'All those years of pain and everything I went through with trying to have a child, and then trying to be a working mum ... it is all funnelled into this book'
Anna Hope found inspiration for her acclaimed new novel, Expectation, in her own experiences of love, loss and the struggle to become a mother, writes Julia Molony
The first clue about the kind of woman author Anna Hope is, was revealed by her choice of place to meet. Walking into the October Gallery in Bloomsbury is like stumbling into a secret world. Behind the simple doorway is a Byzantine space crammed with sights to delight the eyes.
Hope leads me into a gorgeous courtyard, filled with tropical plants and jewel-coloured blooms.
On the wall, she points out a vast black and white photograph of a magnificent wooden tall ship. She once sailed the oceans as part of its crew. It was, she explains, constructed in the late 1970s as an art piece, and has since been carrying a crew of artists and performers to remote locations as a sort of ocean-going-exhibit-cum-outreach-project.
Hope is, it seems, a collector of experiences. A magpie picking through life in search of not just what glitters but for those things that lend it weight and value. She spent her early life in the English countryside, her adolescence at the centre of the Manchester rave scene.
She went to Oxford and then on to Rada. During her late 20s and early 30s she was a struggling actress, working in cafes and life-modelling to pay her rent.
She met her husband, who is an academic from Leicester, while trekking through the Mexican jungle.
"We went for a date. And he kind of disappeared," she says. "And then I bumped into him at Glastonbury Festival three months later."
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As she approached her mid-30s hers was, by most standards, a life richly lived. And yet, at the age when convention demands material evidence that one has acquired adult status, she found herself questioning what it all amounted to.
She had roles in Doctor Who and Coronation Street, but had still to make her mark as a performer. "Getting towards my mid-30s and not having a decent job, or a home, or a child, suddenly it was like, my desire for those things really kind of ambushed me," she admits.
"I've lived quite an unconventional life and I didn't think that those things were that important to me but then I got to 34, 35 - trying to become a mother and failing (Hope suffered from recurrent miscarriage) and having tried to become an actor and I felt like I was failing and suddenly, it was like, oh. And there's not that much time."
This watershed in women's lives is the subject she explores in her new book, Expectation. Through it, she examines the lives of three close friends - Cate, Hanna and Lisse.
It begins in the early, uncomplicated time during their early 20s when their friendship first flourishes, and follows them over the next two decades, examining how the respective struggles they all encounter as they get into their 30s (infertility, career setbacks, the disorientating experience of new motherhood) gnarl, twist and strain those precious, cherished ties that bind them.
"You feel the consequence of your actions in a way that you just don't in your 20s," she says of that particular phase of life for women, when the choices we make suddenly feel like crossing a Rubicon.
"A friend would be like, oh, you know, we just bought a house in x, y, z and I'm pregnant or pregnant with my second, and suddenly it was like, how did this shift so radically?"
The tagline of her book, 'What happened to the women we were supposed to become?', was sparked by Hope's own time spent turning around that question.
"Who was the woman I was supposed to become? And who made her up, and how forged in privilege were the assumptions about who I would be?"
She acknowledges that the dilemmas she found herself facing at the time were "really high-class problems. I could eat. I was paying my rent. But I didn't expect to feel the complexity of emotions that I felt, particularly I have to say, around fertility. When you have been trying to have a child for years and friends get pregnant really easily, the kind of searing pain and joy of that is unlike anything else".
Expectation is not an autobiographical novel per se, but Hope is clear that Cate, Hanna and Lisse represent "three aspects of myself".
"That is not to downplay the craft that is involved in making that psychic matter into these fictional characters because it's a fiction," she says with a touch of defiance.
She's conscious women writers who mine their personal lives for inspiration are more likely to be criticised for that than their male counterparts.
Yet like Lisse, Hope knows what it's like to reach your late 30s as an actress still just missing that big break. Like Hannah, she knows the heartbreak of desperately wanting a baby but feeling it's out of reach.
In the book Hannah becomes increasingly desperate as she goes through several rounds of IVF without success.
For Hope herself, the issue wasn't conceiving, it was sustaining a pregnancy. It was when she was having her fifth miscarriage that a kind nurse told her, "you may be nearly 40 but this isn't normal. Go and get this properly checked out".
"And thank God for her," she says.
She went to a specialist clinic where the problem was deemed to be a blood-clotting disorder with a "heartbreakingly simple" solution.
After being prescribed blood-thinners she successfully carried a pregnancy to term and her daughter, Bridie, turned three this year.
So she's been on both sides of the chasm that Hannah and new mother Cate find themselves trying to reach across; Hannah drowns in an ocean of longing for what came so easily to her friend, while Cate is exhausted, resentful and lost as she feels her pre-motherhood identity slip away.
"I have been both," says Hope. "I think at times I was really disappointed by my incapacity to really be there for my friends because... when it's all that you feel that you want. I couldn't really be there for what they were feeling at that time.
"And yet having been a new mum, my God, you need your friends more than any time in your life. I talk about everything with my female friends. Everything.
"And yet at a certain point I couldn't. And that's really tough.
"But at the same time you have to protect yourself. I'm so grateful, on so many levels, that I'm through that and definitely getting to my 40s things feel that they've shifted again."
The book is also an interrogation of Hope's changing relationship to feminism - how her engagement with it has shifted with time.
"Coming of age in the 1990s it just felt like a lot of those battles had been won and we just had to go out there and make a success of ourselves," she says.
"But actually we were still at the beginning of this revolution. Did we take our eyes off the ball? I certainly got to a point in my mid-30s when I was like, Oh God."
In the book, there's a dispiriting description of a commercial casting that Lisse attends, "that is almost word for word from my life", says Hope.
"I think I was about 32. All my acting roles had dried up and I went to this commercial casting and literally was being told that I needed to flirt more with a plate of chocolate cookies to get the job.
"The set up was that I was at a PTA meeting and I couldn't concentrate on what the teacher was saying because of the cookies.
"And I thought, 'okay, I'll flirt more' because I need to pay my rent and I came home from that casting and I was like, 'Oh my God. What happened? And it wasn't really about calling out the structural sexism of the acting industry, although that's happening now.
"It was more like, what happened to my life? How did I find myself here?"
It was during these same roller coaster years that Hope discovered her talent as a writer. She'd grown up in a bookish family and her love of literature was forged at an early age.
Her dad, a university professor, is, she says "an amazing reader. He's much more widely read than me".
She adds: "I had a period when I didn't go to school. I was ill with post-viral fatigue from sort of 13 to 16. Which was major. My dad would just throw books at me - read Henry James, read Dostoevsky. Part of me was just doing it because I wanted to say that I'd read them, but I think it was also really formative.
"When I finally did go back to school I had this whole hinterland - I'd sort of lived in books. Which was interesting because then that collided with teenage life."
She was 32 when she took a creative writing class. "I wrote a tiny short story in the class and it was like this bolt of electricity.
"There's a before and after this moment. It was really that strong."
She went on to study for a Masters in creative writing and wrote a novel that wasn't published.
She adds: "But was very nearly published, so that got me my agent. And then I wrote my first novel which kind of went to auction and it was this incredible thing of my fortunes just changing. I was 37."
Her first two novels, both historical fiction, were critical and commercial successes. Last year she was awarded the Elle magazine Grand Prix de lectrices in France for her novel The Ballroom.
"More and more I recognise that writing is - I don't write for therapy, but it's a container where I can meet myself in a way that is not sort of - it's just a really powerful container for me. And never have I felt that more than with this novel."
Much of Expectation was written in the year after she gave birth to her daughter.
"She was five months old when I started writing," she says. "All of that pain and of those years and everything I went through and also the difficulties of struggling with a new baby and trying to be a working mum - it was all being funnelled into this book."
At the beginning she was buffered from the isolation of new motherhood.
"My husband had taken shared parental leave and we were living in Snowdonia. We'd moved to London from Snowdonia.
"He loves it there. I love it there. The government had just brought out this thing that fathers could take nine months off so he took nine months off. So I had that and then he went back to work full-time when we moved back to Sussex and it was like, bam. How do you do this?"
Suddenly she felt herself floundering.
"Those edges that I just didn't know I had," she admits.
"And then you are up against them every day. I mean I was so sleep-deprived."
She was waking up to 12 times a night.
"And I would just have a coffee or two coffees and go down into the little room and write.
"And it did flow. For the first year and a half.
"The last year of it was much, much harder. And I think it was partly because I really wanted to say goodbye to writing about that period of my life which was so full of grief and loss.
"The final year of editing was almost like writing around a wound.
"The editing of the book really needed to be done but I sort of wanted to say goodbye to that period of my life because I had my little girl and so I was kind of glad to finish it and send it out into the world."
- Expectation, published by Transworld, is out now, priced £12.99