Every now and again a book comes along that reminds us real-life is often stranger, and more life-affirming, than fiction, and that’s what Angela Hughes’ memoir My Heart’s Content: A Journey to Transplant does beautifully. Angela spoke to SNACK (alongside husband, Paul) to discuss her incredible story.
My Heart’s Content: A Journey to Transplant is an unusual memoir, to say the least. How do you describe it when people like me ask you what it’s about?
Angela: What I’ve discovered is the answer to that question is a moveable feast. My initial intention was to provide an insight into the flip-side of organ donation – what it’s like to wait, for an indefinite time, for a high-risk operation, which could potentially give you back your life. To know your only means of survival relies on the death of another. To acknowledge and come to terms with your mortality.
As I wrote, I realised it was also a simple love story, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. And that far from being sombre, there was a lot of laughter. The importance of a community also emerged as a strong theme. Of family and friends. Of those close to me but also those unknown, rooting for me from afar. Of the medical and hospital staff. How we who wait for a transplant, don’t wait alone.
More recently, early readers of the book have described it as a love letter: to my friends and family, to the NHS, to Paul. I guess it’s all of those things.
How did you approach writing about yourself in this manner? Did you have other books in mind when you began which acted as inspiration?
Angela: In hospital, one of the nurses lent me a copy of Will I Still Be Me?, a memoir from a heart and lung transplant recipient. The author was about my age at the time of her transplant and her story gave me hope of a future.
But it was The Iceberg by Marion Coutts that really inspired me. I found it a moving and beautiful rendering of love in the face of illness and subsequently, in her story, death. Although she wasn’t the one who was ill, I was struck by the honesty of her account. Her writing often said much more than was on the page.
From the beginning I decided not to consciously censor my thoughts or feelings. I wrote the book during the two years of my recovery and everything was still very present and raw. I wanted people to feel that. One of my fellow transplant recipients sent me a message after reading the book, saying ‘nailed it’. That was really important; I realised I’d pitched it at the right level. Writing is musical but also visual for me. I enjoy the shape of words and the pattern they form on the page; the slipperiness of form. There were parts of my story that were intimate, particularly regarding my relationship with Paul. For these I drew on poetry; on a sparsity of words. Throughout, the opening stanza of ‘Miracle’ by Seamus Heaney looped through my mind.
At times it’s a hard book to read as you touch on thoughts and fears which everyone has to face at some point. What effect did writing this book have on you? Was it traumatic, cathartic, or a more complex mix of emotions?
Angela: It didn’t feel immediately cathartic, that came later. It was certainly emotional. I often had to walk away from it. The best way I can describe it is that putting it down on paper made it real. Throughout most of my time in hospital and much of my recovery, I felt detached. Absent. Almost as if I were an onlooker. Writing it down solidified the experience and returned me to myself.
Your family are a huge part of the story. How did they view you revisiting this time in your life, and was their input into the book essential?
Angela: Their support was essential and, without exception, offered unequivocally, though their reactions varied. My brother’s attitude to life is to keep moving forwards; never look back. At the time I wrote it, my mum found it too painful to actively contribute, whereas my sister, Lorraine, managed to find a way to do so and still maintain some emotional distance.
Paul: Angela was a gifted fiction writer before this happened, and we know that she felt a responsibility to use her skill with words to give an account of this experience. When she began to write it was all still raw and uncertain, but the process allowed us to discuss those events at a distance: as words on a page, bounded and controllable.
Much later, dipping into the completed manuscript, I found myself transported back into that room, those emotions. I can still only return to those places in small doses.
Memoir is reliant on memory, which can be different depending on who is doing the recalling. How do others contribute to the book, and did their versions of events surprise you?
Angela: I’ve read several memoirs around illness and trauma and often wondered about the reactions of the other people in the story. It intrigued me to know how my transplant had affected some of those close to me. Again, I didn’t want to censor their thoughts, so I invited family and the friends who visited me in hospital prior to my transplant, to write me a letter about their experience. I gave little direction and no word count. The letters are included in the book. I hoped they would add a further dimension both to the story.
I was surprised at the depth of feeling. These are the parts of the book I found the most difficult. It felt a little like reading eulogies. What struck me was the overall positivity. Their collective belief that I would be fine. Also the pervading sense of calm that seemed to inhabit them on the day of the operation, which was exactly how I’d felt. The book is also a love story. Was it as hard to reflect on the emotions of your relationship as it was the prospect of the journey to transplant?
Angela: Harder, I would say. Retelling my transplant journey was much less personal. I struggled with how much detail to include. My relationship with Paul has always had a magical quality which I wanted to convey but I was aware of how difficult some of it was and didn’t want to lessen or trivialise it. During my illness we shied away from the patient / carer dynamic but it became unavoidable in hospital, and though I didn’t want to dwell on it, I felt it necessary to touch on the fear around whether we would be able to return to an equal partnership.
Paul: It’s strange looking at your relationship from the outside, but I was glad Angela was able to capture the joy and laughter we shared, even when tears and goodbyes were just a breath away. Like Angela, I felt as though I was behind a glass wall in those days – constantly in the moment, and trying to hang on until the next step.
My Heart’s Content has been described as ‘fearless’, which is the perfect adjective for the way you tell your story, and that’s in no small part down to you being so honest about how vulnerable and fearful you felt at times. Now that the book is out, how do you feel about other people reading your story?
Angela: I initially intended to write a fictionalised account of my experience, to tell the story at once removed, but I felt it somehow lacked the honesty or veracity of memoir. Now it’s out there I feel naked but exhilarated. And more than a wee bit excited.
My Heart’s Content: A Journey to Transplant is available at liminalink.com
This interview was first published in the December 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.