Tania Unsworth: ‘My father was almost heroic to me. Then he cut me out of his life’

I spent years writing stories for the approval of my father, Barry Unsworth. But when I published my first novel our relationship changed for ever

Tania Unsworth. Photograph: Courtesy of Tania Unsworth

Tania Unsworth. Photograph: Courtesy of Tania Unsworth

 

After my father, the novelist Barry Unsworth, died, my uncle asked us if we wanted any of his clothes. He led my two sisters and me to the bed where he had laid them out. It was an awkward, overwhelmingly sad moment. We had no practical use for these tweed sports jackets, M&S jumpers and lone Burberry mac. No sentimental attachment to them either, apart from the fact that they had once held his shape. Even so, we took a while to make our selections.

I chose a khaki jacket – the kind of bland garment designed to make old people even more invisible than they already are. I had never seen my father wear it – or, in fact, any of the clothes on the bed – because I hadn’t met my father, or even spoken to him, in 15 years.

The estrangement was his choice, not mine.

It is extraordinarily hard to write these words. As someone lucky enough to have had a loving and mostly happy childhood, I grew up assuming that the bond between parent and child was virtually unbreakable. That no matter how annoying, troublesome or hurtful an adult child might be, a parent would never entirely turn their back. To discover I was mistaken – that my father’s love was conditional after all – seemed so fundamentally, bewilderingly wrong that I was unable to accept it. And until a couple of years before he died, I never relinquished the belief that it was no more than a terrible misunderstanding that would eventually be put right.

On the way home from my uncle’s house, with the khaki jacket folded in a bag on my lap, I got the idea that there was a letter from my father in one of the pockets. It would be written, as all his letters were, with a black ballpoint, in his beautifully legible handwriting; more familiar to me than his face itself. I didn’t know what the letter would contain. An admission, perhaps. An explanation. Perhaps just a simple greeting.

I knew there was no letter. How could there be? Yet the idea persisted. After all, writing was always the way he and I had communicated.

My father once told me that he dreamed not in pictures, but only in words. Growing up, our lives revolved around his writing, when he was still struggling to find critical and commercial success. It would be years before his novels Pascali’s Island and Morality Play were adapted to film and he won the Booker prize for Sacred Hunger. His perseverance in the face of an indifferent world seemed utterly noble to me as a child. Almost heroic. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that all three of his daughters were precocious readers and writers, since demonstrating an interest in the written word never failed to win his approval.

Every year at Christmas, we wrote “books” for him, toiling for weeks over implausible plots and volumes of melodramatic poetry, our handwriting getting bigger and bigger in an effort to fill up our exercise books. I still have an entire Norse saga that I presented to him when I was 10.

My father Barry Unsworth: I was convinced that writing had the power to resurrect our relationship. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
My father Barry Unsworth: I was convinced that writing had the power to resurrect our relationship. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

My father never laughed at these offerings, ludicrous though they must have seemed. On Christmas afternoon, I would watch in breathless anticipation as he read what I had written, slowly turning the pages, his face full of thoughtful appreciation. He was just as interested in the journals we kept when we went on holiday. We were trying to copy his habit of filling notebooks with writerly observations, although, when I sneaked a glimpse at what he had written, I sometimes wondered whether we were actually on the same trip. Where I might write: “This morning we went on a walk and it was v hot and Maddy was showing off the whole time,” my father’s entry for the day would make no mention of these events. Instead, he would have spent a whole paragraph describing the colour of the sea and another on how one church reminded him of another.

That was what real writers wrote about, I thought.

In my family, stories – the ones we made up and the ones we read – featured large. Discussed over supper, told at bedtime, used to pass the time whenever we were bored. Stories were our bread and butter. Stories were gold. I knew I had got my father’s full attention when, as I chattered about something or other, I saw a particular look come over his face. Intent, focused, strangely inward.

“There’s a story in there,” he would say. And suddenly I would see it, too, understanding that stories are never truly invented, but merely discovered, dug up like fossils, with language the tool of their extraction.

There’s a story in there. The words have never lost their thrill.

When I was in my teens, my father left our home in Cambridge for long periods of time to work as writer-in-residence in different places. We wrote to each other while we were apart. I covered pages trying to make revising for O-levels and the eccentricities of the old lady next door sound entertaining. My father’s letters were shorter, yet far more thrilling, giving one the sense – as all his letters did – of being singled out, the lone recipient of his private thoughts.

While he thought the book was good and showed promise, none of that mattered because I had done something unforgivable

I carried on writing to him through college and beyond. I moved to London, and, after his marriage to my mother ended, he went to live in Italy, so our paths rarely crossed. But by then – for reasons not important here – things were becoming strained between us. My letters grew increasingly accusatory, filled with the kind of self-righteousness that only a twentysomething can summon. His grew angry and defensive. When we met, we argued, patched things up, argued again. He didn’t attend my graduation, nor, later, my wedding. Yet I persisted, convinced that the next letter – or the one after that – would sort everything out. That writing had the power to resurrect our relationship.

I was wrong. As it turned out, it was writing that put the final nail in its coffin. I published my first novel, The Seahorse, when I was 35 and sent him an advance copy. “Look!” I wanted to say. “Not a Norse saga this time! A real book!” But I restrained myself, settling for a coy: “I hope you like it,” instead.

His reply was swift and devastating. While he thought the book was good and showed promise, none of that mattered because I had done something unforgivable. One of my characters (a villainous one) bore an unmistakable resemblance to a person he loved, although, according to him, “resemblance” was too weak a word. It was more that I had based the entire character (who was not only villainous, but also completely insane) on this person.

He was perfectly right. I had. And what made it even worse was the fact that this person was the source of the long-running tension between us. Writing the character had been – shameful though it is to admit – an act of private revenge on my part. But I was horrified that he had made the connection. I thought I had disguised it too cleverly for that. After all, it was only how I saw this person. My father – who saw them quite another way – could surely find nothing he recognised. Now I was exposed in all my clumsy pettiness.

I rushed to explain and apologise. I wouldn’t have done it if I had known how hurtful and obvious it was. It was fiction, I begged. He of all people knew how that worked. How, the minute it is written down, a story slips the ropes of its origins and becomes its own recklessly separate thing.

It was no use. My father refused to speak to me. Time passed. I had one child and then another. I published a second book, Before We Began, although, like the first, it felt unsatisfactory, oddly tentative somehow. I had the sense that I was trying too hard – to be clever, literary, important – while all the time being on the wrong path. I carried on writing to my father, a letter every few years. In writing, there was hope. I still believed that, with the right combination of words, I might discover a different, better story for us.

For the first time, I began writing for myself – or rather for that difficult child I had once been

Just after he turned 80, my father asked me to stop communicating with him. Future letters would be returned, unread. “You were always a difficult child,” he wrote. I wept at that. But there was a miserable kind of relief in the finality.

Not long after, my work changed direction. It wasn’t clear to me then, but I see now that the two things were connected. It wasn’t just that I gave up writing to my father. I gave up writing for him, too. Having realised it was pointless, I lost interest in winning his approval, of using writing as a way to reach him. (What had that villainous character been, in all honesty, but a bid for his attention by being naughty?) I stopped trying to write Important Books to impress him and instead turned to children’s fiction – the most important books of all.

For the first time, I began writing for myself – or rather for that difficult child I had once been. When the borders between worlds were still vague, and disbelief could be abandoned with the turning of a page, and the more improbable anything seemed, the more likely it was to happen.

Like finding a letter in an old man’s jacket, chosen at random.

The instant I got home, I laid it flat on the table and went through the pockets. Then I patted the lining, just in case. Nothing. It didn’t matter. In that moment, I felt closer to my late father than I had in years. I imagined telling him about the jacket and my search for a fantasy letter, seeing that familiar, long-sought-for look come over his face as I spoke. Intent, strangely inward.

“There’s a story in there,” he would have said.

Tania Unsworth’s latest book, The Time Traveller and the Tiger, is published by Zephyr (£12.99). – Guardian