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Finding her way with words
Sue Eckstein describes the way she writes as a process of distilling the truth down further and further “until there’s nothing left but the memory of it”.
Both her debut 2009 novel, Cloths Of Heaven, and her latest, Interpreters, feature autobiographical elements – the first drawing on her experiences working on a VSO programme in Africa, the latter written “as the daughter of immigrant parents, one of whom was a refugee from Nazi Germany”.
They are works of fiction, of course, but ones she says she couldn’t have written without her own particular life experience.
Like its predecessor, Interpreters is a multilayered story (“I like puzzles and I tend to plan my books backwards.
I often go back and insert additional clues”), which weaves themes of identity and family with the tale of a middle-aged woman trying to make sense of the secrets that permeated her seemingly ordinary upbringing.
Meanwhile, in a different place and time, another woman gradually reveals the details of her early years in wartime Germany, a story she has kept close for most of her life.
“I think it’s really interesting how little we can know about each other and, in a way, how little we’re interested in other people when actually, everyone has a fantastic story,”
Eckstein says. “I’ve had quite a few people get in touch saying this book resonated with them, but they’re not children of immigrants from Nazi Germany, they’re people who discovered secrets within their own family or who know there are stories their own friends and families don’t want to talk about.”
Eckstein will be discussing the theme of autobiography within fiction at First Fictions, a new, year-long literary festival co-founded by her publishers, Myriad, and the University of Sussex, and celebrating the first novel.
Eckstein’s own story is as fascinating as her books: a novelist, academic and playwright, she works as a lecturer in clinical and biomedical ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, writing in bursts on intensive, silent retreats before abandoning it for long periods while she carries out her full-time job. “I write in a very odd way,” she laughs.
“It probably wouldn’t work for a lot of people but it works for me.”
After studying drama in the US, she went on to read English Literature at Durham before spending several years teaching English in Sri Lanka and later working as a programme manager for Voluntary Service Overseas in Bhutan and The Gambia.
Some of the things that befall her Cloths Of Heaven protagonist, diplomat Daniel Maddison, could, she reveals, have been diary entries from her own “tedious evenings at High Commissioners’ cocktail parties”.
After a stint as director of programme development at Kings College London, she joined Brighton and Sussex Medical School in 2007.
Resident in Preston Park, where she lives with her husband, teenage son and daughter, and their dog, many of her radio plays have been broadcast on Radio 4, from 2006’s Kaffir Lilies, to 2010’s Woman’s Hour dramatisation of Cloths Of Heaven. She also created The Mrs Hoover Show, a children’s production at Komedia, Brighton in 2010.
It’s a colourful career, but one that has been frustratingly slowed down since a rare cancer led to Eckstein undergoing the amputation of part and then all of one leg last year. “I’ve had ‘issues’ with my leg for years and years, but during the writing of Interpreters everything changed and a benign condition became a malignant one. It’s extraordinary really that the book got done but it was great that it did – writing is a fantastic thing to do because you lose yourself in it completely.”
It also led Eckstein to blogging, a form of writing she’d never entertained previously. “I didn’t even know what a blog was,” she says. Her account of life in the lead-up to her operation, and life as it followed, is engaging stuff – honest and, more often than not, funny.
In May last year she wrote, “I imagine that, had Lady Bracknell been with me when the surgeon concluded that amputation above the knee was very definitely my best option, she might have opined that ‘to lose one part of one’s leg may be regarded as misfortune… to lose both seems like carelessness’. So far, the only positive thing I can think of in this latest twist in my amputation adventure is that I’ll get a second wear out of my Primark linen cut-offs.”
Humour has played a big part in her handling of her situation, she says. “It was very important to me that I didn’t turn this into a tragedy.
Much worse things happen to loads and loads of people.
And I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful family and to have received great care from the Sussex Rehabilitation Centre. They couldn’t have done a better job. ”
She’s now taking things a bit further and planning an amputee radio comedy – even if Radio 4 has been reluctant to commission it.
Set on a desert island, it sees Long John Silver – “the selfappointed king of amputees”
– competing with other historical amputees to set out the most outrageous tale of leglessness. “I guess it’s a bit risky,”Eckstein says with a smile. “But I think humour is a really good way to deal with things like this and I don’t think it would be offensive. I’m going to write it anyway.”
The idea isn’t too far removed from her play The Tuesday Group, which was set in a hospice patient support group and first performed at London’s Art Of Dying festival in 2003, with a cast that included Gina McKee and Phyllida Law. “Distilled” from notes and reports Eckstein read while at Kings College, it was recently revived by students at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. “It’s a tricky subject to handle, especially when you’re only 19, but they did a brilliant job. We had two sold-out productions.”
It appears writing is Eckstein’s way of processing what she’s going through, both good and bad. “It’s a combination of that and an intellectual exercise,” she says.
“I like working out how to structure a novel or play and get my thoughts across.
It’s like a wonderful kind of puzzle.”
* Sue Eckstein appears with graphic novelists Nicola Streeten, author of Billy, Me & You, and Aneurin Wright (Things To Do In A Retirement Home Trailer Park) in Life Writing at the First Fictions launch weekend at the University of Sussex on Sunday, January 22. The event starts at 11.30am and tickets cost £5. A mixture of academic seminars and general interest literary events, First Fictions events will take place in and around Brighton, London and the South East, and forthcoming guests include Ian Rankin, Kate Mosse and Jackie Kay. To book, or to find out more about the festival, visit www.firstfictions.com * Interpreters is published by Myriad, priced £8.99 * Read Sue Eckstein’s blog at www.sueeckstein.wordpress.com
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