In her debut novel ‘Elizabeth is missing’, author Emma Healey subverts the commonly held tenet of writing – ‘Write about what you know’ because the central theme of her book, Dementia, is unknowable to all except the person living with it. The condition all too often renders a person unable to adequately express their lived experiences and the essential mystery that lies within the heart of every human becomes ever more so.
Beautiful, painful and rich, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ defies easy categorisation based as it is on Maud, an older woman with a fading memory who is convinced that her friend has gone missing and whose concerns are not taken seriously. Echoes of the long unsolved disappearance of Maud’s sister seventy years ago soon merge with the present as Maud refuses to be thwarted in her search for answers and we move back and forth in time alongside her.
At just twenty nine years of age, Emma’s ability to capture the essence of dementia is haunting and masterful, even more so for this reader, having had experience of working with people affected by the disease and its patterns of thought and behaviour; the restless searching, dislocution and their polar opposites- a determined fixation upon things or places or events that are all vividly captured along with the awful awareness that something is wrong but the person knows not what.
“I loved writing from the point of view of an older person” says Emma. “I have been writing since I was young but I never finished any of it and it felt boring – writing about my age and experiences. Writing about Maud was freeing because it isn’t about my life or my experiences but I am exploring and seeing her life from my point of view alongside the reader” The original idea of the book grew from a car journey on an ordinary sort of day when Emma ‘s own grandmother expressed a fear that her friend had gone missing. Emma’s gran has Multi Infarct Dementia and at that point was able to be mollified by the reassurances of her granddaughter and retain the information that her friend was only staying with her daughter- “I thought about this over the next year as Gran deteriorated- what would happen if and when a person couldn’t retain an explanation and I looked for ways to explain this condition; it was an excuse to explore it and then my other Grandmother died. She had been the family story teller and before she died I wrote down all the stories of her life. And they went into Maud’s story.”
Initially the idea of writing about something as intimate and painful as this might appear to be a form of catharsis but the end results proved to be more complex than that- “I thought it would be cathartic, there is a lot of Dementia in my family but I have found it quite frightening; ‘It will be my fate’ and it can be quite terrifying. The misconceptions about the illness upset me more than anything, the idea that you can be less than pleasant to somebody with Dementia ‘because they won’t remember’ whereas in fact the feelings evoked are residual. They know something is wrong, that something bad has happened and they don’t always forget that”
For Emma, part of the process of trying to understand her Grandmothers condition involved learning about it, reading textbooks, dry journals, going to visit her gran and the relative of another friend in hospital and it was then that the dearth of variety in writing about it became obvious- “A lot of the textbooks were quite boring and didn’t really give any feeling for what it might be like to live with the condition. What it is like for family and for everyone around and this is where fiction is important. Giving the feeling that people with dementia, the elderly, are part of the community and books can reflect that”
The otherness of getting old, of confronting the changes and failings of the body, of having dementia is beautifully depicted. We see a variety of reactions to Maud from the cruel, dismissive mickey taking of the police officer who deals with Maud every time she comes to the station to try to report the disappearance of her friend (and forgets she has been there already) to the kindness of the receptionist at the local paper who tries to help Maud fill out a missing person notice, mistakenly believes a cat is missing, releases she has misunderstood and shows humanity in her attempts to normalise Maud’s forgetfulness and her own attempts to decipher what Maud wants. The scene is amusing at times through Mauds own bewilderment at the receptionists apparent confusion -“She asks if Elizabeth has a collar and it seems like an odd question” but they get there in the end. The over riding impression is that we all need to be more patient, to be familiar with the small acts of kindness that help make the world less confusing and stressful for many of us, let alone a person with cognitive problems. “People blame the person for not being able to remember” Emma says ” although there is humour in life and I wanted to reflect that people with Dementia use that humour too. It mustn’t be left out but I didn’t want the humour to be related to Maud’s distress, about that distress. I didn’t want people laughing at her and i didn’t want it to be cruel.”
Much is left for the reader to surmise, often in retrospect too. Maud forgot that she had made multiple trips to the police station in her attempts to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts, making this far more effective a surprise to us because the reader isn’t aware of these visits as they happen. We think ‘oh’ when the officer cruelly points out the truth and we see where his frustration comes from and then recoil from his scathing humour. It is NOT funny. We never lose our place on Maud’s side but we can also empathise with Maud’s daughter, Helen as she tries so hard to retain her patience as she retrieves her mother from yet another wandering off or muddled and failed mission to find Elizabeth. Rich with the imagery of ageing- events and things obscured, buried and obfuscated, becoming faded and dulled but then what was lost returning slowly to the surface.
From the discovery of her sisters buried compact to the memories in her own mind, Maud nonetheless lives a rich sensory life with senses still sharp and the ability to feel emotions connected to smell, feel and sounds. From the vividly tactile description of Maud trailing her fingers along a moss covered wall. peeling away clots of moss to the collections of objects Maud accumulates- seeds, discarded fingernail clippings, stones and feathers and the way the smell of nylon evokes memories of her younger days, we are given a real insight into the world of Maud and a great way in; a way of relating.
Responding to the underlying feelings as opposed to what is being said or done can help relatives and carers to cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the persons behaviour. Maud gets ‘grumpy’ as Emma describes it but we never lose sympathy for her. We see what has gone into building Maud throughout her life and as Maud loses the ability to explain herself and as her personality starts to shatter, we see Maud distilled through her senses. “I am a sensory person, I have always kept a diary of the senses, I suppose you could call it, rather than a day to day diary of what has happened in my life” said Emma. “You can add more meaning to a scene if you add sensory detail, the motives and character can be explained in this way. It is so easy to be pulled out of a book as a reader when much is going on around us. Adding this detail, these little descriptions helps to pull people back in again” Maud is anchored in the natural world and we are anchored too, especially when the reader feels distress and adrift in empathy with Maud. Emma herself is a bit of a gatherer too, describing her collection of ‘bits and bobs’ from her grandmothers’- seeds that are too old to germinate but she is loathe to throw away, bits of costume jewellery, pebbles from beaches and little photos slotted away of nothing in particular.
Realising how Emma shares some of these traits and her previous studies in book art (Emma read for a degree in book arts) we wondered how hard it was for her to hand over creative control to her publishers with regards to the books design and the editing process overall- ” I didn’t have a lot of input with the cover and design. Because of my book binding studies, I knew that a book has to be filled with good content and it is not enough to just produce something that looks beautiful. I couldn’t just adopt a ‘let’s get the plot done’ attitude, it had to be vivid and rich and I had that to get on with”
Publishers were justified in their attempts to win Emma’s heart (and signature on a book contract). From the would be publisher who filled a room with Forget- me -Nots, played Maud’s music and posted ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ posters all over their building to the eventual victor, Penguin who gave her hand-written notes from staff members who had read and loved her book, a fierce bidding war led to a good contract and a very bemused and modestly appreciative Emma who hadn’t quite factored in this level of interest.
What made her choose Penguin? “Karolina Sutton (my editor) had a vision of the book that lay closest to mine. I needed someone who would be strict with me especially during the final draft when I couldn’t see the book anymore. Karolina’s feelings about the book mirror my own” The television rights have already been sold and we predict no end of interest should it get made- Maud is a dream of a role for any actor and the other characters are as finely drawn as she is. As women and men choose to have their own families later in life, we will see more and more parents having to simultaneously cope with children still at home and the needs of ageing and maybe infirm parents. A book and programme that reflects this is of immense value.
What would be Emma’s dream cast and how does she think she will react to a dramatisation of her book? “That is SO difficult to answer when you have lived with the characters for so long. It is hard to imagine your characters embodied in another persons ideas about how they might look or be and even harder to imagine Maud on screen. So much of her is within her own head, showing her from the inside, whereas television is much more about the external, not the inner life and it shows that from the outside in”
Emma will be appearing at Jarrold’s book department in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book and at the Festival read at Literary Ipswich on Monday 30th June between 7-9 pm at Waterstones in Ipswich. Lesley Dolphin, the BBC Radio Suffolk presenter will be joining in the discussion and featuring ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ in her afternoon book club, BBC Radio Suffolk, 30 June Thank you so much to Emma Healey for this interview and to Lija Kresowaty at Penguin for arranging it. Find Emma’s Website here