For Dawn O'Porter, 2020 has seen the death of her friend Caroline Flack, the Covid-19 crisis, BLM riots on her doorstep and the writing of a deeply personal book
Dawn O'Porter's "accidental memoir", Life In Pieces, could be the vanguard of a new genre: lockdown autobiography. The time period is limited, in this case, from March to summer. The action takes place mostly in the home, with occasional trips to the supermarket and the park, if restrictions permit. And yet it's a whole story, told inside a five-mile radius.
It has been a strange year for all of us and O'Porter is no exception. Life In Pieces reads like she's opened up her diary, which isn't a million miles from its genesis, given it started life as a Patreon blog. "It's way more personal than I would ever write in a book," she says. "I think 2020 cracked me open a bit. It was quite fun to write about parenting for the first time.
"And when [my publishers] said they wanted to make it into a book, I was like, 'Who's gonna want to read my diary of me drinking too much and cooking and looking after my children?'"
Even if it was just that - and it isn't - one imagines there would still be something of an audience. We are intrigued, compelled even, by the inner world of celebrities. We spy on their houses through Instagram and fill our cabinets with products they recommend.
O'Porter and husband Chris O'Dowd are a particularly beguiling couple in that they both seem slightly bemused by their fame, which makes them extra likeable.
Back when she was still plain Porter, she was already well-established. She was a BBC and Channel 4 documentary maker, journalist and writer all before she moved to LA aged 29. She told The Saturday Night Show that she met Chris when he introduced himself on Facebook.
He messaged her again on the day of her 30th birthday party and she told him to come along. He arrived at midnight and she was dancing with her dad. The next morning, she told her sister she had met the guy she was going to marry. Six months later, he'd moved into her apartment.
Awwww! See? Likeable.
Now they have two children, Art (five) and Valentine (three) and a dog, Potato. (I see on Instagram a few days after we speak that her beloved cat, Lilu, has passed away.)
O'Porter, 41, has written seven books, including the bestselling novel, The Cows. There have been umpteen TV appearances. She was a founding member of the charity, Help Refugees. She wrote Life In Pieces during lockdown and she has just, she tells me, signed a deal to write her first screenplay.
And yet, the book could not seem further from all of that.
Caroline Flack's death on February 15 foregrounds the events and this is a story of domesticity and grief and how one can sometimes help heal the other.
She writes: "The unrelenting torture of grief, knowing that nothing can fix it, is a frightening path to look down. It's endless. Too exhausting to even try to start moving forward. You're f**ked, everything is f**ked, and there is nothing you can do about it because they've gone."
The LA of the book is not the LA of award ceremonies and Selling Sunset. There are no glamorous dresses - except that of her wedding (vintage, once belonged to Princess Lilian of Belgium) - and no nights out, unless you count drinking on their porch. It's more the inner thoughts of a newly stay-at-home mother who has just lost a friend against the backdrop of a pandemic and political upheaval.
"This is not a book about Caroline," she says, over Zoom from their new home in LA, "this is just a book about grief. I have never been so all-consumed in one emotion in my entire life as I was for months. Anyone who's ever lost someone will know this feeling of just being winded. You just can't catch a breath."
It may be worth emphasising what good friends they had been. They were very close, as dozens of pictures of them together will attest. And, clearly, Flack's death came out of the blue. "To lose someone so suddenly like that, it's such a shock. It's like I describe it in the book, it's like someone drives into your living room and then everything you have is just destroyed. I felt utterly destroyed."
In the book, she recounts her grief as it evolves day-by-day and runs alongside her life as a writer, wife and mother. And while she is occasionally overcome, she always copes. Meals are always cooked. Games played. Baths drawn.
"I don't know what state I'd be in now if I didn't have kids, who were why I had to hold myself together. I had to hold myself together for them. Art was going through a lot - not allowed to see any of his friends or leave the house for so long. I had moments where I thought, should I be telling them, 'Mummy's really sad'. But I couldn't. All I wanted to do was to be with Chris and the boys. I didn't want to see anybody else. I didn't want the world to be happening. I couldn't have gone back to normal life."
Through it all, she tries to protect her children from her anguish. "They never saw me cry. I feel like I cried for three months. I don't know how I hid all that. I used to go into my wardrobe and sob and sob and sob and then wipe my eyes and come out and go: 'Right! Who wants a hot dog?' » » "I think my PTSD from lockdown will be looking back on that contained feeling of grief. I just wanted to go and stand at the top of a mountain and scream but I couldn't because I was locked in the house with two small children.
"Looking back, and I'm sorry this sounds so cheesy, but I think love literally got me through it. My husband and my kids and my family and knowing I had them, I just put everything into them. Everything I had into their happiness, into us all surviving lockdown. And that was it."
Family is obviously paramount, including her father and her sister back in the UK. At six, she lost her mother to breast cancer, although as she admits, at the time she was quite confused by it all. "For years I thought she'd died of appendicitis. I've got no idea why that was in my head, if someone had told me that, or if I just kind of... fabricated that story. Boobs came into it when I was probably mid-teens."
Now O'Porter is an ardent supporter of breast cancer and screening charities. "When you fill in family-history forms at the doctors and you go, 'My mum died of breast cancer, she was 36', suddenly the face completely changes. And you think, 'All right. OK. I'm a problem.' So, I was very aware from being a teenager that I was in danger. Really, it's only when I became a little bit older, especially when I became a mum myself, where I started to think. So I go for my mammogram every year and I get the ultrasound."
She is close to her dad, who lives in Scotland, where she's from, although she grew up in Guernsey. But like any emigrant who is away from family for long spells, she misses them fiercely and worries about being a disappointment.
"What's really hard about living here is the eight-hour time difference. My dad's in Scotland, my auntie and uncle are in Guernsey and my sister's in Bristol. I miss them so much. If I'm to speak to them I have to speak to them in the morning when I'm manic with the kids. And then if I get some childcare, I only have from 9am until 3pm every day to work, which is not enough time for the way that I write. For me to call my dad or auntie, because they go to bed at 1pm or 2pm [LA time], that's another two hours out of my work day by the time we've caught up properly.
"That's the thing that I found really difficult. I wish I could make dinner, put the kids to bed, and then spend all night on the phone to my family. But I haven't been able to do that. And so I just always feel like I've let my family down. I always feel like they think I'm shit because I don't call enough."
Ordinarily, the O'Porters would see family in the summer but LA was under a stay-at-home order until June, and as restrictions persist, they haven't been able to travel this year. "Usually Chris and I would come home and do a huge two-month trip every summer where we see everybody. And now I'm really feeling the burn of that not happening this year. I feel like everyone's probably like, 'Dawn never calls. And when we call her, she's dealing with the kids'. So that's been really difficult. And we really, really miss the fact we haven't been home."
Of course now family is in the UK and in Ireland. I suggest that we've adopted her now that she's married to a local. She's too self-effacing to respond, instead recalling the first time Chris took her home. "We landed in Dublin the first time and then drove down to Roscommon. I just remember it being so green. I can't believe I'm saying this - it feels like such a cliche. But it's so green and plush and dense and beautiful. And the hillsides are so spongy and welcome and gorgeous.
"My in-laws are just some of my favourite people in the world. I'm really lucky. We have our holidays in Ireland and not only do we have help - because my mother-in-law's literally the best human alive - but we party and we have fun and their attitude is really good. There's a lot of love and they're so supportive of Chris."
Their summer has been eventful as the Black Lives Matter movement shook the US, and LA in particular. Theirs was a particularly intense experience of the protests - and the federal response. "We had the National Guard outside our house for three weeks - a tank with armed men. Trying to explain it to the kids was quite weird; my kids don't even know what a soldier is, really.
"It was strange. Our house - outside our front door - became the epicentre of the riots on the night it all kicked off here. And they set fire to our trash cans. We were standing in our front garden and we could hear what was being reported on the news. And then, suddenly, they're literally on our doorstep.
"Chris and I passionately support the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris went out on loads of [protests]. But at the same time I was in a house with my sleeping children, and there was a fire outside, and we're kind of packing a bag, wondering if we need to run for it, while also feeling excited to be a part of it and supporting it. I suppose there was an equal measure of fear, but also going, 'Is this the moment the world will change?'
"It felt like a real 'power to the people' moment. I was really proud of California. I'm not talking about the riots and the looting, but I'm really proud of the protests and everyone who went out and made so much noise - and it was brave because it was a time when we weren't supposed to be doing that. Because it does matter so much."
Now the book is written, she is about to start writing her first film. She has given up Twitter, donating her account to Choose Love, and says she is ready to embark on her next phase, "spending my 40s writing scripts".
Whatever her successes to come, and I'd wager there are many, 2020 will be a year that won't leave her, or any of us, for some time to come.
"A lot of people in 2020 are dealing with grief, whether it's because of coronavirus or something else," she says. "There are people who haven't had a chance to say goodbye to someone they love. Anyone who's lost someone this year has been through something extraordinarily hard. And our experience of grief was unfair, and really, really difficult. I think when we will come out of this, there will be a sense of unity that wasn't there before."