The first thing most people usually ask me about Souper Mum is whether she is me. I know the book doesn’t really stray too far from real life: Jools has four, I have four. We both married dependable if sweary Northerners. We both like a manic school run and can’t cook or bake for toffee. Geez, she even has a kid called Jake! The bare truth is there are similarities, I can’t lie but Jools is far braver than me. Life has thrown her many a curve ball, and she always manages such situations with far more grace and calm than I ever could. If Jools is anything, she’s my braver alter-ego.
People always ask about Jools’ kids too. Which one is which? Surely these are based on your own four? The answer there is ‘no.’ I started writing Souper Mum long before I ever had four kids (a strange case of life imitating art!) so the Campbell kids are all drawn from the many children I have met over my lifetime. Before I was a parent, I was actually a teacher, I worked in child psychology and before that I used to work as a nanny/au pair to fund my way through university. I’ve met hundreds of kids over time, some pretty amazing characters and some of my favourites have evolved into the Campbell kiddies.
The twins are based on the Malcolm children who I looked after in 2001 during my final year at university. I had done the odd babysitting gig before this but this was looking after three boys: Henry, William and Oliver as their mum was recovering from back surgery. Whirling dervishes: this term was made for those boys. I remember they only ate four things: teacakes, Cheerios, pasta with grated cheese and ham, and soft boiled eggs. I remember I used to have to catch them as they launched themselves off the sofa and would run circuits around the house, once locking me out of the front door, begging for them to let me come back in the house. I’d leave everyday exhausted and return home via a Spar for a £2.99 bottle of wine to calm my frayed nerves.
The Campbell girls were based on the Green girls: Grace, Florence and Millie who I looked after post- university in between teacher training and research work. They were just the best family to work for – hugely creative, welcoming and calm. I hadn’t finished university on the greatest of highs (blame boys...) so those three girls became my best buds. I regressed back into childhood to be around them. We would take crazy adventures into London in my mint green Micra and we made up dance routines to Avril Lavigne. To be around them soothed my soul and pre-empted a move into teaching. So when I was writing Souper Mum, I named my baby Campbell, Millie and even gave her Millie Green’s trademark auburn curls. And Hannah was based a lot on Grace. Grace was a hugely mature but sweet ten year old at the time I looked after her. Nothing phased her, she was a brilliant big sister, extremely knowing and had this habit of twizzling my hair in her hands when I used to listen to her read.
Of course, as the Campbell children’s characters emerged, they took on different traits of others too. Millie has morphed into my youngest with the silent presence of Maggie Simpson. Twin Ted is a lot like my youngest son, a faithful and affectionate younger brother. Jake, well...I had to inject a bit of his namesake into him so he’s the one with an answer for everything. Lord knows where he inherited that...
And there are other little people scattered about my novels who have all been based on kids I’ve babysat, taught or met on the school run. All these kids have taught me some essential life lessons, they’ve all made me the person and mother I am today, so it’s nice to feel I have a chance to pay tribute to them and preserve a little bit of their characters in my own.
And that feeling is all the more poignant at the moment as it is with a heavy heart and infinite sadness that I’ve recently had to say goodbye to one of those kids I once knew. A month ago, quite devastatingly Grace Green, my Hannah, passed away after a two year battle with leukaemia. She was 24; the same age I was when I had just finished working with the wonderful Green family – people I am still incredibly proud to call my friends. It’s been a sobering month to think of someone so vibrant now gone but also a time to think of the people who make up the fabric of your life, the ones who creep into my stories because they’ve affected my own in such a positive way.
It’s a small comfort to know that Grace lives on a little in print. To honour her further, I will be fundraising at the launch of Second Helpings on the 26th November with all proceeds going to The Anthony Nolan Trust. Grace was a hugely talented artist so we will be auctioning off a piece of her work. Details of how you can take part in this will be up on my Facebook & Instagram pages very soon. Please, if you can, also visit her website: www.livingwithgrace.company, to learn more about this very brave and inspirational young lady.