Bristol-based author Gillian Best‘s debut novel The Last Wave (Freight Books £9.99) is a deeply affecting tale of a family coming to terms with all that life throws at them. Joe Melia discovers what drives this very talented new voice.
Swimming and the sea are crucial elements in the novel. What significance have they had in your life?
Swimming has always been a big part of my life. As a kid, I swam competitively, so unlike the main character in my novel Martha, I bear no ill-will towards swimming pools! That said, Martha and I do look at swimming from a similar perspective: it offers freedom. Though for me, it’s more of a physical freedom. I suffer from arthritis in my spine and hips, and to keep limber and mobile, I swim. Regardless of how stiff or achey I’m feeling, I know if I get in the water I’ll feel better.
Swimming and a desire to be near the sea have been pretty constant in my life. I grew up for the most part in Canada, though my family did spend a year near San Francisco when I was about six years old. I have very clear memories of going to the beach and of being the first one in the sea and the last one out. Even now, whenever I get the chance, I’ll go in the sea. It’s a different feeling from being in the pool – there’s a greater sense of solitude I think – when you’ve swum away from shore and just lie on your back floating you get a real sense of how small you are.
What part, if any, do they play in your writing process?
Swimming is thinking time for me. With my cap, goggles and ear plugs, it gives me a chance to work out whatever’s on my mind. There’s a rhythm to swimming that I find really helpful if I get stuck in my writing. The rhythm of breathing and counting strokes puts you in an almost trance-like frame of mind.
There’s also the element of training that I think has had a really positive impact on my writing. I went for a swim yesterday and was reminded of this, actually. When you’re training you commit to doing something with singular dedication and focus. You commit to turning up and practicing. You turn up regardless. So for me, I think swimming has taught me that: if you want to write a book, the first thing you do it turn up. Then there are the long and sometimes dull and repetitive training sessions. You swim up and down the pool, back and forth, day in and day out. That kind of training taught me about dedication. There was no skipping practice because I wasn’t feeling it, or had something else to do. I had made a commitment to myself, my coach, my team (that makes it sound like I was a great swimmer – I wasn’t – but that was in a lot of ways the point: it didn’t matter if you were the best of the worst. The same commitment was expected from everybody.) So now, on a day when I’m not really feeling like writing, or can think up any number of other things to do, there’s a voice in the back of my head telling me to get to it. And I think of when I first get in the pool, and start warming up. There are always a few hundred metres where I don’t feel quite right in the water: arms are a bit jerky, ankles a bit stiff. It takes time to get into gear, and it’s the same for writing. You’ve got to get warmed up and that’s taught me to not expect each sentence to be brilliant from the get go.
After Martha’s cancer diagnosis and her husband’s dementia takes hold, there is a line in the book which really stands out: “All we could do was muddle through as best we could.” As a species, how well do you think we cope with the onset of life-changing disease?
Everyone reacts to the news of a life-changing diagnosis differently.
I think as people we’re focused on finding solutions to things, and so the idea of something being chronic, or of having to learn to live with something like dementia or cancer is difficult because there is no cure. The idea that we’re just left to cope and adjust our lives can be difficult to come to terms with. We aren’t sure how to modify our lives and the way we do things, we have this belief that modern medicine can cure things and it’s frustrating when that’s not the case… And I think there’s this sense that if we just look hard enough that we can find a cure. In my experience, that’s part of the process. I got diagnosed with arthritis when I was 19 and Crohn’s disease in my late twenties. And I went through something similar: looking – relentlessly – for something that would ‘fix’ my problem, and it’s disappointing, upsetting and frustrating when we see all kinds of technological advancements to learn that medical developments take so much time. There’s this expectation that, with all the modern technology we have, that we should be able to cure things. Which of course we can’t. But we can manage things. And that’s the key thing, I think: learning to come to terms with what we have control over and what we haven’t. Personally, I’ve found ways of coping with my chronic conditions: the first is learning to accept what chronic means and looks like, and the second is that swimming is an excellent coping mechanism.
You have lived in a number of places including Canada, Scotland and Cornwall. What brought you to Bristol?
I was living in London and looking for a bit of a change. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job in Bristol which I took – without even having visited beyond coming to interview! Which, for me, works best. I didn’t know a thing about Cornwall before I first moved over, had only been to London a handful of times before I moved up there. For me, I think, the element of surprise in a new city works best!
Has living in Bristol changed you as a writer?
My writing life has changed since moving to Bristol – it was after I’d moved here that I learned my novel would be published. I think mostly ahas’t changed for me is that I have more time: I’m home from work now before 6pm and so I’ve got more time during the evenings to write. And being in Bristol we’re incredibly lucky to have lots of top-notch writers come through to speak, and there’s more of an opportunity to speak with them – something I’m not sure I’d be able to do in London.
In these uncertain times what role do you think writers can play?
Writers are able to show readers lives outside their own. We’re able to help people understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. And I think writers are able to imagine different scenarios, help us to imagine different outcomes, so we can think about them before trying them on.
Gillian Best’s debut novel The Last Wave (Freight Books £9.99) is out now.