Author Patricia Caliskan on how she loved writing about Erika Forde, the unconventional heroine of When We Were Us.
“Sooner or later, we all sit at the banquet of our consequences.” How’s that for inspiration? A curveball of an influence, but those words from Robert Louis Stevenson remained at the forefront as I wrote my latest novel, When We Were Us.
The quote struck a chord because I wanted to write about the experiences of an older woman, and not necessarily that much older, but aged over-40, as these voices seem to be heard less, often side-lined, slightly dismissed as B-line characters who exist to observe and support a typically younger protagonist.
I’m intrigued by retracing loose threads. That requires a certain latitude and longitude in my characters, qualities which are not necessarily dependent on age, but make slightly older characters quite fascinating, as they’re often capable of greater surprises.
I’ve always enjoyed listening to that demographic of women, which I now belong to, as they have so much wisdom and experience. When I was a child, I much preferred the company of grown-ups. I loved their insights into navigating life. I was delighted by anecdotes from their past, which seemed to sprawl several lifetimes of situations, careers, and relationships, so far removed from the moment.
Erika Forde is not your typical romantic heroine. Erika isn’t wistfully in search of a romantic conclusion. She’s barely thinking ahead at all. Instead, she gradually revisits earlier versions of her forty-two-year-old self, revealing her romantic and tragic past as she questions the authenticity of her marriage. Erika’s followed what she would agree is quite a traditional path in life, but that chapter is about to crumble as the past catches up with her. Her objective isn’t finding validation in the form of a partner, but to reconcile the woman she’s become with the person she remembers at her core.
As the past plays such a pivotal role, there’s a sense of underlying nostalgia surrounding the novel. The title not only refers to previous relationships of Erika’s but encompasses defining choices made by the surrounding characters. The story almost goes full circle as they return to who they were before life distracted them with demands and expectation, but as in life, that doesn’t necessarily mean their lives are tied up prettily.
In order to move forward, we need to rediscover the past. We have to revisit our intent. Erika’s self-reflection deepens as past and present converge with the arrival of Enzo Morelli, who adds another piece to the puzzle of her marriage and marks the start of a slowly unfolding revelation which runs throughout the novel.
Her childhood friend and former lover, Enzo isn’t looking for a love story, either. Instead, he’s seeking answers and addressing factors which will seriously impact his future. His re-emergence magnifies the compromises Erika has made for the sake of her family. I loved writing about Erika and Enzo, old friends, and former lovers. The choice to capture snapshots of their previous relationship was almost a given. Their dialogue is easy-going, fast-paced, and witty, with an enduring affection.
The story unfolds as Erika responds to question marks surrounding her marriage, and rather enjoys herself in the process. Her life has very much been about routine, but as she regains autonomy, with her son at university, and her husband otherwise distracted, her career becomes her playground.
Away from her relationship and observed in the way she interacts with her son, Matt, Erika is light-hearted, spirited, and sharp. Watching Matt evolve and accept his sexuality is one of the factors which inspires her. Meanwhile, the freedom and creativity she explores in her work is at odds with the regiment of life at home with her husband. The character of David Daniel Forde, Erika’s husband, denounces ‘chick lit’, while writing fantasist, misogynistic spy thrillers, and was born from an underlying derision surrounding the Romance genre, along with certain tropes of midlife men, which were far too juicy to resist!
Erika also feels estranged from her own body. I wanted to show her navigating perimenopause. Erika takes a proactive stance to contribute to the, thankfully, growing conversation around menopause. It’s been fascinating to me, over the last few years, as friends began to share experiences, investigations, almost confessional. However, with this new conversation comes the monetisation of women’s health, which Erika discovers at a rather surreal menopause retreat. It was important for me to acknowledge perimenopause, not only because so many women feel disorientated, isolated and unsure about symptoms, but because we need to familiarise ourselves with something we’re all going to experience.
Despite my first three novels featuring love stories, as a feminist, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable within the Romance genre. I’m interested in investigating hidden truth within families, and intimacy, rather than romantic escapism. I wanted to write a book about a woman over forty who has not only experienced love, passion, commitment, abandonment, and everything else in between, but is still capable of being surprised by life. I’m far less cynical than I was in my twenties, far more content in myself than I was in my thirties, and I notice how women in particular grow more interesting as they progress through life. We find our voices, reconcile the past, know who we are, and hopefully feel less responsibility to live up to convention. Erika may not be a typical romantic heroine, but she is a romantic celebration of the female experience.
(c) Patricia Caliskan
About When We Were Us by Patricia Caliskan:
Is it ever too late to start again…?
Erika Forde has always played second fiddle to her husband David, the famous novelist. But since their son, Matt, left home for university, cracks have started to show in their marriage.
Erika has long had a nagging suspicion that David may not always have been faithful, and now his latest books are starting to wane in popularity causing erratic moods that are affecting Erika.
But while David’s career starts to dip, Erika’s advertising agency is on the up.
Erika’s creative genius wins the agency a huge client in Stable Denim, but her life is thrown into turmoil when one of the models cast for the campaign turns out to be her ex-boyfriend, Enzo.
Has Enzo been sent back into Erika’s life for a reason? Is it time for her to reevaluate her marriage?
Or should some things be left in the past…?
Order your copy online here.