Hospital, where I was being treated, didn’t have PPE, and didn’t for weeks. I stopped listening to news radio. I came off social media. I hunkered down, concentrating on my health, and on my book. I chipped away at my edits. My hair continued to fall out.

Nervous of using up all my occupational sick pay, I used my day off to go for chemo and tried to work the other four days. Work were wonderfully accommodating, letting me flex my hours.

I wish I could say I wrote while having treatment, scribbling away in the chemo chair, excising adverbs and honing phrases. The reality was that the industrial quantities of antihistamines they pumped into me prior to each treatment put me to sleep pretty much instantly.

Things became weirdly normal. The Christie staff got their PPE, and started screening everyone on entry to the hospital. If you must have cancer treatment, you may as well have it during a global pandemic. It turned out that working from home was a gift. I could knock off at four, then go straight to bed for a nap, without worrying if I had enough energy to get myself home on a bus. The parties, gigs and festivals that I would have had to go without were all cancelled. Everyone had bad hair, so my lack of hair didn’t feel like such a loss.

Life was very quiet, and very constrained. I could count the number of people I saw face to face, other than doctors and nurses, on one hand. My one retail treat was shopping at the tiny WHSmith at the Christie. I was overjoyed when they stocked a modest selection of books, on a three-for-two offer. I bought lots.

I was running against the clock to submit my edits before I was due for surgery in early July. Brit Bennett has described writing a novel as “spending years of your life trying to solve a series of problems that you created for yourself”. I juggled scenes, over and over again, trying to find a structure that worked. It felt good to have something to concentrate on other than the two great calamities, one global, the other deeply personal.

A week before I was due to have surgery I had some good news: chemo had worked well, meaning that the double mastectomy I’d been led to believe was inevitable was going to be a double lumpectomy instead. I finished my edits, and submitted the revised manuscript to my editor.

The timing was good: the time my editor needed to read through my editorial changes was the time I needed to recover from surgery. The weather was glorious and I sat in my garden for three weeks reading, mostly old favourites like The Blind Assassin and Tender Is the Night.

2021, and a follow-up mammogram, has found me, for now, cancer-free. The Herceptin injections I had as part of my treatment have affected my heart, but I don’t have any symptoms and I’m hoping it’s manageable. With the edits, plus the further stages of copyediting and proofreading finally complete, Erringby is now ready for publication and will be in bookshops in June.

I’m writing another novel.

Erringby by Gill Darling is published by Fairlight Books

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