Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Fiction’s family secrets

Hannah Beckerman, Janet Ellis and Harriet Evans,
Henley town hall

WHY do we all love reading about family? This was the question at the heart of Sunday morning’s “Families in Fiction” event.

All three authors have written novels with families as the central focus and so we began to unravel the mystery.


Family secrets make thrilling reads and, more than that, we all have them — we can all, as readers, relate on some level. All three authors agreed that secrets have an enormous voice in fiction even if they are not talked about and that makes for fascinating stories.

The event meandered through the lives of all three writers,

Janet Ellis, author of How It Was, said that all writers start as readers, when asked what made her want to write.

Hannah Beckerman, author of If Only I Could Tell You, said she was intrigued by the power of words.

For Harriet Evans, author of The Garden of Lost and Found, she said she started writing because of the need for stories.

We learnt about each of the authors’ families, whether they grew up in houses surrounded by books or, as Beckerman did, in a house without any.

It was a gentle, peaceful event, comforting like a family get-together.

But not all family stories are comforting and it is the intrigue or the conflict which often provides the most interesting reads.

Harriet Evans said “family behaviour is unbelievable”, laughing that things which happened in real life would often not be accepted as possible in fiction.

Beckerman agreed, adding that the subject of estrangement is popular in family fiction. It is a theme in her novel, and since its publication many readers have reached out to her because they are estranged from family members and never wanted to talk about it.

Janet, writing about an older character, thinks family dynamics are interesting. Her character “still has a presence even if she is not at the cutting edge of the times” — with the idea that we never fully know our family members, what they choose to hide, and who they choose to be.

With three female writers on stage, they questioned the difference between men and women when tackling the subject of family.

For men, they are often said to be writing a grand “big ideas” novel, while for women, they can be labelled as writing “domestic drama”. Why is this?

Similarly, men are forgiven for writing unsympathetic characters, whereas for women, is it okay?

All three writers questioned whether their characters are likeable and it was decided that it is okay as long as the reader can trust the characters’ motives.

Like a long family gathering, the event could have run on and on. There was so much to talk about. But sadly, it had to end — although as it did, it felt like we had all pulled together, uncovered secrets, supported each other.

Family is central to society and so it is vital we write about it, that we dissect it and we enjoy it. But, shush, don’t tell anyone.

Laura Healy

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