In Conversation with Sophie Ratcliffe

Updated: May 10, 2019

We meet at Paddington Station in London, which feels appropriate. There’s a juxtaposition at play, to congregate where people go to leave. Surrounded by all this movement is where we chose to stay, even if just for a handful of hours. It feels significant. Dr. Sophie Ratcliffe, who shed her doctoral prefix for The Lost Properties of Love author credit, graciously spends the afternoon telling me about her book. We talk about dead and dying dads, trains and time, and she shows me the contents of one of the three bags she was carrying that day. We settle into the corner of a hotel bar at the station. Surrounded by windows facing out onto Praed Street, she drinks her Americano with cold milk. Her glasses sit perched in her hair, functioning as a headband and always at the ready. By the end, it feels like we may have ventured off into the realm of some sort of therapy, leaving behind the book and touching on something more important, more lived. And I’m grateful for the vulnerability.



Dr Sophie Ratcliffe (Jakob Grant for The Book Slut)


Aleesha Koersen: How would you describe your book?


Sophie Ratcliffe: In some ways, it’s a book about how not to have an affair. In another way, it’s about how childhood bereavement shapes a subsequent life. It’s a book about things we hide, things we don’t like to talk about–like grief, like the idea that being married is interesting and lovely and difficult and being a mother is something that is wonderful but also that one can feel ambivalent about and sometimes really boring and talking about desire or wanting to live a double life.


AK: Tell me about the title.


SR: It wasn’t always the title. It was going to be called Anna Karenina’s Handbag, which has a lovely cadence to it. It was going to be called Anna Karenina’s Handbag because the first bit of the book that I ever wrote was about Anna Karenina’s handbag. What’s in it, what she throws away just before she dies, and my handbag. How I felt the impetus of writing. I opened up my bag, I was at a meeting, and I was trying to find a pen and pulled out a child’s maraca. It was just thinking: Where am I? What’s happened?


Someone called Viv Groskop wrote a great book called the Anna Karenina Fix which came out about just as I was heading towards submitting my manuscript. And I only read her book after I submitted my book. I just felt that the similarities of the titles [wasn’t going to work]. As I started to question it, I realized my book wasn’t really about Anna Karenina’s handbag after all. That was a trope. It was about something bigger than that.


Since it’s about love and loss, it seemed a more generous title. I didn’t want a title that would make people feel that they couldn’t read my book if they hadn’t read Anna Karenina. Because you can read my book if you haven’t read Anna Karenina. That’s why it changed. And I’m really happy with it.


There’s also a subtitle, An Exhibition of Myself which was important to have in there. It was also going to be Lost Properties of Love, a memoir. It’s not quite a memoir, and I wanted to address [what] people think when you write a book about yourself. Is it narcissistic? Is it self-indulgent? What are you up to? I felt that in taking the accusation of making an exhibition of myself and having what people see as the more outrageous aspects of what I was writing about, I could inscribe it and have a discussion with it head-on.


AK: I’ve recently been thinking about the distinction between an autobiography and a memoir. How maybe a memoir seems more like a curated collection of memories rather than a linear explanation of one's life. And also the fallibility of our memories. Should writers be nervous about being accused of making things up?


SR: It’s really interesting that idea of curated memory. Was I nervous at all about people saying I was making things up? No, because apart from changing details that were necessary to change to protect the privacy of others, it’s all true. Then again, or additionally, our truth is made up of imagination. So, the boundary between reality and fiction is quite porous. It’s something that I would fiercely defend, the reality of the imagination. And the reality of fiction. And our desires.


The book had to fall into the little label in the bottom right hand it either has to say non-fiction or fiction. I wanted to write something that broke through those two genres. It didn’t comfortably sit in non-fiction, but it doesn’t quite comfortably fit in fiction. It’s interesting, stylistically. I’ve been told it reads more like a novel than a memoir.

AK: What’s your favourite Tube line?


SR: For imaginable reasons, the Northern Line, absolutely. I don’t know whether that’s my favourite, but it’s the one that I know best. If you think of the various artifacts of your childhood, for me, that shape of the Northern Line is what I Iooked at every day. It’s absolutely beautifully designed by Harry Beck, and I think it’s a classic design. I love all the Tube lines on the Tube map. Also if you are a Tube user, you’ve seen them as the whole map but also in their individual shapes. I love the musicality of the names and the colours. There are people who are kind of far more expert in being train obsessed than I am, but I am in my own little way quite obsessed with everything that comes out of this. The romance of it all. And the style of it. And the feel of it.


AK: Where does that love come from?


SR: I think because I lived in a place which I perceived to be not the centre of the world. There are places far further from the activity than West Finchley. But as far as I was concerned, everyone was nearer the centre than me, which is rubbish. I was using the Tube on my own quite young because I used to come home from school by about 13. And then onwards. [The love] came from that sense of possibility. The possibility that anything could happen. That’s what I loved about it, what I still love about it now. The possibility of an alternative narrative that at any moment. In terms of human anthropological experience, there are all these strangers. Everyone’s got a story. You never know. You can watch them. I love the feeling of standing at Paddington and you know sometimes you think I could get on that train and go. Once you’re on the tube, as a teenager, as long as you don’t go through the ticket barrier, you could go all around London. I always quite liked the Circle Line for that. That’s my second favourite.


I don’t want to sound too London-centric in this either. That’s why I love the tube. But [there’s also] the actual experience of any train. You’re still connected to the outside but [there’s] that sense of enclosure and state of a different time.


AK: So when you’re driving a car, you’re the one behind the wheel. You’re actively involved in your own transportation. Whereas on a train, there’s a passivity to it all. Do you think that lends itself to the feeling of a different time or space?


SR: Yes and I think because I only learned to drive in my 30’s. But you can see the driver when you’re in a car. In a train, I know it is driven, but you can almost kid yourself that there’s nothing you can do about it. There is a liberation in that for this period of time you can’t make it go faster. You can’t make it go slower. If you’re late, you’re late. Different kinds of responsibility are taken away from you–the household or parenting, or being accountable to a marriage or just for that moment, nobody can get you. I know they can. But you can claim the wifi’s cut out just for a moment. It feels as if no one can touch you. I quite like that. And there’s not a lot you can control and that’s freeing in some strange existential way. Isn’t it?


AK: When did you start thinking about the idea of time and time on trains?


SR: I think I’d always thought about it. But the idea of kind of writing about it as a way of thinking about those two things. I was reading a poem by Louis MacNeice, which is the epigraph of the book. There’s a line in it, as he writes it on a train and he talks about how mundane most life can be, and he says, “for during a tiny portion of our lives, we are not on trains.” For him, train time is a kind of metaphor for being automatized. It’s kind of different for me, but I think it was that beautiful poetic comparison between what we make of the time we have. I suppose the other point is I started writing the book when I was forty, and my father died when he was forty-five. I’m now forty-three. It’s that sense of feeling like what are the limits of a life, of this particular journey. That sense of a life journey and where are we it started to tick more heavily for me at forty. Being a parent, that sense of taking stock as your children get older and you’re thinking, hang-on there’s another generation coming up with their own. Time was made more acute to me when I turned forty.


AK: Are you apprehensive about turning forty-six?


SR: No. I don’t give a stuff about getting older, in the sense that every year is a victory. I just think I’m so lucky to be alive. That’s one of the gifts that death and close proximity to death gives us. Just live it. I’m glad to have written this book. There was something I needed to make. Not saying I’m finished making things, but there was something in me that felt that I hadn’t done what I needed to do. I had been very responsible, at least in my work life. I wanted to do something a bit reckless. I needed to take a risk.


AK: I love that writing is your way of being reckless. Was it hard to be reckless? To take that risk?


SR: Yes. I guess so. But then I kept [asking myself] if my train stops now would I rather get to the end of my life and wish I’d done it. I felt that [even if] I write this book and if all the reviewers say it’s the worst thing they've ever read and if I disgrace my family, it’s worth it. It’s worth it because I wouldn’t have known [if I wouldn’t have written the book].


I have a job. I have a house. I have an amazing husband and gorgeous children. Economically, I was free enough to take a risk. It’s lovely to talk about artistic freedom but I think without economic freedom it’s very hard to do that. You don’t have the time. I had to wake up at 4:30 or 5 and write.

AK: Can you tell me more about your writing process?


SR: I stopped writing anything creative when I entered university. I started writing again after becoming a mother. Having less time in some way made me I felt as though, I have to write my way out of this. There is no me left.


I decided that I would write every day even if it was five minutes. I tried to do it as the first thing I did every day before I checked emails or anything. Sometimes I got up very, very early. I tried getting up at 6 but then my son got up because he heard me getting up. He used to sit beside me and help type. So then I realized that I had to get up when he was still very, very asleep. So I’d get up. Eventually, after getting up for a month at very, very early hours, I realized I was no longer a functioning human being. Most of it was written during bits of weekends and scraps late at night and early in the morning. I think of [how I wrote the book] as a protest against my idea that you have to have a quiet room with wireless headphones on the edge of Manhattan in order to create because that’s not available. That’s not an option.


AK: How long did it take to write the book?


SR: I thought about writing something like this almost a decade ago. It took about a year to think about how to put it into a shape. Then, it took a year and a half to write it after that.


AK: How did the book change?


SR: From a decade ago, absolutely massively. That was not going to be a very risky book. It was not going to be a very personal book. It was going to be a bit of light cutting through and thinking about books in various ways and sort of a light literary criticism book. But the tone was very pompous when I tried to write that book.


My agents Peter Straus and David Miller had read bits of it and they said we want more of you. We want to read more of you. They kept saying that, and they said what are you not writing about. We had a meeting, and I said I could write about my dad, but no one wants to read a dead dad book. And they said they did. So, that’s when I started.


It changed when I started writing about things I was scared of writing about. From that moment, and after that year of thinking, it is now as planned, almost. Apart from some of the details of what happened. But the way the book was constructed with the relationship with myself and Anna Karenina and Kate Field and all of that was carefully [planned]. For all my messiness, I am, when it comes to writing, quite a planner and an organizer. It’s stemming from the chaos or the existential angst and misery or whatever.


AK: Was it hard for you to write about such personal things?


SR: Yeah. [It was] hard to write. The hardest thing to write about was my husband. It is a love story about my love for him. I’m talking about feeling [for] someone else. I’m talking about how marriage is complicated and beautiful and difficult and annoying and frustrating. It was very hard to write. You might say it was harder to write about a bit about another man than a bit about teenage promiscuity. Those [moments of teenage promiscuity] weren’t particularly difficult to write because I was only risking my own feelings. The most difficult things to write were anything that involved the ethics of handling other people’s lives. So, that was very hard to write and frightening to share.


AK: What was the draw for you to compare Anna and bags and books and baggage?


SR: I remember when I was an undergraduate studying English coming across Nabokov’s lectures on Tolstoy and reading something about his exams papers where he asked what was in Anna Karenina’s handbag. I think I just had that stored in my head for a very long time. But I’ve always been, as an academic, very interested in detail. I wrote a whole essay about curl papers in Dickens.


If there is something very small to write about [I do]. I wonder whether that’s associated with fear of taking up space. Feeling that what I have to say [is not] very significant. And therefore, I look for something that is very small then find the biggest stories in it. In writing this book, I’ve realized a lot of what I’m interested in is the domestic and the hidden stories of oppression and lost creativity. I think that there’s a kind of rage behind my academic interest that I hadn’t sufficiently realized. I hadn’t realized the politics at stake in what I was drawn to. It's been quite an interesting discovery for me.


When I was going around Tolstoy's house for research, I was with my friend Anastasia, and I was looking at the way Tolstoy lived and worked with his family, and Anastasia occasionally was pointing out Sophia’s photographs to me. I was busy taking notes about Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s working methods and Tolstoy’s this and Tolstoy’s that. Trying to think. Later on, I was thinking, why the hell did I not look more carefully at Sophia’s creative works. The fact that she was an amazing photographer. My own embedded misogyny, carelessness, and not thinking about her. So I went and got Sophia’s diaries, and I was reading them thinking geez this is the story I should’ve been looking at. Not his working environment but hers was telling me about overlooked details.


AK: And what about details?


SR: Another subtitle, if it hadn’t been called An Exhibition of Myself, was going to be A Life in Detail. Someone kindly pointed out that sounded quite boring. But there’s a beautiful book called Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, and its epigraph is from Virginia Woolf and why should life be more commonly thought to exist in things that are big from things that are small.


Every time I was trying to write about something, whether it was something from reality or if it was something from Tolstoy’s reality, [I realized] it can only be lived in the detail. I tried to find out as much as I could from going on the same train as Anna Karenina did to where she got off and met Vronsky. I went to a party in Moscow to see what it would feel like to find a Vronsky as a married woman. I did not pick one up. I met a drunk Bloomberg journalist who made a try, but the research stopped there. I went back to my childhood home. There’s a risk in writing that you can swamp [the reader with detail]. So I didn’t put everything in but it was important for me to feel it. To feel the texture of the sky to walk it. It was quite interesting because I thought when reading that I’m not very interested in passages of description, but, it turns out that I am.


AK: How did you decide which details to include?


SR: I tend to write quite short. I was having to push myself to say more. I live in terror of boring people. Most of it was thinking, perhaps I should say a bit more here perhaps I should say a bit more about.... There were [only] five pages at the beginning that got cut. Maybe someone will read this book and think, oh she should’ve cut more.


There’s a couple of longer pieces. There’s a long riff about handbags and detail I guess. In some ways it’s like there is a mad professor at work when I go deep into detail. But then I think there’s a place slightly as a protest, artistically. We are going to think about this now. We are going to take up space with this. You are going to wonder what the hell it’s about. I hope to write a book to make people turn the pages but sometimes there are moments of protest about motherhood, about domestic details, possibly the details of the abortion–which [may have been] more details than some people might want me to go into.


AK: Was it difficult to write about your abortion?


SR: No, because I thought it was important to write about. My inner critic was saying someone might say what is this doing in this book. What is this detail? But it relates to motherhood, bags, women’s bodies as holders and containers. There was a logic. In some ways, it was placed there as a difficult detail. For me, it was important. People don’t talk precisely about when or how they had a chemical abortion. I had no idea what to expect. It’s not something I found appearing in detail. I can’t remember reading about it, so I thought I might as well share this. Not that I felt my book needed to be a public service announcement. It was interesting to try and write about it.


It’s interesting how vividly one remembers trauma. When I say trauma, it’s not like I think about it every day or I regret it, although it was a difficult decision, but I do think that abortion is a trauma–though I’m extremely pro-choice. But it’s made more traumatic by people not knowing what to expect.

Dr Sophie Ratcliffe (Jakob Grant for The Book Slut)

AK: You’re a professor as well. What has the relationship between the role of teacher and writer been like for you?


SR: That’s been really interesting. I wouldn’t say difficult but definitely challenging to think through.


I was asked to give a paper at our graduate seminar about my book. And I said no I won’t talk about my book at a graduate seminar because the book talks openly about certain aspects of my private life, sex life, and it could be potentially triggering for people in relation to abortion if I suddenly delivered a paper on my book. There may be more information than [the audience] wishes to know if it’s delivered in an academic context. But I said I will talk about the idea of critical exhibitionism. I’ll give a talk about what it means.


There’s a cluster of critics, Emilie Pine and Maggie Nelson, female academics writing about themselves and their bodies in ways that are partly critical and partly creative. So what are we doing and why?


A lot of people have said my book is very brave. But what is the bravery? Or the tagging of surprise? Particularly [what is brave] about the placing of the word academic up against sex? I was trying to make sense of that. I do think that if there’s a general assumption made about certain individuals, women, people of colour, trans individuals, about their bodies and about what is going on in their minds in relation to their bodies, projections are made upon certain kinds of individuals. Then, in my experience, academic women have particular projections made upon us. That unless you’re all mind, you cannot be professional. An otherwise very generous and great review of my book referred to me as a swotty woman. I was wondering about that sort of negative epithet, how that is used to disembody. Why are these two incompatible?


It’s important to interrogate that and in some ways protest against that binary division that if you’re a thinking woman, you’re not allowed to have a body. You are if you’re a thinking man. That was important to claim my academic identity, which is part of the book. It’s important to me also that I don’t talk about my book to my undergraduates, though they have chosen to talk to me about it. I generally try and tell them it contains quite a lot of information about me that they may not wish to know. So, it’s up to them.


AK: Can you talk more about the idea of women being a thing or a brain? A body or an academic?


SR: I think it has to do with institutional, embedded, expectations: what a professor looks like is this. Women generally come with expectations. We are body. The institutional expectations, which are quite covert, come from various things such as you should, if you want to go to that interview, dress conservatively, [along with] small statements delivered by men or women, often by other women actually about a particular kind of conforming to a certain sort of norm.


One of the clearest ways I can see it is around dress codes. Which I’m quite interested in. I used to dress quite flamboyantly. And I never quite got to the bottom of why that was. By writing the book I realized another kind of protest against the assumptions I knew people were making about me already. But certainly that kind of any sort of sartorial attention to one's appearance, in the past I have noticed, has received suggestions that I will not be taken seriously in academia for wearing high heels or you’re too X to be that. You don’t look like a professor.


AK: Where did you go for the sake of research?


SR: Oxford, Hull. All the locations in London possible. Kate Field’s experience of London, where she lived. All my own. Re-footstepping my own childhood.


Moscow to try and relive what it would be like for Anna Karenina. It’s really fascinating. If you can’t be there in time, at least you can be there in space. Tolstoy’s Moscow house, Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana. As many of the possible train journeys that Anna took trying to find.

I went to Mosfilm to an enormous costume hanger to try and find out what Anna Karenina’s handbag would’ve looked like. The Russian Anna Karenina had just been shot so we went around and spent ages looking for what handbag they’d used for the movie. Finally, we called the costume designer and they said oh we didn’t give her a handbag. They said it would’ve caused continuity problems. She had a muff instead.


New York, I didn’t go to. That's where the tiny rages come from because I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave the children. Economically and in terms of viability and in terms of my maternal feeling there was only so long [I could be away from home]. That was a pretty fast research trip to Russia. When I did Hull, I took [my children] with me.


Miranda, who did a lot of the research in smaller bits for me as well, she went to New York and filmed around the L train. I used a lot of old maps of New York to reconstruct.


I did not go to Utah, alas. I felt the loss there. I really did. But that’s the sort of pragmatics and in some ways, I think that’s embedded. How much can you do? I’m very, very glad I went to Russia. Although that trip is invisible in the book, apart from the fact that when I was writing I know I knew it. It made such a difference.


It was so annoying for me not to [be able to go to all the locations mentioned in the book]. But that’s kind of what the book’s about. It’s like I can’t get there. I’m going nuts here. Could I get to Utah and back for the school run? I was told by one reviewer that I need to read a book on gratitude and mindfulness and I’ll be okay.


AK: I’ve seen some places that people are labelling your book as self-help. What are your thoughts?


SR: Apparently, I’m in the self-help section of Foyles. I think self-help books are great. I have no snottiness about genre. Among my mission in writing [the book] was to share experience and strike a chord with anyone who is struggling with grief anyone who is finding the massive step to say I’m committing my life partnership to one person kind of interesting and kind of woah, what does that mean for my imaginative life and for my friendships. I remember someone saying, is it normal to think about other people? I think it is. People don’t really talk seriously about that so I hope it might be helpful to talk about how marriage can be kind of a screwball comedy.


I hope it might be helpful to anyone who’s experienced the grief of becoming a parent. This is wonderful, but what have I lost. I remember when our son was born, I was stuck for six days in hospital and it was all a bit crazy. My husband said maybe you should go get some air. And I went out of the hospital. It’s funny–I chose to call my doctoral supervisor to say hi. I couldn’t work it out but there must be some connection, like where’s my old life? Then I stood there and just howled. I was crying because I realized I had left the hospital but I had not left the hospital because part of me now for the rest [of time], and this is huge, is in the hospital.


But now my heart is completely entangled with this small person and I can no longer walk anywhere without realizing I have love elsewhere and this responsibility. There’s kind of this grief there.

A GP just told me she recommended my book to someone’s who’s suffering from postnatal depression. I was really absolutely delighted to hear that. I’d be thrilled if it helps anyone in anyone. I’m chuffed to be in self-help.


AK: Let’s look at another book say Eat, Pray, Love, an undeniable pillar of recent self-help memoirs. And I think there’s an impulse to try and replicate the actions in these kinds of books in order to fix ourselves. But leaving everything and travelling to Italy, India, and Indonesia isn’t accessible to everyone. It was only one woman’s fix to her particular set of problems. Did you think about significance or accessibility of your actions when writing? Like almost anyone can get on a train.


SR: In writing the book I was fighting with the idea of significance. Like no one will want to read it. No one will want to read a book about me saying oh my kitchen table is really messy and this motherhood business is great and also boring and I’m stressed. What is the significance? I’m still struggling with grief from my father.


But there are books where people write about things like that and deal with it through encounters with nature or the natural environment or climbing mountains or just walks. Had I had the freedom to do that I would’ve. But I couldn’t.


I suppose I was trying to say that your life is significant, that the domestic world which is the world that many people inhabit, the primary carer male or female, is significant. You’re allowed to feel that it can have resonances of tragedy as well as comedy, it’s allowed. You’re allowed. This narrative is permitted. You don’t have to get on a train but just, you’re allowed to write. I think it’s really sad that I stopped writing at 20. Because I thought that the stories that always interested me were the stories that were domestic tragedies and domestic comedies that somehow I felt they weren’t valid. Stories are valid. It’s amazing how one can feel that one doesn’t have the right to take up space.


AK: Was it motherhood that lead to this realization that you can talk about that mundanity? About the domestic?


SR: Being a mother led me to a new reading of Anna Karenina. What was in Anna Karenina’s handbag. Thinking, I have a bit more thought on that now. I have a bit more thought about what it really must’ve felt like. I had never thought [about it]. I’d read Anna Karenina once before being a mother, and I thought about the affair and maybe about Levin and his experience. I thought about the whole book, and I thought about the way characters smiled at each other. Reading again I thought, what was it like for her leaving her son? She would've had a photograph album. Poor dear really gets it hard. Why is there such an obsession with milk? The perspective that, this might sound very banal and obvious, but for me, the realization of these details was really, really important because they came through lived experience. So the more kinds of lived experience, the better. I think maybe I was more interested in Kitty’s story–how dreadful she must’ve felt not to get married to the guy that she wanted to get married to and Anna stealing her and realizing what it’s like to feel like a network. Like you have all these lines coming off you.


AK: How did you find out about Kate Field?


SR: I was reading Trollope. A colleague [Edward Mendelson who edited Auden] told me if I ever had trouble getting pregnant I should read Trollope. I remember when we were trying to have a baby I thought, I’ll try reading Trollope. It was great because he just writes really interesting female characters and about characters who have difficulty [deciding] whom they should get married to and if they should get married, and there are really great male characters. Really great characters in general–people who have difficulty committing. I think [Trollope is] sympathetic to risk takers, and sympathetic to people who’d like to live more than one life at a time.


Then I wrote an academic article partly about that idea of Trollope and forgiveness and generosity. One of the anonymous readers said that in his autobiography [Trollope] was married and he has one little bit where he said not to mention this woman he was in love with. It would be wrong not to mention her. There is an American woman. He didn’t publish his autobiography until after he was dead. So he was kind of off the hook in this confession and this little paragraph about Kate Field. The reader said, do you want, in this article you’re writing about double lives, to mention his own double life? And I thought, good point.

She was in plain sight sort of as a kind of another alter ego for Anna and for me as a figure who chose to live a life that was not networked or tied in a way to marriage. I feel I never got to the bottom of her in my writing. I love her ambition. I love the fact that she decided okay I’ve done some writing now I want to do some acting.


AK: Why do you think Anna keeps popping up?


SR: I think there will always be books around Anna Karenina being written. She’s a character that floats free. Like Sherlock Holmes. They exist even if you’ve only read the book ages ago and skipped bits. I don’t think Tolstoy meant her to. I think he meant us to dislike her. But there’s just something about the way she’s described that means she will live on. For me, Anna floats around in a black velvet dress with a ribbon around her neck and her wonderful white skin. I can see her at the ball.


AK: I want to ask you about the colour green. It appears all throughout the book.


SR: It’s really interesting. If you’d ask me what my least favourite colour is, it’s green. I have green eyes. I am wearing a green shirt. When we went to talk about the cover design, the cover designer asked is there any colour you don’t like, and I said green. My editor Arabella said, you’re wearing a green shirt, and your book is full of green. I think there’s something about it.


Maybe colour is deeper in very early childhood. My childhood garden, or the fact my dad loved nature. Maybe it’s something that’s very important to me but also a protest against the self. Green and yellow. What’s outside the train is the industrial and technological space which is safe, no one is going to drag me out to. Outside the window, the green is pushing in. I think that’s the grief. The green grief. The green thorn, the green shade. It’s all that. I think things like classical music, nature, that sounds huge, doesn’t it. If I go too far into those things I might start crying and never stop. I didn’t listen to classical music after my father died for as long as I could possibly avoid it. There are sorts of moments of resistance and my, what’s the opposite of philistine when you talk about nature? My shocking I don’t want to go for a walk-ness is partly because if I do this I might actually have to be with the real shit. I can’t avoid it anymore.


AK: I feel like grief makes us reach out or avoid. Was it hard for you to understand what you were avoiding and why?


SR: I think there are bits near the end of the book where I didn’t realize when my dad died that I was a child–it was because someone told me. I didn’t think I was. If you think about when you were thirteen, you didn’t think you were a child. You were just you, right. When I think about me at eight, I was me. I was not a child. Someone put their hand on my shoulder and said you must be brave now. You must be grown up. We had an au pair living with us to help. It was well-meant. It was also necessary for the carrying on of the household that I was as grown up as possible. I think becoming a parent and watching my husband with our daughter makes me conscious of the enormity of the loss. Obviously, there are bigger losses. That’s a classic.


I’m probably not very good at being with the enormity of the loss because if you’re with it too long you might dissolve. That’s what music will do and that’s what being green might do. You might just go under forever. Sometimes when my husband asks me about stuff I just say, don’t go there or, otherwise, I’ll never come back again.

AK: Do you want your children to read your book?


SR: If they want to read it, they’ll find out their mother smoked. And find out a few other things. They’ve read the first couple of pages. They’re very aware it exists. I’ve tried to tell them what it’s about. And I hope, as I’ve said, it’s a kind of there’s an element of self-help that I think and I hope it sends a message that it's okay to try and be brave and that family is important and complicated and that life should be lived and is precious. I imagine it’ll be around the house as this object that mum wrote. They are very proud that, they’re both good feminists. And they fully understand why there’s a tampon on the front of the book. We have discussions about the assumptions that people make about mothers and about women. So that they are on board with that and understand already.


AK: I have to ask. What’s the most bizarre thing in your bag right now?


SR: My husband bought me this [purse] at the book launch, so it’s very tidy. I think I spotted a hula girl in this one. A broken hula girl from my daughter and she had a little card saying don’t worry just keep hulaing. Dirty cotton buds. There’s nothing interesting in my bag today. I have a photograph of the bag I describe in my book.



She doesn’t find the photo. But I imagine it as described in the book, similar to many of our bags, filled with a mess of things we’ve convinced ourselves we need. A physical representation of the baggage that comes with living this life, the life of a mother, a wife, a daughter, a professor, and a woman. Eventually, we both get on our respective trains, she to Oxford and me to Brixton, and we both go home.