Life, the universe and a mother’s past

Anna Stothard talks about a shock discovery that led to the writing of her new book

Anna Stothard is 27 and has already written two books. The most recent, The Pink Hotel, is the story of a teenager’s cross-Atlantic adventure to trace the romantic past of her dead mother Lily.

The story of the nameless 17-year-old protagonist in the book began with Stothard’s real life delve into the past of her own mother, novelist Sally Emerson.

“The idea came from when I was in my mum’s bedroom once when I was 15, probably rooting around her stuff,” says Stothard. “I found a box of letters.”

The letters turned out to be from acclaimed author Douglas Adams, who Emerson had a relationship with before she conceived Stothard and who, as a reader, her daughter adored.

“There were all these amazing letters from this man I’d idolised all my life and had no idea she had had a relationship with,” says Stothard, who is also the daughter of former Times editor Peter Stothard.

“In that very teenage way I became obsessed with Douglas Adams. Obviously the whole plot of the book is fictional, I never tried to seduce my mother’s lovers, but at the same time it made me think: what would happen if I had?”

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Stothard’s imagination was further fuelled by her own experiences growing up as the product of a successful literary and media partnership.

“I often used to go to parties with my dad and because I look quite like mum, I would get a strange reaction from men who she’d not necessarily had a relationship with, but who knew her when she was my age and would look at me as if they were reminded of her,” says Stothard who went to South Hampstead High School before studying English Literature at Oxford. “I would get this strange jolt of intimacy when I didn’t know them at all.”

Stothard’s mother wasn’t aware her daughter had found the letters that sparked her imagination until four years after it had happened.

“She didn’t know I found the letters until Douglas died, at which point she was really really upset,” says Stothard. Although Emerson herself has stayed away from talking about the love affair, she is OK with her daughter’s public exploration of it.

“She has been great about it because it is a bit of an ask, people don’t tend to grasp the idea that there is a nucleus of truth in the story, but then the rest is fictional,” says Stothard. “People ask her, is Lily you? How messed up is your relationship? She knows that she couldn’t be less like Lily.”

Although the hedonistic mother character in The Pink Hotel is nothing like Emerson, the daughter character in the book is closer to Stothard than she first imagined.

“In retrospect, a lot of the thoughts of the girl and some of the obsessions and quirks of her character, not being able to sleep in the same bed as boys and having panic attacks, they are very much my own,” says Stothard. “Getting it out there, it did feel quite cathartic.”

The book, partially set in Swiss Cottage, near where Stothard grew up, is a follow-up to Isabel And Rocco, a twisted tale about incest, which was published when Stothard was at university. She admits that her early beginnings in literature were influenced by her home life.

“The fact that mum was always in her room writing a novel, at 15 it occurred to me, why not try it? It seems to be what people do,” she says “I wrote two very worrying novellas, which my dad sweetly has kept. They must be exactly what you don’t want your 15-year-old daughter to write – they’re really quite disturbing. One of them is called Virgin Megastore– and it isn’t about the CD shop.”

In contrast to the personal nature of her writing, the writing process for Stothard is a very private affair.

“I can’t write anywhere where I might bump into people I know as I’m very easily distracted by people I have an emotional connection with. I write well in cafes, but if I walk in one day and they know what I’m ordering, I will stop going to that place immediately.

“It’s quite annoying really. You just find a vibe and then they get all intimate on you and you have to move on,” she says.

Stothard is determined the revelations surrounding The Pink Hotel won’t come back to haunt her. “I don’t know whether I will continue down such a personal route in my writing, but I don’t think I’ll look back and think I revealed too much, because I think you just have to.”

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard is published by Alma Books. Price �11.99.