Article published on May 11, 2018.
“On Yorkshire’s gradually-crumbling mud cliffs sits an Edwardian seaside house. In the bathroom, Jacob and Ella hide from their parents’ passionate arguments by playing the ‘Underwater Breathing’ game – until the day Jacob wakes to find his mother and sister gone.
Years later, the sea’s creeping closer, his father is losing touch with reality and Jacob is trapped in his past. Then, Ella’s sudden reappearance forces him to confront his fractured childhood. As the truth about their parents emerges, it’s clear that Jacob’s time hiding beneath the water is coming to an end.”
After reading and reviewing Underwater Breathing (and finding it to be one of the best books she has read this year!), Gill Chedgey was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask some questions of author Cassandra Parkin:
Gill Chedgey: I’ve just finished reading Underwater Breathing and I thought it was marvellous. Some powerful themes for a reader to absorb. So I am wondering where the inspiration came from for this story?
Cassandra Parkin: Oh, thank you so much – I’m thrilled you enjoyed it!
I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to ideas – something will grab my attention for a moment and I’ll hoard it away along with all the others, until one day it comes to the surface again. The seed for Underwater Breathing was a story on the news, years ago now, about an East Yorkshire village that was falling into the sea. The residents had always known this would happen, but the erosion was much faster than anyone had predicted. There was this one couple who’d retired there. They’d bought their house knowing perfectly well it would fall in the end, but they were gambling on them both being dead by the time the sea came for their home. They said they’d made a bet with the sea, and lost.
That seemed like such a strange and powerful bargain – the inevitability of your own death, staked against the power of the sea. I scribbled down the words family make bet with sea and lose, and then promptly forgot about them, until one day the entire plot of Underwater Breathing came to the surface and I had to write the story.
GC: Your characters are all so believable and as a reader it is easy to engage with them, especially Jacob and Ella. Jacob broke my heart; he was so full of love despite his troubled childhood and adolescence. They both grew and developed before our very eyes. Is this part of your planning before you start to write or do characters evolve as you’re writing?
CP: For me, one of the joys of writing is getting to know the characters, and having them “take over” the story. The best moment for me is when they start telling me that no, it happened this way, not that way; that they wouldn’t do that, but would do this instead; that this is how they really felt at the time. There’s a scene in Alice Through The Looking Glass that describes this perfectly for me. The White King is trying to make a note in his diary, but Alice, invisible, stands behind him and starts guiding the pen so that it writes her words, not his. I feel as if the story and the people in it already exist, somehow, and my job isn’t to create them but to describe them, as accurately as I can.
I’ve said this to a few people, and got varying reactions (other writers tend to know exactly what I’m on about, whereas non-writers just nod respectfully in a don’t alarm the madwoman way and change the subject). I will admit it sounds weird. But then, how can I possibly have made it all up using just the pink squishy stuff between my ears? That seems far weirder to me.
GC: Jacob’s relationship with his father is so touching. Despite the volatile and changeable behaviour, for the most part, he maintains such outward tenderness. What kind of research did you do in regard to memory loss conditions and the management of them by carers?
CP: Lots of reading, to start with, from as many sources as possible. Oliver Sacks wrote some beautiful case studies about memory loss that show you the condition but also the person living with it. Then, lots of NHS advice leaflets and websites (to get a feel for what it’s “supposed” to be like), and lots of blogs and personal testimonies (to get under the skin of the reality). Finally, most families are touched by memory loss or dementia at some point, and my family has been too. So some of what Jacob feels, that combination of love and guilt and exasperation, is based on personal experience.
GC: I found the character of Mrs Armitage absolutely fascinating. It’s easy to focus so much on Jacob and Ella that you can almost forget that here is another story running parallel to theirs. Another story of love. Her pragmatism and controlled emotions were masterful. And yet the latent care and love she had for the children was extremely moving. Is she based on anyone you know?
CP: Mrs Armitage came to me as a very complete person – I didn’t have any sense at all that I was creating her. It was more like having someone wander in to the narrative and say, Actually, you need to hear my version to properly understand what’s going on here. I really enjoyed getting to know her, although I’m not sure what she’d make of me in return.
GC: The underwater descriptions when the children are holding their breath are so vivid and believable that it made me wonder if you practised yourself in order to write with such authenticity!!
CP: Actually I did! Once you get used to the feeling of being completely submerged, it’s a very peaceful place to be. Sadly, as Jacob and Ella both know, it’s not possible to stay underwater for ever.
GC: For me the book had two dramatic peaks, the sibling relationship and the disintegration of the land into the sea. The descriptions of the latter were so graphic one could almost feel oneself at the risk of drowning! It’s a wonderful piece of visual writing too. Was it difficult to write that part?
CP: It was challenging, because I wanted to get the atmosphere right. It’s terrifying, but also sort of glorious – the moment you’ve dreaded is finally here, and now you can finally discover what comes next.
GC: I saw the crumbling of the mud cliffs as a sustained metaphor for how aspects of our lives can crumble and we are powerless to stop it. The sea certainly felt like a threat throughout the book. It felt like an additional character, a villain almost. Was this your intention?
CP: It definitely was, and I’m so glad this came through for you in the story! My grandfather was in the Merchant Navy, and although he loved every minute of his seafaring life, he also told me that the most important advice he had for me was “never turn your back on the sea”. He thought of the sea as a living entity, with its own will and its own plans, that might coincide with our plans or might conflict with them. He said there was no point trying to fight the sea, because it would always, always win – all we could do was work with it as best we could.
GC: I read A Winter’s Child last year which also impressed me and I was quite surprised to see another book that seemed hot on its heels! For novels of such depth and substance you seem very prolific! Do you have ideas already stored up just waiting to be written?
CP: I always feel as if I’m being way too lazy and not doing enough, so you can’t imagine how much it means to me to have you say this – thank you! I constantly collect little seeds and nuggets of ideas, but I only have room in my head to plant and nurture one at a time into a novel. In this industry, people quite often (and quite reasonably) ask you, “have you got any ideas for the next book?” Although I try and come up with some sort of answer, the truth is that generally speaking, I don’t, and will continue not to have, until about a month after I’ve finished the current one. (Which I find pretty terrifying, because maybe one day there will be no more ideas, and then what on earth will be the point of me?) So while I was writing The Winter’s Child, I had absolutely no idea that the next one would be Underwater Breathing.
I must admit, writing Underwater Breathing was incredibly tough (in contrast to The Winter’s Child, which came very easily), and right up until the moment when I finished it, I wasn’t sure if I could make it work. I actually got forty thousand words into my first draft, then realised I hated every word of it and was going have to start again from scratch. I told my best friend this and she said it made her feel quite ill to think about it, but it was one of the best and most liberating experiences of my life – accepting that it was okay to fail, and start again, and do better.
GC: How do you write? By that, I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?
CP: I don’t think of myself as having much of a routine, but when I stop to think about it, I definitely do. I always start by building an outline, using post-it notes and sheets of A4 paper. This has to happen in the afternoon, on the living-room floor, and it’s absolutely critical that my cats come and sit on it, move things around a bit, steal post-it notes, and generally bless it with their presence. (The only time they didn’t, I wrote the first draft of Underwater Breathing that I had to throw away and start again. Moral of the story: Cat Blessing is clearly a vital part of my creative practice.)
The actual writing part tends to happen in the mornings. I have a target of between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day, depending on what else is happening and where I am at the time, and given the choice, I’ll always write at a dining-room table, in my pyjamas.
I write my first draft like a cat crossing the road – top speed, straight ahead and don’t look back until you reach the other side. So my first drafts are always an utter unholy mess of repetition, contradictions, out-of-order events and general over-writing. I think most writers would agree that editing is when you really bring something together, and I’m no exception.
GC: I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?
CP: What a beautiful question. So many books have moved me to tears, but the first one I remember is the end of Watership Down, when El-Ahrairah comes for Hazel. I was about six, and it was the most grown-up book I’d ever read. Hazel looks back for a moment at all the rabbits he’s leaving behind, and El-Ahrairah says, “You needn’t worry about them…they’ll be all right, and thousands like them.” That image of Hazel, setting off on his last journey but still needing to check that his family are all right before he can go… it still makes me cry now.
GC: And finally, having enjoyed this novel so much, I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one!?
CP: I’m currently working on the first draft of a new novel, provisionally called The Slaughter Man, about a family who have suffered the death of one of their identical twin teenage daughters. It’s about the ways we reconstruct ourselves in the wake of devastating personal loss, and how we accept that we’re allowed to survive even when the people we love the most have left us. At the moment, it’s in its this-is-awful, I-can’t-do-this, what-on-earth-made-me-think-I-could-do-this awkward teenage phase, but I have faith. And at least I haven’t had to throw it all out and start again.
Our thanks to both Cassandra and Gill for this excellent Q&A.
Underwater Breathing by Cassandra Parkin
Legend Press 9781787198401 pbk May 2018