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Interview: Sue Leonard
Being a working wife of small children can be tough. Yearning for the world to stop for five minutes, women sometimes dream of disappearing. Kate, the protagonist of Tess Stimson’s new novel, on the way to a meeting, gets in a taxi heading for the airport, then a plane to Rome. She doesn’t ring her home or office. The plot is lifted from the author’s life.
“I was married and living in Beirut,” she says. “My husband, Brent Sadler, worked for CNN, and he travelled for 10 months of the year. I’d discovered he was having an affair. I hoped it would blow itself out and I didn’t confront him. But I was distracted by it. My head was all over the place. I’d reached breaking point.
“I flew to London for a funeral. I’d meant to stay for two or three days, but I needed to sort myself out. I left my children, then three-and-a-half and nine months, with my mother, and I flew to Florida to visit a friend. I ended up staying a few weeks. I had to make a decision whether to leave Brent or not; and if I did, how I’d orchestrate it and where I’d live.
“I spent the time thinking. As a writer and journalist, I was independent. I had two great kids. I thought either Brent will say, ‘Sorry. Let’s start again’, or he’ll say he’s not happy. I had to work out how I’d respond and what my answers would be.”
Back in London, Stimson exchanged a small flat she owned for a bigger one, and she put a lawyer on retainer. Then she returned to Beirut, and waited for Sadler to return from an assignment.
“We went out to a restaurant and I confronted him with what I knew. We had a rational conversation, until I burst into tears, left the restaurant, and drove home, leaving him to walk. Brent moved out, but he moved into the apartment opposite ours. He moved his girlfriend in. I could see into their bedroom. It was unbearable. So I took the boys and moved to London,” she says.
The author of eight novels and two non-fiction books, Stimson lives in Vermont with her second husband, Erik Oliver, her teenage sons, Henry and Matthew, and Lily, her and Erik’s nine-year-old daughter.
Life is good. After years of anger, she’s friends with her ex-husband. She also gets on well with his wife, the woman he had the affair with.
At 18, Stimson wrote a novel about Ann Boleyn. She was in her 20s when her first book was published, but, meanwhile, she’d been an exhibitioner at St Hilda’s College, Oxford University, and a reporter and producer for ITN.
Her novels centre on relationships. “I always have a few ideas on the boil. The first book I wrote after the divorce was called The Adultery Club. That one was much closer to home. I liked the idea of a wife who ran away, because a lot of women have told me they’ve felt like doing it. My story has little bearing on it, really; what Kate does is more extreme; the story is based more on her love choice; it just seemed the right time to write it,” she says.
Her character Kate works all hours, cares for two teenagers and her manipulative mother. Her husband, Ned, resents her dedication. Hopeless with money, and useless around the house, he’s stopped noticing her. When she flees, it takes him three days to realise she isn’t around. “Ned is a composite of everything wives complain about, rolled into one. An awful lot of men, I think, behave with benign neglect to their wives.
“Kate earns more, so the marriage has become a power game. I think in that case, men try and assert themselves in different ways. He’s trying to get his balls back. Women crave masculinity, and too often these days, that’s tied up with earning power. Women want their men to be hunter gatherers, and they tend not to respect a man who is not up to things.”
The teenagers Guy and Agness have become surly and uncommunicative. Kate grieves for the daughter she was so recently close to.
“I have a theory that teenagers are like they were when they were two. I’m dreading Lily getting to that stage. She’s always known her own mind.”
Kate despairs, but, we see the teenagers’ vulnerability, as chapters are written from their point of view, as well as from Kate’s and Ned’s.
“I’ve written from different points of view in the past four novels. I like that juxtaposition. It’s like at a crime event, where the witnesses always give slightly different versions.”
Stimson’s descriptions of Rome, and most especially of the Vatican, are so tantalising, they’ll have the reader rushing to book tickets there.
“I lived in Rome for four years, when I was married to my first husband. Henry, now 17, was born there. I was expecting Matthew when we moved to Beirut. I love Rome. I took the family there in 2010, and we did all the traditionally tourist things. We were watching The Borgias recently, and the boys remembered the stories I’d told them as we’d walked through the various rooms of the Vatican.”
The Wife Who Ran Away is dedicated to Kate’s father, who passed away just before this interview. “He died two days ago. He had terminal cancer, but he was fabulous through it. He never let things overwhelm him. My mother died 10 years ago. They’d been married for 40 years. He was 58 — it knocked him for six. But after six months he got on his motorbike and toured Europe, and said goodbye to all the places he had visited with my mother. He then met an amazing woman, and he spent the last eight years with her.
“I admire him so much. I’ve always been a daddy’s girl; always wanted to be like him. He was the eternal optimist, always looking forwards and never back.”
What would Stimson like to be doing in 10 years time? “I’d like to be doing exactly what I’m doing now, but so successfully that I’m doing it from an island somewhere. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s part of who I am. If I wasn’t writing for public consumption, I’d still be writing for myself.”