Saturday, 8 September 2012

We've a visitor. So please put your hands together for ... Stephanie Butland.

Yes - we're on our best behaviour today, because Stephanie Butland has called in. So, no feet on the tables, no slurping tea ... oh, all right then, why spoil the habits of a lifetime. Besides, Stephanie knows it can be a bit informal around here.
    What's more, she's got a new book out: THRIVE: The Bah! Guide to Wellness After Cancer.

Quite rightly, she'd like to talk about her book. And I'd like her to talk about her life writing. Which should make for an interesting way to pass a Sunday. So, here goes:

As life writers, we expose ourselves and our histories more than most. Are there things that you choose not to write about - and, if so, what criteria do you have for making that choice?
    Yes, there are things I choose not to write about. My basic criteria are:
    - Is my story to tell? If someone else is strongly involved in something, I might choose not to write about it, or write about it in a very abstract way. Or, if I do want to write about something that other people were part of, I'll ask them if I can write about it, and/or check with them before I publish. So, before Bah! came out, I asked my children to read my account of breaking the news that I had cancer to them, and they both said that was how they had remembered it.
    - Will I hurt anyone if I write about this? If I would, then I don't. Although it's not quite as simple as that. Some of my family and friends have told me how hard they found it to read Bah!, because it reminded them of such a difficult time. And some people have been offended by my sense of humour, while others have said the same jokes made made them laugh for the first time in months.
   But I think it really comes down to instinct. If I feel it's appropriate to write about something, I will, If I don't, I won't.

Life writing involves a dialogue between truth (albeit a subjective truth) and the needs of a book. As a travel writer, I don't write about the countless days when nothing much happens - though this may suggest to a reader that I lurch from one adventure to another. Do you, too, leave ordinary stuff out, and do you feel it skews the narrative? Or do you put it all in?
    Good question! Given the caveats above, I tend to write about everything - on the blog, at least. Books demand more or a narrative, so where there are probably hundreds of posts on the blog about the side-effects of chemotherapy, they are distilled in the books. One of the reasons I love blogging is that I think it does give an accurate picture of 'this is how it feels to be me, today.' Books require more structure and so perhaps distort the truth a little bit. 'I was tired for months' doesn't quite convey what being tired for months is like.

You have become known as 'the woman who had cancer.' You are a wonderful advocate for those dancing with the disease now, and for those researching it. But there must be other things in your life that you are equally proud of - please, what are they?
    What a lovely question.
    I'm writing novels at the moment - the first, 'Surrounded by Water', will be published by Transworld in early 2014. I'm working on a third version of it and just starting to believe that it might be A Proper Book Written By A Proper Writer And Everything. I think I will be proud of it.
   Just looking at my children - who are 18 and 16 and bright and handsome/beautiful and so utterly, utterly themselves - makes me want to burst with pride. They are fabulous. I am a great believer that children grow up in spite of you, not because of you, so I'm not claiming a lot of credit - I'm just proud to know them, really.
    And I think I'm proud that I have, finally, learned to ask for help, and to recognise when I'm struggling, and understand that life is all about continuing to learn and grow. I spent the best part of 4 decades trying to be perfect and make everything/everyone around me perfect too. It was exhausting. Trying to do things better is exciting and much more satisfying.

You offer comfort and encouragement to other women with cancer, and with those navigating their feelings once the doctors have done their stuff. Your blog is a testament to the women you have inspired. But who has inspired you - as a writer, and as a woman?
    As a writer, I'm inspired by the late John Updike's work ethic and attention to detail; Hilary Mantel's ability to write a sentence that takes your breath away; David Mitchell's imagination; Philip Larkin's sharp eye and surprisingly sweet soul; Anne Patchett, period. But that's only scraping the surface, really. (One of the things that bugs me about mortality is that I don't think I will ever have the time to read all the books I want to!)
    As a woman, I get inspired by anyone who is working towards something with determination and doggedness. Olympic athletes are where they are because they've got up at stupid o'clock on thousands of cold, horrible mornings. Women who are running successful businesses now have had days when they've looked at an unexpected bill and an empty bank account and wondered how on earth they're going to manage this one. It's getting on with it, little by little, that inspires me, because whether it's cancer or writing or travelling or grief or a degree, that's what we need to do.

Thank you, Stephanie - this is fascinating. You are an inspiration to many - and now it is our turn to help you celebrate the launch of THRIVE, and to cheer on all the work you continue to do, supporting women with cancer and their families.


  1. Jo, that's such a great interview and Stephanie, I love your energy and drive. Well done to you for everything you've achieved, not just in kicking cancer (although no mean feat)but in your writing and of course, raising your children, too. I loved the idea of children becoming themselves in spite of you rather than because of you. My girls are 13 and 12 and very sweet and equally amusing but yeah, they're 13 and 12... It's a good thing to remember when I'm having a 'let's just tear up everything I ever thought I'd learnt about parenting and start again,' moment :)
    Great post, Jo!

  2. Jaxbee, that's lovely - thank you. Jo asked some really good questions!

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