'My son was peppered by a mortar bomb and now I can't write a word': Painful secret that left best-selling author Clare Francis with writer's block for five years
21:00 GMT, 5 May 2012
Stunned: Clare Francis suffered writer's block after hearing news that her soldier son Tom had been injured in Afghanistan
For hours on end, Clare Francis would stare at the blank page on her computer screen, the ideas, which usually flowed so easily, simply refusing to come.
Working on her previous books – 14 of them, including eight bestselling thrillers – she would often write all day, sometimes seven days a week.
But now she found herself seized by an inability to write anything.
In her mind’s eye, normally so adept at conjuring up vivid scenes and colourful characters, she could see only the harsh and unforgiving landscape of Helmand province.
She had been left dazed by news that her soldier son had been injured in Afghanistan.
Back in the Seventies, Clare was best known for being a brilliant yachtswoman who twice sailed the Atlantic single-handed.
But for the past 30 years, she has experienced extraordinary success as the author of psychological crime novels.
Since her first – Night Sky in 1983 – she has sold millions of books and been translated into 20 languages. Her work has made her millions and she is adored by her fans. And yet since 2007, she has written nothing.
That was the year her only son, Tom, a soldier serving in Afghanistan, was injured in a Taliban mortar explosion. She has been struggling for nearly five years to come to terms with the incident.
It prompted her to think, ‘What is life all about’ – a question she still ponders today.
Her devoted fans obviously knew she had stopped writing – but not the reason why.
A recent apologetic note on her website gave little away, saying only: ‘I’m sorry, but there won’t be a new book this year after all. Life and events, good and bad, have conspired to get in the way.’
Clare, now 66, revealed to The Mail on Sunday the story behind her cryptic message. ‘Tom had always been determined to go into the Army,’ she says. ‘I wanted him to do something that would make him happy and never tried to dissuade him.
‘He was a 28-year-old lieutenant in The Rifles regiment out in Afghanistan. He had eight British soldiers and 30 Afghan soldiers in his platoon. Around Christmas in 2007, he was on foot patrol from a remote base somewhere in Helmand province.
‘We used to speak once or twice a fortnight and he always said how quiet it was – but I have since discovered soldiers are encouraged to lie to avoid worrying their families.
‘Unbeknown to me, Tom had been moved to a hotspot where they needed reinforcements. They went into a village and there was a mortar explosion. One of the Afghan soldiers was injured and Tom’s arm was peppered with shrapnel, with one piece nicking a vein.
When the helicopter came for the injured Afghan, Tom was told he should also go to the military hospital.
‘He rang from the hospital to say his injuries were minor, that he’d had a few stitches and was OK. I was really shocked. Although there were many terrible casualties at the time, I had forced myself to close off the possibility of anything happening to him and hadn’t realised how worried I’d been until that moment.’
So close: Clare in 1994 with her only son, Tom, whom she brought up single-handed
Clare is usually remarkably self- reliant. She brought up Tom single-handed after divorcing his father Jacques, a fellow sailor, when their son was six. But this news shook her to the core and she turned to others for comfort.
‘I talked a lot to the parents of one of Tom’s friends who had returned from duty, because I knew they would understand what I was going through,’ she says.
‘They were very helpful but I still couldn’t concentrate on writing. I no longer wanted to escape into my fantasy world with my characters, something I had, until then, always found easy. Instead I wanted to stay with the reality of what was happening.’
She looks a little sheepish as she explains that before Tom suffered his injury, she had bought a terrier puppy ‘to help me cope when Tom was away, to keep me company and give me a focus’.
Block: In Clare Fancis' minds eye, she could see only the harsh and unforgiving landscape of Helmand province
‘I called him Bertie,’ Clare says. ‘He was an absolute poppet, full of character and energy, and I poured all my emotions into him.
‘People who don’t have dogs don’t
understand that they are like children. They depend on you utterly and
love you unconditionally. I am cautious, self-protective and don’t give
easily of myself but I loved Bertie completely.’
it is little wonder she was distressed when Bertie became ill when he
was just ten weeks old – and died just over three months later.
Achievements: Yachtswoman Clare Francis with a replica of her boat 'Robertson's Golly'
She says: ‘My relationship with Bertie had become very deep and it was also quite complex. I had a child who was grown-up but in a dangerous place, which made me feel very vulnerable. And I also had a substitute child at home who was unwell.
‘I kept finding Bertie’s bed covered with thick stuff from his nose. One vet thought it might be an obstruction and suggested an operation, another said it might be distemper. But as he seemed to be getting better I didn’t want him to have unnecessary interventions.’
Sadly, the recovery was short-lived.
‘I kept taking him back to the vet and it was only when he had a blood test when he was six months old that I learned he had canine parvovirus, a disease that had destroyed his gut. He died shortly afterwards and I was absolutely devastated.’ Bertie’s death came five weeks after Tom was injured and the incidents made Clare reassess her life.
‘I was finding it harder and harder to go into my study and work,’ she says. I had been writing fiction for 30 years – hard solid graft on my own. I always demanded so much of myself – always thought I could do better and always given myself a hard time.
I suddenly remembered the words of a concerned friend who had said to me, “Clare, what is the good of dying rich if you haven’t had a good life” What happened to Tom and Bertie brought her words back to me.
‘I decided I wanted more reality in my life and instead of trying to write, I would engage more emotionally with friends and family – I have a sister who has three children and they also have children – and nurture that side of me. I was offered another terrier but couldn’t replace Bertie straight away.’
When Clare took stock of her life, she decided to move house. ‘I had lived in a beautiful five-bedroom house in Kensington for 28 years but, as Tom had moved out in his early 20s, I had much more room than I needed. It was the perfect time to change.
‘It took me a while to find somewhere else but I am now in the middle of totally renovating a newly acquired three-bedroom house in Kensington, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I am also having lots of fun. I go to art exhibitions with friends and then stay out for lunch, something I would have felt far too guilty about before.
Accomplished: Clare Francis was a brilliant yachtswoman who twice sailed the Atlantic single-handed
‘It took two years for the guilt about not working all the time to wear off. But once I stopped work, everyone said they had never seen me so relaxed. A year after Bertie died I got two more terriers, Biskey and Red, who make me laugh.
'I take them for a proper walk first thing and then go to the building site of my new house to project-manage it all. I am learning to play bridge, which is great fun and good for the brain.’
What is the wildest thing she has done She laughs. ‘Wild by my standards is probably not wild by other people’s, but I think it was going on the London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run in a neighbour’s very old car in pouring rain.’
Her change of lifestyle had another consequence: ‘I’ve had a lovely romance, which came to a natural end last December.’ She laughs but refuses to say more. ‘I am newly single so anything could happen.’
Clare usually hates talking about her sailing days and during an earlier conversation had chided me more than once for mentioning the subject. ‘It all happened so long ago, why can’t people move on and see me in a different light’ she had said.
However, now she raises it herself. ‘I haven’t felt this carefree since my first trip across the Atlantic in my 20s,’ she says.
‘I wasn’t in a race and I swanned around the world doing odd jobs in the West Indies and west coast of America to earn money for food. I never worried where the next penny was coming from and had a wonderful time.’
Clare, who at 5ft 1in is petite and dainty, had to draw on all her willpower when she contracted ME shortly after her divorce 22 years ago. For four years she was so ill she could manage only to crawl out of bed to write for a couple of hours each day.
Heavy price: British troops have seen fierce fighting and suffered heavy casualties during combat in Helmand Province in Afghanistan
‘At one point I couldn’t handle bright light or loud noises,’ she says. ‘Luckily I was one of the 60 per cent of sufferers who recover – though are never quite the same. It took me about ten years to feel better.
‘Although I have recently resigned as trustee of the charity Action For ME, I remain its president. The charity is one of my great passions.’
Does she wish she had taken a long break much earlier
Clare says: ‘I had very different choices. I would have loved to have had more children and be living with someone, but that is not the way things turn out. I worked because I had to support my son and bring him up. Tom, who is now a captain, did a second tour in Helmand last summer but this time working in intelligence.
‘He was still in the middle of nowhere but sitting behind a computer. He is back in the UK now and has a steady girlfriend, Christa, who is super. She is a primary school teacher from a Service family – which helps, as she understands.
‘Overall, I am incredibly optimistic that life is going to be fantastic.’
So, she has adjusted her life-work balance and she has her adored son back in Britain. She is happy. What her legions of fans now want to know is, will she write again
‘Stories never stop whirring round my head and I’ve put lots of thoughts in my ideas file,’ she says. ‘When I move into my new home, hopefully in September, I want to come back to writing. I should feel really fresh, but this time I want to find the right balance between a wonderful real life and a wonderful fantasy life.
‘It might be tough finding it, but that is what I shall try to do.’
But how would she feel if she didn’t write again She pauses, then says: ‘I would be sad not to exercise my craft as a storyteller, which I enjoy so much. I would also feel a responsibility to my loyal readers.
‘At the same time, I am excited by the idea of going where life takes me – and at the moment that could be anywhere.’
For more information about ME visit www.actionforme.org.uk.