"I want my books to be hopeful, because that's what life is like": author and cancer survivor Ruth Hogan on the "up lit" book trend
"I don’t want to be the author who had cancer, but I did have cancer. The kindness I had from people was amazing”
Ruth Hogan is showing me around the cemetery in her home town of Bedford. She points out memorials to soldiers and missionaries, and the statue she has nicknamed “Angel Cate” – an image of which adorns the cover of her new novel, The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes.
This walk could be slightly morbid, but Hogan, tall, vivacious, with a blonde quiff, is one of the most life-enhancing people you could meet. She often solves “knotty problems” in her novels while walking her two rescue dogs in the cemetery. “If you confront death openly, I think you enjoy your life more,” she says.
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Hogan, whose first novel, The Keeper of Lost Things, won the 2017 Richard and Judy Autumn Book Club Readers’ Award, is one of the new stars of “up lit” – the book trend with kindness at its core, where everyday acts of heroism, human connection and love are celebrated.
In a year that has already seen a lot of political upheaval, it’s perhaps not surprising that readers are drawn to stories with an unashamedly optimistic message. But “up lit” isn’t slushy or sentimental. Hogan’s novels tackle depression, loneliness and dementia – but you will also find in them resilience and redemption.
Other “up lit” bestsellers include Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, about a young woman who learns to survive, and Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie, where the 84-year-old heroine was inspired by patients Cannon met as an NHS psychiatrist.
In Hogan’s new novel, the lead character, Masha, spends her life in graveyards and swimming in a freezing cold lido, punishing herself for the death of her son. But as she meets a cast of eccentrics – including Sally, a 70-something opera singer – she begins to live again. It is, Hogan explains, about “finding joy in the smallest things”.
After studying English and drama, Hogan worked for ten years in human resources for local government (“I was a square peg in round hole”). Then, in her early 30s, she had a car accident that left her unable to work full-time. “I became an osteopath’s receptionist and spent all my spare time writing.”
Her life changed again in 2012 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When chemo kept her up all night, she started her first novel, The Keeper of Lost Things, about a man who has spent his life collecting lost objects to atone for a promise broken years before. Inspiration came from reading an article about unclaimed ashes at funeral directors’, and Hogan’s own friendship with a neighbour who was “a hoarder on a massive scale and whose fiancée had died when he was young”.
In the new novel, The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, Hogan writes about the experience of chemotherapy. Being ill was “bloody inconvenient”, she says, but “I wanted to capture it all. I don’t want to be the author who had cancer, but I did have cancer, so I’m going to use that as part of my experience. The kindness I had from people who were treating me, and people that I met during that time, was amazing.”
The nurses marvelled at her colourful outfits. She gave lessons on how to tie a scarf like Mary Berry in the corridors of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. “It really taught me that if you go in with that attitude, you get it back.” When her hair grew back, she adopted the quiff.
Friendship – between different generations and backgrounds – is a key theme of up lit. As a society we’ve become very insular, Hogan argues. “On trains, everyone is plugged into their phone. So when I write, I think, ‘What can I give people with my story?’ I want my books to tackle topics that perhaps other people wouldn’t tackle because they’re slightly difficult. But I always want them to be hopeful, because that’s what I think life is like.”