When Julie Myerson was 12, she would escape her parents' collapsing marriage for the wild woods near home, with her two sisters in tow. Armed with paste sandwiches and bottles of pop, they would get lost in imaginative adventures designed to obliterate the trauma of family life. Thirty years later, faced with a teenage son succumbing to drug addiction, she has again sought refuge in a magical forest, this time of her own imagining. The result is Out of Breath, the beguiling story of a 13-year-old girl, Flynn, and a band of lost children who become entangled in one another's lives in a far from innocent fairy tale.
"We would do such dangerous things," Myerson recalls. "We used to get dressed up and stand by the side of the road at night going, wooo, wooo, like ghosts." She waves her arms and hunches her shoulders as if covered by an invisible white sheet. The waiter in the empty bistro we are in looks across. She giggles, embarrassed: "We probably caused accidents, because it was a quiet village road." Her voice is rapid, like her mind, which flits from distant memories to present-day pain like a sparrow criss-crossing a lawn in search of food. The memory masks distress: at home her father's post-divorce bitterness led him to excise her mother's face from every photograph before eventually committing suicide. Like Flynn, Myerson did not have a happy childhood.
Out of Breath is Myserson's most personal book because it was written in response to a crisis rather than to a memory. "I don't want to go into this too much, but we have been losing our eldest child to drugs and have had a terrible, terrible time for exactly the two years I have been writing this book," she confesses, though the unburdening appears to give no relief. Her son's on-going problems overwhelmed her family. "It's been a struggle. It has been the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to us."
The trauma bit into her writing and work on a non-fiction book about a teenager, Mary Yelloly, who died in 1831, "ground to a halt". "I was finding it all too sad, and this novel kept coming to me about a child who was also me," she explains.
The child was Flynn, the youngest of two children in a single-parent household. She resents her brother, Sam, 16, who, stoked up on beer and dope, creates havoc and showers violent abuse on their mother. Flynn's emotions reflect Myerson's at the same age – and perhaps those of her own two youngest children, whom she admits have been affected by their elder brother's problems.
Flynn just would not go away, and eventually her husband, fellow writer Jonathan Myerson, told her to drop Mary Yelloly and follow the 13-year old's lead. It doesn't take a shrink to recognise in Flynn's story Myerson's ambivalent feelings towards her eldest child.
Despite acknowledging her son's influence, Myerson offers little revelation about where life and art elide. "I can't plan a book that way," she says when asked if the similarity was intentional. "If I knew what was going to happen, I would bore myself and not write with conviction." Writing is, she feels, about exploring scenarios: too much planning would suck the pleasure out.
Flynn may be the narrator, but Sam is the heart of Out of Breath. He is redeemed by an unexpected softness drawn out of him by the other children, especially feisty five-year-old Mouse, the author's favourite character. "I do love her," she gushes at one point. Is Sam's redemption wish-fulfilment or an unconscious hope that beyond the family limits there is more to her own son than trouble at home? Myerson is evasive. She prefers to leave the answers in the text, though her opaque answer that as she wrote, "I was feeling so much love and concern for our son," implies Out of Breath was an attempt to repair the relationship in her imagination at least.
She is adamant that writing is not her therapy, though this seems at odds with the fact that Out of Breath proved cathartic and shifted the writer's block. It also shifted her feelings towards druggy, difficult Sam. "I got to like him more and more as I was writing. I started off feeling exasperated in the way that Flynn does, but his qualities came through. It needed the catalyst of those characters for that to happen." Did it do the same towards her son? It is too soon and too close to say, she admits, looking deflated.
Adults hardly feature in the novel. They are partially glimpsed, like the mother who communicates through Post-It Notes and phone calls. "When I started the book I knew that there were going to be no adults at all in it," Myerson says. She also knew that for once death would not be central – though there is a body. "I don't know where that impulse came from, because in all my books there is always someone who dies, usually a baby or a woman." She laughs like a naughty child – her husband disapproves of this murderous tendency. Maybe he has good reason? In Laura Blundy the eponymous heroine murders her husband, and in her 1994 debut Sleepwalking, the suicidal and emotionally abusive father is central to the plot.
Sleepwalking was deeply biographical, dealing with her tangled emotions towards her father. Out of Breath is a "reprocessing", she says, of what happened back then. "Lots of people's parents split up when they are 12. My father was probably a little more extreme than others, though it was emotional abuse more than anything." she says with monumental understatement. "It's funny how these things come up," she adds. "Ten years ago I said that I was over all that and was fine, but then you hit middle age and these things come at you in a different shape. With this novel I don't think I set out to explore anything to do with my father, but the only way that I could possibly write Flynn honestly, because she is me, is to have the marriage break-up going on in the background – though it is toned down."
All of Flynn's companions are victims of the care system: Diana, a beautiful, abused teenager who has just give birth; Mouse, a blithe Tinkerbell undimmed by her appalling family life; and Alex, a modern-day Peter Pan, fragile, anxious, old-before-his-time, a leader of a band of Lost Children. Myerson drew on her experiences as a counsellor with the charity Childline, which she was forced to quit. "I started getting palpitations and ended up in hospital. They asked what was stressing me, and I realised that with three children under seven at the time it was too much listening to these awful things. The things you hear at Childline are terrible."
She is afraid the shocking revelations in the book may draw accusations of cashing in on the burgeoning interest in childhood misery. "I would hate anyone to think that I had grabbed on to plot revelations gratuitously to make it exciting," she says, unconsciously chewing at her finger. "It's not like that at all."
As she describes the process of entering into a dialogue with her characters, it sounds like a Childline counsellor at work. "If I can listen hard enough to their voices and concentrate hard enough and be honest enough... then things come and I write them down." Even in the heart of a writer of Myerson's compassion there resides a piece of flint: "I will then look at what is said and if it doesn't seem right, I will get rid of it, no matter how much I enjoyed writing it."
Myerson believes human beings conjure up what they need to survive when they need it. It is a theory she has explored in other books, most recently in The Story of You, about a bereaved mother, which has been optioned by Anthony Minghella with Sam Taylor Wood tipped to direct. Out of Breath also explores this idea, as Flynn finds in the woods the things she needs to mend her broken family and the broken lives of the children around her.
As I pack up my things to go, I say that I hope things work out with her son. She looks downcast, but thanks me, and I realise that for Myerson, Out of Breath and its child adventurers were like the woods close to her parents' house, a place of escape where she could make sense of an adult world that at times threatens to overwhelm.Reuse content