Rachel Clarke longlist author interview
Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life, talks to us about the important lessons people can learn about death.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
Thrilling and completely unexpected. Writing Dear Life was a compulsion. I wanted to try and convey to readers the sense that – contrary to many people’s worst fears - dying is a lived experience, with all the possibility for love and meaning and tenderness as any other part of life. I never dreamed the book might be recognised in this way.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I keep returning to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magnificent The Emperor of All Maladies. Ostensibly a history of cancer, it could have been written by Raymond Chandler. Packed with suspense, plot twists and jump scares, it pits doctors and scientists against a brilliantly personified adversary – a cunning, shape-shifting, audacious disease. This is science at its most enthralling.
Increasingly this year, I find myself in need of solace in my reading. Being entombed with Robert Macfarlane’s 500-page Underland – a journey deep into the world beneath our feet - might not seem to fit the bill. And yet, rather like a hospice, he finds amid the darkness reasons for enchantment and hope.
How did you conduct your research?
Dear Life is intensely personal and steeped in my lived experience both as a doctor and as a daughter losing their beloved father to cancer. I read extensively around the medicine, psychology, sociology and politics of death and dying, but the emotional heart of the book is the stories of the patients for whom I have been privileged enough to care. They have taught me more about living than I ever imagined and I hope the book distils some of that collected wisdom.
What can people outside of the care and medical world realise from Dear Life that will develop their perspective and understanding of death and palliative care?
That the only real difference between someone who has been given a terminal diagnosis and someone who has not is that the latter tends to live as though they have all the time in the world, while the former makes every second count. The dying are not some alien breed to be treated with trepidation. They are you and me. Mortal, frail, daunted, hopeful, happy, fearful, courageous. Don’t be afraid of their diagnosis and its taboo connotations. Just reaching out towards someone who is approaching the end of their life can mean everything to them.
The other lesson I take from the hospice is that grief, in a profound sense, hurts exactly as much as it should do – as much as that person was loved. The only way to avoid the pain of bereavement is never to risk investing your heart. The less we love, the more we protect ourselves. But who would want to live like that?
What are you working on next?
Death has dominated the year 2020 like never before in my lifetime. Throughout the pandemic, I have been on the front line caring for patients with Covid-19. It has been harrowing, shocking and sometimes traumatic, but times of great upheaval can also be revelatory. I’m writing about the rawness of the last six months as a doctor and what they have taught me.