Monday 14 October 2019

Second acts: Emily Hourican on her next novel and he struggle after cancer treatment

Novelist Emily Hourican found that mental recovery from cancer took longer than she liked to admit. Photo: David Conachy
Novelist Emily Hourican found that mental recovery from cancer took longer than she liked to admit. Photo: David Conachy
Emily found that her repressed feelings about her illness had made their way into the first draft of her second novel. Photo: David Conachy
The medieval horror of the radiotherapy mask, into which Emily was bolted for her daily treatments

As she prepares for publication of her second novel, Emily Hourican reflects on the inevitable difficulties of second books and her own particular struggle to write in the aftermath of treatment for cancer

Those who told me second novels are hard

were right. They are hard. A first novel is written in a funny little bubble — no deadline, no deal, no expectation; just you and your long-held ambition to create, finally getting busy. It’s cosy. And protected. If you fail — to finish, to do a good job, to get a publisher — no one but you will ever know.

Second time out, you are exposed and goaded.

You have a deadline (usually a fairly short one in this era of a book a year), and, worse, you have the knowledge of the response to your first book, which is troubling, whichever way it turned out. If the book did well, you are stuck trying to replicate that success, and if the book did badly, you have to try and push the knowledge of failure out of your mind in order to try again.

You may also have publicity requirements for the first book — readings, appearances, etc — that eat into writing time, not to mention the more nebulous matter of finding a story you want to tell that isn’t the same as the first story you told.

In writing my second novel, White Villa — which is just about to hit bookshops — I had all of those things to contend with. I also had the aftermath of cancer to factor into the mix.

When my first novel, The Privileged, was published, in April 2016, two months after I finished treatment for mouth cancer, lots of people asked me: “How did you do it? How did you write a novel while being sick?”

Tempted as I was to shrug modestly and say, “Oh, you know... I was just really focussed...” I had to admit that I didn’t do anything of the sort. I wrote that novel, rewrote it, got a publishing deal, did the edits, finished everything and only then — neatly, I suppose — did I learn that

the funny lump at the back of my throat that had

been bugging me for almost six months was actually a cancerous tumour, and that there were two affected lymph nodes to go with it.

That was November 2015, and the news set me on a path no one ever wants to travel. Once you’re told you have cancer, you step on to a conveyor belt that moves you through a very grim process. You see various consultants, you get scanned and scanned again, your case is discussed, a course of treatment is decided on, and you are informed of your next steps. You don’t have any say in any of this, you simply have to wait quietly to be told what to do. In my case, the next step was the fitting of a horrific mask, like something out of a medieval torture scene.

The ‘journey’

I was bolted into that mask and stretched out on a table for what still feels like a relentless treatment programme — 20 minutes a day, five days a week, for seven weeks. Alongside the radiotherapy was an immunotherapy drug given once a week — not as vicious as chemotherapy, but with plenty of nasty side effects of its own.

My face and neck burned and inflamed. My mouth became so raw that I could barely swallow water, let

alone food. My taste buds packed up completely, so that anything I put in my mouth was cement. The smoothest, creamiest banana and avocado smoothie was like trying to eat a mouthful of grit. My hair thinned and some of

it fell out, my weight dropped until I was dizzy and disorientated. I vomited several times a day: bright-yellow bile that scorched my throat as it came up. I vomited when I brushed my teeth, if I coughed, after I had spent an hour forcing myself to eat a tiny bowl of clear vegetable soup.

Through it all, I repeated, “This, too, shall pass” with grim determination and a resolve to simply get through, and then take stock.

By the end of the seven weeks, I was a wretched shadow of myself. I had a tube up my nose that ran down to my stomach, into which pumped high-calorie goo, because I couldn’t eat. The skin on my neck had

third-degree burns. I was in pain, exhausted, out of my mind on morphine, but filled with the exhilaration of being finished.

I hardly remember the publication of The Privileged. I know there was a launch at which I made a speech and could barely get some of the words out through the tears that threatened — then, and for a long time — to completely overwhelm me. I went on the Late Late Show and talked as coherently as I could about having cancer, and I did various print interviews. I guess, looking back, much as I enjoyed it, I was only half present in any of that.

It’s not just that I was putting on a front, a brave face (although I was), it was more that I was operating on a giant wave of relief. Relief that the vicious treatment was over, that the cancer was gone, and that I could go about the process of getting better.

There were so many obvious things I needed to do — put on some weight, build up a bit of muscle to replace what I had lost, sort out my skin which was scarred and burned, get back some energy — and these distracted me from anything less overt.

At first, every new day was wonderful, because I noticed continual, heartening improvements in myself. “A week ago I couldn’t do this, and now look...’; “A month ago I still felt sick most days, now I don’t...’ and so on. Demonstrable, regular gains that carried me forward from the miserable place I had been.

But as the months wore on and I stopped noticing dramatic improvements in myself, as the wave of relief lessened and receded — as I began to feel more ‘normal,’ more like my old self — I also began to find myself more psychologically affected than I had expected.

“You must be so happy,” people kept saying to me. And I would nod and agree, “So happy...”, and I was. I truly was. Happy and relieved and grateful. But I was also rather unhappy, and that was hard to admit to. I have always believed that I am, if nothing else, a person of great good health. Someone who ‘never’ got sick; whose body was an efficient machine for throwing off illness. As such, my entire sense of myself had been badly rocked.

Alongside the overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude came a feeling of unease. I knew well I was lucky: lucky I was alive. Lucky the cancer was caught in time. Lucky I was young and healthy enough to withstand the treatment. Lucky I responded well to it. Lucky, lucky, lucky. And yet, hideously unlucky, too. As the months wore on, I alternated between feeling one and then the other. Blessed, then cursed. Immense joy for my reclaimed life, my re-emerging health, my family and friends, swapped with a gnawing ‘why me?’ feeling that

I hated, and still hate, but that I eventually had to acknowledge.

Like autumn, which can only be seen in its effect — the drying leaves and bare branches — my emotional upset announced itself only indirectly. For all that I kept telling myself and everyone around me that I was “Great!”; “Amazing!”; “Totally back to myself!”, I worried constantly about my health. Every lump was cancer,

every twinge some degenerative disease. I worried about money, that the house would fall down, and that ‘something bad’ would happen to my children.

When I wasn’t worrying about them, I felt a gloomy sense that, during the months in which I was bedridden, they had discovered that they could do without me. That

I wasn’t necessary to their happiness after all, and that there was no going back — for any of us — from such a realisation.

There were moments of bleakness where I felt that I would never fully recover from the after-effects of the treatment. For a time, going to the airport, even for a flight to London, caused anxiety that came uncomfortably close to panic. I would ring my husband, and try to stay on the phone to him for as long as possible as I made my way through security and bag check. Once I got on the plane, I was absolutely fine again; it was just the process of leaving that I couldn’t cope with.

There’s a funny thing about cancer, maybe about all traumatic events — and that is the positive narrative we have built around it. The need to reiterate: “I’m so lucky, I’ve learned so much through this about what’s important in life...” as if the luck, the learning, can compensate for the horror of the disease; can make it all worthwhile, like a test, the passing of which comes with wonderful rewards.

And, in a way, they can, and it does. There are wonderful things to be gained through such an experience. And it is always far more helpful, in general, to choose a positive narrative than one that circles endlessly around ‘why me?’

The bright side

But — there is another side. Or at least, there was for me. Maybe it’s the same for everyone who goes through this, just that we don’t much like to talk about it, because it disappoints everyone who wants to hear about the

bright side. And maybe it isn’t — maybe there really

are people for whom cancer is life-changing in all the good ways.

My own unquiet feelings didn’t get much of an outing at first, because I was busy looking the other way — the ‘I’m so lucky’ way — and ignoring the niggling gloom I felt. Mostly, I ignored it fairly successfully. “I’m tired,” I told myself. “Bad day. Tomorrow will be fine.” And, mostly, it was. I was busy, with work, with kids, with life in general, and the disquiet, though definite, was subtle enough to be discounted, alternating sufficiently with profound happiness for me to squash one and elevate

the other.

Until it came to writing the second book, when my carefully constructed denial fell apart. Freud was right — allow someone to speak or write for long enough, and they cannot hide or disguise their fundamental feelings, the emotional tenor of their thoughts.

I knew the first draft of White Villa wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but I didn’t realise how much of my own squashed-down feelings had made their way into it,

until I gave a very early draft to my brother to read. “There doesn’t seem to be much joy in Natasha’s

life,” he said cautiously, adding, even more cautiously,

“I wonder where that’s coming from?”

He was right, as I instantly knew. All the stuff I was busy hiding and denying had come out in the book,

which was, in that early version, bleak. My characters — Natasha and Jennifer — were living a misery of experience that I couldn’t admit to. The intense vulnerability and uncertainty I was refusing to acknowledge, had gone into them. It was fascinating,

from a psychological point of view, to see what I had done to them.

But I didn’t want that to be the book. And so I revised and rewrote their backstories and destinies, allowed them some joy and excitement along with the traumas I foisted on them, and made sure they had the gleam of hope without which none of us can survive.

Three times in all I rewrote White Villa, so that now it is, I hope, a mix of dark and light. There is still plenty

of nasty stuff for the characters to deal with, but there

are joyful discoveries to make, too. That rewriting —

creating a more energetic, upbeat version of the story — was hard, but addressing the underlying strain in my own life, was harder. It meant admitting that I hadn’t simply ‘bounced back’ from a miserable ordeal, that I hadn’t shrugged off cancer as if it had never happened. That it was, after all, bigger than I allowed it to be.

It would be nice to say that I am through that time now, out the other side, and off on the path to lifelong delight. And, in a way, I am. But, hey, this isn’t a novel, and I can’t rewrite my own life quite as readily as I rewrote Natasha’s and Jennifer’s. I’m glad I was forced into looking, admitting, acknowledging the fullness of what happened and how I feel about it, even if I still hate that hint of ‘why me?’ that comes with it.

I still believe in the ultimate power of the positive narrative, this idea that we are ‘better’ for the hard things we go through. Just maybe it takes a bit longer than I thought.

‘White Villa’, by Emily Hourican, is published on August 3 by Hachette Ireland

Photography by David Conachy

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