The Inspiration Behind New Penguin Suspense ‘I Looked Away’ by Jane Corry
Fifty-eight years ago, I witnessed the near-death of my mother in an horrific fire-related accident on holiday in Cornwall. I remember each detail as clearly as if it happened yesterday. But when she came home – after months in hospital – no one talked about it. Only the third degree burn scars on her neck were evidence that it had really happened. She kept her chest covered for the rest of her (too short) life.
If you look at pre-accident family photographs, I appear as a happy untroubled child. Then my face turns haunted. Anxious. I became a worrier. Indeed, all through my adult life, I’ve been ticked off for this.
In those days, children didn’t get much help for traumatic experiences. I got nothing. But if I smelt meths, I felt sick. (This was an ingredient in the accident.) I couldn’t watch fire on television and still can’t. Nor can my father who rolled my mother over and over on the ground when she went up in flames and saved her life. (They divorced fifteen years later.) Once, I came across a scrap of blue and white material which my mother had used to make the dress which she later wore in the accident. I was physically sick.
As a child, I was too ashamed to speak about the accident. I don’t know why. As I grew older, I never talked about it except briefly to my family. I hated cooking on naked flames but discovered Agas – that operate without – in my thirties and have had one ever since.
Fast forward several years. More traumas including my mother’s early death from cancer and then my divorce. As a writer, these things worm their way into your writing. I began to specialize in ordinary women who found themselves in challenging situations. I was taken on by Penguin (a dream come true). I wrote about My Husband’s Wife in which the heroine, Lily, is a lawyer who goes into a men’s prison as I did during my time as writer in residence. She too was scared. She too found strength. (MHW has now been optioned for a TV series, so fingers crossed.)
Then came Blood Sisters. Anyone with a sister will know what an up and down relationship this can be. ‘I hope it’s not about me,’ snorted mine. Of course not.
The Dead Ex was inspired again by prison and not my own ex with whom I have a very civilised relationship. (Possibly because we both saw the effect that divorce had on my own parents.) Again, my heroines were feisty women battling against the odds in a criminal environment.
It has to be said here that during my time in prison as a writer, I helped several men write their life stories. One told me how he had doused victims with petrol. I started to cry. ‘What’s wrong, Jane?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t actually set them alight. I just wanted to scare them.’
To my horror, I found myself blurting out what had happened to me. He was appalled. ‘I’m so sorry I upset you,’ he said.
Furiously, I told him he should be sorry for his victims whom he’d probably half-scared to death.
Now I was frightened myself. Surely I’d crossed a line here? I confessed all to a prison colleague. ‘You probably did him a lot of good,’ she said.
It did. His behavior changed. He won an award for his life story. And he’d done me a favour too. He’d punctured that wall I had put up for so many years.
Even so, it took me a couple of years to find professional help. I went to a herbalist called Ana. I can now (just about) light a candle in the sink.
But then Ellie was born. I wanted to write about a child who was affected by childhood trauma. No surprises there. Obviously I couldn’t make it about fire so I changed it to water instead. (Ironically, I love swimming in the sea.) I wanted to create a big twist and interviewed various psychologists to check my idea would work. ‘It would if she had post-traumatic stress’ said one. She then described the symptoms including deep anxiety, disturbance when recognizing smells and colours, etc. to do with the event. As she spoke I had a lightbulb moment. That was me. But could I really have PTSD? It seemed almost self-indulgent when you compare my lot with those of traumatised soldiers. And if it was true, how could I possibly ‘come out’ after all these years ?
Nearly all the adults alive at the time of my mother’s accident are dead apart from my father who, at 95, still can’t bear to talk about it. So I talked to a close cousin. ‘I heard my parents mention it,’ she said. ‘But we weren’t given details. It explains a lot, now I come to think of it. You began to be scared of everything.’
There’s something else. My mother was three months pregnant at the time of the accident – something I didn’t work out until I was an adult. Amazingly, she hung onto my sister. But what kind of effect has that had on her? Babies are said to be soothed if lovely music is played to them. I can’t even bear to think of the impact on her. Again, she can’t talk about it either.
Ellie comes through in the end. Just as I have. But we both bear our marks. Writing I Looked Away has helped me to wear mine, not with pride – because it was such an awful thing to go through – but with hope. The world has changed, thank goodness. Children are, on the whole, encouraged to speak about their emotions. It’s necessary – just like lancing a septic wound.
As for me? I still feel embarrassed writing about this. But I am also beginning to finally heal.
I Looked Away by Jan Corry is published by Penguin Viking.
Read more about the author here.