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Here We Stand


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Editor's Choice: Margaret Pelling on her new novel - A Diamond in the Sky

From the time I started writing novels about fifteen years ago, I'd wondered when – or indeed, if – I'd get the urge to bring into my writing one of the experiences that has marked my life most deeply. This was the death of my second son, John, nine hours after his birth. He was born with a diaphragmatic hernia. Essentially, the diaphragm hadn't formed fully, and one side-effect of this was that he had only a marginal amount of lung capacity. The doctors who operated on him did everything possible to repair the damage – for which I and my husband have always been grateful – but to no avail.

We learned later that John's condition was a congenital defect that had begun to manifest itself at around eleven weeks of gestation. Had he survived, he'd have been thirty this year. I'm not sure if today's scanning techniques could pick up his problem, but I'm certain that I wouldn't have wanted to know. Inside me, he was a lively kicker, and I have that to remember.

We grieved, but moved on. Two years later we had a beautiful daughter, Sally. While John is, and always will be, an unseen member of our family – Sally put some of her wedding flowers on his grave – we did not become stuck.

I've mused from time to time on how it is that some who have an experience like this can accept it and move on, while others find it hard or even impossible. A few years ago, it struck me – probably in the bath – that the moment had come to try to write something about it. I can't remember whether there was a particular trigger – in fact I suspect there wasn't. I do remember that it was as if the idea was having me, rather than the other way around. I think most writers will have felt this 'internal push', the feeling that this is the project to go with next.

So: enter Dora Clayton, whose baby daughter died three years before A Diamond in the Sky opens. It was a cot death at six weeks. Dora still has the baby's nursery exactly as it was. She feels responsible for Jo's death, and she can't forgive herself. What's more, she can't face the prospect of having any more children, and at forty three, her options are running out. Under all the pressure, her marriage is unravelling.

One thing I like to do as a writer is to take a character with problems and see what they do if I throw a fresh set of problems at them – and if those problems come via other people with problems, so much the better. So, enter Tom Ross, a teacher who had to resign over an affair with a pupil, and Melanie, the girl herself. She's pregnant, the very last thing Dora needs. There's also lonely building maintenance man Larry Wise, who threatens to become a real drain on Dora when his mother falls ill. Larry is a maintenance man because he never got the job he really wanted, a very different kind of job. This is a dilemma that perennially interests me, as I've had to make career compromises in my time, and I see around me others who've had to do the same. Some tough it out in a grimly stoical way; others disintegrate; some achieve a measure of success. I've done all three.

I began writing A Diamond in the Sky in the depths of winter, a time of year when the constellations on show in the night sky are particularly fine. I have an astronomical background – it was my research subject as a graduate student – and on clear nights I still like to do a bit of star-gazing. Capella in the constellation Auriga is special for me, as it's the star closest to the zenith in winter. You look straight up, away from your world and whatever's going on in it, and there is the star, shining like a beacon. I had the feeling that I wanted to include Capella in the book. Maybe looking at stars could be what my characters needed – or maybe it would bring challenges of its own. Anyway, Capella is in the book, and I hope readers will even see the star as another character. Speaking for myself, I might say that Capella is my Diamond in the Sky.

Margaret Pelling, August 2011
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