The Empty Room is a book I’ve had, hanging around at the back of my mind for the past few years: the idea of a mother who has to reassess everything she thinks she knows about her family in the wake of her daughter going missing and how she responds to that loss at three particular points, in the days, months and years after. I’d actually pitched it to an editor a few years back but, truthfully, the story wasn’t well enough formed in my mind for me to be able to articulate what I was aiming for and I’d been advised against it. So, it remained unwritten. Then, during lockdown last year, I woke one morning in February with Dora’s voice in my head. Over the following forty or so mornings, her story unspooled for me.
Writing is such a strange process for me – the best way I can describe it is like dreaming while awake. I don’t mean a daydream, for that is mostly based on real events or possibilities and involve the dreamer as a central figure in the reverie. But when I’m writing, it’s as if I can see a dream and record it. And in the same way that, to my mind, dreams are the brain’s way of processing real world issues and concerns through a narrative built around metaphors, so too is writing for me. I wrote my first book, Borderlands, around the time my first son was born. The world was suddenly and scarier place as I realised, as a new parent, how little control I had over things. The fictional world, though, was completely under my control and justice could always be done in that world. So it is that, eighteen years later, that same son was leaving home to go to college. In the years previous I’d also lost my dad. I think those two real events coalesced into the story of grief and my own worries about the loosening of parental bonds.
At the same time, I’ve always loved Greek mythology and had already borrowed from elements for The Last Crossing, my previous standalone novel. When I started this book, I wanted it to be a campion piece of sorts to that novel and so introduced a element of mythology here too – in this case, the story of Pandora. It always struck me that pandora got a raw deal. She really had no choice but to open the jar which demanded to reveal its secrets and, if Greek tragedy has taught us anything, it’s that the truth will always force its way to the light. Pandora had to look.
So, Dora represents those various elements of both parenthood and mythology. But, importantly, I needed her journey to end with Hope, just as Pandora’s does. The paradox of parenthood is that – if we’re lucky - its success is measured by how well prepared our children are for leaving us and then, later, for letting us go, yet despite this, it is a bond marked by closeness and one of constant optimism and hope for the future. So, it was important for me that ultimately, Dora, like her namesake, should find Hope.
I think she does.