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The Playdate is out now. Penguin
VOICES

Clara Dillon I love stories about darkness lurking beneath a veneer of domestic civilisation

The Playdate is a psychological drama about motherhood and the long-term effects of bullying – school-gate politics but with a menacing undertone.

SARA HAS JUST moved to Dublin and is keen for her shy sensitive nine-year-old daughter Lexie to fit in at her new school. But in her over-eagerness to make friends, Sara manages to inadvertently offend the “tricky” mother of Polly, the most popular child in Lexie’s class, who then starts to bully Lexie.

Desperate to fix the trouble she has caused, Sara invites Polly on a playdate. But the playdate ends in catastrophe with a child being rushed to hospital on the brink of death – and that’s when things take a truly dark turn.

One of my favourite genres is domestic noir, about the darkness that can lurk beneath the cosy veneer of civilisation. I’ve always been interested in writing and thought that if I ever wrote a novel that would be the genre for me.

Meanwhile, in my day job as an anaesthetist, I spent years obtaining my medical degree and training as a hospital doctor, working nights and weekends, sometimes up to 100 hours per week, in addition to further exams to study for. So for a long time, I didn’t have much time for sleep, much less tackling the blank screen of my laptop.

ThePlaydate - hi res jacket The Playdate is out now. Penguin Penguin

Once I had completed all the training however, and become a consultant my hours were fewer and more predictable. Now, I said to myself, I could finish work and come home and be free to plan my evenings and weekends, maybe do some writing at last. And then I had children.

The space to write

There is that famous Cyril Connolly quote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”, which might sound as if he expected women to put their creative interests on hold to rear children – except that Cyril was talking about men here, forced to commit to a mundane job in order to finance their brood. But whether working a day job to fund children or staying at home to physically look after them (or both) there’s no denying that the little critters are tiring and time-consuming.

And it’s not just the hands-on aspect, there’s all the mental labour too, the constant planning and list-making: Are his shoes too tight? Should her teeth really be that shape? With small children you can never drift off into a creative fantasy as you wander around Tesco, imagining the protagonist of your novel performing a life-saving tracheostomy on her crush to the music of Enya. You always have to be fully alert and in the moment: “I’m warning you, Roderick. Do NOT wipe that on the baguettes.”

Material

In retrospect, all the time without realising it I was building up ideas, gaining rich extra layers of emotion, anxieties, joys and fears. Will my child make friends? Am I helping them enough? Or too much? Am I raising a snowflake? Always thinking ahead, always fussily preparing for the worst, so I wouldn’t be taken by surprise.

Then one day I was hosting a playdate and a child almost ran in front of a car. Bad enough, as a fellow mum later commented when the child was safely home again if it’s your own child, but imagine having to make that terrible phone call to another parent. Ye-ess, I mused to myself, the wheels beginning to turn in my brain. Horrific under any circumstances, but what if there was already tension between you and the other mum? How might that tension have built up, and what dark paths might that phone call lead to? And there and then my novel was born, and the school gate – with its smiling coffee mornings and playdates, yet with all those dark fears bubbling away underneath – the perfect backdrop.

The great thing about playdates – if the guests survive my hosting – is that your own children get invited back, so the time came when I finally had whole afternoons to myself to sit down at the laptop and pour my ideas on the page. But since I’m still working I tend to write very irregularly. I can go for a month without writing anything at all, then spend hours at a stretch writing late into the evening while the house grows dark and the children – home from their playdates – eat dry cornflakes out of their fists for dinner.

Usually though this is where my very hands-on partner comes into his own. Cyril Connolly of the pram quote made the point that a supportive wife was invaluable for a writer, and I would say exactly the same of a supportive husband.

I’ve been asked if I’d ever consider giving up medicine to write full-time and the answer is no. Apart from the fact that I enjoy being a doctor, I couldn’t write full-time. Where would I get my ideas from? The workplace is full of inspiration: stories, jokes, characters, microaggressions, frustrations, banter and laughter. And parenting anecdotes. So many anecdotes; funny, sad, weird; I’ve been inspired by them all – though I did make sure to go back and change all the names.

Clara Dillon is an anaesthetist and author. Her new book, The Playdate is out now, published by Penguin. 

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