My first memory is of my mother having serious surgery. I would be about three or four at the time, and because my father was an alcoholic with many problems, including violence, I was sent to stay with a friend of my mother’s while she recovered. Our home was a chaotic house, but here things were totally different. Every night, when she put me to bed, she gave me a cherry ice-cream soda and read me a story. There were no books or storytelling in our house.
Books were an escape from my childhood. My father drove me to them. Reading was an escape from that house and an escape from that life. Books showed me that there were other ways to live. When you’re a kid, you think that the way of your family is the way all families are. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I realised that I associated books with stability and peace – all the right things in life.
My father became destitute. My wife and I supported him for 14 years and that experience was very eye-opening to me. I’d spent a long time thinking that my father was how he was because of me. That it was my fault. But when I took over as an adult, he became the child, essentially. He ended up in a psychiatric ward twice later in life, and he was ultimately diagnosed as sociopathic. Eye-opening. And liberating.
Being a teacher shaped my politics. I found that I liked teaching, and I liked working with children, but I hated the bureaucracy of education. I’ve always been a bit of a weird mix politically – liberal on civil rights and conservative on economics and whatnot. But I could never understand where the money was going. It wasn’t going to support the teachers because I had to pay out of my own pocket to get paperbacks for the kids. One day I saw a former school executive of the district I worked in being arrested for embezzlement.
I’ve always paid my taxes, but don’t expect much will be done with them. If you want to help people, you do it directly.
Life is one long suspense novel. Suspense is the constant of literary fiction. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us tomorrow, two hours from now, a week from now. I think I learned that from being a kid and never knowing if we would have a roof above our heads, or what my father would do when he came home drunk.
I would never have made it as a writer without my wife’s support. She said: “Look, you’re selling short stories and you’ve sold a couple of paperback novels. You’re not making a living at it, but I’ll support you for five years, and if you can’t make it in those five years, you’ll never make it.” I tried to negotiate her up to seven, but she has the Sicilian blood. She wins every negotiation.
The Other Emily is published on 23 March by Thomas & Mercer at £20.78