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'Without Death You Wouldn't Live': Salena Godden on Mrs Death Misses Death

Posted on 20th January 2021 by Anna Orhanen

A powerful exploration of mourning, love and ritual, Mrs Death Misses Death is the debut novel of the acclaimed poet and writer Salena Godden. An exhilarating journey through different times and climes, this though-provoking story follows Death itself as the titular protagonist and a young writer who embarks on chronicling her memoir. In this exclusive piece, Godden talks about how the novel came into being, the geography of grief, and the importance of those connections that might not always be obvious.  

It was a wintry night when I realised I was writing a new book. I'd met my best friends for a Christmas drink. We'd had a few rums and talked about how knackered and skint we were and how worried we all were about things. It had been a rotten year, so many lost, so many funerals and we sighed and raised a glass or two.

Afterwards I began walking home alone and I felt sad. I headed along Brick Lane and it was exactly there walking through Whitechapel when this line of this book appeared to me - “I know a lot of dead people now”  - and I stopped still in my tracks. It was as though another voice spoke to me. I was not afraid of it but hyper aware that this was not my usual narrator, or my own internal voice, but a new character voice. Her message was simple and suddenly I felt I was not alone: Because we all know a lot of dead people now. I walked down past the East London Mosque and onwards towards Bow, listening and stopping in bus stops and doorways to type her story into my notes and tried to capture and record her monologue into my voice memos as I heard it, “I know a lot of dead people now and I know death is inevitable, without death you wouldn't live...”

It was one of those memorable lightbulb moments you hear artists talk about and maybe it is because of all of this, I didn't let anyone read this work for years. Following on from this I began to compose on the lips, tell the sky these stories and record it into my phone to be typed up later at home. Some of these early first draft recordings were used in the BBC Radio 4 documentary about this work-in-progress. I also set some of the book to music and performed this with my friend the composer and musician Peter Coyte.

I wrote some parts of this book in Ireland when I was invited as a guest of Bill Drummond and New Reekie to be writer in residence at The Curfew Tower in Cushendall, Co. Antrim. It was a terrifying and edifying experience to live in this ancient prison tower on my own. To write about life and death and face my many fears; fear of failure, fear of success, fear of loneliness, fear of the dark, fear of ghosts, fear of loss, fear of death. When I returned I eventually faced probably one of my biggest fears, fear of rejection, and submitted my novel to my agent Crystal Mahey-Morgan. I was blown away by her powerful response and enthusiasm. It was more than I hoped for and everything I needed to have the confidence to finally let go, let the book go and let the world read it.

Over the years, I have become an early morning writer, often beginning work at 4am  to write in the silence and the dark, watching for first light and sunrise. I knew this was a vivid story I wanted to tell myself, both to mourn and to celebrate, to cry and to laugh, to make some sense about all of this living and all this dying. If I were a painter I tried to capture that morning light and hope it gives me through the characters of Wolf and Mrs Death.

As the early drafts of the book developed I started collecting deaths, near deaths and unmourned deaths, invisible deaths and celebrity death and writing about them. I also started testing the work out at my poetry gigs. I'd slip an excerpt of the book into my poetry shows to see how Mrs Death landed with my poetry friends and with spoken word and book festival audiences. I began to notice different responses in different cities and different counties. For example at a show in Edinburgh the piece of  work was met with a cheery and raucous raised glass for Mrs Death. That same material and that same week in Bloomsbury I saw people crying in the theatre audience and I caught the tears and cried too and there were lots of hugs after the show. I'm fascinated by this and hope to examine it further: I wonder if here in the UK we exhibit grief and talk about death and mourn a little differently county by county? Do we mourn differently geographically? Culturally we do death differently all over the world, we mourn, share in ritual and funerals and wakes, but I started to wonder if we differ city to city, county to county too? In one gig in the Midlands a snippet from Mrs Death was met with a beautiful reverence, the theatre became as quiet as a church. The same chapter shared in a gig down in Cornwall received a lively and celebratory response, one you might get at a very lively wake. I am fascinated by all of this: We lose people, we hurt, but we don't all cry or even speak Death's name.

I haven't performed on stage since February 2020 - I consistently tour and I am missing the work, I am missing my friends and meeting new people at events. I am looking forward to being able to tour and share this book now it is finished. I look forward to making those connections again. If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we are not in the same boat, we not even in the same storm. Some of us are in much rougher seas, some of us are paddling with our hands on rafts whilst others are in yachts. And if my experiments with this work are anything to go by, some of us are able to yell where others bite their tongue. Some of us can be heard screaming where others are silent or silenced. Some of us want to cry but don't know why we feel so numb. So many of us are afraid and mourning, eating our feelings, chewing on all that  is unsaid - Some of us is all of us and we are much more connected than we know - Mrs Death Misses Death is centred in exploring that. If this book taught me anything it is that we all have so much living to do and this life is worth loving and fighting for.

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