In the summer of 1994, Candia McWilliam took a phone call from Stanley Kubrick, the Hollywood director, who asked her to collaborate on the screenplay of his latest movie. “And do you know the title?” she asks with a lop-sided grin. “Eyes Wide Shut. Prophetic is it not?”
McWilliam’s face tells its own story. It is long and broad and has marks and folds around the eyes. There is a puffiness, caused by anti-depressants, and she appears to have no eyelids. Every now and then, an involuntary twitch passes across her cheeks. “I am what you can look like if you are lucky enough to have had an operation to overcome a particular kind of blindness,” she says blandly over the coffee cups of a west London cafe.
The author feels it almost superfluous to add that this “no simple tale of triumph over a tragedy”, but it is true only up to a point. McWilliam – who wants “to transmit how thrilling it has been to be alive” - can concede that her return to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this month, with a 500-page autogbiography, signifies something special about the human spirit.
From the spring of 2006, she lived a virtual recluse, “a parrot in a cage with the hood over it”, because she had no wish to burden her friends and family with her blepharospasm, a rare brain condition which causes the eyelids to close over otherwise healthy eyes. She was condemned to stumble around her own home, until, inevitably, she broke her leg in a fall. Later, when blood poisoning set in, she found herself in what she calls the “dying ward” of a hospital.
Two years after diagnosis, she wrote an article about her blindness, published in The Times. Marion Bailey, a blepharospasm sufferer, read it and wrote recommending a Nottingham surgeon, Alexander Foss, who had developed a treatment. Within weeks, McWilliam was under the knife. Tendons from her knees were transplanted into the brow of her head and used to pin open her eyes. To general amazement, she emerged, unblinking, into the light.
That story of recovery is remarkable enough, but What to Look for in Winter, is shot through with many tales of hope and despair: her mother’s suicide, two “defenestrated” marriages, her alcoholism, separation from her children. The subtitle, A Memoir in Blindness, is recognition of her inability to see her way, even when she was sighted.
McWilliam was born and raised in Edinburgh, where her father, Colin, was an architectural historian. Margaret, his wife, stayed at home, cleaned the house and mangled the clothes.
“She was 6ft 2in of towering glamour,” she says. “She was full of talent, stuck on Warriston Crescent, pushing a pram. What could she do?”
McWilliam was just 7 or 8 when she awoke to find her mother lying beside her, and a bottle of pills on the bed. “I think she had on not a nightgown but a green wool dress,” she writes. “She had sewn me a pink pillow with grey kittens and pussy willow branches on it to help combat my nightmares.”
Whether she is “non-existent or in heaven” McWilliam’s sees “mummy” in her own children, Olly, Clem and Minoo. “ I remember little of her, but I think, ‘That is how she used her hands.’ When my older son smiles, his eyes go sideways - that is what she did. She is infinitely happier in her incarnation in my children, than she was as a person, locked into Edinburgh.”
Beyond the obvious trauma, Margaret McWilliam’s death had other far reaching consequence for her daughter. Candia’s father re-married; she was sent away to school, where she made a new friends, and found a surrogate family who lived on the island of Colonsay. Her kin network, family, step families, adopted families, not to mention her first husband (Quentin, Earl of Portsmouth), second husband (Fram Dinshaw, an Indian born, Oxford academic) mothers-in-law and children, form a mesh of humanity that has often saved McWilliam from herself.
At school, she was teased that she had swallowed a dictionary. After university, her literary talents came though when she won a Vogue short story competition and her 1989 debut novel, A Case of Knives, won huge reviews. Articulate and stunningly beautiful, she was seized upon by the Sunday supplements, – but she never appears to have accepted that the woman posing for photos was actually her: “I looked a bit thick,” she writes, “where thick overlaps with apparently sexy. A bad mixture for a sardonic introvert.”
She had been drinking all her adult life. At first it heightened perception, and made her clever. Soon she was just sodden. “I lost my face when I drank,” she says. “ All I could see was my green eyes peeping through this awful bruised, sheening, bulging, sweating, flaky thing. I lost my bones, I lost my elegance, I lost my hands. I lost all of it. And I lost the capacity to be clean. I hid in black, dirty, grey clothes. Once you are sodden, you drink to oblivion and wake up in shame. You live in the dark, and hide from the light.”
Even in the pit of her illness, she continued to write reviews and short stories, but quit writing novels because she dreaded publicity. “I simply could not face it, and the more shameful I felt myself to be, the more I drank,” she says. “I might have had ‘human block’, or ‘existential block’, but never writer’s block.”
She gave up drink in 2001, and three years later – at Edinburgh’s book festival – outed herself as an alcoholic. In 2006, not long after she had been invited to join the judging panel for Booker Prize, the blepharospasm descended. Twenty years ago the same condition was held to be a mental illness and McWilliam would have been sectioned - “that’s true, and do you know, I would have accepted that” she says. Does she think she brought it on herself?
“I alternate. Sometimes I think it was a tailor-made punishment, that I summoned it to alleviate those I love of any putative pain. Then I think maybe it is a consequence of my habits of my mind, which are so self defeating. Maybe I pulled this snood of blackness over my head. Maybe, because I am so self-sabotaging, every time something looks like it is going right, I ensure that it doesn’t.
“Some doctors say it is a consequence of certain habits of mind, or a consequence of a protracted period of unspeakable stress, or of alcoholism. I just don’t know. “
In the depths of drunkenness, she had considered suicide; physical blindness conjured up the same despair.
“I tried to summon death in my blindness because I thought it would get everyone off the hook of having to pretend they could bear me,” she says. “That was not a loving way to think. Then I went through periods of thinking, ‘Is there a way of dying and it appearing an accident.’
“There isn’t. I cannot leave my children in the sort of doubt I have had. I love them too much. I want to know not just what their children will be like, but what kind of shirt they are wearing, what made them laugh today, what they had for breakfast.
“I am infinitely curious. I never ever lost that response to life. Even when I was at the back of the cave and under the mud, the crackle of thought – like that painting on the Sistine chapel – lay in there somewhere. The battle to get back to it did seem long and weighty. I couldn’t depend on the usual things that people depend on – private intimacy, a partner. I have to depend on work, the beauty of the world, chance. Here is a talent I may have, I really don’t want not to have used it when I conk. But in the end we are all alone.”
A few weeks ago, McWilliam, 55, left London, to live in Edinburgh, a six-month trial to see if she was ready to return for good to the city. Instinctively she feels her home town is ready to receive this woman “in the autumn of her life”, with her foldaway white stick and her stock of anti-depressants. But though she wants to keep writing and talking, she says her identity is shot to pieces.
“I can’t rely on something that I didn’t know I was relying on, but was,” she says. “I wanted strangers to like the look of me. Particularly children. But children don’t like the look of me now. When I smile at babies I have to be really careful they don’t burst into tears.”
It seems a desperately bleak appraisal. Perhaps self-assessment has never been her strong suit. Would she accept that she remains blind to her real identity? That her friends, family and readers, want more than just her beautiful words on the page; would she agree that they might love her appearance too?
“You are a complete darling. Maybe the penny is about to drop.”
Portrait by Colin MacPherson
This article - one of my better ones, I thought - appeared in The Times Edinburgh International Book Festival supplement. The review below appeared in The Times Weekend Review section, the previous Saturday.