A Writer's Process: Jenny Alexander

My older sister killed herself when I was 23 and I always knew I’d want to write something for young people about suicide.

My first thought was that it should be a Young Adult self-help book, as I’d already written 8 self-help books for children, but my agent couldn’t get a publisher on board with it. She suggested I might write it as a novel instead.

I finished the first version of my novel, Drift, more than 10 years ago, and several publishers expressed interest in it, but they all eventually decided that the story was ‘too quiet for the market.’ They said it needed a ‘strong hook,’ that is to say, to be out-of-the-ordinary in some striking way.

But my reason for writing it in the way I had was because I wanted to help other survivors of sibling suicide to feel less alone in that already extraordinary grief. The whole point of my book was that it should feel real; it should feel like any young person’s life, suddenly disrupted by something that could happen to anyone.

I knew I had written a good book and I wasn’t willing to compromise it by sexing it up, so I shelved it and tried to forget about it, but it wouldn’t go away.

So when I got a new agent a few years later, I sent it to her. She liked it, but told me she found the most dramatic passages weirdly unmoving.

I realised then that I’d been unwilling to feel the kind of emotions I’d felt when my own sister killed herself; by creating a protagonist who was emotionally numb, I’d hoped to be able to tell her story without feeling the raw pain of her situation.

I rewrote the whole novel, this time fully inhabiting the main character, and it was the hardest rewrite I’d ever done, but the experience broadened my reach as a writer. Where previously I had invariably used humour in stories about difficult subjects such as bullying, now I found I could lay down that armour if I wanted to. It felt brave.

My agent sent the revised version out to publishers. They still found it ‘too quiet’ so I brought Drift out myself on September 10th 2015, to mark World Suicide Prevention Day. I later realised that my choice of publication date was almost exactly 40 years to the day after my sister’s death.

Drift has received wonderful reviews so far and has just been included in the list of books recommended by Cruse, the UK’s largest charity for the support of bereaved children, young people and adults. When I saw that on their website, I felt I had done what I set out to do.