Writing has always been my passion, and my
therapy. But, leaving university, I realised that declaring myself
a writer did not amount to an actual job; so I went into
I still freelance, and write a political
column, which I greatly enjoy. But it didn't take long for me to
realise that my heart was in fiction. After a while, I decided to
follow my heart.
Of course, it doesn't pay the bills; so at
first I tutored A-level students, and freelanced as a journalist.
And I have a very supportive husband, who, unlike me, does have a
After Before is my first novel, a
contemporary story about three women: a Rwandan refugee, a cancer
sufferer, and a young, newly engaged Londoner trying to escape her
wild youth by coming to a Christian faith. They're linked by deep
betrayals that each of them has experienced in their pasts. Each is
consumed by this.
But, as their lives intersect, amidst what
becomes an exploration of identity, particularly modern womanhood,
the relationships between them force a confrontation with their
pasts, and enable them to begin a journey to forgiveness.
The inspiration began at a fundraising event
that my husband helped organise for the charity SURF, which
supports survivors of the Rwandan genocide. One of the survivors
spoke of horrors that it is impossible not to be moved by.
What got me most was the lingering sense of
betrayal: the enduring disbelief, even so many years on,
that in a community that shared the same language, the same
culture, the same colour, in a place where there was such little
difference, still neighbour could have betrayed neighbour, friend
betray friend. Days later and it still haunted me - how betrayal
can become all-consuming, tying you to the past, stopping you
moving on, stopping you living.
I started thinking about other kinds of
betrayal: not cheating lovers, but small, barely percept-
ible things: untrue words, unkept promises, unfulfilled dreams. The
Rwandan strand is just one thread of it. And, for each character,
generations and cultures are crossed by the common threads of
grief, guilt, regret, faith, friendship, and, more than anything,
Forgiveness isn't about forgetting - I don't
think you'd ever forget certain events - but about letting go of
the hold it has over you. Dark emotions of resentment, anger, and
regret are all quite debilitating. Each of the characters has to
find a way to forgive, before moving on to embrace life again.
In the character Vera, I was writing a Christian
character from a Jewish perspective. I've had a couple of
friends who made that transformative journey, and who were
overwhelmed by the change in their lives. I wanted Vera to be left
with that real sense of hopefulness, having a freshness to her life
and a relationship with God.
I was also exploring the tensions of religious legalism
and freedom. It's something a Jewish person could
experience, but it would come with a whole load of different
baggage. One of my close friends invited me to her church, and I
was very struck by the people I met there. I wanted to put some of
that sense of hope on the page.
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan
genocide. Although there is still much work to be done,
there is some sense of hope there, too, about how the country has
rebuilt itself. It is hard to believe that so recently almost one
million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days beneath
the gaze of a watching world.
That's the aspect that disturbs me most: how
passive the international community was throughout those terrible
100 days; how they were afraid to say the word "genocide" for fear
of having to act. After the Holocaust, we promised "never again";
and yet here was a clear "again". In smaller ways, every day,
terrible injustices continue to occur across the globe.
Violence against women in particular is receiving a
great deal of attention at the moment, and it's a
prevalent strand in After Before. I don't see it as my job
as a novelist to highlight any issue, or to understand it: my work
is fiction. But there are inevitably issues that are important to
me, that I wish to shine a light on, and, to do this with any
authenticity, it's important to understand the roots of them.
I'm in the midst of a second novel. I am also
working on a new play, and a children's book, which I am co-writing
with a friend, based on a sacred Hindu text.
My proudest achievement? Each little moment in
which I see love or hope or excitement in the eyes of my children,
and know I've helped put it there.
I'm one of four children, second in the pecking
order. My father is a composer and musician, and his father was a
singer-actor-writer. We lived in California, then in leafy
Hertfordshire in the midst of farms and woodland, until I moved
with my husband into London. My family contains a variety of strong
characters who sometimes clash, but we're blessed to be able to
surround each other with love, debate, support, and humour. Friends
sometimes wonder where the darkness in some of my writing is
My great-grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. His
son rebelled, and my father is an atheist; so it was my mother who
instilled the Jewish element in our family. We had quite an open
education, lots of debate, very questioning. I'm more close to the
traditions than my siblings now, perhaps because my husband comes
from an Orthodox family.
My faith is a very personal relationship with
God, influenced by Judaism, but not steeped that closely
in the institutionalised version of what that means. It's an
I love sport, especially running; film and
theatre; eating good food. But these days, most of the free time we
have we spend with our two young daughters, doing whatever they
love. It usually involves running after them, watching children's
theatre, and eating their leftovers.
I'm definitely happiest when I am with all of my
family: they are my life's adventure, and that's also when
I feel most complete. But I also get a strong sense of peace and
serenity when I'm alone, running, preferably around Regent's Park,
and ideally on a day when I feel like I'm beating the elements:
rain is great running weather.
I'd love to stage another play, make a movie,
write for The New York Times. And I like to travel. I'm
half American, and frequently visit New York and California, where
I have family. I love the American vibe, the positivity, the
We visit Israel regularly, where we also have
family. Despite the political troubles, the place exudes an
alluring combination of dynamic modern innovation, natural beauty,
and history in every part of its geography. But my favourite
destination has got to be Italy: I'm a sucker for a great
It's hard to pick one sound that reassures me.
My mother's voice. The deep breath of my children sleeping. My
father improvising at the piano.
My greatest life influences have got to be my
parents. Their values and love informed every moment of my
childhood, and still do.
Some of the most influential books in my life are those
that I read as a child. Perhaps our imaginations are more
vivid then, or perhaps we are less cynical, more willing to be
transformed. I think of The BFG, The Indian in the
Cupboard, and Narnia. As an adult, the dark early works of Ian
McEwan stayed with me, In Between the Sheets particularly.
Also The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri - poetic and soulful;
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; and Khaled Hosseini's The
I pray every night over my children, and I ask
for their health and happiness. I used to pray more often for
specific things, and occasionally I still do, but more recently I
feel that we can never really know what will bring us happiness, so
I leave this in God's hands.
If there was one person I could be locked in a room
with? I should probably choose some great philosopher
here, but I'd rather see my grandpa again. He died when I was 16,
quite suddenly. There was so much more I wanted to ask him.
Jemma Wayne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
After Before is published by Legend Press at £7.99.