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3 March 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 10:56am

Why I’m no longer worried about family reading the sex scenes in my novel

I had visions of book burnings and scarlet letters, but then I remembered: parents are adults, too...

By Megan Nolan

My debut novel will be published this week, a day I thought would never come in the nearly four years I have been living and working with it. After countless versions and redrafts and helpful notes left to myself in margins, reading “PUT SOMETHING INTERESTING/GOOD IN HERE”, I have finally ceded control over it. Now, I must accept new relationships will take place between the book and its audience, a different one for each reader. By this stage a large part of me is, naturally, sick of the thing, and the thought of ever reading it again feels like a subtle form of torture. There is, though, another part of me that remains as protective over and precious about it as a parent with a child.

Writing a book has always been more or less the only item on my bucket list. I’ve been so grateful over the years for the relief of an active reading life, which meant contributing to someone else’s felt like the best thing I could hope to achieve. But for a long time I didn’t seriously believe I would be published. My cynicism about my chances of being able to do the only thing I ever wanted to simply makes my novel’s existence seem all the more miraculous. It was patiently ushered through crises of self-doubt and incompetence by a network of friends, editors and an outstanding agent.

Our collective effort in getting here makes me defensive. I’m ready and eager for the world to interact with the book, but I’m wary, too. Sometimes when I read a negative comment or review online, I spend the evening huddled up with it on the couch, leafing through to find the parts I still think are good in order to reassure myself, holding the object close to me and feeling bolstered by its weight.

But the main worry, for me, wasn’t the potential for scornful strangers to take against what I’ve written. Instead, it was the idea of subjecting my parents, in particular, and beyond them the wider family and community in my hometown, to a somewhat relentless text. Part of what I was trying to achieve with the book was an atmosphere of inescapable intensity, the reader trapped in the same airless dynamic as the narrator is in her relationship.

The experience of writing this way was sometimes distressing. At one point, I asked a writer friend whether it was a good or bad sign that I was continuously crying as I typed. There were days when I came away from the desk feeling physically nauseated. It has been hard not to think of these moments when people I know and love are excitedly getting ready to read it.

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[see also: The Madonna-whore complex is still alive in straight men, denying women basic humanity]

And, of course, I would be lying if I claimed to be unconcerned with the more basic embarrassment of having written a character who has quite a lot of sex, much of it ambivalent or actively unpleasant.

In a way, I was right to be fearful. Both of my parents found reading the book unsettling and overwhelming. I know this because they told me so, as well as telling me how good they thought it was and how proud they are. It hurt to hear it, although I knew it was coming. In this part of my life, I had hoped not to cause my parents too much more distress or hardship, and even inflicting this strange, semi-abstracted kind has felt awful.

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Aside from my parents, there are their old friends, and the schoolmates I haven’t seen for 15 years, and the neighbours who have been so eager to order copies and provide me with an incredibly touching wave of support. When my dad mentioned recently that he’d given a copy to my grandmother, I was horrified – dismayed at the thought of it being read not just by her, but by the wider community of extended family and friends.

As visions of book burnings and scarlet letters flooded my mind, my dad interrupted me, a little impatient with my worrying: “Megan, they are adults!” I started to feel bad about my agonising, which, when I thought about it, was probably a tad patronising and self-absorbed. I had been thinking about these people exclusively in terms of their relationships to me, as aunts and godparents and well-wishers, and not as real human beings with full lives and the ability to contextualise.

It’s always odd when you are forced to confront that family members have their own autonomous existences and histories which have no relation to you. It can be disturbing, especially before you’ve begun to fully inhabit your own adulthood. I remember, as a child, hearing my mother discuss a trip to Australia that some friends of hers were taking and which she had considered joining. I was shocked that she would be able to do such a thing, that it would be legal for her to go away for several weeks or longer and have an experience separately from me.

Years later, when I was in my early twenties, I was crying in her living room about some relationship or other, and she offered a relevant anecdote from her first marriage when she lived in Berlin. The story stopped me cold: the combination of a foreign land, a marriage that pre-dated me entirely, and a sudden insight into what my mother had been like at my age. She could see my surprise and that the anecdote had moved me, and was moved herself by this. “Yes,” she said, “I’m a woman, too.”

It may be uncomfortable, but these moments when our roles as mother, father, daughter, uncle, aunt are transgressed in either direction can be powerful and revelatory. I didn’t lose any part of my mother by learning more about the woman she is outside of that role; I only gained a more expansive way to know her. I hope the same will be true of those close to me who read my book.

[see also: How Vanessa Springora’s Consent tries to transcend the #MeToo moment it created]

This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus