How to be somewhere else: Louise Beech on great writing’s power to transport us

How to be Brave author Louise Beech used the story of her grandfather’s survival at sea after being shipwrecked to persuade her daughter to take life-saving injections

We all like to go somewhere else when we read. When we open a book we want to be transported from our sagging sofa or stained bus seat, from a difficult situation, from the tedium of our daily lives, to another place, another time, another life.

There was a moment while reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief that I found myself, quite literally, in another world. When bombs fell on characters I’d come to love, I was there. I could smell fire, and feel dust from collapsing rubble, and hear sirens. Eventually I looked up off the page, took a breath like I’d been underwater for a long time. The alien room and modern-day paperbacks and laptop and flashing smartphone surprised me.

I remembered. I’m me. This is where I really live.

Such is the power of great writing. For children who believe in Santa, he exists. For anyone who believes in God, He exists. When I’m reading an incredible piece of fiction, I believe every single word.

There was a time five years ago when I was responsible for taking my daughter somewhere else so she might endure multiple daily blood tests and injections, and this experience inspired the novel How to be Brave.

Katy was only seven when she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. It occurred at an already difficult time; we’d been flooded a month earlier, lost our house, our car, our possessions. They paled into insignificance when our daughter almost lost her life.

This completely random condition – not to be confused with Type 2 Diabetes – meant our little girl had to follow a careful diet, monitor all exercise, correct violent, debilitating hypos with glucose tablets, and suffer up to six or seven daily blood tests and injections. For three years she did all this with little complaint.

Then in 2010, aged 10, Katy decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. Sadly, you can’t switch Type 1 Diabetes off. You can’t have a holiday from it. You can’t wake up and decide that today you’re just going to be like everyone else. Without regular insulin, you die.

We pleaded with our daughter to have her injections; we cajoled, begged, blackmailed. It was a horrible time, harder than the initial dash to the hospital with a semi-conscious child in the back of the car, dreading a doctor saying cancer.

So I started telling Katy tales. Reluctantly, she agreed to give her blood in exchange for my words. She would let me inject both insulin into her thigh and stories into her head. But the trade was no easy one. I’ve been writing since I was eight, but inventing aloud, impromptu, and in those circumstances, was challenging.

Katy criticised my made-up stories about animals. She mocked my true-life stories of her early years. You’d better get good at this, she said, or else no deal.

How on earth could I transport her the way I had been at the end of The Book Thief? Where could I find words that would eliminate her pain? It would have to be a truly great story.

I knew one. But I had no clue how to start.

Long ago, my grandfather Colin Armitage was a Hull Merchant Seaman who lived his life on the waves. In 1943 he survived 50 days adrift on the South Atlantic Sea, an ordeal that has been explored in newspaper articles, TV documentaries, and in a memoir by the only other survivor. Mementoes and medals have been part of a display at London’s Imperial War Museum.

But what was Colin’s story? How could I tell it when he’d died before I was born? Because I know him. Because I’ve been haunted by him all my life.

So Katy and I – over a period of six weeks – began sharing this incredible tale of survival. For each injection she’d be waiting on my bed and I’d bring a little more of the story. Each bruise and pinprick she suffered I’d cushion with a visit to the lifeboat, where Colin and 13 other men struggled to live. Each drop of blood I drew she barely acknowledged as we visited the sea. My bed became that lifeboat. The room disappeared. We didn’t believe because it was true – we believed because the words were magic.

I began to dread the last chapter. Would Katy again resist her diabetes medication when it was over? I needn’t have worried. My 10-year-old daughter said that what she had to do each day was nothing compared to what her great-grandad had experienced.

Wonderful words – but I think she’s wrong. Bravery is bravery. There’s no bigger or smaller courage. Katy continues to meet each challenge her condition presents, sometimes with difficulty but never again with such complete resistance.

I didn’t start How to be Brave straight after our time on the boat. Though I’d already written a couple of other novels, and 40 or so short stories, I wanted to improve. Wanted to be the best I could at my craft so I’d give Colin the voice he deserved. Also, Katy’s initial diabetes diagnosis was something I’d never fully explored, and it would be like going through it all over again.

So I began with a short piece. When it was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, I felt more confident and started the book. Inspired by Katy, I created the fictional story of mother, Natalie, and her daughter, Rose, coping with her diabetes. But when they share Colin’s wartime sea survival tale, I tried to stick with the truth. I read articles, studied old photos, and got facts from family members. I had to guess Colin’s feelings, imagine what kept him going, and then create scenes based on that.

I love novels that have more than one narrative. Multiple viewpoints can, I think, bring richness, each complementing the other. So I told the main story in Natalie’s first-person perspective, wrote in third person when she tells the lifeboat tale, and gave Colin voice via a fictional diary. It was a joy to be him. I got to know the grandad I’d never met.

There is a Beethoven quote I wrote in my ideas notepad – “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”

In How to be Brave I wanted to explore the divine power of storytelling at its most intense – the power of stories that quite literally save lives. Stories that unite us with loved ones. Stories that live long after we have gone.

I wanted to show that by going somewhere else, we make the here more bearable.