Interview with Susan Spindler, author of Surrogate
There are a surprising amount of books set in Chiswick, or which reference Chiswick. Not all of them are great literature, but this one I’d say is.
Surrogate by Susan Spindler is about a post-menopausal woman who decides she will give birth for her daughter and husband who have come to the end of their IVF treatment after many miscarriages.
The decision kicks off huge physical and emotional turmoil for her, as menopause is medically reversed and her rejuvanated body takes her back to her younger self. But it also upends her relationships, with her daughter, her husband and her business partner. Emotionally it has the effect of a bomb going off, with those around her experiencing collateral damage.
Although the subject is relationship territory, the pace is that of a thriller.
Unusually for a first-time author, Susan Spindler found herself at the centre of an auction amongst publishers bidding for the right to publish her book. Surrogate is Virago’s lead fiction debut for Spring 2021.
Reviews of Surrogate:
‘An absolute belter of a page-turner’
‘A gripping read on an under-discussed topic for fans of Apple Tree Yard’
Fascinated by the idea of surrogacy
I’m claiming Susan as a Chiswick author as she lived here for 25 years, bringing up a family and pursuing her career at the BBC. She told me about Surrogate, what led up to her writing it and why she chose it as a subject.
The first and most obvious question anyone asks her is whether the book is based on her own experience. It isn’t.
She has, like the protagonist of her book, had a successful career in television. Her character, Ruth Furnival, is a Bafta winning drama producer who has set up her own company with another woman, is always frantically busy with work and has that residual guilt of working mothers that they weren’t around enough when their children were growing up.
Susan is an award-winning documentary maker and has brought all those skills into play in writing the novel, doing her research by talking to doctors and surrogates who’d given birth for other women, particularly in the US where it’s more common and middle aged women who’d given birth for their daughters are to be found on TV chat shows.
As a TV producer she worked on Tommorrow’s World, Horizon and QED and has always been interested in science and the ethics of science. She made programmes about in vitro fertilisation at the time of Warnock report, which paved the way for fertility treatment, in the early 1980s. So she has the facts down. You can trust what she says about the medical procedures and legal framework.
I was amazed to find that under British law, not only does the surrogate mother have rights over the implanted foetus, the product of another man and woman’s sperm and egg, but so does the surrogate’s husband. That Ruth’s husband Adam has to give legal consent before she can go ahead with the process infers an ownership over her womb which Ruth finds outrageous.
Susan finds the reaction of men to the idea of surrogacy interesting. Her own husband was “semi-aghast” at the idea.
“I would talk to liberal, educated men about it and for some of them it crosses a line. They have that atavistic feeling, a primitive anxiety. Yes the uterus belongs to the woman but as a bloke you have a really big stake in it”.
Image above: Susan at her allotment in Chiswick
“Forget all you learned at the BBC” – Fay Weldon
Susan drew on her experience as a working mother in writing the book. She herself has three grown up children – two boys and a girl in their thirties and early forties.
“I had waves of maternal guilt during my career”.
And of course she and her character Ruth have Chiswick in common. Ruth’s children, two girls, were born in Queen Charlotte’s hospital. She goes for runs around the river between Chiswick Bridge and Kew Bridge and drinks coffee in local coffee shops.
The rest is fiction. Susan studied creative writing at Bath Spa University when she left the BBC. Her daughter Imogen encouraged her to do what she’d always said she wanted to do and try her hand at writing a novel, “deluging” her with details of creative writing courses until she signed up for one.
She found herself being taught by fabulous role models sych as Fay Weldon, (Down Among the Women and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil are among more than 30 novels she’s written), Maggie Gee (author of 12 novels including The White Family, shortlisted for the 2003 Orange prize) and Tessa Hadley (author of six movels, including Accidents in the Home, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award).
“Fay Weldon told me, what you need to do is to unlearn everything you learned at the BBC. Leave factual writing behind you and make it up. Just fly”.
So she did and she is slightly amazed at the result. It’s a “fantastic surprise” she says, to be the subject of a bidding war, and an honour to be published by Virago:
“Beyond my wildest dreams to stand alongside all those green spined Virago classics and new titles and be recognised as a kindred spirit. I’ve admired the imprint all my life.
“It’s not the easiest thing to get published at my age, or even to get an agent”.
Age is important to Susan. She is 66 and she wanted to explore the world of women who have served their usefulness as mothers and have come to the end of their careers and are thinking “what now?” Some women, she says, are a bit adrift, expressing the rather plaintive query “what am I for?”
“They can’t see beyond the thicket of domestic responsibilities”.
Role reversal and life after the menopause
For Susan, especially as her husband of 42 years had survived a life threatening illness and they were coming out of the other side of a very traumatic period, her sixties have been a time in which she wanted to take up a new passion, a new cause and explore her new-found freedom.
In the book, her character Ruth is bit of a megalomaniac. Used to being in charge of an office full of people, in a big career which brought her many accolades, when they were children she would helicopter in to take charge of her daughters’ lives, focusing on them intently when she was present, then going away to oversee a shoot abroad for weeks or months. She is also rather vain. Used to using flirtation in the armoury of weapons for getting her way, she finds the invisibility of being an older woman hard to get her head round.
While it is a courageous and generous thing to offer to carry the baby, it requires a submissiveness she finds hard. The role reversal with her daughter she finds infuriating. That’s very relatable. At some point that tipping point is reached by all of us. My sister and I realised we were the ‘adults’ when my father died of lung cancer when I was eighteen. My older sister took on the responsibility of organising everything and my mother became the ‘child’. Susan experienced the role reversal herself when she was coping with her husband’s illness a few years ago.
“You were floundering” said her daughter. “Sometimes I could be the grown up and you were grateful”.
“I loved writing the book” says Susan, “and I’m glad to say that my relationship with Imogen is better than ever. But I’ve realised that the role reversal we experienced arrives for all parents and children, sooner or later. So why aren’t we talking about it?”
Surrogate is an exploration of how it feels to be a woman at different stages of life and the relationship between a mother and daughter, but it also has a lot to say about marriage and its own power struggle.
Surrogate and Susan fit perfectly in to Virago’s panoply of women’s writers: Marilyn French, Daphne du Maurier, Rose Macauley, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Molly Keane, Mary Renault, Rumer Godden … I’m looking forward to reading more from Susan Spindler and following her success.
Surrogate is available at a bookshop near you or online at:
Waterstones – waterstones.com
Bookshop.org – bookshop.org
Amazon – amazon.co.uk
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar
See also: April Books 2021
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