Today on the blog, we get to know Helen Victoria Anderson.
I first met Helen when she attended one of my writing groups in September 2013. Helen had contacted me about the session and explained that she was looking for somewhere to write while her daughter Georgina was in the Royal Victoria Infirmary. Unfortunately, Georgina was seriously ill with liver cancer and passed away.
Helen has since released ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir‘ which is an honest, unflinching account of her daughter’s final months and the impact her death has had.
I’m really honoured to have Helen on the blog today. Thank you for taking part, Helen.
Helen, your memoir ‘Piece by Piece‘ is about your daughter Georgina’s diagnosis with an aggressive form of liver cancer. Although much of the book is transcripts from diaries written during this period, how did it feel going back and reliving those times?
As I typed up the entries from my diaries, I kept thinking “Wow – did that really happen to us?” Georgina’s illness progressed and became terminal so rapidly (just four months from her diagnosis to her death) that it almost seemed like a bad dream. Going back over my diaries from that time brought it home to me that our lives have actually been changed forever. That period was such a mad whirlwind, I am now very glad that I have a record of it.
I thought the book was a really honest portrayal of depression, too, have you found people have been receptive to that element of it?
A lot of people who have experienced depression themselves have picked up on my references to my own mental health. I didn’t want the book to be ‘about’ my past (and sometimes current) depression, but I’m not ashamed of it either, so I was determined not to gloss over its effect on me and our family. Georgina was very worried that I might go on a downward spiral after her death, so it was natural for me to write about my efforts to maintain my recovery.
What’s been the most surprising reaction you’ve had regarding your memoir?
I have had many moving messages from other bereaved parents, including a lady in the US who has become a ‘penfriend’. It’s obviously meant a lot to me to have helped other people in this situation, in some small way. Also, the comments I have had about Georgina’s bravery and her music have made this project worthwhile. But probably the most surprising reaction has been the surprise of readers themselves to find that, overall, ‘Piece by Piece’ is an uplifting – rather than depressing – read.
You are very open regarding other familial relationships in your life, how have the subjects coped with that?
I was careful to ask everyone who is mentioned in the book for their permission to publish the relevant passages, because no book is worth falling out over. My husband was very happy for me to write about him – even if his perspective of events (such as our arguments) was not always the same as mine! Georgina’s brother understood that it was important for me to tell my story, but so far he prefers not to read the book (which I totally understand). On a side note, Georgina’s consultant was generous enough to let me include some slightly less-than-complimentary entries about our experience of her treatment, and said that the book would be useful in training future doctors about the patient/carer perspective of cancer.
Do you see writing as a cathartic experience?
Definitely, there is that element of relief when ‘spilling’ onto the page, but writing also helps me with ordering thoughts and feelings – hopefully to form a meaningful piece for the people who might get to read it.
I see you were recently able to make a donation to the Make-a-Wish foundation. How did that feel?
I recently donated £800 – the profits of the sale of the book to date – to Make-A-Wish UK, and it felt excellent to be able to give something back. Lots of charities helped Georgina, and we have tried to ‘repay’ them in various ways. In the book, I describe how Georgina’s story and her music became known around the world: Make-A-Wish was instrumental in getting Georgina’s music heard (which was her ‘wish’) via her YouTube video and single ‘Two Thirds of A Piece’. So, donating the proceeds of my book to grant other seriously ill children’s wishes seemed like something Georgina would approve of.
Have you any advice for someone considering writing a memoir?
It’s important to make careful decisions about how honest you are going to be – to think how you will feel once you have opened up your heart to your parents/neighbours/people you don’t know. Also, you need to be mindful and acknowledge that your version of events is just that – rather than objective ‘fact’.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently writing my second full-length piece of fiction ‘All Hushed’, while hunting for an agent for my first novel, which I’d just completed before Georgina got ill. Both of these books began with autobiographical seeds, but are very much crafted and fictionalised stories. I also have my first chapbook of poetry coming out with the Black Light Engine Room Press early in 2017.
What’s the most useful piece of writing advice you’ve received? Who was it from?
I received a wealth of useful advice from my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course at Teesside University about reading widely, writing a lot, and being persistent. I also love Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’, in which he reminds writers that “stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it”. I often need to remind myself of that. But most of all, for me, writing is, as Stephen King also says, about “getting up, getting well and staying well. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ (Slipway Press, 2015) is available from Amazon as an e-book (£1.99) and paperback (£7.99). It is also stocked by Saltburn Book Corner, Marske Post Office, Guisborough Book Shop, and Drake – The Book Shop, Stockton.
Helen blogs about writing at https://www.helenvictoriaanderson.co.uk
Follow Helen on www.facebook.com/helenvictoriaanderson
To read more about Georgina Anderson’s story and legacy, see www.facebook.com/rememberinggeorgina