How does a single person write about a complex, difficult relationship? It’s what I’ve been asking myself as I write my novel, much of which centres around a struggling marriage between an itinerant Lib Dem MP and her itinerant Tory-supporting husband. Frankly, I look about as qualified to talk about a difficult marriage as Joe Pasquale is to teach kung-fu. My parents’ marriage, the only one I’ve seen at frequent close quarters, has been happy and drama-free apart from one wobble which happened after I’d moved out and is now resolved as far as I know. My own personal best is in the mumble-it-while-looking-away bracket. I’ve never lived with a partner or got near the stage where that might be up for discussion (typically, just as I’ve made peace with that enough to enjoy the benefits, I’ve reached the age when people start to pry…). It’s not dealing with slings and arrows in relationships I struggle at, it’s either getting into ones that are right at the outset, or being in a position where any would work – which is a different beast from coping with in-laws and baby vomit.
The obvious first answer to the question is the same as for writing about anything else you haven’t directly experienced: research, primary and secondary. It sort of helps that marriage and parenthood are probably the most written and talked-about subjects in the known universe – indeed, a lot of the inspiration for the novel in the first place came from real meetings and conversations I’ve had. Talk to anyone about their awesome career and they’ll probably tell you off the record that they’ve forgotten what sex is. A card-carrying Lib Dem friend I caught up with recently joked about being terrified the novel will consist of hacked phone conversations between her and her Tory accountant girlfriend (notably, the people who’ve agreed to it when I’ve specifically asked to speak to them about their relationships for help with the book are largely same-sex couples: maybe because they’re the ones who are used to having their personal lives intruded into. When it’s quite normal to be asked how you have sex and how many dildos you own ten seconds into a pub conversation with curious straights, having tea and a sit-down with a pal to talk about how you deal with conflict in your relationship isn’t exactly a big deal, after all…).
The second, more personal and difficult answer to the question is that in order to write about what you think you don’t know, you have to realise that you do know. That although the experience is unique the feelings are universal and occur across many situations. So, you think of something in your own life which produced similar feelings and apply those to the unknown context: in this case, a marriage. It’s the way many actors are taught acting at drama school. There’s an interview with the actress Juliet Stephenson in a great book called Performing Women: Standups, Strumpets and Itinerants where she describes how she turned around one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. She was 19, studying at RADA and out of her depth playing Cleopatra, as she puts it: “an exotic middle-aged creature.” The archetypal spade-a-spade director screamed at her in front of the class calling her performance: “dreadful, pathetic, repressed, virginal”. She felt furious and wounded, as though the most private, vulnerable part of her had been trampled on, and she wanted to walk out and never return. But in the end she stayed and channelled all her anger at him into her performance. Afterwards he leaned back and said: “That’s it. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Whether the director was deliberately provoking her into anger or just frustrated isn’t clear, but it worked. And it works for writing too. I may not know struggle and disappointment in the context of a marriage or long-term relationship but I know them well enough elsewhere. I know what it’s like to invest a lot of time and emotion in someone and realise they aren’t who you thought they were (or vice versa), or that much of the premise your association was based on was faulty, or that particular circumstances in your or someone else’s life mean it’s best you stay out of each others’ way for your own good and everyone else’s. And I know what it’s like to long to feel a profound understanding with someone, and to feel swept up in a moment before you’ve managed to process it, in a way that can ultimately lead you to something like infidelity, or to enabling it. Having boundaries is easy until you’re desperate. To a greater or lesser degree most people know these feelings – it only takes one or two such incidents in your life to have a huge impact. And it’s those incidents I try and tap into in my writing. So in short: “How do you write about a difficult marriage?” The same way as you write about a difficult anything. You don’t have to have been married to have problems, you just need to have lived.