Sophie White: 'I came up with the idea for my novel while I watched my father recede into a terrifying void of illness'

Sophie White: 'I came up with the idea for my novel while I watched my father recede into a terrifying void of illness'

 “How did you come up for the idea for the book?” is a reasonable question that follows when you bring out a book and one that I’ve struggled to answer with my second book and first novel, Filter This.

“I came up with the idea for my novel while I watched my father recede into a terrifying void of illness” is a bit of conversation annihilator. Not to mention, gives the impression that my novel is something deeply serious, a meditation on mortality perhaps or some tragic tale of illness or loss, which it is not. Or at least, not exactly.

Though the idea was born in a sickroom, Filter This is actually set in the high-glam world of Instagram and follows wannabe influencer, Ali Jones as she tries to crack 10,000 followers and nab a prize in the upcoming Influencer Awards, The Glossies. When Ali inadvertently leads her followers to believe she is pregnant and gains thousands of followers overnight, she decides to roll with the lie and ride the Mummy Influencer wave to Glossies glory. Of course, faking a baby goes far beyond the realms of everyday Instagram fakery and soon Ali’s lies are closing in on her.

Though Ali’s insta feed is all green smoothies and #ootds, her actual life is considerably less ‘grammable. Her adored father, Miles has slowly receded from her as Early Onset Alzheimer’s took hold in his fifties. She is in such desperate need of distraction and numbness that when she stumbles into this impossible scenario, despite what will surely end in all-out disaster, she is inexorably propelled along in her deception. Especially when a recent Tinder fling resurfaces believing her “baby” to be his. She hides in the rose gold, filtered online world, trying to anesthetise herself from the reality of her loss and this is ultimately how she comes to fling herself into this kamikaze lie of being pregnant.

I know the power of this kind of denial. I lived and breathed it in the years after my dad, like Ali’s was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. I never base my characters on specific people. For starters it’d be too confining and secondly, really the fun of fiction lies in the making stuff up. Sometimes, I do a “people-mash” – a Franken-character who borrows from several people in my real life but no character ever draws from one person, except Miles in Filter This. Ali’s father is a tribute to my real dad. Some physical characteristics and biographical details overlap – my father had a brief dalliance with an acting career and he loved music but mainly it is their spirit that unites them and in the pages of Filter This I got to revisit him.

I began the book after he died and at first gave no deep thought to Miles’ illness. He needed to be ill and this was the illness that I knew everything about. I had watched it devour my beautiful dad over the course of many, many years. I’d lived inside the acute pain that comes with this illness. It’s a different kind of death than the ones wrought by Cancer or Calamity. The dying starts in the mind long before the body succumbs and that is such a horrific thing to witness.

Sophie White, author. Photograph Moya Nolan
Sophie White, author. Photograph Moya Nolan

Before starting the book, I didn’t consider what it would mean to go back to the long afternoons in his nursing home where I would sit tapping out the minutes until I could leave again. It was hard to know what to do in that time. Sometimes I would moisturise his hands, sing to him, feed him his dinner or, more often than not, I would sit and read the internet or scroll instagram on my phone. Sometimes, it is very hard to face the moment even when you’re in it and scrolling endless meaningless posts on social media is all you can bear to do. I beat myself up about this after it was all over but it’s hard to show up and face a death every day for years.

My dad became ill before I became a writer and died before he ever got to enjoy his middle age never mind got to see his name in the acknowledgements of my first two books. This feels unfair to me obviously for myriad reasons but especially as he – above all the incredible, inspiring people in my life – gave me my love of stories.

He gave me great movies like Nashville by Robert Altman and Raising Arizona by the Coen Brothers and watching a movie with him was better than watching a movie with anyone else. He knew everything about the writers and directors and had such a deep love for the medium; he appreciated every sly wink in a script and every clever angle paying homage to one of the greats. He wanted to watch the famous 11-minute opening sequence in Raising Arizona over and over just to bask in its wit and sheer ingenuity, it succinctly provides the entire back story for H.I. and Ed McDonagh in a perfect pre-credits micro film. He showed me The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was way too young because “it was a classic of the genre”! He would have been proud of the things I do now. He had a pretty black sense of humour and I’m sure would’ve found doing #sponcon in a nursing home – as Ali does in the book – funny.

The story of Miles is not a perfect rendering of what my own father endured. I couldn’t quite cut that close to the bone. I wasn’t ready yet, maybe I never will be. The illness Miles is afflicted by is ultimately much more benign than the thing that crept into my own family’s life and ravaged my dad. And anyway an irreverent romcom set in the world of Instagram is probably not the place to bear witness to the full extent of that horror. However in writing Miles, I got to paint a portrait of my dad, Kev. Musicians can write songs for their loved ones and artists can paint them but we writers have the best gig.

We can revive our lost loves and they can live on again in our stories

I had the chance to return some of his warm, playful personality that the illness had eroded and spend just a little more time with him. To appreciate again the person he was before all the confusion and forgetting, the indignity of illness and the steep decline.

I wrote about his death at the end of Filter This but it is, ironically, a heavily filtered and airbrushed version. That’s the great thing you can do in fiction. You can make the ugly beautiful and the hard things redemptive or healing in some way, not like real death, which can be strangely numb or a terrible howl of agony with no end.

He taught me to dive just like Miles did Ali in the book and when I think of him now, it is most often him stepping up to the edge of the pier, planting his feet and raising his arms to form a V. He is athletic and tanned, his hair longish the way he wore it, swept over his right eye. He is six foot and the veins on his feet pop slightly just like mine. These are the things we know about a person even long after we can’t remember the exact cadence of their voice. He bends his knees and launches himself, and slicing the surface neatly. When he reemerges he is already grinning. He was just like that – ready to smile and joke. I feel the loss of him everyday. There are new movies I want to watch with him, stories I want to tell him, still questions to ask him that I won’t get a satisfactory answer on from anyone else.

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