Writing about secrets, the false self and insecure identities in my novel, Sugar and Snails

Written by Anne Goodwin

Anne GoodwinWe all have secrets, things we’ve done or aspects of ourselves that we can reveal only to our nearest and dearest, and sometimes not even to them. We all have different selves for different circumstances, switching seamlessly from cook to customer, lover to law-enforcer, teacher to traveller in the course of a single day. Yet, despite our inherent contradictions and inconsistencies, we experience, if we’re lucky, a sense of continuity at our core.

I’m interested in characters who lack that secure sense of their own identity. People who feel their secrets to be so deeply shameful they’ll sacrifice anything to keep them hidden. People with such huge discrepancies between how they perceive themselves and what they feel able to show to others, it’s as if they’re hiding their true selves behind a facade. People who’ve become so accustomed to their false selves they’re adrift from their very foundations.

For some, the maintenance of a false self is so burdensome it leads to mental breakdown. But for others (or for the same individuals at another point in time), this fragility can sit alongside a high level of social functioning. This was the kind of personality I wanted to explore in my first novel, Sugar and Snails. A character so adept at concealment, she might have carried her secret to the grave were it not for a particular combination of events that challenged her carefully-constructed equilibrium.

So Diana Dodsworth, was born: a middle-aged university lecturer, living alone with her marmalade cat. Within certain parameters, she’s successful, with her own house and a decent job. Yet her life’s restricted: she never travels; has never applied for promotion at work; and has been celibate for twenty years.

Since infancy, she’s felt herself to be a misfit, a disappointment to her parents and teachers. At fifteen, she found a way of reinventing herself, but this radical change of direction brought other problems, and another secret to hide.

It’s during adolescence that we get the opportunity to play around with different identities, trying on different selves for size in the process of discovering the adult we will become. But the experience of ambiguity and ambivalence thereby engendered can be so terrifying it’s tempting to anchor ourselves to one of these versions before we’ve sampled an adequate range of alternatives. We might wonder if Diana is someone who has cemented her future identity too soon.

I could have been upfront about Diana’s past right from the start, but I wanted to introduce readers to her false self initially, the way they’d encounter her in real life. Naturally reticent, Diana isn’t the type to share her life story with strangers. Even in the privacy of her own mind, she avoids reflecting on where she came from.

But it wasn’t only Diana’s personality that drove me to safeguard her secret. Readers might have their own assumptions about the identity issues she faces, and I wanted to avoid these colouring their impressions of her character. I hoped readers would identify, as I do, with her struggle with the gap between who she is and who she feels she ought to be, even if her particular journey might be different to the one they’ve taken themselves.

sugar and snailsI didn’t realise what a complex task I’d set myself until I came to the second draft of Sugar and Snails. Lots of novels involve secrets, I thought. No big deal! The prospect of uncovering a secret can entice readers to keep turning those pages. But there are risks. A secret withheld has the potential to alienate readers, taking us back to whisperings in the schoolyard, lips shielded by a hand.

Through draft after painful draft, I experimented with character, voice, structure and setting to render Diana’s reserve more intriguing than frustrating. In her final persona, she shows more surface vulnerability than in earlier drafts, with an episode of self-harm in the first chapter. I hoped this would signal her inner turmoil without the need to go into detail about its cause. During the editing process, I also cut back on some of the less endearing aspects of her personality, although she remains a little prickly. In terms of voice, I tried to add touches of humour (although, of course, what counts as humour is extremely subjective) to an otherwise serious novel, and of enabling her to be more open with the reader without giving herself away. To draw the reader’s attention to the perils of the teenage years, I gave Diana a vulnerable student to mentor and played around with her academic research on the subject of adolescent intolerance of ambivalence.

Finally, I made radical changes to the structure, rewriting the entire novel from scratch. Initially, the story unfolded through two strands: a contemporary strand related from Diana’s point of view and a historical strand from the point of view of her parents, with the secret of her fifteen-year-old decision not revealed until close to the end. When I was advised that the novel would be more coherent if narrated from a single perspective, I realised there was a way of making the secret explicit earlier on without compromising on my initial aims. While the final version maintains the dual narrative from beginning to end, around the midpoint the drive of the historical strand switches from what happened, to how and why. At the same time, the tension in the contemporary strand moves from what is holding her back to whether and how she’s going to overcome the problems this has brought her.

Given Diana’s struggle with ambivalence, it seems fitting that I found a way of both guarding and revealing her secret in the novel’s structure. But, as publication looms, it’s not about how I want to tell the story anymore. I hope the decisions I’ve taken will enable my readers to have it both ways: the satisfaction of gradually uncovering her past identity as well as, on learning what she’s up against, rooting for her right to the end.

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Find out more about Sugar and Snails on my website, annethology.Tell us what you think on Twitter @Annecdotist or via #SugarandSnails

Read Victoria’s Review of Sugar and Snails in our Fiction Section.

Anne Goodwin, Sugar and Snails (Inspired Quill Publishing: Derby, 2015). 978-1-908600-47-9, 342 pages, paperback.