Children are born, relationships end, careers take off into the stratosphere.
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Such is the interest when two writers come together, but Knight and O’Hagan kept their work fairly separate over the years. Occasionally Knight would write for the London Review Of Books, of which O’Hagan is a contributing editor, but their work has never really crossed paths.
The couple lived in different places together, too – eight years ago they were renting a place in the country, then later moved back to London, which is where Knight, 45, still lives. She worked at the kitchen table, in those early days, writing her first novel where she preferred to be “in the thick of things, not too isolated”.
Fast forward almost a decade and, not surprisingly perhaps, a great deal has changed. Knight and O’Hagan are no longer together but have a daughter, Nell, who is seven years old. Knight has since become one of the most marketable, and successful, of the “chick-lit” brand of authors, and has also added several non-fiction works to her literary repertoire (mainly on the domestic front: two cookbooks, a book about household thrift and one about shopping).
Just as she went public about O’Hagan’s wooing, so she went public, albeit quietly, when they split, describing herself as a “single mother” in her thrift book.
In other words, I think Knight chooses very carefully what she reveals and when, and what she holds close. She has been open about her daughter suffering from DiGeorge syndrome (an inherited condition that affects the immune system, and can result in congenital heart defects, facial differences and learning difficulties), and has written about having a child with special needs, setting up a blog to liaise with other parents in the same situation.
In her third novel, Comfort And Joy, in which she revisits the household of Clara Hutt, the heroine of her debut, My Life On A Plate, she gives her main character a charmingly eccentric little girl but insists: “I’m always very careful about my children. I might use them as an example of a thing but no more than that. Blogs today have photos and names of really quite young children.” It’s clear she doesn’t approve.
But where do you draw the line? How would she feel about a relationship with someone who didn’t work in the media, for example, someone anonymous, who nobody wrote about? She is realistic, as ever.
“That might be bliss,” she says, “but we all operate in a world where we know each other. It’s flattering that people are interested, but it’s a very small pond. I’m not interested in other people’s private lives. It’s all too predictable. Either people are happily together, unhappily together or not together at all.”
Perhaps, I suggest, the reason she’s not curious about other people is that she hasn’t the time or the space – she has a huge extended family, as does her protagonist Clara Hutt. In My Life On A Plate, Clara was a “smug married”, in Bridget Jones parlance, but that marriage was soon in trouble. By the time we get to Comfort And Joy, Clara is indeed divorced from her first husband, Robert, with whom she has two sons. She also has a thrice-married mother, Kate, and two half-sisters. She is currently married to Sam, with whom she has a daughter, but in the course of the novel, that marriage will break up, too.
In real life, Knight’s mother married her father when she gave birth at the age of 17, and divorced him 10 years later. She then married Andrew Knight, editor of The Economist, and her daughter took his surname. Her mother divorced Knight after 17 years and married the architect Norman Foster, but divorced him in 1995. India herself married Jeremy Langmead, former editor of Wallpaper and Esquire magazine, with whom she had two sons. That marriage broke down and she met O’Hagan.
The parallels between life and art are barely obscured (O’Hagan, the short-legged Scot, is reincarnated as a long-legged Northern Irishman in her novel, but that’s one of the few concessions to fiction), as Knight admits.
“Yes, there’s a strong autobiographical element,” she says, “but I have made the people in it slightly nicer than they are in real life. Including the narrator.” However, it’s as much as she’ll be drawn about them – Knight has a strong sense of control of her own material, and that includes her personal life. If anyone is going to write about it, she will. She won’t hand that material over to anyone else – not willingly, at least.
Which makes her a tricky, but fascinating, interviewee. When I first met her nine years ago, I was struck by that mixture of directness and indirectness. She is slightly larger than life, with huge eyes, expansive gestures, rapid speech and a very sharp sense of humour. She delights in good jokes, and I’d dispute her lack of interest in other people’s private lives. She’s the kind of woman who likes a good gossip. You can also imagine her doing extremely well as the matriarch of a huge extended family.
You trust what she says because she looks you squarely in the eye but, while she’s talking as rapidly as ever, she doesn’t slip up. She doesn’t reveal anything she doesn’t want to and that gives her a slightly wary gloss – there’s a watchfulness there, in spite of the humour and maternal warmth. Whether it’s because she knows, after many years of experience, exactly how to play the media, or whether it’s just an aspect of her personality, I can’t tell.
But contradictions are necessary in all our personalities, and Knight has an awareness of what some of her own might be – in Comfort And Joy, for instance, Sam congratulates Clara on how well she copes with the demands of Christmas. She is, he tells her, “very good at holding it together”.
But Clara reacts to this with resentment: “Wrong thing to say. Just because I’m not doing ugly crying with nose stuff doesn’t mean I have no feelings, the git. Second, it’s so easy to tell someone what they’re like – it exonerates you from having to do any thinking or empathising: ‘Oh, Clara, she’s absolutely fine, because she’s really good at holding it together.’ Me, on the other hand … me, I’m sensitive …”
I suggest that’s how people see Knight, too, coping expertly and with a smile with the trials and tribulations of an extended family, but she sidesteps it and turns it into a question about how women cope, in general. “There’s an assumption that anything involving chaos, children and food, women can do it,” she says. “Women stress how much there is of it to do.”
This is something she does – it’s the social commentator in her, to draw the general from the personal, but it’s also frustrating. I don’t want to know “how she does it”, but I do wonder if she resents being seen as ever-capable. If, in her family, it’s always assumed that she will cope, no matter what the circumstances. There is a part of me that wants to hear about the tantrums and the tears, the anguish and the difficulties that must have been part of the break-ups and the times on her own (tellingly, Knight doesn’t depict the breakdown of Sam and Clare’s marriage in Comfort And Joy, simply the stirrings of dissatisfaction, and one scene in which Clara feels Sam is no longer on her side). Is that a result of the personal being made so relentlessly public nowadays, that we all want to see the bad stuff?
Knight is capable of being dark in her own way – she can be sharp to the point of bitchiness, both in her books and columns. But she’s emerged from her life experiences without a judgmental personality.
Clara may be twice divorced by the end of the book, but Knight never judges her, she never writes about divorce as some kind of failure. “I refuse to see it as failure,” she says, simply. “I think an unhappy marriage is a failure. Getting out while things are just still bearable is a triumph. People may not be entirely defined by what happens to them but it’s not good to see the things that happen to you as failures. Things have a lifespan. It’s important to remember that. Not everything lasts for ever.”
Her own family background must have taught her that – not even her name lasted for ever, never mind the family set-up she was born into. Does she see her novels as a reaction against the nuclear family so beloved of politicians as an example of great social stability?
“Oh yes,” she says. “All my novels are pushing against that nuclear family idea. You use the material you’ve been handed and you take a good sock at it.”
I’m guessing she’s talking about her own life here as well as her books. “I do want to say, though, that my experiences are written up with no sourness at my kids’ friends’ families, but it simply isn’t the case that kids from nuclear families are any happier than the ones who aren’t. My elder son is 19, but he also has a little sister so I am friends with families where the parents are together. They’re very excited as it’s all new, and I sit there and I don’t want to sound like Old Mother Time, but the anxieties people have about bringing up children, it’s all nonsense really. It’s fine. It’s like I say in the book: everybody learns to walk, everybody learns to talk, it’s fine. Women make more stress for themselves.”
And women make more stress for themselves especially at Christmas. Comfort And Joy covers three Christmases – 2009, 2010 and 2011. Knight has written before about the joy of a mad, huge, family Christmas, and the wonderful fantasies she weaves about it beforehand. Is Christmas essentially a female fantasy, I ask her? “That’s a good question. It probably is – it appeals to the dormant domestic goddess in most of us, our ideas about the perfect happy family, the one day that it will all work out.”
And, yet, she admits the reality is about “domesticity and coupledom, things that men find quite suffocating”. “It’s an interesting time,” she says, “because everything seems superficial but it’s actually when something more profound is taking place. I think about this kind of thing all the time so I find it quite easy to write about – men and women, the domestic stuff, the fear of suffocating in a family context.
“Also, with reference to the masculine-feminine thing, I think the idea that you can shape history to your will, mend the thing that was broken, or recreate the time that was happy, is very much a women’s thing. And what Christmas is for. If you had very humble childhood Christmases, you want to make them fantastic as a grown-up.”
That’s why she couldn’t do what her character does, and have Christmas abroad: “I’d never do it. Although I don’t particularly like routine, it would make my blood run cold, the thought of not having everyone here. Occasionally at the last minute it pops into my head, I can sort of picture it, but I think I’d find it too disturbing. It’s important for my children, that every single year the same decorations come out, we have the same robin my son made at nursery, and so on.”
She understands very well that her own motives in bringing together her extended family under the one roof – ex-partners, half-sisters, half-brothers and so on – is all about her, as it probably is for many women with large extended families. There’s a need for something organic, something cohesive, in spite of the relationship splits and remarriages.
Or perhaps those splits and remarriages are the glue that holds it all together. Her fascination with this aspect of life is shared across the internet on forums and blogs, something else that has changed since we last spoke. Knight is in two minds about its benefit to women.
“Blogging has made a huge difference,” she says. “It is super-confessional stuff. Blogs are slightly on the wane now – women were getting publishing contracts on the back of it, but that’s petering out now. But blogs are about profoundly intimate things – unhappy marriages, children and so on. And these blogs continue to have so many readers, they’ve upped the game, and I wonder sometimes if we’re expected too much to spill every bean as a result.”
She hesitates. She must be thinking about her own blogging, her tweeting, her columns, what she lets out and what she keeps in. “What I personally like,” she says, finally, “is a stiff upper lip and no whining. Although it’s better to find an outlet for whining material instead of keeping it all in and giving yourself cancer. You need an outlet for it.” n
Comfort And Joy is published by Penguin, priced £7.99.