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Original Essays

The Story of Me

by Carole Cadwalladr
  1. The Family Tree
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Family Tree

    Carole Cadwalladr
    "The ease with which British journalist Cadwalladr spins three generational tales in her debut is outdone only by the grace and wit with which she delivers each one." Publishers Weekly, starred review
The other day I had to write a short biog for the advertising people at the newspaper where I'm currently working. I'm editing a travel supplement for them so, without thinking, I wrote this:

"Carole Cadwalladr has worked as a tour guide to American schoolchildren in Europe, a holiday rep in Turkey, a guide-book writer in Prague, Lebanon and the former USSR, and latterly as a travel writer for the Daily Telegraph. She has just written her first novel, The Family Tree."

I didn't think anything of it until later when a friend, James, saw it printed out and sitting by the side of my desk. "Gosh," he said, reading it through. "You make it sound as if you planned it like that."

"What do you mean?" I said, bristling slightly, although, in truth, I already knew what he meant. Of course, it wasn't planned. There was no foresight. My life choices, like most people's life choices, have been a matter of half-chance, half-luck; half-skill, half-incompetence. Life, on the whole, isn't like fiction. It's only in hindsight that you can make these pseudo-patterns; create a narrative in which you are the main protagonist; pretend that it was all destined to happen the way that it happened.

It's something that, in writing The Family Tree, I've been forced to think about. The question of memory and how you mould the facts of your past to fit the facts of your present is a game that all the characters play. Rebecca Monroe, my main character, and her sister, Tiffany, remember the same incidents from their childhood but they remember them differently; they draw different conclusions; from the stories they tell, they create different selves. Later, Alicia, their grandmother, develops Alzheimer's. She is steadily losing her memory, and with it, her sense of who she is; of how she became her. And in her case, her memories aren't even memories — only stories she's told herself; stories that have solidified into fact.

In my early twenties, all I wanted to do was travel, to see the world, to put off getting a proper job, to experience life. "Carole Cadwalladr has worked as a tour guide...a holiday rep...a guidebook writer." Well, it's true I did. But to state as much on a CV, is pure opportunism on my part. My life does not conform to the principles of narrative and to try and create some sort of logical progression from tour guide to novelist is as fraudulent as it gets. There was no logic. No progression. I stumbled from one job to another and while I was wearing a polyester uniform and ushering holidaymakers on to their transfer buses, I never once dreamed that in fifteen years' time, I'd yoke this into service as part of my life-story; the story of who I am. The truth is that I went to work as a holiday rep in Turkey because I fancied a summer by the sea; and, oh yes, I wanted a tan.

In The Family Tree, Rebecca is married to Alistair, a scientist; he calls this process "retrofitting." Evolutionists do it all the time. It's where you know the end result, and work backwards to fit the theory to the facts. When ornithologists made the discovery that hedge-sparrows aren't monogamous, as previously thought, they concluded that this is because the female hedge-sparrow tries to maximise the chances of her reproductive success. The thing about retrofitting is that it makes the facts make sense. And it might be true. But then again, it might not.

Rebecca, who's writing a PhD on popular culture, has a different example. She reads celebrity magazines although she says she has become "bored with their stories of success, of how they'd always known that they would make it, of how they'd worked so hard, and been so talented." She'd prefer to read, "the stories of the ones who didn't make it, the ones who could have made it but ended up stacking the shelves in Safeway instead."

It's now three years since I left my secure staff job in journalism to write a novel. And now, that the novel has been published, is out there in the bookshops, exists as a material object between covers with my name on it, this almost has the heft of historic inevitability. When in fact, it was anything but. I had no idea if I could write a novel. And even if I did manage to write a novel, whether anyone would publish it. I wrote for a whole year before I showed it to anybody. I lived off my dwindling savings. I abandoned it three times, worried at it, rewrote it, changed it from first to third person and back to first person, re-drafted, scrapped one plot-line, wrote another... and I was always, half-, three-quarters-aware that I was most likely deluding myself. But now that it's finished, and published, I could sit at my lap-top and type, "I always knew I was going to be a writer." And you'd have no choice but to believe me. Although it's a lie, or at least, unprovable. The fact of the matter is that there's only a fine line between me-the-novelist and me-the-person-who-always-thought-they-were-going-to-be-a-novelist -but-never-actually-was. And that line, that thin, wavery, uncertain line, is better known as luck.

It is just possible that there could be a tour guide-to-novelist connection; just not one I was aware of. An interviewer (my terrifying first) asked me recently: "Did you deliberately set out to write an anti-travel novel?" "What do you mean?" I said. "Well, every time, the Monroes try to go away, they're thwarted. They have to abandon their caravan holiday; they're forced to cancel their trip to Spain. You trap them."

Maybe she's right. Maybe it is an anti-travel book. Although it never occurred to me when writing it. But maybe that's the point. When you travel, you have an illusion of free will. Should you go to Rome or Venice? Take the left road or the right? And, in The Family Tree, whether there is such a thing as free will, or whether you're trapped in the person you become as a result of your upbringing, or your genes, or a combination of both, is something that Rebecca is forced to ponder. Her Aunty Suzanne, a 1970s women's libber, used to claim that "Biology Is Not Destiny," but of course it is, for most of us, if not all, and especially for Rebecca. Her mother's illness is strongly inheritable. In the age of the genome, the idea that character is fate has been subtly updated. Our character is just one part of us that's been formed by our genes, something in which we had no choice, nor any means of escape. And this, too, is luck.

Life isn't much like fiction. It doesn't have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or at least it does, but you never know where you are in the story. I can retrofit the facts of my past to make my life make sense ("tour-guide?guide-book writer?novelist"); but what comes next? Will I have to change my story? Come up with a different set of facts to account for my present? Re-write my mini-biog? In The Family Tree, I controlled my characters — made them happy, made them sad; I split up Alistair and Rebecca and sent them on their separate ways; I took away Alicia's memories; and then I killed her. But me? I'm in my 30s, single, not quite sure what or where to be next. I suspect that there will be no logical progression; that my next life-choice will be the same as my last: half-chance, half-luck; half-skill, half-incompetence. The Family Tree is finished now. Alistair and Rebecca's fate has been decided. But I'm still somewhere in the middle of my story. And I'm dying to know how it all turns out. spacer

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