Love, Loss and Letting Go
Dedication and drive have long fuelled author Clare Mackintosh’s journey through policing, writing and motherhood, along with the passion which makes her such an irrepressible personality.
Now celebrating the launch of her first novel, I Let You Go, the Cotswold Life columnist and creator of ChipLitFest can look back on a string of accomplishments including 12 years in the Police Force as, variously, Chippy Town Sergeant, Oxfordshire Detective, Inspector and Public Order Commander – all jobs she relished.
It was the trauma of losing a child to meningitis, however, which forced her to see life in an entirely new way, adding another layer of emotional depth to everything she thought, felt and tackled.
“The experience taught me more about compassion, loss, grief and love than any number of years in the police force”, Clare told ECN in our interview. “It is something that defines everything I do and everything I am – there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about my son, or about how life could have been different. When grieving is as natural to you as breathing it underpins your whole life, and my writing has greater emotional depth as a result, whether I’m writing about loss or about anything else.”
Clare’s debut psychological thriller, I Let You Go, was published last month by Sphere, and centres on a bereaved mother haunted by a tragic and life-changing accident. Her next book – “I’ve written the first draft and am in the middle of revisions”- deals with a mother accused of harming her baby, and is due for release in November 2015.
The many faces of motherhood are central to Clare’s life. Through her work as feature writer and columnist, she explores its challenges, joys, irritations, sadness and humour.
Other favourite subjects include family life, gender roles, society’s expectations and community living, with her work appearing in The Guardian, Sainsbury’s Magazine and The Green Parent. She also writes as columnist for Cotswold Life.
”Motherhood changes everyone”, Clare says. “It brings your emotions to the fore, and too often that’s seen as a bad thing. Yes, you might suddenly find you’re a bit of a cry-baby, but the flipside of that is the heightened empathy, the extraordinary ability to understand what makes people tick. For a writer, that’s gold. It wasn’t just motherhood that changed me, of course, it was losing a child.”
Clare and husband Rob found themselves in the extraordinary position of having two sets of twins in 15 months.
Having struggled to start a family, Clare had IVF and fell pregnant with twin boys. The babies were born three months early, and shortly afterwards Alex contracted meningitis. He died when he and his brother were five weeks old. Four months after remaining twin Josh came home from hospital, Clare fell naturally pregnant with twin girls.
“My twin boys were born twelve weeks early, at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford”, Clare says. “They did brilliantly, and we were looking forward to them coming home, but when they were three weeks old Alex contracted meningitis. For a while we thought he would pull through, but then he suffered a major brain bleed and we were told he would be permanently damaged, unable to ever move, walk or swallow independently. We were asked to make a decision about his future. It’s a horrific choice to make, but we chose to remove intensive care, and Alex died in our arms when he was five weeks old.”
Now Josh is 8, and his sisters Evie and Georgie are 7 years old. All are happy, healthy and thoroughly enjoying life in their Chippy home and community.
The Thin Blue Line
There is nothing more authentic, perhaps, than walking the beat and watching human nature play out before your eyes.
Quickly climbing the career ladder, Clare was promoted from a two-year stint in Oxford CID to the role of Town Sergeant at Chipping Norton, “one of the best jobs I’ve ever had”. Yet her biggest regret is not spending more time as a detective. “I wish now I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get promoted.”
“I spent a total of 12 years in the police and thoroughly enjoyed about 11 of them!” she says. “I joined the police to make a difference, and I hope that – in a very small way – I did. To a few people, at least.”
Shifting to the rank of Inspector, Clare looked after custody in Banbury before moving to oversee policing operations in Oxfordshire.
“It was there that I trained as a public order commander; a role that I really loved. Public order combines two challenges I enjoy: strategic thinking and planning in advance of a job; and fast-time decision-making as the event unfolds. It was stressful, but exciting and interesting, and a huge contrast to time spent at home with three under twos!”
Clare started writing blogs and columns surreptitiously for a couple of years – using the pseudonym Emily Carlisle – before finally leaving the force in 2013.
“My writing wasn’t a ‘secret’ – I just didn’t shout about it!” she says. “I wrote under a pseudonym not because I was ashamed of what I was doing, but because I didn’t want to cause problems for Thames Valley Police. As soon as I left the police I began writing under my own name.”
A whole new chapter then began for the budding author, making the leap from law enforcement to literature; though some still refer to her, even today, as ‘Emily’.
And the ability to identify so keenly with the fears and feelings of others, which served Clare well in the Police force, now powers her novel, column, blog and feature writing.
“A good police officer has high levels of empathy: with victims, witnesses and criminals” Clare says. “Writers need the same, otherwise they can’t create credible characters.”
This Country Life
There is nothing sleepy about Clare’s notion of country life. Her creation of Chipping Norton’s now famous Literary Festival attests to that, as does her active involvement in the community.
“I suggested the idea of ChipLitFest to members of a writing group I was involved in for a while, and we started work on it straight away”, Clare says. “I had a very clear vision of the sort of festival I wanted to create: something community-lead, with big name authors in the heart of Chippy. 2015 will be my final year as Director, but ChipLitFest is in a great place to grow from strength to strength.”
Now into its fourth year, the festival boasts a regular line-up of prominent authors, and proudly utilises a host of local venues including The Theatre, Jaffe & Neale book shop, parish rooms, pubs and library.
Clare grew up in Buckinghamshire and moved to Bicester soon after meeting Rob, her husband. The couple moved to Chipping Norton in 2004 and have no plans to leave.
“I am definitely a country person, although I like to breathe in a bit of city life from time to time”, Clare says. “I lived in Paris for a couple of years and loved the feeling of being somewhere that never slept. I have a Springer Spaniel, Maddie, so spend lots of time outdoors, regardless of the weather. There are lots of things for my children to do in the area, and as they get older it’s lovely to see them calling for friends in the street where we live.”
Clare has no plans to slow down either. “Books three and four are dancing around in my head, desperate to get on the page, so that should keep me busy for a while.”
Besides, writing is everything in her world. “If I suddenly found I couldn’t write, I’d be devastated. It’s who I am”, she insists.
When asked if she sees a positive future for the young, her answer was definite.
“Today’s children are still far too divided into the haves and the have nots. Those of us with the former need to teach them to help the latter.”
Clare can be contacted on:
I Let You Go is available in ebook from Sphere, and due for paperback release in April 2015. Sign up to Clare’s blog for regular updates.