Sixty Summers is about the power of female friendships. Those friendships that often begin tentatively as young women but are, over decades, forged in the fires of shared joys and sorrows, of births and deaths and everything in-between. For many women, partners may come and go, and children move from being the centre of our existence to living their own lives, but our dearest friends are still there at our sides. We remember each others’ youthful ambitions and celebrate our achievements, also knowing that some dreams will remain unfulfilled. We entrust these friends with our secrets.
The three characters in Sixty Summers, Maggie, Fran and Rose are facing the prospect of turning sixty, each with some trepidation. Not one of them is living the life she imagined for herself in younger years. One teeters on the brink of disaster, all three are dissatisfied with their current life.
Maggie, the lynchpin of the family construction business, is suffering terminal exhaustion from years of stress. Her mother-in-law has recently moved in and her indulged twin daughters are causing havoc. She longs for a peaceful existence. Fran, who never married, feels her life is slowly stagnating. She longed for passion and ended up with a half-hearted lover and a lack-lustre job. Now it seems too late for change. Rose, once a free spirit, has devoted her adult life to managing her brilliant but helpless husband and their two sons. Her yearning for freedom grows stronger by the year. With a sense of desperation, the three friends set off together to retrace the steps of their 1978 backpacking trip, hoping to catch a glimpse of the idealistic young women they once were.
When we travel, we have a unique opportunity to view our own life from a distance, and perhaps see it more clearly. My objective was to take my three ‘imaginary friends’ on a nostalgic journey in search of answers, interweaving their current lives with the ones they once aspired to, and just see where it took them.
I set off from London to Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Italy and Greece, taking the trio on an odyssey in search of their young selves. I also wanted to see how they would respond to travelling together now, as opposed to forty years earlier. When we are young, any relatively horizontal surface is suitable for sleep. In later years, travel is often a litany of restless nights in strange beds, forgotten medication, misplaced spectacles and the after-effects of too much wine – sometimes all together!
While I have many dear and close friends, when I travel to research a book, I have to go alone. I need to be alert to the world around me, have conversations with strangers, eavesdrop discreetly, peer through half-open doors, be curious and observant. For this story, I needed to listen to echoes from the past and ponder how my characters’ choices in life may have defined them, how compromises were made that they may now regret.
My memories of a shoe-string camping trip through Europe in 1978 were the basis for the past, and my recent expedition was revisiting some of those places to view both past and present through my characters’ eyes. It’s not a scientific process. It’s gazing and gathering notes – that later make no sense at all – and trying not to obsess about how on earth it will all come together. It’s trying to maintain faith that, back at writing HQ, the imagery will unpack itself within the framework of the story and eventually unfold onto the page in a logical sequence.
If travel has taught me anything, it’s that the most fun and memorable things happen when things go awry. These days it is possible to plan a trip to such an extent that, bar an airline strike, which is absolutely not fun, it is all fairly predictable, and the technology is available to quickly rectify any problems. Travelling in the seventies was the complete opposite, without the internet it was almost impossible to plan ahead and, when things went askew, the back-up plan was improvisation and often the kindness of strangers.
Memories that stand out from my first trip are the time our car broke down somewhere in Greece and the garage where half a dozen mechanics abandoned all other jobs to get us back on the road – celebrating excitedly when the car burst into life and refusing any payment. Another breakdown, in a small town in Italy, was resolved by the mechanic’s friend machining a new part for the car at almost no cost. One incident, which made its way into the book, was one-night of wild camping in an olive grove. A storm broke and we woke to a river of water pouring through the tent. It wasn’t exactly fun at the time but does seem amusing forty years later.
It goes without saying that, before long, my characters begin to get on each other nerves and a ‘disaster’ was needed to pull them together and show them the resilience of their love for each other. The past and present needed to collide to give them the clarity they needed to rethink their futures. It needed a catalyst to strengthen the resolve of each character and make her strong enough to go home, turn her life upside down, and give it a good shake up – and create something new. For Maggie, Fran and Rose, it’s only when everything goes wrong, that it all starts to come right.