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Elisa Segrave is the author of The Diary of a Breast, about her battle with cancer, and the novel Ten Men (both published by Faber.) She writes for many newspapers and magazines, including the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Independent and The Lady.
Below is a Q&A with this author.
1. How did you first come across your mother’s diaries?
In autumn 1997, my mother’s large house in Sussex was put up for sale. She had had Alzheimer’s already for five years; she was almost helpless, and for a year she had even been too scared to go downstairs into her sitting-room and garden, so was confined to her bedroom. She was a hoarder and the task of sorting out all her things was daunting. There were ornaments, whole cupboards of shoes, stacked papers in a tiny room off her sitting room where swallows nested each year, old copies of the National Geographic, and many books. One afternoon the two ladies who were helping sort her things out came downstairs with several boxes of diaries. They had found them in the attic.
2. At what point did they suddenly seem fascinating to you?
At once, I realised that these diaries would be more important to me than anything else that my mother owned. I could see, by opening one or two that these were not engagement diaries or diaries in which the diarist writes down just every day facts. In these diaries, in her intense, closely-written almost illegible handwriting, my mother, I was sure, had poured out her innermost feelings. She had always been a secretive, complicated woman, unable to answer a direct question, and I was hoping that by reading these diaries I would finally have the chance to get to know her.
3. When did you realise that the story of your mother’s life, and the diaries themselves, might make for a book?
I am a writer and even before finding the diaries had thought of writing a book about my mother. I like to write about something painful and challenging – my first book `The Diary of a Breast’, was based on my own diaries of when I had breast cancer at 41 – and my relationship with my mother, a childlike alcoholic who had not been at all maternal, was certainly challenging. I knew that to most of her friends, and to strangers, she appeared as an interesting, lively woman, who had travelled extensively in Russia and other far-off places, who was charming and charismatic, and I wanted to reconcile that image with the inadequate mother she had been to me.
4. As the author of `The Diary of a Breast’, what attracts you to the diary form?
I have been a compulsive diary-writer since I was fifteen – like my mother, it turned out, who had started her diaries at that age – and the two main things that attract me to the diary form are its spontaneity and the likelihood of a diary being truthful. A proper diarist does not lie. We try to write down the exact truth of what happened though of course sometimes memory i inaccurate. A diary though, because it is written so close to the events it describes, stands a fairer chance of being accurate than a memoir written many years later. This is why I like to read historical diaries – Victor Klemperer, in his volumes `I Shall Bear Witness’ and `To the Bitter End’ describes how, as a Jew, he spent the war in Dresden and describes the minutiae of daily life under the Third Reich.
5. Can you explain how it felt to have to recreate the image of your mother you had lived with until that point?
When I found her diaries in 1997, my relationship with her was very bad. Long before she had got Alzheimer’s, she had become a liability, falling over drunk, breaking limbs, being generally helpless and not behaving like a helpful mother or grandmother. In her diaries, particularly those that she kept throughout the six years of the war, in the WAAF including Bletchley Park, and I found a completely different person, capable, alert, clever, and able to take responsibility, something I had never known in her.
6. Has writing this book influenced your relationship with your own children?
I would like to think that writing the book, which has taken several years, has made me more thoughtful and mature. My son, now twenty-nine, announced aged eight: “Mummy is a baby who hasn’t grown up yet!” and perhaps that was true. My daughter, thirty-one, says I have become kinder and more understanding since finishing my book. I am also enjoying being a grandmother to two little boys, something that my mother was unable to be properly to my own children.
July 2013 Non-Fiction Book of the Month. Combining a thrilling first-person account of life during the Second World War and an intimate family memoir, this is an original and highly effecting read. In The Girl From Station X, Segrave opens the pages of her mother's diaries to us and recreates her extraordinary life as a debutante turned code breaker both before and after the war.
March 2014 Non-Fiction Book of the Month. One woman at the heart of this biography but with two very different lives, as a young privileged member of the upper middle-classes she went to work for Bletchley during WWII, as a Mother she was distant yet clinging, an alcoholic who descended into Alzheimer’s and old age. If it wasn’t for the diaries that Anne Segrave kept, Elisa would never have found out about her mother’s other life. It’s a life that’s hard to square with the woman she became as wife and mother but the diaries hold the clues in Elisa Segrave’s fascinating detective story recreating her mother’s life. Like for Like Reading The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, Sinclair McKay Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codebreaker's War, 1941-45, Leo Marks