It’s perhaps inevitable that authors will be asked whether their fictional work has some grounding in truth. But Jo Bloom, who has been married for 16 years and recently published a book about a couple opening up their marriage to other relationships, assures me that hers was merely researched. But in any case, if you’re after a salacious story, you won’t find it here.
Jo’s book, Permission, is a gentle exploration of Fay and Steve, who have been married for more than 20 years and have settled into a bit of a rut. They have two children, the younger of whom is a complex character, and each has tricky family dynamics. Fay believes an open relationship could reignite the spark they’ve lost and Steve, who is more reluctant to pursue the idea of sleeping with others, finally agrees. The book seeks to answer whether their marriage can survive non-monogamy.
So, is it a mid-life crisis that makes the pair decide to pursue other relationships inside the safety net of their genuinely caring and supportive marriage, I ask Jo, or are they just looking for trouble?
“It’s more of a reflection on a certain age and – obviously this is a massive generalisation – there’s a certain demographic… in your 40s, with kids still at home, parents you have to look after, jobs, and you’ve been with somebody a very long time – the whole kind of treadmill that most of us seek to a certain extent, because it represents that we’ve got these full lives.
“I was really interested in the myriad feelings that people have around that. I’ve had lots of discussions with friends over the years and those feelings are pretty universal. Instead of having an affair, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting, from a dramatic point of view, to explore a more consensual agreement to go out and look for a bit of excitement?’ Of course, the whole point is that it’s never that simple.”
It is easy to sympathise with both Fay and Steve. Fay’s desire to explore sexual experience – having only had a proper relationship with Steve – is understandable, as is his initial reluctance. He fears rejection and craves normality, owing to a difficult relationship with his mother.
Jo, who lives in Brighton – where she says she is surrounded by people with an open approach to relationships – found it interesting what readers made of her characters. “Consensual non-monogamy, polyamory and all of that stuff is so much more in the zeitgeist and mainstream than it ever has been before – it’s got a different experience. When you’re older, there’s more baggage involved. There were younger bloggers who felt Fay was really selfish and that all the sympathies were with Steve.
“That was interesting, because I didn’t think of Fay as being unsympathetic. I guess the fact that she took the lead is not always helpful, because she’s seen as the leader of the demise of it all. But I don’t think she anticipated that it was going to be as complex and as free-falling as it was. I don’t think she loved Steve any less.”
Permission is not autobiographical, Jo tells me, laughing. She read articles and books relating to open marriages but, unlike her super-successful debut novel, Ridley Road – which was about Jewish and other opposition to British neo-Nazis in the 1960s and involved copious amounts of research – this was very much an imagined work.
“It’s not my own experience at all. Probably, having written it, I would really be scared about [letting] that into my life. But it was about those feelings. I’ve been with my partner for a really long time, and I absolutely love my family but you’re not just one thing in life.”
She write it as she did because she wanted to write a realistic but thrilling read. “It’s not meant to be a universal comment on whether non-monogamy survives or succeeds – everyone is different. It’s just one story, one couple – and it’s drama.
“I thought it was an interesting thing to explore once you have kids, baggage and history – it’s very different if you’re 21 and you don’t have any of that. There are different stakes. Can you really separate sex from emotions? Inviting somebody else into your life, whether it’s just sex or more, you are going to bring in a tonne more feelings. I loved writing it. It tackles a demographic that you don’t widely see in literature, in fiction.”
We discuss the idea that no one is wholly bad or wholly good and Jo says: “That’s the point, isn’t it? Nothing is black or white. And if I had written something where they both followed the rules that they had set, it wouldn’t have been a page turner, it wouldn’t have been propulsive.
“And also, I think that’s why [the] resolution at the end – is it resolution? We won’t know. But my parents have been married forever, and I remember my dad telling me that you can go right up to the wire with your partner, really go through terrible things, and still pull it back. I think that is a really important lesson – that you can grow with people through that kind of chaos.”
Permission by Jo Bloom is published by Legend Press, priced £8.99, and is available now
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