On chemo, hair and writing …
At the beginning of The Look, two sisters get surprise news. One gets scouted as a model, and the other is diagnosed with cancer. As soon as I had the idea, I could picture various key scenes in the book, but it took me a while to be brave enough to write about a girl undergoing chemotherapy. Especially as it’s the counterpoint to a story about fashion and glamour.
I don’t remember reading that many books growing up that included characters dealing with serious illness. The ones that stick out for me are the same classics that many people quote. In fact, Amanda Craig, the children’s book reviewer for The Times, has written about it here. There’s Colin, the boy in the wheelchair in The Secret Garden, who discovers his inner strength thanks to no-nonsense Mary and the rather magical garden itself. Katy, who swung too high in What Katy Did and Learned Many Lessons About Self Control in the pages that followed. Clara, who also malingered in a wheelchair in Heidi until Something Rather Wonderful happened. And then, as I grew up a bit and my reading tastes changed (for which, read raging hormones), Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, who Only Really Deserved Her Once He Lost His Sight but (spoiler alert) got it back again anyway. Phew.
Illness seemed to be used as A Way of Learning Lessons About Life. Perhaps that’s unavoidable. It’s not why I chose to write about it, though. More, I wanted to demystify something frightening as much as I could. Because when you can talk about it, you can work out how to help people better. And I like it when people can help each other. I really do. Also, on a seemingly superficial level, I wanted to write about hair.
Yeah. Hair. It’s really important to the plot. I always knew that the central scene (if you’ve read it, you’ll know the one) would involve hair and heads, but it’s interesting how important they became at many other points in the story. Early on, Ted’s gorgeous sister Ava is partly defined by her glossy mane. Ted has always hated her ‘bird’s nest’. The Moment When The Wig Comes Off turns out to be much more significant than I thought it would be. The Squashed Fedora is crucial. And there’s a moment when I describe a borrowed beanie that still makes me cry a little bit.
The book was already largely plotted when I discovered that losing their hair can be one of the things that young cancer patients worry about the most. To their doctors, it’s a reversible side-effect, but to them, it’s a key part of their identity. I was very nervous about writing the central hair-related scene. I thought it would be one of the ‘down’ bits of the story, but as I wrote it, it became one of the joyful parts, and one of my favourite scenes to write.
The girls discover how deep their relationship goes in this scene, and how it’s changing, and what good things they’re both capable of. As the book says, and as I found while I was writing it, ‘sometimes, you have to be brave and take a risk’. So many brave teenagers do it every day, and to do their lives justice, I’ve found that sometimes a writer needs to do it too.