I was recently asked to write a blog for author Pauline Baird Jones about why I wrote my novel Lost Lives. Here's what I said:
Lost Lives tells the tale of young teacher Emily Swanson who makes a terrible mistake that destroys her life. Escaping to London, she moves into an apartment where she discovers that the former tenant is mysteriously missing. At first curious then dangerously obsessed, Emily begins to search for the woman. It’s a dangerous search that threatens to tip her into the realms of insanity—and one that might just get her killed.
I first came up with the character of Emily and the story of Lost Lives while experiencing a huge period of unhappiness and frustration. I was teaching vulnerable children in inner-city London; kids who had experienced trauma and abuse, or had major emotional issues.
On almost a daily basis I was bitten, punched, kicked, spat on, and called all manner of names that no five-year-old has any business knowing. Plus all the planning, assessment, report writing, and ongoing meetings with social workers, parents and carers meant I rarely had time off.
The physical, emotional and mental pressures of my job began to take their toll. I was beyond exhausted, suffering from severe anxiety, and heading for a nervous breakdown.
But the stress was not the main source of my frustrations. I’d originally graduated with a degree in creative writing. My dream had always been to write, and although I’d already written and published a novel four years earlier, I hadn’t had the time to put a single word to paper since.
I had a choice to make—stay teaching and not write again, or quit before I made myself very ill.
I chose the latter. I began writing Lost Lives, I guess, as a form of therapy—to explore how unhappy I was feeling, and perhaps to make sense of me leaving behind an eleven-year teaching career.
This comes about in the novel with Emily suffering from debilitating anxiety attacks—but where I purposefully quit she is forced out of a career she loves. I won’t spoil why here.
At the time, I’d also been reading about the terrible treatment of mental health patients throughout history. One particular story horrified me, about an appalling crime that took place in the early 80s at a mental health institute in Australia. That all went into the novel too—again, I won’t reveal that here.
Ultimately, I wanted to write the kind of book I love to read—a gripping mystery with nail biting twists and turns, featuring a deeply flawed lead character (they’re so more interesting to me!) who is trying to redeem the mistakes of her past—in Emily’s case, by finding the missing woman.
If I’m very honest, that idea of redemption also came from the guilt I felt over leaving behind those vulnerable children. But as Emily learns in Lost Lives—and as she recovers through the subsequent novels in the mystery series—human beings are fragile creatures; to help others we must first heal ourselves.