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Lilian Nattel on writing, family, and grief

By Kobo • September 09, 2022Author Interviews

Lilian Nattel is the author of The Singing Fire, Web of Angels, The River Midnight, and Girl at the Edge of the Sky.

Her newest is novel Only Sisters.

Kobo: Only Sisters is a meaty book with a lot to chew on, both in terms of the plot and the themes and ideas it raises. What was the germ in your mind that grew into this story about Joan, Vivien, and Sheila?

Lilian Nattel: When my kids were teens, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I found myself in the position of a carer, and though I loved her very much, she was a difficult person as well as a hoarder. She ultimately transformed into Sheila, someone with a similar psychology but the opposite manifestation of it. At the same time my sister-in-law, who had been a sister to me for twenty years, was diagnosed with a rare and life-limiting form of cancer. It was intense, and as a writer, my creative drive comes from the need to make sense of life and others by telling stories. Sisters often play opposing roles in their families. In mine, I was the rebel who’d left, while my sister complained about the burden of being the “good” one. To explore that, I decided to tell the story from the viewpoint of the dutiful sister, and then found there was more of me in her than I’d realized—that need to be good is a common social pressure that women feel. I imagined that I’d be like Vivien the rebel, but instead she is much more adventurous, and there’s something of my late sister-in-law in her. That desire to understand both my sisters, my bio sister and my sister-in-law, so different from me and yet beloved, gave me the idea of Joan coming to understand hers by posing as Vivien, and then growing as a result.

Kobo: How deeply into the world of online impersonation did you delve to shape that aspect of the story?

LN: It’s something I’d encountered myself! Before Facebook and other social media, there were online chatrooms that could be accessed by mIRC, an internet relay chat client. I was a regular in a peer chatroom for abuse survivors. There was always some concern, meeting online, whether other chatters were genuine, but I met a number of them in person who were exactly who they’d said they were. However! One of the participants presented as a 31 year old South Asian, single father living in Europe. Luckily for me, we never became friends because it was all a pretense, which “he” managed to keep up for two years. Quotation marks because it turned out that “he” was a cis, white middle-aged American woman, who’d been posing as this other identity all that time, even during a long-distance relationship with another participant. That personal experience shaped my view of how this could happen, and I just updated it by using social media.

Kobo: Grief seems to come up more and more in all kinds of books lately, like we’ve all simultaneously decided to talk about it and that we have the words for it. But in Only Sisters you flip the script in almost a playful way to spare Sheila the grief of losing a daughter—did you know from the start that you’d be handling the death of a character this way or are there earlier drafts where loss and grief play out more conventionally?

LN: From the start, I knew that Joan would impersonate Vivien, and needed a compelling reason to do so. Sparing her mother came to me early on, but as I was writing, I realized that Joan’s burden of grief was heavier because she had to hide it, and that it would make her need to “be” Vivien online all the greater, ratcheting up the tension and the pay-off, both in terms of story and character growth.

Kobo: You have a growing following on TikTok where you offer writing advice. What do you get from sharing that counsel and getting feedback from budding writers?

LN: I love the warm writing community on Tiktok. And I love the community of book enthusiasts. As a young writer, I didn’t have my family’s support, and I was one of the weird kids whose nose was always in a book. Before the internet, that could be lonely, but now I can reach out to others and give them what I never had. Making videos is fun—I never thought it would be, I’m camera shy, but apparently not when I’m talking about books and writing! I’m a late bloomer, having started both family and my career as a novelist in my forties. So I can be an example to others—that it’s not too late, either for writing or for learning how to use a new social media platform. Encouraging others energizes me, and the affection and affirmation I receive in turn buoys me up!

Kobo: Having written this novel which incorporates Facebook as a setting and mechanism for characters to interact, do you see a way to pull in more auditory and visual modes of social media like TikTok in future novels?

LN: The technical challenge in this novel was taking the chats, which are pure text, and working other senses and actions around the text so that they evoke a fully realize scene the reader can be immersed in. So a visual and auditory mode like Tiktok would offer more scope to play with because action, sight and sound are already involved in the medium. Engagement occurs not only with comments, which are text based, but replies through video. As in any community, there are pockets of drama, which is novelistic gold! So yes, I can certainly see that working into my contemporary fiction in the future. If you could see me writing this, you’d know that I was smiling and nodding! ◼

Only Sisters by Lilian Nattel

One sister runs away and the other stays behind. But what happens when the dutiful sister has to impersonate the rebel? In her page-turning exploration of familial loyalty, resentment, secrets, and grief, Lilian Nattel explores the meaning and reach of family bonds.

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