Claire and Stephanie Calman talk family and writing at St Jude’s Proms
- Credit: Archant
The Hampstead Garden Suburb festival’s Proms at Home includes a Zoom talk from the sisters, who write fiction and non-fiction
The Calman sisters will be keeping it in the family when they appear together at the virtual Proms at St Jude’s festival on Sunday. (28th)
Stephanie is founder of the Bad Mothers Club, creator of the sit-com Dressing For Breakfast, and author of bestseller Confessions of a Bad Mother.
Claire writes novels, including Love is a Four Letter Word, and her fifth Growing Up For Beginners (Boldwood Books out this month).
Both are daughters of the late cartoonist Mel Calman, and their wide-ranging chat for Proms at Home on June 28 will take in families, their shared upbringing, and why they choose to address themes via fiction or non-fiction.
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Claire also happens to live locally, and her funny yet poignant exploration of love, loss and the struggle to grow up, features an intergenerational cast of neighbours you might well find in Henrietta Barnett’s ideal suburb.
Housewife Eleanor, 47, is in a gaslighting realationship with awful, domineering Roger, and turns to her clever, judgmental father Conrad for support.
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Andrew 35, booted out by his fed-up girlfriend, returns to live with his parents.
And backing onto their gardens lives chaotic 66-year-old artist Cecelia, who annoys her daughters by regaling them with her rackety love affairs and teenage strops.
All four are drawn together by long buried secrets and the pressing need to grow up.
“The novel is about taking responsibility for your own happiness but if I called it that no-one would want to read it,” says Claire, whose weekly Jewish Chronicle column The C-Word has been a “fantastic release valve for my anxieties during lockdown.”
“As a writer a lot of how I make sense of the world is putting my thoughts down on paper, it’s better than letting them spin around your head.”
The columns have also been a welcome distraction from writing her next novel “a sort of comic Rebecca in which the first wife looms large”.
“But I feel so unfunny at the moment,” she confesses.
“I am actually a terrible pessimist but as a writer I remake myself as a different person. I couldn’t write a dystopia, I feel I have a responsibility to make readers feel a tiny bit hopeful.”
That’s why leaving her characters in a bad place is “unbearable”.
Poor Eleanor may be conflict-avoidant but will have to get away from Roger’s psychological bullying.
“It’s often asked of domestic abuse victims ‘why didn’t they just run away?’
Roger isn’t that bad, but I get the dynamic of why someone can’t see how unhappy they are while they are in it, and why Eleanor feels the familiar is safe even if it’s awful. At some level women like that feel that’s all they deserve. But there’s no way I could leave Eleanor in it. I care too much about my characters to leave them in an awful place. I couldn’t live with that in my head.”
Meanwhile Andrew slides back easily into the groove of familiarity with his parents - “it’s unhealthy it puts you back in the role of the child,” and Conrad proves that desire doesn’t magically switch off in your 70s.
“He’s still a sexual being, at least in his head, but he’s one of these middle class educated men who can talk about anything, but don’t have the emotional vocabulary to say ‘I Love You’.”
If Cecilia is based on anyone it is Calman’s late mother an “incredibly talented artist who could turn her hand to anything but who fostered a self-conscious bohemian eccentricity.”
Calman is big on raising children to be self-reliant. Her mother, who split from Mel Calman when she was just two, insisted she did the washing up aged six.
“It sounds brutal but it was good for me.”
As for the challenge of weaving together these disparate lives, she says “the image that I couldn’t lodge from my head was of plaited coloured ribbons”.
Such challenging plotting has the benefit of regulating a world that feels out of control, she says.
“We read to make sense of a world that is messy, difficult, challenging and amazing. That’s what fiction is, about engaging you so you feel by the last page, ‘yes of course that’s the end’.”