For Milena: On grief and writing by Yannick Hill

My mother died in January and I started writing my novel, Versailles, in February. Grief was a prism. I saw suddenly what I was made of. The constituent elements

Yannick Hill: In grief I felt disassociation, so I wanted to write about something real, the world around me: the way social media and perpetual connectivity have brought with them another kind of disassociation: from ourselves and each other

Yannick Hill: In grief I felt disassociation, so I wanted to write about something real, the world around me: the way social media and perpetual connectivity have brought with them another kind of disassociation: from ourselves and each other

 

My mother Milena died of cancer aged 60. Three weeks before, on Christmas Eve, she was allowed to leave hospital for the night and wore a black dress with a repeating pattern of cherries. She looked and moved like a queen and received my gift of a crocodile carved of bone with surprise and delight. She was composed and beautiful, full of panache and righteous anger and always so frank. Later that evening – her newly silver hair cropped close and just a hint of makeup – she wondered out loud how she might score some heroin to ease the pain of her last breaths.

When the time came, a machine of clear Perspex delivered morphine at regular intervals. She lived a week longer than expected, we think because she could still hear our voices. It was only when Milena was gone that I realised how much of the world was hers. And when her vibrations ceased, when the music that I didn’t know was everywhere came to an end, the silence for a time felt total.

She died that January and I started writing my novel, Versailles, in February. I wrote quickly – in a kind of trance – 2,000 words a day, seven days a week. I had the first draft by spring and an agent by June. I can’t talk about what happened to me in those months without talking about grief, not because it explains everything but because it influenced the way I wrote. Grief was a prism. I saw suddenly what I was made of. The constituent elements.

In writing I felt angry, but there was no time for that.

Angry because my mother died young and we were just becoming close again. A silver-lined reconciliation drawn out over decades had ended in her passing, and I was in shock, no longer her son. I was angry with myself but there was no time for that. I had so much still to say to her and writing the novel felt like a last gasp, a breathless evocation of my best stories and wishes for the future, like catching up with her after years of silence, of not seeing her. Versailles was the early morning performance of a child showing off at the foot of the bed, trying to wake his mother from a deserved sleep.

In writing I felt angry and unlocked at the same time.

Unlocked because to love Milena was never enough. It didn’t matter how much you said it. At times in childhood it was a need I felt lost in. The countless scars under her clothes – some spelling out her name, and words I would never discern – told their own stories, but it was only as a teenager that I started to heed their meaning. I remember: the nightly visits to her room to see that she was breathing. At 14 I lost my mind for a fortnight, my sense of reality, of up and down, and inside and out. This is not the place to speak of it but I will say this: her death was a release. Like the astronaut who spins untethered into blackness. But also the opposite. A spinning towards light, a new sun. Grief as prism. In writing I could be who I wanted. My own kingdom. Its borders well-guarded.

In writing I felt angry and unlocked and more alive than ever.

Having not roller-skated for years, I bought some quads to celebrate reaching 50,000 words and immediately went arse over tit, spraining my ankle so that now I couldn’t do my daily run, and running – besides writing – was the thing keeping me sane. So having never really known how to swim, I taught myself in the local pool, and in a week I was doing 60 lengths. And soon swimming found its way into the book: for my protagonist, Missy, swimming is dreaming. Underwater in her private pool she can dream of another life, out from under the watchful eyes of her father, CEO of the pre-eminent social network. And so it was for me. In writing, I dreamed.

In writing I felt angry and unlocked and more alive than ever, but also removed, out-of-body.

The other swimmer in the novel is Synthea, Missy’s mother, the world’s foremost industrial designer. Her swims are into the open ocean, where she can lose herself, let go, invent. Creative flow can feel out-of-body. But the writing process is only divine in the sense that the writer divines: all the things we have seen and heard and done, we channel and reorder. Transmogrify. And in the execution and the reading back it can seem like something new. People ask me if the book is about Milena, if Synthea is based on her. The answer is yes, but not in a way I can reveal, not because it’s a secret, but because it’s a mystery, even to me.

Grief as prism. In writing I felt angry and unlocked and more alive than ever, but also removed, out-of-body. I saw things differently. The constituent colours. A rush of perspective.

In grief I felt disassociation, so I wanted to write about something real, the world around me: the way social media and perpetual connectivity have brought with them another kind of disassociation: from ourselves and each other. Fiction as prism. In Versailles, Missy’s escape from her father’s mega-mansion is also an escape from the internet, from a life of forever being witnessed, by everyone but herself.

The following winter I was in Ireland, in Galway, where my best friend lived, and I was ready to write another book. Some days I’d cycle down to Blackrock and swim in the bay, out as far as I dared into the freezing Atlantic, and it’s in those depths I could lose myself, my edges, let go. Swimming as dreaming. Out there I met Milena, again and again, in another dimension, and never loved her more.

Versailles by Yannick Hill is published by Unbound

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