They say that patience is a virtue, but if so, it’s a virtue that I lack. I’ve always known it, could feel it running through me like a Faultline in the ground. I remember sitting in the interview for my first proper job, the one that was linked to the university place that I really wanted. They asked me, because I’m not a Millennial and it was OK back then, what was my very worst characteristic. I said I had no patience and their eyes widened because I was applying for a job in a hospital that involved the sick, crying children, and the elderly. I tempered their fear by saying that my lack of patience was only with myself. It was at least partly true, and fortunately convincing enough to get me the job.
But I never had any clue back then of just how much patience I would need to find while waiting to secure the most important job I would ever do in my life. I had no idea how difficult it would be to achieve. I truly believed it would be easy to become a mother, despite the fact I knew I would never carry a baby in my womb. Adoption, I thought, was to be taken for granted.
The waiting started right at the beginning of the process. I arrived in a somewhat depressing government issue waiting room, and tentatively, in my best Greek, asked to speak to somebody about adoption. They looked at my abdomen, wondered how long they had. I tried my best to communicate that I was interested in the process from the other perspective, that I had no baby to offer for adoption, and so they sent me away with instructions to write a letter of interest. Three months later, we hadn’t heard anything in response.
Each day after that felt as if it would be the day they would contact us. When they finally did, I was sitting writing My Sister, and John Legend was playing on the radio. We were being invited to our first interview in another two weeks’ time. Never mind, I thought. What’s another fourteen days?
The home study took us nine months. People talk about how intrusive it is, and I suppose it is if you have something to hide or are anxious from the off. But we didn’t and we weren’t. Our social worker explained to us that there might be a long wait at the end of the home study because there weren’t that many children waiting to be adopted in Cyprus. Nonsense, I thought. She was just playing it safe, and didn’t want to get our hopes up too soon. All in due course, I thought.
On the day we went in to get the approval we already knew we had been issued, I kept that advice in mind. Still, even though we’d been told there weren’t that many children waiting it was hard not to get excited. I’d cleaned our bedroom, checked prices for Ikea furniture, and cleared my work schedule. I sat in the chair and waited for the good news. When it didn’t come and it became obvious that the meeting was wrapping up I asked her, so what do we do now? She shrugged, suggested we look abroad, and be prepared to wait.
We waited for two years. During that time, we received one phone call from social services to invite us for another meeting. When we arrived we waited in another miserable corridor on hot plastic seats, dressed in clothes too smart for the weather. Inside they regurgitated the same advice, asked us the same questions. Just an update. When we left that meeting we realised there were two other couples waiting for the same interview. Never had things looked so bleak to me. And I began to wonder whether motherhood was something that would happen for me at all. I pushed the thought aside, tried not to give it space to grow.
Then somebody contacted us regarding a private adoption. The biological mum was eight months pregnant and we had been chosen to adopt the baby she thought she couldn’t care for. We got excited again, made provisional plans, then spoke to our social worker to get the ball rolling. But three weeks later she changed her mind, kept the baby. We decided to look abroad, and began an application to adopt from Armenia. The cultures were similar we told ourselves. We could parent a child with Armenian roots. We translated documents and witness testimonies in a script we couldn’t understand, and met a wonderful Armenian lady who offered to help us when we were in country. We sent off the paperwork and began to hope. We were still waiting but we felt in control. We were blindsided during that time when my dad got sick, and we had to put things on hold. After my dad’s passing I found it hard to think about moving forward with the adoption, and we took a couple of months to regroup before starting the paperwork trail again when the authorities in Armenia requested more information. This time it was slow, the translations even slower. Finally, in May 2017 we sent them off. I hoped we were close, but that voice inside that told me it might not happen was gaining ground. I told myself that I might have to accept that we would never get to be parents together. It was the first time I had ever allowed the thought to take space in my mind, and it was the hardest idea to conceive. But three weeks later we got news of a baby in Cyprus who might need us.
Without any more information, I knew. Maybe it was naivety, maybe desperation, or maybe something altogether wonderful like fate. But I had a feeling. I knew without being told that the baby was a girl, and I knew, really knew beyond doubt, that she was mine. So I went home, cleaned the spare room. I couldn’t clear my work schedule this time, but I didn’t care. I cancelled a trip to Harrogate festival just in case. I was convinced. That girl was ours, and she was coming home.
I called the social workers every day trying to convince them. They told me that nothing had been decided, that they didn’t even know if she would be available to be adopted. So I begged to register as a foster parent, told the social worker that she needed a family, that if she wasn’t ready to leave hospital they had to let me go to her instead. I told my husband that this time it wasn’t about us. I told him I was prepared to give her a home, even if it wasn’t to stay. I was lucky he felt the same and we signed the forms to foster and continued to hope.
It’s two years ago next month that we first heard about our daughter. It’s over a year since the adoption was finalised. Today I sat waiting in the dentist’s chair while she had her first ever dental check. All that waiting that at the time seemed so fruitless. But yet we were waiting not for a form to be signed, not for a letter to be read, or for somebody to make a decision; we were waiting for our daughter. If we hadn’t waited all that time we wouldn’t have been ready when our daughter was ready. We had to wait, because when we thought we were ready, we weren’t. Our daughter hadn’t been born yet.
Sometimes waiting feels as if it’s the most pointless waste of time. Finding the patience for it is tough. But waiting, while it might be the hardest thing, is sometimes all you can do. Everything happens in due course.
As I begin a new year I always liked to make an effort to look back on the previous year, but never resolved to make any New Year’s resolutions. I have always thought them a total waste of time. How many people join a gym in January, only to end up paying a year of subscription fees for no more than a handful of visits? Nope, I didn’t want to be that sucker. I am a long-time subscriber to the Start Now mantra; I believed that if I wanted something badly enough, I’d do it before the first of January of the incoming year.
I don’t know whether it’s age, being a (fairly) new parent, or whether there’s an incoming full moon to which I can attribute blame, but this year I felt differently. As the year was drawing to a close I felt myself wanting to make resolutions for change. It wasn’t that I got anything particularly wrong in 2018, but still I felt there was room for a reset, and the need for some updating when it came to my priorities.
Parenthood, I have learned, is the most humbling of experiences. What you think you need soon becomes a thing open for debate. Take sleep for example. I quite liked it to be honest, but we have fallen somewhat out of love of late, and the truth is I have a daughter whose a pretty good sleeper. What about ‘me time’? The less said about that the better. I don’t even do the unmentionables in private anymore. And as for ego, that literally packs it’s bags and walks out of the door the moment you arrive home with a baby. I do things now that I would never have dreamed I would do as a parent, because yes, I was one of those single people who rolled her eyes at screens on the table during dinner, and often professed that I would never allow my child to eat food in the supermarket before it had been purchased. Now I realise you just do whatever it takes, and we always leave a trail of breadcrumbs as we move through the aisles.
So where do priorities come into all of this, especially for somebody like me working from home. Until September last year I worked when my child slept. It was a challenge now when I look back, and by the time summer arrived I was tired of the daily battle to increase word count or focus on edits. Nursery recreated the working day for me, and that helped me establish a sense of routine again. But still, even though I suddenly had an extra six or seven hours a day at my disposal, somehow, I still always felt as if I was chasing my tail. I couldn’t move forwards because my priorities were all over the place. I didn’t really know what I wanted from my time.
This understanding made me look at my life and want to strip it back. I got excited about the Kon Marie method and promptly delivered 50% of all our household belongings to the charity shop, along with what was probably more like 80% of my wardrobe. They were knee jerk reactions, and the truth is that the capsule wardrobe idea was a failure; a pair of white jeans on a summer holiday in Rome soon brought the reality of that idea into alarming clarity.
In stripping back my life I realised my priorities were less about possessions and clutter and more about values. What did I truly want from my now limited time? I wanted to write. I wanted the time to read. I realised I cared less about a new television series than I did the ability to enjoy reading two books in a week. I wanted to sleep for more than five hours a night, and find the sense of calm that was missing from my daily life. I wanted the time to connect with readers, one of the main reasons why I started writing in the first place.
In the weeks before Christmas I began a programme of meditation. I’m doing it every night, and I really think it helps with being calm and organised, and cope if the day eventually implodes. I started turning off the TV late at night and have since read three books in as many weeks. And on the first of January I began my first New Year’s resolution; keeping a goal-setting and gratitude journal on a daily basis. Sounds like hocus pocus, but I really think he helps me stay on track when it comes to working towards my priorities. And out of the blue today I received the loveliest email which further put everything into perspective. A reader emailed me to say they had read My Sister and that she really connected with the character Irini. She told me that because of reading my book she found the courage to open up to the parents from whom she had once been estranged and had begun asking for answers as to why they had abandoned her when she was a child.
When I set out to write My Sister I was thinking of my own future child that I wished to adopt, hoping to demonstrate that sometimes unthinkable actions like their own abandonment might hide logical explanations for difficult truths. Placing a child for adoption to the outsider seems like the most unthinkable decision in the world, but if the option to keep that child puts them at risk, perhaps seeking a new future for that child is the safest option. This feedback from my reader is more valuable to me than any number of sales; to have connected with somebody in such a way, to help them find a route to move forward and define their priorities in life is the highest of privileges. If I never sold another copy of My Sister again, writing it will now always have been worthwhile.
Realising how I want to spend my time, knowing my own priorities as I step into this new year has become my resolution. I know I want to live more quietly, with less, which will ultimately I believe give me more. I want to focus on work to a greater extent, read with greater immersion, and continue along my path of meditation and reflection. And while these are all things I knew I wanted before the turn of a new year, still I didn’t really begin to seek them out. I realise now that sometimes it takes a trigger, whether that is the turn of a new year or connecting with a character in a book, to know what our real priorities are. When I look back on 2019, I want to know I did everything I could to live my life right. I suppose on some level, that’s all any of us want.
Anybody who follows my Instagram page will know that I spent five hours in a paediatric outpatient department today. It was a pretty torturous experience; the background noise of babies grumbling, the lethargy of tired parents losing their cool, and tears as a cheeky boy snatched a rice cake from an unsuspecting baby girl. At times it felt as if we would never make it out of there, especially when they informed us that they’d lost my daughter’s notes. But as we had little choice about being there when it's something as important as our child's health we grit our teeth and got on with it, coming up with every unimaginable way to prevent the inevitable meltdown. We didn’t avoid it, but still, we got through it.
When I signed with Headline back in 2015 it was a huge moment for me. The idea of having a book deal had at one point seemed like an unattainable dream, back when I was writing without an agent and collecting rejection slips with each passing day. But I kept going with a quiet optimism, and a belief that one day I would succeed in finding somebody who believed in my novel as much as I did. Still, when I received the email to say my book had sold I was speechless. But not only because MY SISTER had sold to a great publisher, but because they had also decided to buy a book I was yet to write.
Now that kind of faith in my ability to provide something that was not only attractive to the publisher but salable to an ever fluid market brought with it a set of new anxieties for me. I was immensely proud, but also scared; I had never written a novel to order before. I had always done my own thing. But with the editing process for MY SISTER complete, I had to start my second, contracted, psychological thriller.
It began easily enough; unplanned and uncontrolled. That was how every book started back then. I got an idea and ran with it. But when you are writing to meet contractual deadlines, and a synopsis that you provided, writing with such freedom is unsustainable. Because going off on every random tangent without a destination is not without consequence. Book two grew not only in size but complexity. But as it grew it began to veer further and further from its brief. The synopsis seemed less relevant the further I progressed, and a meeting with my agent left me with the impression that I didn’t understand my own book; by then I was a few drafts and 110,000 words in. That's about nine months of work that had stopped making sense.
And the hardest thing to admit as my submission deadline approached, was that I wasn't really happy with where I had ended up. Quite simply, book two had grown into a monster. It was much like today’s hospital visit - there was a whole lot of fuss, with people running around all over the place, but when it came to the plot, much like my daughter's notes, it was lost.
I wrestled with it a bit longer but with the pressure of deadlines looming right around the corner I submitted it to my agent. I knew I needed some guidance, but the hardest thing to admit to both myself and her, was that if I'd have been searching for representation at that time I wouldn't have submitted that manuscript. I knew it was far from ready. Obviously my editor knew that too and we arranged a meeting, and I planned a trip to the UK. And as I boarded an early flight to London on a crisp December day in 2016, knowing that about seven hours later I would have to explain how I planned to resolve the issues with my mess of a manuscript, I was struck by an overwhelming thought; I needed to write another book. Plenty of great writers will tell you not to give up on something because it got hard, but I knew drastic action was the only way forward. So instead of working on my edits during the flight I wrote a new synopsis. It was a new book, but one that without the first draft of book two might never have come to mind. And the gamble worked. My editor loved it. All I had to do was go back to the drawing board, start from chapter one. And oh yes, could I do it in just a few months? I decided I could at least try.
With a lot of time at my desk I got the book written in the two months proposed. I slipped away from life at the weekends and worked early and until it was late. And after submitting to my agent I got the email I was waiting for: she loved the book. Fortunately my editor did too.
In the year it took me to rework the mess of the first draft into the final manuscript a lot has changed. I bought a house while it was still being built, managed to move in. I lost a father to cancer, and spent six unforgettable weeks sitting at his bedside. And recently, just after I got my copy edits back I too became a mother when we adopted our beautiful baby girl. In this last year book two has grown, and I have grown with it. It has been the most challenging book I have ever written. It has been one of the hardest years I think I have lived. But last Friday I submitted my copy edits to my editor. That means we are nearly there. It means that book two is nearly finished. It means, just like today, with a little bit of grit, I got through it.
BETWEEN THE LIES is due to be released on 12th July 2018
It's just over six months since the publication of MY SISTER in the UK. During that time there have been at least five other foreign releases that I know of, and there are still more to come. And each time a new foreign edition is released, the latest being the US edition entitled IF YOU KNEW MY SISTER, I'm reminded what a joy it is to see my book in print. Being a writer was a childhood dream, from the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. I used to think that if ever I got an agent and a publishing deal life would change. Of course it did, not quite in the Hollywood, champagne lunch way I envisioned, but suddenly I had to travel to different countries to meet editors, work longer days than I ever imagined, and hit deadlines that were not always easy. But the last six months have brought more changes still, and the routine I used to keep as a writer simply no longer exists.
I've written before about my plans to become a parent through adoption. My husband and I began the process over three years ago and during that time our hopes have risen and fallen it seems at times with the seasons. Just over twelve months ago we thought we were adopting, and then it all fell through for reasons beyond our control. I began to doubt it would ever happen for us, and had started the process of trying to be alright with that. But a few months ago our dreams came true. We were chosen to become the parents of a beautiful baby girl. To call it life changing would be a bit like describing a transatlantic rowing challenge as a nice little jaunt. The ways in which my life has altered are too numerous to count, and even if I wanted to I wouldn't have the time. All of these changes, even the difficult ones are beyond wonderful, but having a child has had a huge impact on my life as a writer.
When you begin the adoption process you think that you are 'getting ready' for when the big day arrives. In hindsight it's quite different. The adoption process is one thing. Adoption is another. Before and after. Even though you are doing what you need to do in order to bring a child home, really you are just getting on with life. The idea of a future with a baby stays with you, but there is nothing tangible on a day to day basis to remind you that you are hopeful, would-be parents. You're not really getting ready like you would if you were pregnant. That sort of bodily change forces your hand. You might want to keep going all the way up until the birth, but at some point you are forced to give in to the inevitable. Hormones change. Biology takes over. When you get the adoption call you go from working twelve hours a day and enjoying easy weekends doing whatever the hell you like, to full time parenting in just a few days. Maybe hours. You begin learning on the job with the most demanding of bosses.
So invariably I had all sorts of stuff hanging in the air when we got the call. Book two had just arrived in my inbox ready for a major edit. I spoke with my agent and my editor who were both wonderfully generous with their time, understanding, and gifts. They gave me the freedom to take my time, and although it turned out that I only needed a month it was a relief to have the option to take longer. I was planning to go to Harrogate for the Theakston's Crime festival, but that plan was quickly shelved. Book three was almost finished, just about ready for those fifteen hour days when you don't leave the desk until you pull it all together. Instead it grew hotter as I did little to it for the month of editing book two. I had to prioritise the time I had and for the first time I was forced to tell myself that I couldn't do everything. My days were suddenly segmented into ninety minute periods of wake and sleep. I worked through every nap and late into the night, showered quickly, and ate on the move. My husband discovered the supermarket. The house grew steadily more messy. And during that time of night feeds and little sleep I fell in love with my new baby and the new, remarkable version of my life.
It takes time to get to grips with motherhood, and how you balance that with life and work. The challenge posed by what used to be everyday routine tasks, including those personal ones that were normally done while alone. Changing the nappy of a moving target, legs to attention at forty five degrees. It takes time to adjust and learn the new routine, find a way for your old life and your new life to coexist. But now with the final - obviously, that's a subjective final- draft of book three almost in the bag, things are starting to feel easier, even if this post has been written with a break for feeding and is being finished as we approach 1 a.m. with a promise of a 4 a.m. wake up call. But with the idea for book four making steady progress in my mind I know I am drawing to a close on book three. I know the routines of being a writer, even if I have had to adapt. Life changes and therefore so do I. I know the idea for book four wouldn't have come without book three being ready. Babies are not quite the same. They don't wait for you to be ready. But I am living the dream. Both of them.
So, Mother’s Day happened this Sunday. Although there’s not much of a fuss about it here in Cyprus, I keep a track on UK based radio and more often than not I manage to organize for flowers to be delivered to my Mum on time. At the very latest they might arrive the following day. This year I managed to apologise for missing Mother’s Day in a panic a week ahead of the event, so I was well organised by the time it actually came around. But the celebration of mothers in this way, especially when I am so far from mine, got me thinking. Specifically it got me thinking about being a Mum, something I cannot yet call myself, and the reason why I started writing My Sister in the first place.
You see, when I set out to write My Sister it was with one main aim; to tell the story of a woman who decided to give her child away. And ultimately that’s what My Sister became. Although we are submerged in Irini’s world years after the event, and dealing with her interaction with her destructive sister, Elle, the story is at its most basic, about their mother. By sharing Irini’s journey of discovery we learn the painful truth of her mother's past.
My Sister opens when Irini receives a telephone call from her sister to tell her that their mother has died. For me it was the only way to open, because so often a mother who has been faced with giving her child for adoption carries with her an untold story, their voice lost somewhere along the way. Often information isn’t passed on, or perhaps withheld because of a misguided belief that the truth could be painful. These mothers often have no opportunity to tell their side of the story, either because of social or personal pressures. That’s why it was so important that the story of Irini and Elle’s mother in My Sister reflected this, while at the same time uncovered the truth of Irini’s departure from the family home.
My desire to tell this story comes from a very personal place; I myself am on a similar journey, as my husband and I have been following a path to adoption for the last few years. While we have had some unfortunate and upsetting bumps in our journey, we are hopeful that we are nearing the time when we are able to increase the size of our family. Although there is still a long way to go, and potentially many miles to travel, including to a country we have never even visited, it feels as if we are one step closer to bringing our child home. But that too means that there is already a mother out there who is trying to decide whether she can or cannot raise her child on her own. Whether she has the means to clothe him, feed him, or provide him with shelter. Whether or not she can keep him safe. She is trying to decide whether I am a better option, a woman whom she has never met, and whose name she might never have the opportunity to know. It also means that I am one step closer to the day when my child might ask me about the woman who had to make that choice, and what significance that has on him and his life.
This woman, the first mother of my child, will remain intrinsically linked to my life, my husband’s life, and that of our child for many years to come. I hope that through our own adoption journey I will find a way to give a voice to the woman who chose to entrust her child to me. I do not want to wipe her out of my child’s past, or pretend that my child’s life starts the day we turn up. I hope that we are able to find a way to raise our child with respect for the woman who gave him life, and who had the courage to hope for something better.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
Headline In Pre empt for debut thriller
Pre-emp for If You Knew My Sister
Psychological Thriller stirs up rights market
Books Before the Buzz
My Sister book review on writing.iw