When I Had a Little Sister: Catherine Simpson on her 'unflinching and honest account of the life she shared with her little sister'

When I Had a Little Sister: Catherine Simpson on her 'unflinching and honest account of the life she shared with her little sister'

Credit: Michael Graham

Edinburgh-based author talks to us about her forthright and incredibly moving memoir, which deals with her sister's depression and eventual suicide

In When I had a Little Sister, Catherine Simpson shares an unflinching and honest account of the life she shared with her little sister, Tricia, who committed suicide in 2013. The book is humorous and heart-wrenching in turns and a linguistic feat from someone who counts herself as part of a Lancashire farming family 'who never spoke'.

The author speaks candidly in the pages of this memoir and, in a way, her sister does too. The book first began to take shape when Catherine was on a writing retreat, waiting for feedback on another project. With time and solitude on her hands, she prepared herself to read Tricia's diaries for the first time – something she'd once believed she'd never be able to face.

In reading Tricia's day-to-day notes and mementoes and listening to the music mentioned in the entries, Catherine experienced a powerful feeling of connection to her sister. When she began to put some of her feelings and memories down on paper, she says 'it was very cathartic, it felt right.' In a way, she thinks of the book as a joint project and is glad that while Tricia didn't write the book she wanted to, she is at least the subject of one.

When I Had a Little Sister: Catherine Simpson on her 'unflinching and honest account of the life she shared with her little sister'

Writing a memoir has its own special challenges and fears. In 2015 Catherine published her debut novel, Truestory. In her fiction, she was able to share her thoughts and opinions in a fully imaginary setting. While the novel dealt with a subject close to her heart – the isolation, confusion and questions that can come hand in hand with raising an autistic child in a world suffering from limited understanding – the memoir meant tackling the lives of real people, some still living.

For Catherine, the only way to treat everyone fairly was to be as frank as possible. For every scene or instance, she asked herself whether it was 'fair, necessary and relevant'.

While it felt like an enormous responsibility, writing the memoir also offered a feeling of closeness and synchronicity with Tricia that was hard to relinquish when the manuscript was finished.

The result is not a self-help book or a memoir filled with answers or pseudo science. It's also certainly not saccharine, Catherine 'runs a mile from sentimentality or sugar coating' whenever she has the chance. Rather it is a contribution to a conversation about mental health, one that remains incredibly difficult for many, despite various profile-raising campaigns and public health initiatives.

As Catherine says, the good memories they have of Tricia are the only happy things that remain. In sharing those, along with the painful and difficult ones, she gives us a chance to know something of the bravery and complexity of her sister's life. Read it for that – and also for the laughs (yes, there are plenty of laughs), the honesty and the way it hopes to help open dialogues in families that don't know how to talk to each other.

Catherine will be talking about When I Had a Little Sister at Lighthouse Books, Wed 20 Feb, 7.30pm.

When I had A Little Sister: An Evening with Catherine Simpson

Catherine Simpson discusses her memoir When I Had a Little Sister.

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