It started with an advent calendar. I had been a reporter for years writing about businesses, Brexit and austerity for the Guardian, but when I had children, I found my way to fiction. We would make up characters on the way to nursery – a favourite was Caspian Conker – and turned them into picture books. Then I had the idea to put a snippet of a story into each pouch on their advent calendars. When my son and daughter were tiny, this would be five lines a day. Then one year, the children older and their reading appetites bigger, I realised I was writing a thousand words a day. Like so many writers, I had of course broken the promise to myself to write the whole thing before December, and instead I was writing into the small hours, printing out each day’s chapter just in time, before getting a few hours’ sleep and going to work. It is just a silly story about a man named Bob Whitebeard who has fled his home in the North Pole for a quiet life in a rundown English hotel. But as silly as it was, I hadn’t cared so much about anything I had written for years. I wrote a sequel the next December and my confidence grew that I could write a whole novel.
Around the same time, I bumped into a university friend at a wedding who had done the MA in creative writing at City, University of London. I liked what she said about being part of a group and that, at the time, the MA involved writing a whole novel. I am lucky enough that my family situation meant I did not have to keep working while doing the MA and so I left my job to have more time with the children and more time to write.
The piece of writing I submitted in my MA application was the kernel for the novel now coming out with Orenda Books, Everything Happens for a Reason. I had been carrying around the main character, Rachel, for a while. She came to me when I was early for a press conference and I was killing time in St James’ Park in London. Rachel was staring out her window, waiting for something to take her thoughts away from what had happened to her: Just as she was about to give birth to her first baby, he had stopped kicking. He was stillborn. Now she was on maternity leave without a baby. With her days unbearably empty, she resolves to claw back their time together by writing to the baby.
The idea of a stillborn baby was no accident. Our second son, Finn, died just before birth. I was in early labour and his movements had slowed, something felt wrong. I went to hospital alone, leaving our two-year-old with my husband and thinking the midwives would reassure me everything was fine. Worst case, I would need an emergency c-section. A scan showed Finn’s heart had stopped. He was delivered the next day. We then faced the horrible task of telling all those expecting happy news that our son had died. People were kind, supportive, did not know what to say. One person texted that, “everything happens for a reason”.
The phrase infuriated me. I went through lists of possible reasons, I asked people if they believed it. With all the bad news in the world, how could someone say that?
I clearly held onto my anger because the phrase is the driving force – and the title – of my novel. My character is told the same and goes to extreme lengths to pull the phrase apart. But she also wants to believe it, and believe in a world where everything makes sense.
In my character Rachel’s case, the day she found out she was pregnant, she stopped a man from jumping in front of a London Underground train. She becomes convinced that is the reason her baby died, that the man she saved took his place. She vows to track him down and make his life count. In her search for him, she borrows a sausage dog, ropes in Underground worker Lola and rediscovers her appetite for fun thanks to Lola’s seven-year-old daughter.
I first wrote the opening pages in third person then in first person. Thanks to an MA module on experiments in style with writer Clare Allan, I hit on writing the story as emails from Rachel. The challenge was working out the timing of the emails and how to keep the action lively in this reported style. But the emails are key to Rachel’s story – I hope the format conveys that emptiness she wants to fill, the purpose she needs to regain.
As it came to finding an agent and publisher, I also realised a story told as emails may be difficult to pitch. Here again, I was lucky. I met Karen Sullivan, founder of Orenda Books, at a street party and asked her for advice about agents and publication. She asked to see my manuscript and I thought she was simply being polite. But the next day I realised I would be a total fool if I did not send it. Not long after, Karen emailed to say she loved it. At the same time, a few agents had seen the opening pages in an anthology published by the MA course and had asked for the full manuscript. One of them was Caroline Hardman at Hardman Swainson. We met and I knew Caroline could see what I was trying to do and that she would root for my book.
Stillbirth is a difficult subject (when people tell me that, I have to bite my tongue!) and the email format is unusual, but my book found a way to an agent and publisher who believe in it. All that said, I would never claim that everything happens for a reason.
(c) Katie Allen
About Everything Happens for a Reason:
When Rachel’s baby is stillborn, she becomes obsessed with the idea that saving a stranger’s life months earlier is to blame. An unforgettable, heart-wrenching, warm and funny debut…
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
‘A stunning debut … a wise, moving, and thought-provoking novel’ Susan Elliot Wright
‘A triumph … a book of hope and ambition and making sense of the world, a tale of acting spontaneously, living in the moment and throwing caution to the wind’ Isabella May
‘So affecting. Profoundly sad. Funny. I just loved it’ Louise Beech
Order your copy online here.