Write On, Wednesday: Sally Hepworth on her astonishing new novel, THE THINGS WE KEEP, love, memory, and truth in fiction

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By Leslie Lindsay

THE THINGS WE KEEP is a tenderly written second book from Australian Sally Hepworth. Curl up with a chai tea, a cinnamon bun (and some Kleenex), because this is the kind of story it is: sweet and spicy, gooey and warm, and afterward, you’ll feel like maybe you bit off more than you can chew. It’s a story that won’t easily go away; it lingers. TTWK Cover

At the heart of the story is Anna, a 38-year old with early on-set dementia/Alzheimer’s. She hasn’t got long to live. She’s in a comfortable and loving environment called Rosalind House where she’s surrounded by others who are easily twice-three times her age. But there’s someone else there, Young Guy who is also in his thirties and also suffering from memory loss, they forge a friendship that transcends all expectations.

Richly layered and detailed with real-life experiences of dementia, Hepworth has done her homework. I truly felt like a fly-on-the-wall as I read THE THINGS WE KEEP. It’s more than a book about dementia, it’s about human nature, it’s about secrets and love, and truth.

I’m honored to welcome Sally to the blog to chat with us about THE THINGS WE KEEP.

Leslie Lindsay: Sally, thank you so much for taking the time to pop by. I have to say, I read THE THINGS WE KEEP very quickly. It was utterly absorbing and so written so gently, that I just got absorbed in the story. Was it that way for you, too?

Sally Hepworth: Ha! I would be lying if I said that the writing process (for this, or any novel I’ve written) was gentle. It had gentle moments, of course—those lovely times where everything flows and characters just pop up and live without too much effort from me. But, I’ll be honest; much of writing this novel was hard. The subject matter, for one, was tricky and required great care. The structure caused me problems. And the voice, particularly the voice of little Clementine, took a lot of time and re-writing. But, as my mother always says (about entertaining) the key to looking effortless is a lot of hard work! And I adore nothing more than a challenge when it comes to writing.

L.L.: I understand that you were struck by a story you heard on a news segment about a young woman who was pregnant for the first time and also had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (dementia, actually since Alzheimer’s can’t really be diagnosed until post-mortem). I’m curious what made you want to turn that into a novel, instead of just flipping channels and forgetting about it? What was haunting you at that time?

Sally Hepworth: I actually saw that news segment some years before starting to write The Things We Keep. But it never left my mind. All these years later, I still remember the woman’s name—Rebecca Doig. I don’t know why I remember it, but it feels wonderfully appropriate that I do. As for why I chose to write about it, I guess it was the same reason I write about anything: to explore. Obviously it had been bobbing around in my head for so many years for a reason. I often caught myself thinking about Rebecca and wondering what it must have been like to lose her memories in a time that she was supposed to be creating them. I also wondered what it must have been like for her husband, and her family. This was my chance to find out.

L.L.: Like many, I began thinking of my grandparents as I read THE THINGS WE KEEP. They didn’t die of Alzheimer’s and from what I know, their memories were mostly intact, but it’s their love for one another that permeates. They died just months apart from one another, and while sad, I find that very sweet. Can you speak to that, please?

Sally Hepworth: That is very sweet and unsurprising—I have heard a lot of stories to this end. In fact, while speaking to families of people with Alzheimer’s for this book, overwhelmingly what I heard were stories of love. Recently I watched a video review for The Things We Keep in which the reviewer talked of how her grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s, gradually forgot everyone in his life—his grandchildren, his children, his brothers and sisters—everyone except his wife. At the time her grandfather died, his wife was the only person he still remembered. And that, in essence, is what The Things We Keep is all about. Love is what we keep.

L.L.: When we talk of dementia, we think our memories are skewed, we’re hopeless, and will never be able to remember anything meaningful again. But that’s not exactly true. We can be blindsided in business, in love, and sometimes, we chose to remember things differently than they actually occurred. What then?

Sally Hepworth: As you say, people find their memories to be unreliable all the time, and not just people with Alzheimer’s. People blindsided in relationships, people who have been lied to, people who simply grow up and realize that life is different through adult eyes—they all are forced to look deeper as they navigate the world. In these circumstances, there is a unique opportunity to find who you really are and what you think is important. In this way, The Things We Keep is a book about everyone, not just about people with dementia.

L.L.: Memory and truth-telling has become a bit of a ‘problem’ for me as a writer. I sometimes think, “Why would anyone want to read a made-up story?” But there’s truth in fiction. Can you expand on that?

Sally Hepworth: Of course there is truth in fiction. There is truth everywhere. It’s why I read and it’s definitely why I write. Ever since seeing the news segment about the 31-year-old woman who had early-onset Alzheimer’s, I wondered what it must be like for someone to lose their memory at such a young age—this was my opportunity to find out. I certainly learned some truths while researching and writing this book and if the reader did too, I am happy. That said, readers can smell it a mile away if the writer has an agenda in mind when writing a book, so I prefer to simply start a journey of exploration and let people find their own truth.there-is-a-lot-of-truth-in-fiction

L.L.: Switching gears a bit…I found Rosalind House a very comfy and nice place to be as a reader. But, I couldn’t quite figure out where it was located. You live in Australia. But little Clem Irish dances for the residents and there were tastes of England in the book…yet Clara and Laurie have southern accents. I kept thinking maybe they were from Georgia or someplace in the Southern United States. Was that on purpose, meaning a story like this could take place virtually anywhere, or did you have a clear setting in mind that just escaped me?

Sally Hepworth:  Rosalind House is in Short Hills, New Jersey. But yes, there is absolutely a flavor of the world there—Laurie and Clara are from the South, Anna is from Philadelphia, Eve was born in London. And yes, I did this intentionally. Having lived all over the world myself—in North America, the U.K., Singapore and Australia—the voices in my head come in many different accents. Even in my own family I hear different accents (my husband is British and my son was born in Canada). So I suspect this will continue to be a feature of my books. But as you say, the story is universal and perhaps could have taken place anywhere.

L.L.: Can I ask what you’re working on next?

Sally Hepworth: I have just—last week!—submitted my new novel, By Myself, With You, to my editor. It is about four women who are alone—physically, emotionally, in a marriage, in a decision—and how they are able to come together and help each other when they need it most.

L.L.: What advice would you give to writers looking to break into fiction?

Sally Hepworth: Write as much as you can. The more you write, the faster you’ll become good at it.

L.L.: What are you reading?

Sally Hepworth: These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf. I would read a shopping list written by Heather Gudenkauf.

L.L.: Sally, thank you so very much for spending some time with us today. It was such a pleasure!

Sally Hepworth Headshot_highest res_credit Mrs. Smart PhotographySally Hepworth: Thank you for having me

Author bioWhile pregnant with her second child, Sally Hepworth wrote The Secrets of Midwives, a novel about three generations of midwives that asks readers what makes a mother and what role biology plays in the making and binding of a family. Sally’s newest novel is The Things We Keep, available January 19 from St. Martin’s Press.

She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two children, and is currently working on her next novel.

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[Special thanks to K. Bassel at St. Martin’s Press. Author and cover image courtesy of SMP. Truth in fiction retrieved from on 2.6.16]

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