Jo Caulfield is best known as one of the UK’s most respected stand-up comedians – a Fringe stalwart who loved Edinburgh so much she moved there. Six years ago, Jo was about to go on stage when she found out that her sister Annie had cancer. What transpired was a cathartic journey for both as they revisited their childhood and adolescence. Now she has written The Funny Thing About Death to celebrate her sister and their relationship in the frank, funny, and fearless style which fans of her comedy would recognise and expect. SNACK spoke to Jo to learn more about the book and the reasons for writing it.
Why did you want to write The Funny Thing About Death?
It developed from a need to clear my head of all the thoughts I was having about my sister Annie. When someone dies, particularly when they die before their time, they are constantly in your thoughts. I was flooded with memories and questions, so I started writing some of it down and putting it on social media. My sister was a big influence on me, and I just felt that she was too interesting a person to die – writing about her was a way of keeping her here; I felt that more people should know about her, should enjoy her.
How did you approach starting to write it?
Annie was a writer, so it made sense to include extracts from her work. It was something I could do for her that she would’ve wanted: to have people reading her work. So, it was a mixture of what I wanted to say about her, what bits of her work would help readers to get to know her, and what I wanted to say about myself.
There are also so many funny memories from childhood and in our 20s, stories that I hadn’t told in stand-up but which felt perfect to tell in a book.
You manage to weave memoir and memory with the unfolding story of Annie’s illness seamlessly. Did that come naturally?
To be honest, I resented giving cancer any attention. My sister was so much more interesting than cancer – it wasn’t her, it was something that happened to her. So, I didn’t go into lots of detail about her treatments. I write about her reaction to having cancer, you read about the people who are very open about their illness, but you don’t often hear about the people that want it to be a secret. It’s actually much more common that people retreat with illness – Annie had a small group of good friends and family that she chose to share it with.
I was travelling the country doing a stand-up tour in her last year. We had grown up living in different places, as my Dad was in the RAF. On the tour, I visited several of the old Air Force bases, so it was a natural jumping-off point to talk about memories from there with Annie, and then these went in the book. I would email her, just always trying to think of things to make her laugh or interest her.
Although it’s such a personal story, it’s one which will be relatable to most readers in one way or another, particularly with regard to the shifting family dynamics. It certainly did that for me. Did you consider how writing your account might help others?
People’s responses made me want to write more; they were relating to what I was saying, and it was comforting to know that other people were grieving too. Just knowing that someone else is feeling the same thing and understands helps enormously. So, it’s mutually beneficial. Some of the book has elements of ‘How to be when someone you love gets a serious illness like cancer’. The most important lesson is, it’s their cancer. Take your lead from them. And cancer is so unpredictable. Millions of people recover, always be hopeful.
My sister didn’t recover; she had a late diagnosis. It’s the worst, but also her last weeks were strangely full of laughter. The book is also about navigating grief and new situations that you have to negotiate. When you bump into someone from your past and they ask, ‘And what’s Annie up to?’
Did you worry about how friends and family would react to its publication?
My brother gave me his blessing to write whatever I needed to write. It’s really a love letter to my sister; I don’t think anyone would be upset by it, and because my sister was a writer I had boundaries. I didn’t reveal anything that she hadn’t written about herself. I checked with her partner Martin; I wouldn’t have put in anything that he wasn’t ok with. I’ve had people saying they wished they had known her and that they then went online and then bought one of her books because they wanted to hear more of her voice. That’s everything I could want.
All profits are going to Macmillan Cancer Support. Just how important were they to you and your family?
They were hugely important to all of us. They do so much practical and emotional support, like a nononsense friend who just gets stuff done when you really need help. An invaluable service. We set up a Macmillan tribute fund in her name, and so far, we’ve raised over £58k. About £20k of that has come from audience donations after my show at the Fringe.
As a resident of Edinburgh who regularly performs at the Fringe, how do you view the city considering this dualism?
I spend 11 months of the year travelling, but one month a year I get to reap the benefits of living in Edinburgh, walking to my gig every night. It’s great having so many comics that are friends all coming to my adopted hometown. Edinburgh is such a beautiful city at any time of year; it seems to equally suit a cold stark February day and the mad party town it turns into in August.
Can you tell us about this year’s Edinburgh show?
It’s me doing stand-up about what’s happened since last year and what’s angered and annoyed me this year. The best advert for my show is that people come back year after year to see me.
The Funny Thing About Death is published on the Polygon Books imprint of Birlinn Ltd
Jo Caulfield: Razor-Sharp is at The Stand Comedy Club 3 & 4 (Stand 3), 4th till 13th, 15th till 20th & 22nd till 27th August. Tickets here.