A chat with Judy Finnigan
PUBLISHED: 13:38 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 13:38 02 March 2015
Katie Jarvis speaks to author and TV presenter Judy Finnigan about tragedy and triumph, the themes running through her evocative novels set in Cornwall. (But don't worry - when Richard and Judy aren't heading off to the far South West, you'll invariably find them in the Cotswolds!)
You can overhear my conversation with Judy Finnigan if you like. No problem. Because we chat about all kinds of things you might be interested in.
We chat on the phone, which is probably just as well because she has a corker of a cold that she’s just passed on to Richard. (“Boyakasha!”) (Actually, no; let’s not go there.) A couple of days ago, she probably wouldn’t have been able to talk for coughing.
But she brushes off her croaks and wheezes in such a friendly, intimate manner that I forget I’m trying to write an article. I forget, for a few seconds, that I’m the one doing the interviewing. Within five minutes, I’m telling her something intensely personal; I’m telling her about a moment when one of my children lay desperately ill in hospital, with Ian sobbing on the bedside while I, empty and emotionless, stood as if watching a scene from a particularly unengaging film.
It’s a memory prompted by Judy Finnigan’s two novels – Eloise, published in 2012, and I Do Not Sleep, her hot-off-the-press latest. Both deal with tragedy, mystery and loss. But what I find acutely well observed is the way the women in her stories deal with grief and trauma so differently from the men.
It’s a phenomenon she’s noticed time and again during her many years of interviewing on prime-time TV shows such as This Morning. “Yes,” she says, thinking about it further. “Yes... When you interview a married couple, and they have perhaps lost a child in terrible circumstances, the man often wants to be pro-active, trying to seek reasons or launch appeals; whereas the woman tends to retreat more and more into a kind of privacy of grief. Not so much to do external things to make her feel better but just to come to terms, in her own head, with what’s happened.
“It’s funny, actually,” she adds – bringing her co-presenter husband into the conversation with a naturalness born of years of togetherness – “because we both – me and Richard - have noticed that that can break up a lot of marriages; the different ways the man and the wife cope.”
It’s something I’ve noticed too, thrown into relief by that personal experience which, thank god, had a happy ending. But when Kate McCann was accused of appearing emotionless over the disappearance of Madeleine, I wanted to shout at the world, “You don’t know what it’s like! You cannot second-guess the sorts of emotions – or absence of emotions – you yourself would feel in the face of such trauma. You just don’t know what it’s like!”
“I quite agree with that,” Judy says. “I think it’s a tribute to Gerry and Kate that they have held their marriage together because they do deal with it very differently. He’s much more confident, much more on top of things. Whereas you feel much more with Kate that she is all the time inside herself, anguishing.”
In fact, the impetus for Judy’s first novel, Eloise, very much sprang from personal grief – the death of her friend Caron Keating, from breast cancer at the age of 41. A fellow TV presenter, Caron bonded with Judy over a shared love of Cornwall, where both novels are set. Eloise similarly tells the story of a young mother, ripped from her children by this devastating disease – though that’s where the stories part company. In I Do Not Sleep, that ‘burden’ of maternal love is further explored as Molly Gabriel finally begins to face the loss of her 20-year-old son, Joey, five years previously, in a sailing accident.
Ah, yes, children. Life’s greatest joy. And the most efficient way of making yourself utterly vulnerable in this erratic, randomly cruel world.
“You’ve no idea, when you’re having children – even when they’re tiny – that that terrible openness to grief and tragedy goes on for life,” Judy agrees. “A friend of mine once said to me that, as a mother, you’re really only as happy as your unhappiest child.”
She has four children – twins Dan and Tom from her first marriage; and Jack and Chloe from her marriage to Richard Madeley. Chloe is certainly a headline generator (“Chloe strips off in sexy shoot!” Chloe ‘sorry’ for taking drugs!) (though she’s a likeable and impressive achiever, too; that’s not the point I’m making); but that’s not what Judy is talking about. She’s focusing on the unsilenceable voice inside every mother that assumes the worst if they don’t instantly answer your texts.
Though, she laughs, “At some point, you have to give yourself a little talking to and say: They are going to make mistakes; they are going to have broken hearts; and your heart will bleed for them – but you can’t prevent it.”
What about the supernatural elements in both her books; the voices reaching out from beyond the grave? The prescient dreams? The evil scarecrows and angry, screaming ghosts? The thin line between vision and hallucination; empathy and madness? The main women in her book seem – to me, albeit someone who can hardly claim to know her – to have so much of Judy in them that I wonder whether a belief in other-worldliness is a part of her psyche, too.
“I see all those things as metaphors and signals. Caron believed in angels – I can’t say I do. But I think the very existence of maternal love and maternal instinct proves that there are things which are not necessarily tangible.
“A vicar I once knew in Cornwall said she felt there was a membrane between this world and the next, whatever the next was. And that membrane was so incredibly thin that you could feel it stretching. You could almost get yourself over it. And I suppose I do instinctively believe that; that in extreme love and grief, you might almost be able to reach over a bridge into something else.”
Certainly, Cornwall – mysterious, ancient Cornwall – is a character in its own right, and perhaps part of the books’ mysteries springs from its own otherness. “It was cut off from England for so many years because the Tamar was so wide. Even the Romans didn’t really get across it, except to get to Bodmin. And it has almost become a separate country. It still feels like that, if you love Cornwall: absolutely elemental.” She and Richard have been visiting the county since they escaped there on their first family holiday back in 1984, when they met while working for Granada TV. Nearly 20 years ago, they bought their own place, which appears in her writing: the little pebbly beach just down the road; the Talland Bay Hotel next door. Wasn’t it brave to feature real-life locations so close to home?
“I really like the fact that people have written grateful letters to us saying how it’s helped them to discover the area and how much they now love it. There was a time when we used to visit the Florida Keys a lot, and I used to buy as much crime-fiction as I could that was set in the area. I absolutely loved reading about little restaurants or fish places or bars that we’d been to. It gave me a very warm feeling inside, and I kind of wanted to do the same thing.”
The other true-life element in I Do Not Sleep involves a little newcomer – Ivy, Judy’s granddaughter, to whom the book is co-dedicated. She’s the daughter of son, Tom, and his wife, born in 2012. For fictional grieving mother Molly, her granddaughter is a form of salvation.
“It’s strange, actually, because Ivy was born only four days after Eloise was published. I was on my first book event in Lincolnshire, feeling extremely nervous because I was about to give a talk – I’d never done anything like that before – when my son rang, saying they were in hospital and Ivy had been born. So we opened the champagne!
“Everybody warned me that you won’t believe the way it hits you; the way it kicks you in the stomach. And you kind of think, yeah, well, it can’t be the same as having your own. But when we saw Ivy for the first time, it was quite extraordinary. Tom’s twin brother, Dan, said, ‘You look at her and you think, yeah, she’s in our cave.’”
Judy is, by her own admission, extraordinarily warm and indulgent towards her own family – but it’s an unconditional love born of her own, more bracing background. From working class Manchester, her parents were less than privileged. Her father was incredibly bright, winner of the Lord Mayor of Manchester’s essay-writing prize at the age of 13; but his widowed mother needed him to leave his ‘slum’ school the same year to provide for the family.
“My [maternal] grandfather was an engineer – a pattern-cutter - and my mum was sent to secretarial college, which was quite upmarket for those days. She was always the one who pushed me and my two brothers, determined we would do well in education.”
The three of them won scholarships to Manchester’s most prestigious grammar schools, and all progressed to university. “But my mum was quite tough on us, in the sense that she expected us to work and pass exams. I vividly remember ringing her from a callbox in Bristol, in a sudden fit of horror and terror, before I went to look at my finals results. I said, ‘Mum, if I fail or I don’t do very well, it won’t matter, will it? It will be all right, won’t it?’ I could hear her bristle on the other end of the phone and she said, ‘Of course it will matter! Your father and I sacrificed an awful lot to send you lot to university. Of course we expect you to pass and do well.’ At the time, I felt really cross and resentful. I did think, I will never be the same with any of my children when I have them. And I’m not – I have to say I’m the exact opposite.
“But I do actually admire my mother for sticking to her guns, because we did all succeed.”
And succeed she has. She’s not only forging a new career as a novelist; she’s also back on our TV in ITV’s Loose Women. When I say I’m surprised she fancied more screen work, she laughingly agrees. “But writing is very solitary so it’s nice, once every couple of weeks, to be picked up in a car and taken to London. We live in Hampstead, and I use it, in one sense, to get me out of the house.”
Now, listen – just in case you think this interview has (inevitably) been too Cornwall-biased, I ask her about the Cotswolds, too. And she loves them. Bath, where she’s about to appear at the wonderful literature festival; The Rectory Hotel in Crudwell, where she and Richard love to stay; the Wild Duck at Ewen for lunch. “I think if Cornwall hadn’t become part of our lives and destiny at a very impressionable age, we would have bought a weekend home in the Cotswolds. I love Stow, I love Broadway; I love all of it.”
Well, there you go. She’s just signed a contract for the next two novels - so what about a Cotswold setting? After all, it’s a lot quicker to get from Hampstead to Stow.
Judy Finnigan will be in conversation with Richard Madeley, talking about a television career spanning three decades, and her second novel, I Do Not Sleep, on Saturday, March 7, 1.30pm at Komedia, as part as Bath Literature Festival. For more on the festival, from February 27-March 8, visit bathfestivals.org.uk/literature or call the box office on 01225 463362.
I Do Not Sleep by Judy Finnigan is published by Sphere, priced £16.99 hardback
Judy is also appearing at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on April 25, 12-1pm, in The Theatre, Chipping Norton; www.chiplitfest.com