Tiah Beautement’s This Day has been described as “exquisitely written” and has met with critical acclaim for its honest, nuanced portrayal of depression. A subtle, lyrical, and deeply emotional chronicle of an ordinary couple trying to survive in the wake of devastating tragedy, This Day explores the depths of grief as well as the enduring triumphs of love and friendship, while not giving any easy answers. We spoke to Tiah Beautement about narrative risk, wabi sabi, and the difficulties of navigating the vast and nebulous world of emotion.
In a book that is so hugely interior, and deals with relatively ordinary but highly personal interactions over the course of a single day, how did you set about to maintain the narrative tension?
I am fascinated by the tendency to trivialise the everyday aspects of living, as if these matters have little importance. Flipping on a light switch, for example, is taken for granted until Eskom begins load-shedding. There are many stories that hail people attempting to accomplish extraordinary feats such as climbing Everest and exploring the South Pole. But for many, getting through a single day requires an enormous amount of effort, starting with trying to get out of bed. Small things can, for some, be hugely significant accomplishments.
What was the impulse that sparked this novel?
This should be an easy question to answer, but it isn’t. I originally set out a story based on a real event that occurred in Mossel Bay. I imagined a woman writing on the beach, happening upon the event, and unthinkingly raising her camera and photographing it – thus, unintentionally getting caught up in the controversy.
But as I gathered the research, my life changed and I no longer had any desire to write the tale. I was, however, still intrigued by this woman getting up in the early hours to write in the sand. Why was she there? Who was she writing to? As I fleshed out these questions, I began to see how the everyday was a challenge for her every day. But she kept trying. I rather enjoyed having somebody to cheer for, even if her life is not one I envy.
Your characters are all different, and very believable. How did they emerge in your mind? Did the book start off with a character, or were the characters secondary to serving the story or message you wanted to get across?
When I was around two years old I had an imaginary friend name Jesse. I talked to her. I would occasionally insist my parents set a place for her at the table (you can tell I was the first of four, as they still had time to indulge these whims before the other three came along). People, apparently, are supposed to grow out of their imaginary friend stage and I didn’t. But my husband is less indulgent than my parents were back then. He would not be amused to find place settings at the table for people he can’t see. Nor will he have a braai for guests he can’t speak to. Which may make him unsporting, but there we are. I married him of my own free will.
Anyway, I now stick these people into stories.
You tackle a problem from a perspective that is often silenced or ignored – that of the caregiver. How did you enter into and strive to understand both the perspective of a depressive and that of a caregiver?
I find the very complicated dynamics of relationships intriguing. I have found, however, that this isn’t a topic that many wish to discuss in general conversation. Gossip, sure. But the rest, not so much. So I play around with ideas and observations in my writing. A much more interesting way to pass the time than, say, photocopying for seven and half hours straight. Mind you, that job paid me more than I get for writing. But that’s about the only upside to such employment. That, and being able to afford to eat. I do like to eat.
This book takes a risk narratively – taking place over the course of only a single day, and with its narrative thrust rooted in emotional journeying — how did you decide to tackle the story in this way? What about the story made you willing to take that risk?
This question makes me sound rather brave. ‘She risked it all!’ Ah, if only it were so, then I could be amazing and my children would think I was fabulous. Er…they just want to know what I’m making for dinner…
I’m afraid the very unflattering truth is that there wasn’t a single soul waiting for me to write this book. The world would not have wept if I had never finished it. This is true for many people in a variety of undertakings. The world will spin on whether you run that race or not, so you need to ask yourself why you are putting yourself through it.
Thus, there was no risk. The book was written for me. A new me, that was adjusting to the concept of chronic health problems – there is no cure. I manage my health not to get better – because there is no better, as in ‘fixed it’. Yes, there are days that are better than others. Still not the same as being fixed.
I wrote a story about people who had more on their plate than I. I watched Ella to see why she keeps going. Nothing Ella does can “cure” what is wrong. No amount of science or positivity can put it right. For the rest of her life she will get up and what she wants most is gone. Always. But she still gets up and makes the choice to live. To have written a story longer than a day would have implied that there is some solution to her problem. There isn’t one. The results of the tragedy are something she must learn to live with – each day. A day is a day is a day.
I suppose you could say I wrote the book to teach myself a lesson.
There is a great appreciation and attention in the book, details that are both painstaking but do not drag down the flow of the book. There is a great awareness of small things, the flawedness and transience of things. Like the Japanese concept of wabi sabi [world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection]. Is this something you had in mind from the beginning, or did it emerge from the writing of the book?
Wabi sabi – that is a rather elegant way to put it.
The story is written inside Ella’s head. I avoided writing true stream of consciousness because it can be rather trying. Nonetheless, the reader is stuck inside Ella’s brain while her ideas bounce around. She is a photographer and, like a writer, pays attention to details. Also, her life has been shrinking which brings significance to the easily overlooked. Thus, the awareness not only worked with the storyline, but is a reflection of Ella.
While I don’t know much about wabi sabi, from what I understand the acknowledgement of the entire experience – flaws and all – is very much present. Ella still places value on living without pretending she is happy. Her decision to keep going is sincere and gives her experience an authenticity. She doesn’t cheapen her experiences by trying to spin them into something they are not. I could be wrong, of course, but it does seem that the more people are pushed to “be happy” the less they really are happy. The suppression of emotions in the realm of sadness and pain has devalued what is left of the emotional spectrum.
Which writers and influences did you draw on in the writing of This Day?
Oh boy, I don’t think I stopped drawing from others until the publisher hit print. A slightly condensed list, then:
I reread Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as they are both set in one day. (Although Cunningham’s is three different women’s days.) The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris is a book I’ve long enjoyed as it focuses on the importance of the every day. I have been a long time fan of Susan Sontag’s In Plato’s Cave so when exploring photography I read her On Photography. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America was my go-to in exploring the downside to this trend I’ve dubbed “The Happiness Movement”. I reread Carol Shield’s Unless both because it explores the concept of goodness and is also a novel of basic, unremarkable, every day living, yet the relationships between the characters is enjoyable and fascinating. Of course I read a ton on depression, including It Rains in February: A Wife’s Memoir by Leila Summers and One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon, which is a fictional account of real events.
But the book that actually taught me how to write again with my new physical limitations was Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Her style and mine still differ vastly, but there were enough tips in there to help mould my writing style to one where I could cope with my altered circumstances. I had reached the point where I either learned to change or I’d have to quit writing. It appears I wasn’t ready to stop.
You mentioned the fact that the book sat on your desk for a while. Why did it? What convinced you to release it into the world?
Ah, I think I’ve been misunderstood. Writing and publishing is a series of hurry up and wait. So from the start to publish, it only took a little over three years – which isn’t bad for small fish. Sure, if you are Stephen King things go faster. But the world only has so many writers with a market punch on par with Stephen King. The rest of us have to stand in line. Which is fair enough.
It is true, however, that if Rachel Zadok hadn’t given me a kick in the pants (and taken some matters into her own hands), This Day may never have been published. People can be their own worst enemy. Thankfully, I have friends who save me from myself.
This Day by Tiah Beautement is published by Modjaji Books.