Funeral homes: dark, a bit gothic, perhaps a place you don’t want to be unless you have to?
Not so, says author Kitty Aldridge. “I hadn’t realised what a happy and positive place a funeral home would be… [The staff] are very unapplauded."
Aldridge spent a lot of time in such places researching her new novel A Trick I Learned From Dead Men. It is the story of Lee, a twenty-something trainee at the local funeral home whose life is increasingly subsumed by caring for his younger, deaf brother Ned after their mother dies. A seemingly gloomy premise is leavened by Lee’s stoic view on life, his pursuit of the lissom Lorelle, employee of Fleurtations florists, and a beautiful rural setting. It is an optimistic read about learning to live – and to die.
“Not so long ago, a person would be laid out in the home they died in – often the house they were born in too. The family members would watch their decline towards death and death would be part of the natural order of things. And nobody was particularly frightened. Perhaps [death] is the last taboo nowadays.”
She added: “I found [visiting the funeral homes] a great experience, and I’ve lost any fear or dread of death I may have had. That’s all gone.”
At Shakespeare & Son, “your status as a deceased individual makes you important, a VIP” Lee explains. His training includes stroking blusher onto the cheeks of deceased old ladies to making endless rounds of tea.
For Aldridge getting Lee right was pivotal to writing the novel. “When Lee appeared I knew it was him... I think sometimes you find someone who you know you can tell. There are an awful lot of male characters I couldn’t write. Part of a novelist’s job is to empathise, I think in an excessive way, almost.”
Describing the writing process as “graft” she said: “I like what Jeanette Winterson says about her writing: it’s a business of oily rags and spanners – and that’s exactly how I feel: tightening, loosening, checking the tyres - calling the AA! It’s like getting your hands dirty.”
Aldridge turned to writing in middle age, after a successful career as an actress and screenwriter. Now living in London and married to Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, A Trick I Learned From Dead Men is her third novel, following Cryers Hill in 2007 and her debut Pop in 2001.
"I enjoy my work,” she added. “I even enjoy the bad days, I enjoy the failures. Because they lead to something else eventually”.
Aldridge has spoken previously about how her reading and writing as a child was severely hindered by her being subjected to ITA, an experimental phonetic form of teaching reading briefly popular in the 1960s. Now a keen reader (currently dipping into The Age of Miracles and a fan of Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), she believes the lasting impact on her writing is that: “I’m more likely to take risks; I was never respectful of the rules in the first place because I was never taught them.”
She was inspired as a youngster by Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short-story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. “I had this impression that you had to be posh [to write] and to go to university but then I realised that perhaps that wasn’t the case. It changed my relationship with books.”
“I didn’t have the confidence to imagine that I could write a book, but privately I carried the thought that Alan Sillitoe was from Nottinghamshire and you could muck around with English [like him] and I treasured the idea.”
After she penned a piece about her love for the novel for the Independent, Sillitoe sent her a hand-written letter of thanks, and she toyed with the idea of going to visit her hero - before he died. “[It turns out] he lived just a few miles away! I regret that, not having been bolder. That’s the thing about being in a funeral home and witnessing deceased people, it makes you think about things that you haven’t done or that you intend on doing.
"It makes you bring your list up to date.”
A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge is published by Cape on 5 July.