Charlotte Leonard’s debut novel, ‘Afterwards’, finds a new language for grief and hope
The author talks about dealing with loss in our fast, digitalised culture and how Post-it notes kept her going
[Sunday 5 June 2022. By Anastasiia Fedorova
When Emma gets home after work one evening, she calls hello to her husband Jay, as she always does. But Jay is not there. He is upstairs. And he has ended his own life, seemingly out of nowhere and leaving no note to explain. All that Jay – a photographer – has left behind is his camera containing five photographs, which are unlike any of his previous work.
Charlotte Leonard’s debut novel, Afterwards, starts with a crushing tragedy – a sudden loss that leaves the protagonist not only devastated, but in complete darkness about her partner’s suicide. Using the breadcrumbs of his last photographic works as potential clues, she embarks on a journey that leads her to a small community of swimmers in Cornwall. Afterwards is a study of palpable grief and a story of learning to live again.
It is a beautiful, immersive introduction to an uncomfortable conversation our society is still afraid of having – a dialogue about mental health, suicide, and the ones left behind.
Below, the author talks about the space of grief in our fast-paced, hyperconnected lives, wild swimming, and her writing process.
How did you first get the idea of Afterwards and how did the book come to life?
‘I’ve got three sons, and a couple of years back I took them to see Linkin Park. Two weeks later, we heard the news that Chester Bennington had killed himself. Our kids knew that he had a family – he left behind a wife and six kids. It got me thinking about what happens to the people that are left behind and how you cope with something that horrific.
‘My sons began asking some difficult questions about suicide and depression, so I started doing some research. The statistics are horrifying. Suicide is the biggest killer of people under the age of 45. It’s bigger than cancer and car crashes combined, and men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. We’ve come a long way in discussing mental health. But I don’t think we’ve come quite as far when it comes to talking about suicide – there’s still a massive stigma around it.’
When it comes to the landscapes in the novel, was it something you drew from your own experiences and memories?
‘My family all live in Cornwall. And swimming for me, especially in Cornwall and outside in nature, has been something that’s really helped me in all aspects of my life. I wanted to take a difficult subject, but show that there are ways, with community, nature and swimming, that you can help yourself and your mental health. I really love Cornwall, and writing the book while being in London was a way of escaping in my own head.’
Are there any particular authors who have influenced your work?
‘The book starts in quite short chapters. It’s fairly fragmented in the beginning, which is reflective of the main character’s experience of grief. And as her life starts to improve and she begins to come to terms with her loss, the chapters become longer. Max Porter’s writing has been really, really important to me – he writes quite poetically, and it’s all rather disjointed and fragmented. He wrote about grief and tackled difficult subjects as well. Also, incredible women writers like Evie Wyld and Jojo Moyes.’
It’s interesting that photography is a prominent part of the narrative. Have you always been interested in the relationship between images and language?
‘Coming from a background in advertising, a lot of my work is incredibly visual. And I’m married to a man who runs an ad agency. I think a lot in words and he thinks far more visually. I really like that idea that you can have two people who communicate and see things in very different ways.'
‘In the novel, the husband who dies communicates through his images, so the main character has to unravel his photographs and work out what they’re trying to say.’
What was your personal journey with writing like? Is it something you’ve pursued for a long time?
‘I did a law degree and then I worked in advertising for a very long time. Obviously, there was writing involved with that, but it’s always for a client or it’s on a brief. I really wanted to do some writing that was just for myself, even if it ended up in the bottom of a drawer.’
How did it feel to share a more personal and artistic kind of writing with people for the first time?
‘It was terrifying. Also, in advertising, it’s a collaborative process; there’s a quick turnaround and everything that you write is quite short. Books are about 80,000 words. So, after completing the Faber Academy’s First 15000 words course, I went home, and then just wrote and wrote for almost a year. You have no idea at any point if what you’re doing is actually terrible or not. I think a lot of it is just trying to plough through the self-doubt and keep going.’
What kept you going?
‘Honestly? Post-it notes. I wrote word counts on them and stuck them all over the kitchen cupboards. When I hit that word count, I’d take a Post-it down. It just felt really important that I finished something I’d started.’
Afterwards explores such complex topics like grief and loss. How do you think these issues are particular to our digitalised, fast-paced culture?
‘I don’t think that we’re particularly good at grieving as a modern society, or facing the reality of illness and death. Obviously, COVID-19 has made us all look at those things and experience them in a global way. I think we spend a lot of time trying to distract ourselves with social media and not think about these things. I wanted to address the topic that was difficult, but ultimately frame it in a hopeful way.’
you learn something new about grief and loss and how we experience them after writing the book?
‘It’s made me realise that there isn’t anything that you can’t actually talk about, provided you’ve got the right community around you. I think community is incredibly important. I interviewed lots of people, I read lots of books about people who’d experienced really terrible things and come out the other side. The more you talk about things, the more support you have and the more structure you can put in place to help yourself, the more likely you are to get through it.’
What would you like your readers to take away from reading Afterwards?
‘I want them to come away with a feeling of hope. It’s about a very difficult topic, but ultimately, it’s a very hopeful book.’
Afterwards is now out with Simon & Schuster. Follow Charlotte Leonard on Instagram and Twitter.