`Mum went away a lot. We really missed her...'; A Family Affair

The writer and broadcaster Sarah Dunant has presented programmes on radio and television, including The Late Show. She is the author of six crime thrillers: the latest is Mapping the Edge. She currently lives with her daughters, Zoe, 11, and Georgia, 8, in north London, but used to spend long periods of time abroad, away from them
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My mum is a single mother with two kids and she's a freelance writer. I think she's very brave; I admire her a lot. When I was a little girl, I used to watch her on TV and I didn't understand a word she said. It was as if she'd put on a mask. It felt as though there was a barrier between my mum's job and her with us. She went away a lot. I missed her but she would bring us back presents. She also went to South Africa for a month, which me and Georgia thought went over the line: it really was too long.

Georgia really misses Mum when she's away, so I can't cry as it'd make her cry harder. A few years ago, Mum was in a cafe in Tel Aviv, and it was blown up a week later. At the start of Kosovo, Mum was going to Belgrade. I said to her: "No, you're not going." Fortunately, her trip was cancelled.

When my mum was doing The Late Show she was interviewing famous people. She was much more glitzy then. I think she needed to do something like that to let off steam, but when that stopped it seemed a good point for her to go back to writing books. I think it took her a bit of time getting into the slower pace of writing. Now I think she's much happier - but books can bring her grief too. The good thing is that now she works from home, so I have her around more. But if her book isn't going well, she can be a bit on edge, so I learn when not to pressure her.

I'm like my mum in some ways. We're both huge bookworms, and we can get cranky when we're tired. We have our ups and downs, perhaps over me practising the cello or her not wanting me to go somewhere. She is absolutely terrified of me hating her when I'm a teenager, as, apparently, she was horrible to her mum when she was a teenager.

I am a different person to my mum. I don't think I will be such a rebel. Who knows? I might be all prim and straight. She has the same kind of temper as me - quick. But me and Georgia look more like my dad than her. Sometimes Mum and me are dancing around having fun, and she can say: "Oh, I love you so much, ." She can seem like a different person when she's writing. It was quite difficult for Mum when she was writing Transgressions. It took quite a while and two computers crashed on her. Sometimes it can be hard pulling her out of writing. She can also say: "Yes" when she means "No". That just confuses me. But now I've got music exams coming up and she's been remarkable about getting me to do the stuff that I need to do.

I love my mum very much, and I want her to always be happy, but when I leave school I won't want to do writing as a career. I want to do something with people, and I really don't want to live in the city.


's generation will grow up with a unique vision as to what feminism had meant- not to us who've played the game, but to those who've been a generation brought up underneath it. Some will be critical. Others will complain how we didn't give them more time.

When I was doing The Late Show and spending quite a long time filming abroad, I found leaving and Georgia unbearable. Then there would be a moment when I knew they were OK, and it was just fabulous to be on my own. A bath alone; a bed where no one would wake me up in the morning, and I could watch CNN at 2am if I wanted to.

It's almost as though I'd freeze-framed them, and then, when I returned home I'd reactivate them and they became real again. Within that time they'd had a life, but I hadn't been infinitely emotionally plugged into them. And I'd had a life too. I wanted to explore that tension in my book between women loving their children and sometimes needing to be without them to get a sense of themselves. Of course, sometimes it can go wrong. I remember phoning up when I was in Jerusalem and things weren't going well, and I felt terribly upset and overwhelmed by guilt.

and I have always had mechanisms to stop rows getting out of hand. We'd say this word: "Pomegranate... We're both cross: we both think we're right. Let's think about it."

may have a discussion with other adults and she will really take her gloves off. And I know that's because she knows she can get away with it with me. I remember her having a discussion with a friend of mine about race and politics: she really went for the jugular. I think my friend thought she was a bit rude and insistent.

At the time that I separated from my partner this country was in the middle of a very powerful backlash against single parenting which made it difficult. But for a long time now I have truly believed that we have done this better for and Georgia than if we'd stayed together. In my book, Mapping the Edge, I created a family that was deliberately non- nuclear - but worked. You didn't have to feel sorry for them as they had resources and powers and abilities, as well as weaknesses. I've always felt that about : that although we probably put her through something that I would not have chosen, it is by no means something for which we are counting the debits.

When you're a single parent, the emotional geometry changes. For better or worse, the child sees that part of their role is to look after you, too. The great plus of that is that sometimes circumstances force them to handle things which can be difficult, but which are not unbearable if they're handled with love. I remember my mother once crying, and I couldn't bear the idea that she was unhappy. has seen me both unhappy and seen me recover. She has seen, not in a disastrous or apocalyptic way, that life as an adult is not always OK.

There's a central core in my 11-year-old daughter that is . She's always had a very strong sense of personality - thank God, as she has quite a strong-personality mum."

Interviews by Ann McFerran