When Meg Mason took herself off to her shed to write her third book, a certain pragmatic confidence accompanied her. After all, she knew she could do it: there on her shelves were her memoir of having children in her 20s, Say It Again in a Nice Voice, and her 2017 novel You Be Mother. The New Zealander, now 43, had built up a career in journalism in the UK and Australia, where she lives, writing for outlets such as the Times, Vogue and the New Yorker, and felt comfortable with discipline and deadlines. If she sat there for a year, she figured, something “at least as good” as her previous work would emerge.
It did not, not even when there were 85,000 words of it. And it wasn’t just that “untitled Christmas novel” wasn’t coming together as she’d hoped, it was that “it was dreadful, it was awful, and I knew it, and I didn’t stop”. It probably still exists somewhere in Gmail, she says now, but “I couldn’t open it with a gun to my head”. Her feeling at the end of that year was overwhelmingly one of failure, of not “being equal” to the thing that she most wanted to do.
And yet here she is, ready to tell me about Sorrow and Bliss, the novel that emerged from the wreckage; the novel that has amassed “must read” pre-publication quotes from Gillian Anderson and Ann Patchett, whose protagonist, Martha, has been compared to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and which looks set to be filmed by the company behind the Oscar winners Birdman and 12 Years a Slave. To adapt the well-worn anecdote of the waiter delivering champagne to George Best, where did it all go wrong?
It was the going wrong, Mason explains to me via Zoom from Christchurch, New Zealand, where she’s visiting family for the first time since the start of the pandemic, that started her on the road to things going right. Chiefly, it allowed her to feel her way into the character of Martha who, we learn at the beginning of Sorrow and Bliss, has just turned 40 and just split up with Patrick, her husband of eight years. But from those opening paragraphs, we are aware that there is more going on than the end of a relationship: “An observer to my marriage would think I have made no effort to be a good or better wife. Or, seeing me that night, that I must have set out to be this way and achieved it after years of concentrated effort. They could not tell that for most of my adult life and all of my marriage I have been trying to become the opposite of myself.”
I felt a burden of responsibility to any reader for whom mental illness is a daily battle
The story that follows includes depictions of intense and frequently painful family dynamics, most notably between Martha, her sister and their mother; the long tail of parental loss and transgenerational trauma; the innumerable false starts of a stalled career; and the emotional demands of both having and not having children. But at the centre of it all stands the reality of Martha’s mental illness, a condition that catapults her into periods of intolerable sadness, epic self-destruction and terrifying isolation. And, for much of the novel, it is an illness that is kept hidden not only from the reader, but from Martha herself. Even when she is finally diagnosed, the narrative refers only to her condition with two dashes (“‘I wonder’,” a new psychiatrist asks her, “‘has anyone ever mentioned —— to you, Martha?’ I moved my hand and said no, thank goodness”).
Mason’s refusal to put a name to what ails Martha becomes a defining feature of the novel. Why did she do it? In the aftermath of her disastrous first start, she explains, she had started writing again with no expectations: “It was a post-hope project. It wasn’t for my publisher, I didn’t tell her I was doing it. And I was truly and utterly convinced that no one would ever see it.” She describes feeling “a bit drunk with it, because I didn’t care. It was like making this enormous meal from everything you have in the fridge, with no recipe, just throwing it all in. It just doesn’t matter. And it was the last hurrah.” At the time, she didn’t even conceive of it as a novel about mental health; that material, and the striking and turbulent relationship between Martha and her sister Ingrid entered, she says, almost “without conscious thought”.
But when she did send it to her publisher, who reassured her that it would definitely see the light of day, she started to feel “anxious about the fact that I’d essentially written a mental health novel by accident”. She worried about the interpolation of extremely harrowing material with high comedy, and about the way that she’d amalgamated bits and pieces of real conditions to make a sort of composite portrait of mental disintegration; she was concerned about readers, especially vulnerable ones, following too closely some of Martha’s decisions and behaviours. “I felt such a burden of responsibility to any reader for whom that’s a real and daily battle. To them I’m just a novelist in a shed having, in inverted commas, fun with it.” Around this time, she even suggested to her publisher that she might put it out anonymously, or at the very least without her own biography, photograph or acknowledgements. “I wanted it to be allowed to exist on its own without that author just dancing in at the end.”
A compromise was reached in the form of those dashes, that redacted condition, a creative decision that, as she wanted, worked to serve a broader ambition: “It’s not the schizophrenia book, the bipolar book, the borderline personality book, it’s a book about what it feels like to have X or to look after someone with X and what it does to the extended family and the marriage.” It also allowed her to reflect on situations that commonly exist beyond mental illness as well as within it, including the way that women are treated by the health system, and the way that families create intractable roles and scripts for one another. As much as Sorrow and Bliss is Martha’s story, it is also an ensemble piece, creating wonderful characters in her mother, Celia, an alcohol-dependent sculptor who has dealt with the demands of motherhood largely by ignoring them, and Celia’s sister, Winsome, who has married into extreme wealth and cannot now bear any wrinkles in everyday life.
They say, never drive angry. I think never write angry is probably a good life lesson as well
Mason says she has a complicated relationship with Say It Again in a Nice Voice, the memoir she published in 2012: “They say, never drive angry. I think never write angry is probably a good life lesson as well.” She had moved from New Zealand to Australia at 16, and on to London at 22, where she stayed until the birth of her first child. She and her husband now live in Sydney with their two daughters, now teenagers. For years after her memoir came out, she had to parry questions about her family life, and particularly whether or not she had regretted having children young. I ask whether she feels prepared for people to ask how much her own life is reflected in Sorrow and Bliss?
It is, she says, a work of imagination; she has not experienced the same issues as Martha. But she is adamant that she wanted to explore the territory, arguing that the estimates of the proportion of people impacted by mental illness – she mentions one in four – seem “ridiculously” low: “When I look around my group of friends and my family, I can’t see a person who hasn’t been touched by it in some way.”
She’s thrilled with the idea of the film adaptation, she says, but she’s staying well out of it, feeling that her presence wouldn’t be useful. Sorrow and Bliss is set in London and Oxford – an interesting choice for someone who hasn’t lived in the UK for a long time. “I’m hugely sentimental about London,” she says. “In my mind, it looks like a Working Title film at this point, even though I remember it being, particularly where I was, a little bit rough. But I think there are things about the novel intrinsic to it, that can’t work anywhere else.” She had British friends read the manuscript closely for inaccuracies.
There is now another novel in the works, perhaps a quarter of the way through: “But what I’m doing is I’m sort of checking every day that I should still be going on with it. And I’m not doing the same thing I did before, which is just to press on. So what I’ve learned out of Sorrow and Bliss, even if it’s difficult, it shouldn’t be that difficult. And if you’re not finding it interesting, no one else is going to find it interesting.” Assuming that she doesn’t have to junk it all, how does she think things will pan out? She laughs. “It’s so tricky to work out how to simulate that sense of privacy that I had before, which is what made the novel basically successful in the end. It’s much harder this time to convince myself no one’s going to see it, because I think they might.”
• Sorrow and Bliss is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.