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Why I wrote Matchstick Man by Julia Kelly

Julia Kelly © 30 July 2018.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir ).

I didn’t plan to write this book. I’d begun work on a new novel about a family wedding in Italy but I couldn’t concentrate; I was too overwhelmed by what was happening to our small family. My partner Charlie, father to our nine year-old daughter, Ruby Mae, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and all three of us were struggling to adjust to our altered lives.

Charlie was frustrated and very frightened, Ruby Mae was confused by her Dad’s unpredictable and at times aggressive behaviour, and the feeling I battled with most was guilt. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough to help Charlie but guilty too that caring for him was taking up so much of my writing time. And I felt deeply guilty that our once happy home was now a tense and unstable environment in which to raise our child.

Charlie was rapidly losing not just his short-term memory but his identity and his voice. He felt invisible, that he was fading from view. On a particularly fraught morning he asked me what I was working on. I responded grumpily that all I could write about was this, our tough new dynamic. Will you write a book about me, he’d asked me then. He said he wanted people to understand that none of this was his fault, he wanted his life before Alzheimer’s to be remembered and for his daughter to read about his childhood when he could no longer recall it. We both also felt that writing about this illness might help other people who were facing the same thing. And Charlie’s request gave me an opportunity to describe our lives and to defend some of the extremely difficult choices I had to make as Charlie’s partner and carer.

We sat down in the dark kitchen to talk about it. I told him I would write about him, about us, but that I could only do so honestly; that I would need to describe the good times as well as the bad. Despite some reservations, it felt like a natural thing to do. It was Charlie who had first taught me how to write, twelve years earlier when we met at Annaghmakerrig, the artist’s retreat in County Monaghan. He had told me to write using all my senses, to delete all unnecessary words, to turn things on their heads, to be honest, to be original, to be brave. He used to give me long lists of words to use in my work, words that he now struggles to find.

And so I began Matchstick Man. I wrote all but three chapters in the first person, present tense. I think this gives an urgency and tension to the story which felt accurate for the situation we were enduring. There was an urgency too in writing it down; I knew that Charlie would be harder to reach as the disease progressed and that I only had a limited time to record his feelings. Charlie was living in the present because it was all he had left and we were all running on adrenaline; chaos and crisis became our default setting.

Though I always find writing hard, this book came relatively easily to me. There was a comforting sense that in writing about people close to me who I had lost – like my mother and a small, longed-for baby – or was losing, like Charlie: they were becoming immortal, their memories preserved eternally by describing their lives and their deaths.

The response to Matchstick Man has been better than I could have dreamed of. I have however also received some criticism for exposing Charlie by describing his illness in so much detail and so graphically. I feel that it would have served no one if I had only written about the cute, funny sides of this illness (of which there are precious few) and that Charlie, more than anyone else, would understand this. As Charlie says himself: dementia is a bastard, dementia is a thief. I needed to be as accurate and as honest as I could in describing the impact this illness has had on our lives.

With memoir there will always be people who are upset or critical of your work, those who remember things differently, those who resent or disagree with your opinion, but I feel that you simply can’t write properly or honestly if you focus on keeping everyone happy. In my writing, I try to describe a person or a situation as honestly as I can, though I need to develop a thicker skin to deal with the inevitable fallout. I have received many emails and letters from people saying that they now understand what Alzheimer’s is and that feels very satisfying and important.

When I gave Charlie a copy of Matchstick Man, one of his paintings – Remembering Mother – on the cover, he sat upright on his bed in his nursing home and we returned for those few moments to mentor and muse: he was proud of his student and proud to be remembered and celebrated now that his life has become so insular and so small.

I know that there is a freight train coming down the tracks – that our daughter will lose her father while she is still very young – and that there is nothing I can do to stop it. But it is also unfair of me to wish for Charlie to stay alive as I know that this is a tortuous existence for him.  Although ours is no longer a romantic love, in many ways I love Charlie more than I ever have. I visit him six times a week, feed him Werther’s Originals, massage his head with E45 cream. Then we lie on his narrow bed together and sing along to ‘cheating and hurting songs’. He still remembers all the words.

(c) Julia Kelly

Author photograph (c) Kip Carroll

Julia Kelly studied English, Sociology and journalism in Dublin and worked in publishing in London for six weeks. She is the award winning writer of novels With My Lazy Eye, which was nominated for Book of the Decade by the Irish Book Awards, and The Playground. She lives in Dalkey, County Dublin. 

About Matchstick Man:

Julia Kelly met a charismatic and successful artist, Charlie Whisker, while she was working on her first novel. He was twenty years older than her. Their relationship was passionate and extraordinary; each of them inspired the other. Their friends were writers, artists and rock stars; they lived a glamorous life of exhibitions, parties and concerts. They became parents to a daughter they adored.

But Charlie suddenly changed, becoming hopelessly forgetful, angry and confused. This is an unbearably honest, unsentimental and heartbreaking description of a brilliant man’s mental disintegration and its effects on his family. Charlie’s disturbing behaviour is described in a series of terrible, understated revelations.

An unforgettable telling of a story that will be familiar to many thousands of people in the UK and Ireland.

Order your copy online here.

Julia Kelly studied English, Sociology and journalism in Dublin and worked in publishing in London for six weeks. She is the award winning writer of novels With My Lazy Eye, which was nominated for Book of the Decade by the Irish Book Awards, and The Playground. She lives in Dalkey, County Dublin.