“Never combine low blood sugar with a high horse,” says @YourAuntLola, Deborah McKinlay’s Twitter alter ego. But the actual Deborah McKinlay, a New Zealand-born, British-based author, thinks she does that sometimes. “When I’m feeling a bit low and grumpy, I allow myself a level of self-righteous indignation and irritation about things, which really I should just let go. I think that’s sort of dishonest.”
McKinlay mentions that because we’re talking about honesty and dishonesty, and we’re talking about that because her second novel, That Part Was True, as its title implies, is about honesty. In a mere 227 pages, McKinlay tells the story of Eve Petworth, a middle-aged British divorcee who struggles with social anxiety, and Jackson Cooper, a wildly successful American novelist who is dealing with his own divorce and insecurities as he approaches his fiftieth birthday.
Of course, divorce, anxiety and insecurities aren’t revealed on page one when Eve sends Jackson a handwritten fan letter complimenting his novel’s description of a man eating a ripe peach, which, Eve says, “introduced a moment of summer into a watery English day.” What is revealed on page two, as Jackson answers her letter, is their mutual love of cooking. And from that, a letter and email relationship of exchanged recipes evolves into a friendship of honesty and support…and perhaps romance.
McKinlay, who prefers to answer questions in the same spare way she writes—for example, when I ask her if she’s ever been married and has children, she succinctly replies, “the answer to both of those is yes” and stops, as if that’s enough information—claims she is not prone to dishonesty. But she laughs when she says, “I say I’ve lived in England for 20 years, and I don’t think that’s been true for about 10.” And she later confesses that she lied when she told me she’s 50 years old. “I’m a bit older than that. But the reason I say I’m 50 is because of my child being so young.” He’s seven. “So we are dishonest.” And she laughs again.
It’s then that she admits she can get on that self-righteous high horse with her son. And it’s dishonest, she says, because the truth is, he hasn’t done anything worthy of her being on her high horse. She’s just had a bad day. “And then I have to go and be straight with him. But I feel that’s a very, very long way and very disconnected from my work and my writing. I don’t think it would feed into it in anyway.”
Maybe. Maybe not, because in That Part Was True Eve and Jackson are having very bad days, as they’re slowly realizing the mistakes they’ve made in their lives, and—at midlife—are having to be straight with themselves about those mistakes. For Eve, those regrets include relinquishing her daughter’s childrearing to her overbearing mother and succumbing to the life of a spinster who spends her days puttering around her home, gardening and cooking.
And at least to some degree, McKinlay seems to be channeling a bit of herself through novelist Jackson Cooper, who is a good cook (but not as good as Eve) and cherishes his time alone in rural places near the sea. Indeed, McKinlay says, “I like physical aloneness, and I really like remoteness.” She recently moved into a home with water views on three sides. “So nobody looks in.” And prior to that, she lived in Exmoor, a very rural part of western England.
“It’s very important to me to have time by myself,” she says, “and that may be because I like being inside my own head and thinking, and the more I write, the more I like being on my own.” In fact, she’s come to the realization that she’s rather suited to the single life. “I actually suspect that an awful lot of people are, and that we just are a bit reluctant to accept that idea.”
So does that mean Jackson and Eve don’t get together? Or do they follow more of @YourAuntLola’s advice: “Sweetie, once in a while the universe hands you a piece of chocolate cake…Share it”?
To Grand Central Publishing, the publishing house that reputedly paid McKinlay a seven-figure advance for That Much Was True, that’s the million dollar question and one that has McKinlay not feeling the least bit grumpy.
Suzy Spencer is the author of the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.