By Louise Beech
When our then ten-year-old daughter Katy began rejecting her life-saving insulin injections, I never imagined that storytelling would save her life. She’d had type 1 diabetes for three years and always coped well with the many blood tests and injections. Her diagnosis – on a Friday 13th – came as a shock, and of course there was initial resistance to such a rigid routine, but she surprised us.
Then in 2010 Katy decided she’d had enough of needles. No amount of blackmail or begging or cajoling persuaded her otherwise, and we had to force the regime on her, which is no way to live. A distressed child is awful for a parent to witness.
Then I suggested telling Katy stories to distract from the pain. She loves books and the idea of hearing a variety of different tales every day piqued her interest. The deal was that she would willingly do her blood test and injection in exchange for a story.
As a writer I hoped I’d be good at creating characters and scenes on the spot, but our headstrong daughter soon grew tired of my made-up yarns.
Then I had a curious dream about my grandfather, Colin Armitage, sitting on my bed talking to me, and I realised that his true story was better than any fairytale I could ever think up.
In 1943, during the war, his ship was torpedoed and he and thirteen other merchant seamen managed to get to a tiny lifeboat. Here they struggled to survive on the South Atlantic Ocean, with minimal rations, in tropical heat, and enduring grave injuries.
When a British Navy ship rescued them fifty days later, only my grandad and his companion Ken remained. It is a story that has inspired many a newspaper clipping, and Colin’s medals were briefly in the Imperial War Museum in London.
So I began to tell Katy this story each time we read her blood and then did the required injection. A short chapter with each procedure. We huddled on my bed and – as I became Grandad Colin’s voice – it turned into the lifeboat. She was mesmerised. She barely noticed each needle or finger prick.
I worried that when we finished the story Katy would again reject her insulin. But the magic continued; the power of Colin’s bravery made her strong too, and she said that if he could survive being lost at sea then she could cope with her diabetes.
The experience – in which we really bonded – inspired me to write a short story about a fictional mum and daughter going through a similar trial. I stuck closely to the truth when recounting Colin’s sea survival. Still, the whole thing haunted me. I felt it could be an even bigger story.
So in 2013 I started a full novel. I’d given up my job in travel when Katy was first diagnosed, and so writing filled my time and was like therapy. I also hoped that Katy’s story might be of comfort to others with type 1, or those caring for them.
I’d always dreamed of a book deal, and my novel How to be Brave got me one, with Orenda Books. It was an emotional and joyful moment, because Katy’s type 1 diabetes journey has been a rocky one. But now hopefully others might read my words and find the courage to face whatever challenges this condition has for them.
I’m donating my book advance to JDRF. If you’d like to purchase How to be Brave it is now available in eBook from Amazon and from Waterstones, Amazon and Foyles in paperback in September. www.orendabooks.co.uk