There are some books you write for fun – for pure entertainment. There are some stories you tell because a quirky idea has you hooked and the only way to shake it is it get it down on paper and explore it. I've written a lot of books now, and in the main, they're all books I've wanted to write, for the fun, for the adventure of them. I wanted to entertain people. I've never really had higher aspirations than that.
The Language of Dying is different. It was not a book I wanted to write. It was a book I needed to write.
I can't talk about this book without giving some context because The Language of Dying lives in the blurred space between fact and fiction. Several years ago a friend of mine (my ex-father-in-law to be exact) came to stay with me while he was dying of cancer. His son and I were long divorced by then but he and I had always got along and so it was that he moved into the little room at the back of my house and there he stayed until the night before he died.
He was an unusual man – there was never a simple conversation, everything was analysed in depth, frivolous or otherwise, over several cups of tea and many cigarettes. He was a recovered alcoholic, a psychiatric nurse and a divorced and devoted father of five. He was my friend and I loved him, but I have to be honest, I wasn't entirely certain of the decision I'd made. I have a horror writer's imagination – we think about the fear far too much – but my friend? As far as I could fathom – he seemed completely unafraid of death. They dying part bothered him, but whatever fears he might have had, he made it easier for me by not sharing them. We talked about it - we picked out coffins and visited crematoriums - but I never once saw his fear. Like I said, he was an unusual man. But still, in many ways that I didn't realise at the time, it was a harrowing experience. I still had both my parents – the slow dissolving of a life wasn't a situation I'd experienced before. It lingers with me still. I haven't used Listerine mouthwash since that time. The smell of christmas candles burning always takes me back there – and if you read the book, you'll understand why.
The Language of Dying is based on my experiences of the last week of my friend's life, when he'd gone to bed and stayed there, and family gathered round and nurses and doctors came and went. The characters are fictitious although there are elements drawn from my life and others', strands of fact and fiction woven together to make a new, maybe stronger, cord.
After a few months had passed since my friend's death, I knew I needed to, rather than wanted to, write the book. Nature heals us. Time passes and we forget things that damage us – it's easier that way. I didn't want to forget the details of that experience though, because I knew they were important. This was not a unique situation – people are living through it now, and we will all come to play the central role when the time comes. I didn't want to remember, but I didn't want to forget, and the writing process was cathartic for me. Writing is the way I deal with the world. I get to put it down on paper and then I can put it away in my mind.
It's a book I think my friend would be proud of. It's an emotionally honest book, as much about life and living as death. It's about families and love and the strengths we don't know we have. It's about the rippling effects our lives have on each other. It's about how the indignities of death are not what lingers of a person.
And, also, of course, it's about a strange magical creature that sometimes visits in the night.
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