Sophie Hannah shares her inspiration behind the World Book Night choice for 2013.
LITTLE FACE - The gossip behind the book.
Little Face â€“ the gossip behind the book
I had the spark of inspiration for Little Face shortly after my daughter, Phoebe, was born in November 2002. I was in hospital for five days trying to persuade her to come out, and hadnâ€™t slept for more than half an hour at a time for five nights, so when my baby finally emerged I was absolutely exhausted! The midwife offered to take her and look after her overnight so that I could get some restâ€”an offer I quickly agreed to, but then I found I couldnâ€™t sleep, so I tiptoed out on to the dark, quiet, night-time ward to try to find my new baby daughter. A midwife who was on the ward at the time â€“ a different one from the one who had taken Phoebe away â€“ saw me and started to walk towards me â€“ almost as if sheâ€™d been looking for me, or at least that was how it seemed to me. As she got closer, I saw that she was holding a tiny baby who was wrapped in a standard green hospital blanket, as Phoebe had been when the other midwife had taken her away. When I saw this new midwife hurrying towards me holding a baby, I assumed (in my sleep-deprived state!) that that baby must be my daughter! But when I reached out to take her, the midwife sprang back and said, â€œWhat are you doing? This isnâ€™t your baby!â€ She then pointed to a glass cot that was one of a row of similar cots lined up by the reception area of the ward. The cot she was pointing to contained another baby that looked pretty much identical to the one the midwife was holding: no hair, milk spots on her nose, perfectly round head. â€˜Thatâ€™s your daughter,â€™ said the midwife.
I looked down at this tiny creature and wondered, â€˜Is it? Is it really? Am I going to have to take your word for it, when Iâ€™ve never even seen you before?â€™ Luckily, the babies at this particular hospital are always carefully labeled with ankle tags (hospital policy!) so after some quick label checking, I was reassured that the infant I was being offered was in fact my Phoebe, but this weird experience started me thinking about how odd it is that you can be someoneâ€™s closest relative and yet not be entirely familiar with their face, that itâ€™s possible to be uncertain about whether a baby is or isnâ€™t yours. If the midwife had handed me the wrong baby, the one Iâ€™d initially tried to take, Iâ€™d have been none the wiser! After five days in labour, in agony almost constantly (epidurals and Pethidine didnâ€™t work for me, Iâ€™m afraid, and neither did a warm bath, which was just wet agony rather than dry agony), I really didnâ€™t know if I was coming or goingâ€”the hospital could have given me twins to take home and Iâ€™d probably have accepted it without question!
My husband Dan was due to come to the hospital the following morning to visit us both and I imagined myself saying to him, â€œThis isnâ€™t our baby! Our babyâ€™s been swapped for another one!â€ Would he believe me? Would he assume that I, as the mother, knew better because of my maternal instincts, or would he trust his own impression that the baby in my room was our daughter? If he did, would he be angry with me? Would he think I was lying, or that Iâ€™d gone mad? I knew instantly that this would make a compelling fictional scenarioâ€”a husband and wife who disagree about whether the baby in their house is theirs or not.
That gave me the opening scenario for Little Face, but at that point I had no idea how the mystery would be resolved. I couldnâ€™t think of a reason for someone to swap one baby for another â€“ and it was crucial that this swap should happen after the family have returned from the hospital, in their own home, because weâ€™ve all hears stories of hospitals mixing up babies. I wanted it to be clear that, if one baby had been swapped for another, it must have been a deliberate swap rather than an accidental one â€“ nothing to do with the hospital, and very much something to do with the family and/or close friends of the heroine. But why? Why swap one baby for another? If I couldnâ€™t think of a reason, then I couldnâ€™t write the book, and I really wanted to.
Then, a few weeks after Phoebe and I got home home from the hospital, some relatives were due to come and visit, to meet the new baby for the first time. One was somebody my husband and I had a very difficult relationship withâ€”a relationship that had almost totally broken down, in fact. As the visit approached, I found that I couldnâ€™t bear the idea of this person coming into contact with my precious new daughter. Thinking of my baby-swap idea, I rang a friend from my ante-natal class, Suzie, whose daughter was almost exactly the same age as mine. â€œCan I borrow Hannah for the afternoon?â€ I asked her, â€œand can I give Phoebe to you to look after? Just for a few hours â€“ then we can swap back.â€ If we did this, I explained, the problematic visiting relative would believe she was meeting Phoebe, so family etiquette requirements would be satisfied, but I would know that Phoebe would be safely tucked away at Suzieâ€™s house. And Suzie, I thought, shouldnâ€™t object too much because she didnâ€™t know and dislike this relative of mine, so it should surely be no skin off her nose if said relative met Hannah!
Of course, Suzie said no, alarmed by the madness of my plan! But I started to feel more pieces of my plot jigsaw falling into place, as I realized Iâ€™d come up with one possible reason why someone might swap one baby for another, and after that there was no stopping me! I thought of dozens of reasons why a person might substitute one baby for anotherâ€”so many, in fact, that it was a wonder, I thought, that it wasnâ€™t happening daily! And eventually, I thought of one that I decided would be the perfect explanation for the mystery in Little Face; how it absolutely had to be resolved. This ending/solution has proved controversial â€“ some love it and some hate it â€“ but I remain convinced that, in order to be true to the characters within the novel, I couldnâ€™t have ended the story any other way.
Incidentally, the relationship with the problematic relative is now much better, and I have felt no further need to attempt a child-swap! So â€“ a happy ending!