The One That Got Away was my lockdown project. I turned 40 in lockdown and I was, unsurprisingly, not particularly thrilled about it, but turning 40 when the whole world was shut (it was at the time when you were literally only allowed to go to the supermarket) added extra salt to my wound. With all that empty time on my hands, I was plagued with a predictable malady – midlife nostalgia – and began to reminisce about my youth. Specifically, my early twenties, and my time at university.
I went to Leeds University and I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t the best time of my life (as it was sold to me!). I’d left a very small school to join the university with the biggest student population in the whole country, and it was a shock. I was incredibly insecure, shy and awkward. While I was there, I fell in love more intensely than I could have imagined but when university ended, we broke up. I was devastated.
I always say to people that The One That Got Away isn’t a love story, it’s a story about first love. First love has always fascinated me. It’s such a formative experience and the way in which our first serious relationship ends really leaves its mark on us, and the rest of our lives.
If we’re lucky and come out of it relatively unscathed, then hopefully we’ll go on to have further happy, healthy relationships, with just a little more wisdom and understanding.
But what if our first relationship ends badly?
I wanted to examine the impact on two flawed, but very real people, when their first great love story ends in immense tragedy. How does this affect them? What impact does it have on the rest of their lives, and the lives of those around them? And most importantly of all, is there a way they can move on?
And so the characters Clara and Benjamin came to me. When they meet, they are both young and ill-equipped to cope with the intensity of their feelings for one another. They are also both scarred by their childhoods. Their love is real, intense, all-consuming and bittersweet – and it ends in disaster.
Twenty years later, Clara is married to someone else and has a great career, but she’s not happy. She can’t move past her guilt about what happened to Benjamin. One day, she’s at work when she hears that a bomb has gone off in their university city and, knowing Benjamin still lives there, she jumps on a train to try to track him down.
As a writer, it was a joy to be able to examine these characters through the course of 20 years, to watch them evolve and mature and then, eventually, to reconcile. They are both flawed, they make a lot of mistakes, but they are human and they are real, and I hope they will come alive to readers enough that they are moved by their story.