Lesley Thomson author of ‘A Kind of Vanishing’ winner of the 2010 People’s Book Prize for Fiction
I am a novelist. Is my success due to my being an only child? Without siblings I doubtless had more time to myself. I remember many contented days when I read, painted pictures, moulded clay, constructed collages with electrical components donated by my father who built radios in his own, fewer, quiet moments.
I had a happy childhood packed with people: my friends, my parents’ friends and many relations and those in stories. It was rumbustrous and busy with adventures constructed by myself and friends. In addition I had ‘imaginary friends’ whose lives I related to myself in bed at night. Thus I taught myself the principles of continuous narrative, no doubt influenced by The Archers to which my parents were regular listeners. I wrote down many of my stories and illustrated them. I enlisted my parents to record plays, provide sound effects (storms in the kitchen sink and thunder with tea trays). If there had been other children’s ideas and creativity to nourish, would my parents have had the energy to feed mine? Given the kind of people they were – expansive, interested in others, creative and open to ideas – I think so.
When I was ten years old, my parents were working full time. I went to friends after school. I was an honorary member of two families: one of three girls and one of three girls and a boy. I saw siblings in action, playing my part in their dynamics as we watched television, squabbled and made up, swapped sweets and bubble gum cards and secrets.
When I was seven my cousin Mark had come to live with us while his parents underwent an unpleasant divorce. He shared my bedroom. We too squabbled, but we took longer to make up than I was used to. I was always ready to flap the flag of peace moments after a spat. “Actually I don’t want to” Mark would reply haughtily in the mimicked voice of a strict adult, to my suggestion that we end our quarrel. We traded Brook Bond Tea cards, roller-skated (his had leather straps, mine were plastic); he read the Dandy and I read the Beano. Mark was the brother I had never had and had not missed. For a year neither of us was an only child.
He was my uncle’s son, so when my uncle lost his bid for custody Mark was whipped away to live with his mother with no chance to say goodbye. I hadn’t seen him for two decades when he contacted me aged twenty-eight. The year he lived with my family had been as important to him as to me. With different personalities and without parents in common we lost touch again in our mid forties after sporadic meetings in the interim. Now in our fifties, Mark has again vanished from my life. I mourn him. The loss is not just of Mark the boy, but of the sibling I briefly had.
Living with Mark did not quell my imagination or stop me writing. Together we envisaged the living room as a landscape of jungles and deserts populated with a motley collection of pooled toys: Cindy, Action Man, soldiers and a grubby white plastic poodle that for some, now unfathomable reason, we invested with arcane significance and who was the cause of many protracted feuds. I drew, painted and took photographs as much as ever. My parents read to us at bedtime and we read by ourselves. My time was still my own.
For the first time I saw myself in relation to an ‘other’. I watched my parents being the parents of someone else as they cared for their nephew as if he was their son. I witnessed my Mum cuddling a child that wasn’t me. I don’t remember minding.
Has being an only child encouraged my ability to reflect? This ability contributes to my fiction. I have reflected on my behaviour and that of others for as long as I can remember. I thought everyone did. If they did not, I assumed it was because they were younger than me and that soon they would. It was only in my late teens that it dawned on me that comparatively few people consider why they do what they do or recognise the impact their behaviour has on others. I don’t think the fact that I do is because I am an only child, I know many only children who rattle along regardless as do those with siblings. However, perhaps my own reflections were possible because there were not siblings to interrupt my thoughts or distract.
Perhaps my love for fiction – as a reader and as a writer, which began as soon as I could read and hold a pencil – has been fed by periods by myself. Long stints in an armchair working my way through a bag of fruit salad chews and black jacks while buried in E Nesbit, C. S. Lewis or some other Puffin club title doubtless added to my ability to write stories myself. I tell my readers that I write the sort of fiction I want to read. I construct the scenario of that armchair – nowadays a bar of chocolate substitutes the half-penny sweets my parents deplored – with a page-turning novel and a stretch of several hours as my ideal. I try to write gripping stories because I like to read them. The solitude required for reading and for writing was more available to me as I grew up because I was an only child.
Yet, writers come from all corners of a family. One of my novelist friends is the only girl in a family of boys. Another is the eldest of a family of three with a boy and a girl to follow, yet another was the younger of two. My mother was not a writer, but highly reflective and successful head teacher. She was the eldest of six and had to carve out places of privacy in a tumultuous household. Her siblings still remember her reading on the bus on the way home from school and as she walked down the street.
It is less that being an only child has contributed to my success as a writer than that it quietly influences my writing like a gauze veil resting on the text. Despite a happy upbringing, the external assumption that only children are less fortunate and spoilt, has wrought an indentation on my perception of myself. My wish for brothers and sisters has grown out of a need to redress this image and not because I felt lonely or was ‘spoilt’.
My last novel A Kind of Vanishing is about two girls forced to play together one summer in the sixties. One is the youngest of three children, the other is an only child. In the novel I have just completed there are two only children. In the novel I am just embarking on, there is one only child (who also features in the last story) and another who is rendered ‘only’ by a sibling’s death. The ostensible reason for my characters lacking siblings is practical. I limit the number of major characters or they get in the way of the core drama. But perhaps the unspoken reason is that as I grow more at ease with my ‘self’, the subject of only children is one I am willing to explore.
Being an only child must have played a part in my becoming a writer because it is what I am. However I think if in any other way it has influenced my success, it is that due to society’s implicit disapproval (certainly in the UK) of children lacking siblings, an only child is to some extent placed outside the norm. For a writer, being on the outside, however cold and draughty, is the best place to be.
Lesley Thomson is a novelist: A Kind of Vanishing won the 2010 People’s Book Prize for Fiction. It was reissued with an Afterword by the author in March 2011 and is available on Kindle and as an audio download. Ian Rankin has said: “Lesley Thomson is a class above and A Kind of Vanishing is a novel to treasure.”
Lesley’s website is: www.lesleythomson.co.uk