Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Authenticity Is Its Own Reward: Interview With Kirsten Hesketh, Author Of Another Us

Kirsten Hesketh
Kirsten Hesketh
Having recently reviewed Kirsten Hesketh’s boisterously entertaining novel, Another Us, I was fortunate enough to interview its affable author and provide our readers with an exclusive insight into both the woman behind the keyboard and her delightful first book.

Hesketh is an effervescent amalgam of warm-hearted humour and esprit de corps. She is a passionate member of the Debut UK 2020 writing fraternity, a devoted wife and mother and a woman not short on colourful life experience. For anyone who has read Another Us, whilst certainly not an autobiographical debut, it will come as no surprise to learn that its author is nearly as energetic, big-hearted and interesting as the chief protagonist of her uplifting first novel.

Born in London, Hesketh enjoyed an exotic childhood in Kuala Lumpur, before returning to the UK and gaining a degree in geography from Cambridge. Several years living in California followed, adding yet another cultural patina to an already richly textured life. Like her debut’s central protagonist, Emma, Hesketh developed a career within the advertising industry and went on to run her own consultancy, specialising in psychological interviewing and focus groups. Over the past two decades, she has interviewed the Great British Public on everything from Rolos to razors, vacuums to Viagra.

One suspects that such an insight-led career affords fecund material for an aspiring author, whilst simultaneously honing a talent for perspicacity, psychological analysis and comedy. Authors tend to be astute people watchers, observing those around them with acutely sensitive minds. Hesketh is no exception.

Despite the multifarious demands of her hectic professional life, children, husband and two exceptionally ‘fluffy moggies’, Hesketh is also a keen amateur archaeologist and adores spending her weekends hacking through the mud on a local Roman dig. She is also a staunch supporter of Wycombe Wanderers, proof that she has both energy and the fathomless capacity to endure life’s inevitable disappointments!

Hesketh, though habituated to making others the focus of her questions, embraced my inversion of this process. Embracing life in all its guises seems to be wired into her resolutely humanistic DNA. I began by wondering what catalysed Hesketh’s transition from successful self-employed entrepreneur to debut novelist:

‘I always said I wanted to write a book – in the same way I said I’ve always wanted to go to Macchu Picchu or run a 5k. I didn’t do anything about it for decades and decades! My career was and is in marketing consultancy and I have my own little business with inevitable peaks and troughs. I was having a whinge to one of my best friends during one of the downtimes and she called me out on it. “Now’s the perfect time to write the novel you’re always going on about,” she said and that was that’.

It is all well and good to have the time to write, notwithstanding the obvious talent required, but what of the subject matter to explore. Our interviewee responded:

‘Our son had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome a few years earlier and I was sorting through some of the bumph we’d been given, when I stumbled across a statistic which suggested that eight out of ten marriages with a child on the spectrum, end in divorce by the time that child is 16. By this time, our son was already 16, but it did get me thinking. What if I had known about that statistic at the time he was diagnosed? Would it have worried me? Would I have done anything differently? And so the idea behind Another Us was born’.

Hesketh, like her self-confessed muse Marian Keyes, possesses the ability to tackle challenging thematic material sensitively, whilst also finding a rich vein of comedy threaded through an ostensibly serious subject. She revealed –

‘Marian Keyes has been a huge influence. She tackles serious themes like bereavement, depression or addiction, but yet writes so warmly and wittily - and is so funny! There’s a real honesty and authenticity to her work and that’s definitely something I’ve tried to emulate. I think Rachel’s Holiday is a fabulous book and one that I have read again and again’.

Hesketh’s own writing, like that of Keyes, is unfettered by stylistic ornamentation and suggested to me that her authorial process might be equally unmolested by conscious technique or literary convention. She told me...

‘I have no formal writing training at all and when I first sat in front of the empty screen, I don’t think I knew what any of those terms even meant. I just started writing! Now I know that my writing is character led – I think my earliest draft of Another Us didn’t have much by the way of plot at all - but I have learned the hard way that plot and story structure are quite important and that it pays off to do at least a little planning before I dive in!!! That said, I am still naturally far more of a ‘pantser’ than a ‘plotter’’.

One suspects that editorial guidance has often entered the fray, however her publisher clearly knows better than to value technical grounding or literary finesse over obvious, authentic, autodidactic talent. Hesketh candidly elaborated –

‘I just started to write and, at first, I was a little disconcerted that what was coming out seemed to be so ‘light’ and ‘frothy’ rather than literary fiction. I think I just wanted the voice to be honest and authentic – as well as entertaining. Besides that, it was important to me to show that life with someone on the spectrum isn’t all doom and gloom – far from it – and I wanted my book to reflect that light and shade.’

Hesketh’s writing flows more from her heart than her mind. An outpouring of personal observations, truths and examined emotions rushing forth from the well-spring of her own experience. She is an author who demands that an attested, almost autonomic voice actuates her fiction. Her creative imperative is the desire to communicate sincerely felt positive messages, laced with generous lashings of uplifting humour.

Given her comment that her fiction is ‘character-led’, I wondered if the impulse to bring her imagined protagonists to life was the actuating force for Another Us. Hesketh’s response revealed both the answer and her unpretentious attitude to her craft:

‘I started with my characters and then just saw where they were taking me, if that makes sense’. It does. William Faulkner, said, ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does’. Another Us is a book very much reflecting this approach; even its author was consciously inspired by Marian Keyes, and perhaps not channelling Faulkner!

I was keen to understand Hesketh’s own relationship with Asperger’s Syndrome and why she decided to have it figure prominently in her debut:

‘Well, they say write about what you know and my son – now 21 and in his third year of a computer science degree - was diagnosed with mild Asperger Syndrome when he was ten’.

Hesketh wanted to portray the lighter side of living with Asperger’s, whilst also capturing the complexities, nuances and humour infusing relationships impacted by this much misunderstood condition. She continued...

‘My son thinks that there should be more people with ASD in literature as they make up 1 in 85 of the population, so he was pleased when I said I was including a boy on the spectrum in my book. “Just don’t feel you have to make them the hero or the victim, Mum”, he said, “they can just be a person”. I hope I’ve achieved that’.

I’m not sure how many sons would relish the idea of being reflected in their mother’s literature, however Hesketh’s own son need have no qualms as she certainly achieved her objective.

Having explored her writing process and subject choice, I wanted to understand the nature of the obstacles she overcame in order to become a published author. As with all of her responses, Hesketh was disarmingly honest –

‘I think the whole writing and publishing process is a series of challenges. Writing the first page, the first chapter, the first draft …. Getting a literary agent … Getting a publishing deal … Even after publication, I’m learning that the challenges go on …. Feeling exposed, dealing with reviews, writing the second ‘difficult’ book’'.

In addition to ‘having to rewrite’ large chunks of her debut in order to accommodate a significant ‘plot twist’ only conceived towards the later stages of the book’s formation, Hesketh had to confront a challenge any artist must face - revealing her work to the world and bidding it farewell. Books do not materialise suddenly or leave their writer’s desk without either anxiety, or invested affection. Hesketh knows this truth well:

‘For me, though, I’d say the biggest challenge so far has been letting my first book ‘go’. My children are both at university now and it’s a bit like letting them go too. I’ve done what I can and now they are off, out of my hands and what happens to them is out of my control (sort of!)’.

Achieving a cherished objective is one thing. Learning to live with the consequences of doing so is quite another. I wanted to understand how becoming a published novelist had impacted on her:

‘In many ways, my life is just the same. I’m married to the same person, we live in the same house, our cats are just as fluffy! But the whole writing process has definitely taught me things about myself. Firstly, I used to have a tendency to start projects and not finish them – and this has taught me that it pays off to persevere with the same project, rather than to start something new when things aren’t going well’.

‘I’ve learned that I have far more tenacity and determination than I would have previously given myself credit for. When you start to write a book – especially if you talk about it - I think (some) people are waiting for you to fail and it takes a certain amount of courage in spite of that. At least it did for me. It’s also helped me to believe that I can achieve in other areas of my life by just persevering and going for it - be that in joining a choir, an archaeological dig, or climbing a mountain in the Lake District (an easy one!)’.

As with most of us, authors grow as people, not by avoiding challenges, but by embracing them. Launching your debut novel amid a global pandemic might afford an aspiring author the opportunity to write, but doing so also precipitates many extreme challenges. Indeed, Hesketh has one of her debut’s characters, Paul, a moderately successful writer, remind us that penning a novel is not the romanticised hobby of a person with time on their hands. It is a creative act requiring both inspiration and gumption. Hesketh has, like many debut novelists, had to climb her own metaphorical mountain in order to become a bona fide writer and do so in conditions decidedly unfavourable to such a venture!

Another Us is both delightfully funny and gently emotive, however its chief protagonist, Emma is, for me, the book’s most impressive achievement. She is a skilfully rendered and irresistibly engaging character; her personality is the driving force of the book’s plot. Emma is not an authorial autobiographical projection, she is a fictitious creation. Or is she? Hesketh clarifies:

Another Us starts pretty much where we were as a family a decade or so ago, but then goes off on a ‘what if?’ flight of fancy. In some ways Emma is an exaggerated version of myself – but braver and much more impulsive…In other ways Emma is nothing like me at all. So, I’d say Emma is a mish mash of lots of things, but I hope she is very much her own person’.

Many writers find their true calling almost serendipitously. I’m reminded of Sue Townsend, another author who began her career only after a few decades of being something else. It is of course commonplace to see writers morph from one iteration of themselves to another in order to become a novelist. Perhaps, the fiction of such types benefits all the more from the tasting of life’s bitter and sweet fruits. A corollary of having engaged with life honestly is that they are often well placed to shed light on it for the rest of us.

Louise Glück, recently awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, responded to her success with an apt quote - ‘You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life…’. The authenticity Glück heralds as a creative sine qua non applies equally to all authors, within all genres of literature and is the reason Hesketh’s own debut is both engaging and likely to be valued by its readers.

So, my consumer focus questions are now completed, and whilst I can’t tell you much about vacuums or indeed Viagra, I can report that interviewing Kirsten Hesketh was, much like reading her debut novel, a pleasure! Further books are in the pipeline, her second novel is going through its final, ‘surprisingly stressful’ proofreading stage. Her supportive publisher will not be the only one eagerly awaiting this newcomer’s next authorial outing, if Another Us is anything to go by!