Sally Hepworth’s new novel may consistently follow her preferred topic of familial relationships, but The Family Next Door travels down a completely different path than her previous works.
In The Things We Keep, Hepworth portrayed a woman who struggles through a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s at only thirty-eight years old. Even though she rationally understands that her family is doing the right thing, her will to preserve her mind and her memories urge her to fight against being sent away to an assisted living facility.
The Family Next Door presents a separate malady, but by no means less devastating. Hepworth’s main character Essie feels constant apprehension about her recent pregnancy. Despite having a loving husband along with family and friends who care for her, Essie finds herself overwhelmed with fear that her postpartum depression, which made her walk away from her older daughter when she was a newborn, will reappear. The arrival of a mysterious new neighbor adds more tension to Essie’s relationship with her inner circle, and she soon finds that this stranger carries a secret potent enough to change everything she once knew about herself and her family.
In an email interview, Sally Hepworth reveals what inspires her to include the difficulties of mental illness in her novels, and her personal fight with postpartum depression.
Your previous novels have dealt with some form of family secrets and somewhat broken relationships. Why is this topic so appealing for you?
I am lucky to have fairly straightforward relationships in my own family (and as a bunch of self-confessed oversharers, we’d be hard pressed to find a secret), but I am often struck by the fact that this isn’t a usual scenario. Whenever conversations with friends turn to family events—Christmas, a family birthday, an anniversary dinner—conversation invariably becomes about family issues.
It might be the uncle who always gets drunk, the feuding cousins, or the divorced couple that will be attending (with new partners). It appears every family has something. As someone who adores scandal and drama, I’ve always found this more than a little thrilling and I store these stories up as fodder for novels.
In The Things We Keep, the novel you released two years ago, the story focused on early onset Alzheimer’s. With The Family Next Door, you deal with the topic of postpartum depression. Do you think mental illness is an area that needs only more funding, but also more study?
As a novelist, I am interested in all aspects of women’s health, particularly mental health, as it seems to be so misunderstood in society. People would never ask someone with cancer to ‘snap out of it’ yet people regularly ask this of people with depression, or bipolar or schizophrenia. We’ve come some way in recent years bringing mental illness out of the darkness, but I think we have further to go. We need more funding and more study, absolutely, but my role as a novelist is to explore these issues more fully in fiction, and that was my aim in these novels.
How was the writing process different for this novel? Is there enough credible information about postpartum depression out there?
It took me about nine months to write this book, which was funny as I was also pregnant for the duration of this book. I read widely as I prepared to write this book—memoirs, medical books and novels — and I was also able to lean on friends and acquaintances who had suffered from PostPartum Mood Disorders and were willing to speak with me about it.
So I was satisfied with the information I was able to access. Then, in an interesting case of life imitating art, I myself suffered from postpartum depression during the editing of this book. It was the first time I had suffered from it, and as awful as it was, it helped to feed this novel, and help me tap into the psyche of a desperate new mother.
Do you think Essie your main character, had a good support system to battle her depression? Or could it have been better?
Essie didn’t have a bad support system, particularly the second time around, with her husband, her mother, and to a smaller extent, her neighbours. Unfortunately, due to her reluctance to be honest about what was going on with her — due to shame and fear — she was unable to access the help she needed.
I also think it’s important to note that a support system will not prevent postpartum mood disorders. PPMD are hormonal and can affect anyone, no matter how armed they are with support. That said, a support system can be the defining factor in preventing tragic consequences of postpartum mood disorders, such as mothers injuring themselves and their babies.
Which character was the most difficult for you to write?
I couldn’t say one was more difficult than the other—they were all hard, and easy. It was hard to go into the mind of women who were suffering, but it was also comforting. Everyone in life has his or her struggles and this book was a reminder to me (and everyone else) that no one’s life is perfect. We are all just doing our best.
Barbara, Essie’s mother is at times an enigmatic character and in the end we know why. Would you say Essie’s identity and present difficulties was more influenced by genetics or the environment she grew up in?
I believe Essie’s identity issues were a combination of both genetics and environment, but her present difficulties (postpartum depression) were hormonal. All the research I did about PostPartum Mood Disorders indicates that these issues are hormonal, and while a great support network can help people recover faster, no support network can stop the illness from manifesting in the first place.
Did you have the ending already figured out when you started the novel?
I didn’t! I tend to start a novel with an idea of the premise and an idea of the challenges my characters will face along the way, but I never know how it will end until I get to know the characters and understand how they will react to something.
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
I try not to anticipate what readers will take from my books. Each reader comes to my books with their own lens—their own experiences, values and morals, and they will take different things from the book because of that. I’m constantly surprised by what people take from my books, and often it’s little things that I never even intended. That is part of the wonder of fiction.