I never intended to be writer. Writing wasn’t in the plan. I always loved reading and books, but I was an immigration lawyer. When I moved from the US to the UK, I requalified as a solicitor. I loved it, and I worked very hard to achieve that career. But at 37, with a baby and a toddler, I found myself mentally exhausted, physically changed, and emotionally tattered. My sons’ births had been traumatic which impacted my ability to cope with parenting them, similarly to Gigi, the protagonist in my novel When I Ran Away, and I needed to take a break.
I stepped out of the law for a year, which became two, and then three. When I was ready to return to my profession, I found that my profession didn’t necessarily want me back. I went to the few interviews I had eager, prepared, and informed about legal changes since I’d left. But I was also in need of flexible hours and an employer who would trust that if I left early to attend a school event, my work would still get done. Unsurprisingly, I kept coming second, told that I was a good candidate, but that someone else got the job. At an event I attended for parents returning to the law, one law firm representative stated that if mothers needed flexibility, then we should “just look for a different job,” or return as paralegals, not as the qualified lawyers we had trained to become.
I panicked. I felt that I had thrown everything I had ever worked for away and I was never going to get it back. What I had to offer the world, other than motherhood, was no longer required. It was during this time that Gigi started to talk to me inside my head. She became my mother alter ego, the woman brave enough to say things about motherhood that I wasn’t, and who found life as an American in the UK as funny as it was challenging.
My husband, Tim, always said I should write, so one day, while our little boy slept and our slightly bigger boy was at school, I wrote a few pages about 9/11 and a few about giving birth, two experiences that shaped my adult life. I looked half-heartedly at writing courses online, knowing how small the chances were of becoming a writer, and that’s when I came across the Faber Academy. The deadline to apply for the Work In Progress course was five days away. I had to submit a chapter and a premise for a novel. I had a few pages, a loud New Yorker in my head, and a vague idea, but I gave it a shot anyway.
The week I was accepted on the course I also received a job offer. Tim and I realised, dismally, that the proposed salary meant we would only break even once we paid for childcare, the price of readmission to my career. So we took a risk. I declined the job and my reintroduction to the law and took the Faber course instead to see where it would lead. Tim and I agreed that if at the end of the year, I had a book that was viable, then I would pursue writing. If I didn’t, well, I’d still have a book, even if no one ever read it, and I’d have something to discuss at job interviews, as well as another year at home with our small boys.
Faber Academy was very motivating. Every month we had 5-7,000 words due and I was determined to meet that deadline every time; the kids couldn’t be an excuse. I felt accountable to my colleagues on the course. I would get up at 5 am, often joined by my younger son, and while he settled in with Paw Patrol and granola bars, I wrote for two hours before our day started. After nursery and school drop off, I’d write for another three hours, even if the house was a tip and we had no food in the fridge. I seized whatever hours I could, but it wasn’t enough time to make an outline or develop a narrative arc. I improvised instead, and every month I would pick a liquid that’s part of motherhood – coffee, blood, tears – and I used it as a prompt, challenging myself to write 7,000 words that included that substance in some way. Those became the chapter headings. By the end of the course I had a novel with a shaky structure, but I had novel. Tim and I took another risk. I set a deadline to find an agent or else start looking for a job. I found my agent a week before my cut off. And then I thanked luck and the universe for changing my plans.
I learned that writing is a solitary pursuit, but a novel is a team effort. Gigi’s story made it onto the shelf because I had a partner who took the pressure of being the sole breadwinner; colleagues and a tutor on my course who shared their knowledge and honestly and respectfully critiqued my work; agents and editors who believed in me; friends who cheered me on through endless drafts. A novel also needs the agents and publishers and editors who don’t want to be on your team, who say ‘no’ to you a hundred times. They’re the ones who push you to make it better so you can finally get to ‘yes.’
I learned that you have to get lost before you figure out what you’re supposed to do, and it’s ok if that doesn’t happen until you’re 40. I learned that failures and setbacks and disappointments give you a lot to write about. I learned that anyone who puts their heart on the page is taking a massive risk, and that it’s a risk worth taking.
(c) Ilona Bannister
Author photography (c) Andrew Mason Photography
About When I Ran Away:
This morning Gigi left her husband and children.
Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.
When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.
Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.
As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.
An unforgettable novel about love – for our partners, our children, our mothers, and ourselves – pushed to its outer limits.
Order your copy online here.