Writer Kerry Hudson: ‘Universal basic income just makes sense’

Interview Writer Kerry Hudson: ‘I grew up with the narrative that working-class mothers were the worst’ Hephzibah Anderson The author on following her acclaimed debut Lowborn with a memoir about motherhood, why her next two books will be thrillers, and the power of toast to bring cheer

Writer Kerry Hudson: ‘Universal basic income just makes sense’
Writer Kerry Hudson: ‘Universal basic income just makes sense’

By Hephzibah Anderson

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Kerry Hudson wrote two award-winning novels before her memoir Lowborn (2019), which described her harrowing early years spent bouncing between foster families and homeless hostels, established her as a vital advocate for social equality and inclusion. Now, follow-up Newborn: Running Away, Breaking from the Past, Building a New Family finds her eyeing the future. Having spent a few months living on a houseboat, the 43-year-old now resides on terra firma in Sheffield with her husband and their three-year-old son.

What made you want to write about motherhood?
Let’s be frank, I’m not the first author to have a baby and then immediately need to write about it, but I had these vast, complicated feelings about myself and motherhood and how I was brought up. Newborn felt like a natural progression from Lowborn, the culmination of what happens after you “escape” – I use the word very much in inverted commas: you don’t really escape but you move forward. How do you then build a happy, healthy, functional life of love and stability around you?

You became very ill in the middle of writing the book, with a rare autoimmune disease that made it hard to breathe. How did that experience shape it?
It’s not being dramatic to say that I really thought I might die, and so the book became a little legacy to leave behind for my son and my husband. I wanted to crystallise this complicated, beautiful family that we created, which for me was a miraculous gift because I’d been told to expect that I would never have a loving partner, that I wouldn’t be a good mother.

Told by whom?
I grew up with the narrative that working-class mothers were the worst of the worst, and then I was told directly by people quite often that with my background, having a child was going to be difficult. When Lowborn came out there was a really long review on Amazon from a woman who said – in capital letters – do not have children, please, and if you do, refer yourself to extreme psychiatric maternal care. At the time, I thought I was infertile but we were still trying for a baby, and I was just heartbroken.

It’s still very common for me to do panels with three writers from Oxbridge, so I’ll never feel totally comfortable

Kerry Hudson

As a society we’ve been slower to acknowledge classism than other prejudices, and the publishing industry is no exception. What makes you optimistic for change?
When I started out, there just weren’t that many working-class voices. If I hadn’t been such a novelty, I’m not sure my career would have had quite as much momentum, but there are a lot of brilliant working-class writers now, like Graeme Armstrong, who was on the Granta [Best of Young British Novelists] list.

Your voice has helped shaped the conversation. Do you feel powerful when you sit down to write?
I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over that feeling of imposter syndrome. It’s still very common for me to do panels with three writers from Oxbridge, so I’m never going to feel totally comfortable. Where I do feel powerful is with my family and with the life that I’ve created, which writing has allowed me to build. This feels the right balance to me – that slight discomfort in the creative space is actually quite valuable.

If you could wave a magic wand and do one thing to make Britain more equitable, what would that be?
Can it be two? Universal basic income just makes sense. We’re a vastly unequal society and there’s really no reason for that. And the other thing is that I would heavily, heavily invest in social and affordable housing. Those are the things that cause the greatest sense of marginalisation. If you don’t have a secure, safe home it is really hard to build the foundations of any sort of life, and if all your energy is spent worrying about every penny, it’s so grinding and exhausting you can’t possibly be expected to make your life better.

You’re taking a break from memoir to write two thrillers. What motivated that decision?
I’ve always found writing helpful and therapeutic. It’s been a way to effectively make gold from the shit, you know? But as wonderful as it is being able to turn everything into material, it also means you’re always an observer in your own life. I just wanted to be able to live more in the present. I also miss the joyride of novels. There are so many ethical concerns about writing your own life, and you spend so much time analysing and deconstructing everything, whereas with fiction, you literally just make it up.

You lived in Prague during the pandemic. What was that like?
There were armed guards on the streets during lockdown and the fine for breaking the rules was equivalent to the cost of an apartment. But it is just an astoundingly beautiful place. Even when I talk about it I get a bit cheerful because every street is magnificent. If I had been well, we’d have stayed, but by the time we left I was spending 90% of the time in bed, and gave every ounce of energy I had to my son. How unbelievably lucky and privileged were we to be able to come home and access the NHS?

You’ve since been diagnosed with a second autoimmune condition. How has that affected your life?
I have to take a very low-dose chemotherapy drug and build in rest but I have a fairly good quality of life. Unfortunately it is an illness where people die earlier than they’re meant to, so it changes your perspective. I’ve really had to evaluate what is happiness, what I want my creative practice to be, how I want to use my time and my energy, and what brings me joy – and for that I’m grateful. External validation is something you need so badly when you come from a very marginalised place, and I was always driven, driven, driven. I could have spent years chasing after things that I don’t really care about on a deeper level.

You’re an incredibly optimistic person but it’s a lot to deal with. What reliably picks you up?
The joke in our house is that a slice of toast is what I always need. Food has always been a great pleasure, but these days it’s often just my kid. Every time I look at his little laughing face, life is OK.

His childhood is already so different to your own. Do you ever worry that he might grow up too sheltered?
Childhood is meant to be cushioned and sheltered. It shouldn’t be that you have to show resilience when you’re six or seven. If my son comes out of his childhood into his teens believing the world is just a generous, warm, kind place then I will consider myself to have done a very good job.

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