Interview: Jeremy Bending Author of If You Don’t Know…
Your novel delves deeply into the emotional aftermath of a family tragedy. What inspired you to explore the theme of a father's suicide and the subsequent doubts that emerge?
I suppose it was inevitable that many of the issues around the theme of Jeff’s father’s suicide arose from my personal history: the fact that my mother took her own life – by throwing herself off a speeding train in a tunnel – when I was a final year medical student about to sit my final exams to qualify as a doctor.* I was called down from London to the local police station to identify her shoes and then her body in the mortuary. Many of the feelings ascribed to Jeff and his siblings come from the experience of my own tragedy. Having said that, the subsequent doubts Jeff and his brother and sister have about what really happened to the dead “man” was the vehicle that I used to develop the story of the novel into a thriller.
My fourth novel Gwendoline is the story of the life and tragic death of my mother, but told as a fiction without revealing that the subject is the author’s mother. It is due to be released by Cranthorpe Millner in spring 2024.
The protagonist, Jeff, embarks on a harrowing journey into the world of sex trafficking, a major subplot in your novel. How did you approach researching such a dark and complex topic?
I have an interest in human rights and international relations – my daughter Rachel works for an international organisation in this field – and therefore do have some background knowledge in the subject which, as you say, is dark and complex, an international tragedy in itself – so I did not really have to “research” this further, but wrote from what I knew.
The phrase "If you don't know, I don't know" is rather cryptic. Can you explain its significance in the context of the novel?
The phrase “If You Don’t Know” is a cryptic one, and coined purposely to become the basis of the intrigue of the story that evolves. [The definition of how it arose is given to Jeff by his father Michael three-quarters of the way through the book (p. 238).]
As a doctor with a focus on medicine, what parallels, if any, do you draw between the world of healthcare and the intricate plots of your novels?
I suppose the answer to that question that the world of medicine reflects that of life – and death – of the world in general. Perhaps the “intricate plots” are under the surface, but they are there!
"If You Don’t Know…" was a finalist in the 2022 International Page Turner Writing Awards. How does it feel to receive such recognition, and how has it influenced your writing journey?
Of course, I was pleased that the book was chosen as a finalist in the International Page Turner Writing Awards 2022, but I am not unaware that the quality of literature is not always best defined by book prizes. And, as I always say, I have always written for enjoyment, not for fame (or fortune)!
How did your previous novel, "In the Shadows of the Birch Trees", with its backdrop of World War II, influence the themes or writing style of "If You Don’t Know…"?
I don’t sense that If You Don’t Know… was influenced in any direct way by my first novel In the Shadows of the Birch Trees.
Your background in medicine is fascinating. How do you think this profession has informed your approach to character development and storytelling?
Medicine is – and has been for me – a truly fascinating career. As I said above: “all human life is there”. As for storytelling, my life-long fascination for writing was implanted in me by an inspirational English teacher when I was in my teens, but was actually only “let out of the bag” when I hung up my stethoscope – and the all-consuming hours of a life in medicine – and had the time to concentrate on a new career as a writer.
How did you navigate writing about Hungary and the Roma community? Were there any particular challenges or considerations you kept in mind?
I and my family have visited and, occasionally, worked in Hungary for over twenty years. So I have absorbed many of the facets and challenges that exist in this country today, as the book describes – not least the plight of the discrimin-ated Roma community.
Are there elements or characters in the book that are drawn from personal experiences or people you have met during your career as a doctor?
I am not aware that any characters in the book have been derived from people I met during my life and career as a doctor. Rather, they were developed to fit the story in a way I hope is believable and enjoyable for the reader.
The blurb hints at a dichotomy between things discussed versus those that aren't. How do you perceive the power of silence or unspoken truths in both your narrative and real life?
Oh, yes! Unspoken truths are all around us in real life and sometimes – but very much not always – these are best left unspoken. I have tried to mirror some of these in my novel.
Your previous works, such as "A Listening Doctor", combined fiction with aspects of medicine. Can readers expect more such intersections in your future writings?
Yes, they can! You will have to read my next novel Impulses, which is due for release in a few weeks’ time (26 September). ‘The intriguing story of how a man could lose control of his basic impulses’, which has a medical secret.
Can you share with us a bit about your writing process? How do you juggle your medical career with the demands of writing a novel?
I didn’t. As I have said above, the demands of medicine meant that writing anything but short stories – some of which were included in my book A Listening Doctor – meant that my life-long fascination for writing was essentially submerged until I left my medical profession behind. And, you are right, novel writing is very demanding; but enjoyably so, as far as I am concerned.
The title, "An Act of Love Betrayed", speaks volumes. How did you land on this title, and how does it encapsulate the essence of the story?
From my own experience there is a – perhaps unspoken – feeling by some members of a family following the suicide of a loved one that they have in some way been “betrayed”, that there might have been something selfish in the act. (I certainly don’t hold that view myself.) Of course, in If You Don’t Know… the central character Michael does betray his wife Marion by not revealing to her that he was not actually murdered, and at the end of the book choses to conduct a new life under a new name with his girlfriend Zita.§
Your novels tend to touch on deeply emotional and sometimes controversial topics. How do you ensure that you approach such subjects with sensitivity and accuracy?
If your question implies that my approach to deeply sensitive topics might be controversial and not as sensitively dealt with as they might be, then I am sorry about that. Personal and public life is full of controversy, which I have always thought should be aired, not sublimated.
Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from "If You Don’t Know… ‘An Act of Love Betrayed’"? Is there a particular message or sentiment you aim to convey?
No. I don’t seek to convey a message when I write. I don’t set out to “preach”. I hope that giving the reader enjoyment is sufficient; if I can achieve that, then I shall be happy.