I knew I’d like Cathy Rentzenbrink immediately. She wore ankle wellies in a rather glorious marble pattern and a bright pink scarf that perfectly matched her nail polish.
I was up in Corbridge at the wonderful Forum Books’ evening with the author. It was a chance to hear Cathy talk about her new book, A Manual for Heartache, in the delightful Tea and Tipple coffee/tea shop. I love listening to authors in this venue. There is a beautiful, vast paned window in the corner that overlooks the market square of Corbridge beneath which the talented Forum booksellers always set up a magnificent display of books. Just like they did for this event…
Helen, the fabulous lady who runs Forum Books, was almost in tears as she introduced Cathy and her new book. I braced myself for an emotional night.
A Manual for Heartache is Cathy’s attempt to provide written solace for those struggling to come to terms with heartbreak. It focuses on grief in the main but provides comfort for all sorts of dark times, including depression, sadness and loss. It follows Cathy’s first book, The Last Act of Love, in which she chronicled the death of her brother and her subsequent struggles to deal with it. While her first book was biographical, A Manual for Heartache is deliberately impersonal in the sense that it purposefully attempts to be helpful to other people.
A paper friend
Helen described the book as the “paper friend we need now more than ever”. And, that was certainly the theme of the evening as we discussed at the length the precious healing powers of books. They are good, aren’t they?
Cathy’s book is, in her own words, the “tonal opposite of an instruction manual”. This is not a prescriptive map to lead readers out of grief, nor a dogmatic guide to what you should feel and when. Helen pitched it as an independent way of getting help and I love that idea – a manual for life that you can use as and when you need it.
It was fascinating to hear about Cathy’s writing process. A Manual for Heartache’s “shitty first draft” (all great books and authors need one) scaled 55,000 words before being felled to 8,000 and built back up to its published 35,000. That level of editing is hugely impressive and a testament to Cathy’s commitment to getting the tone, structure and content of this book just right. The culled chapters are saved in Cathy’s archives and may return in the paperback version or some future guidance. The thousands of words on alcohol are in the archive and I for one would relish reading those! (You’ve seen my copious wine and book pairings on Instagram, right!?)
A strategy for life
Cathy offered some very sound advice for dealing with difficult issues or just generally getting through the challenge that is life. Her tips were:
- Have a good cry. Let the tears release your stresses and ball your eyes out when you need to. The book contains a list of recommendations for titles that will get you blubbering in no time – or Cathy’s cathartic catalogue as I’ve now termed it.
- Get outside. Wander in the great outside to gaze at the majesty of nature. Be purposeful in those meanders though, and be intentional with your stares. There’s nothing like the awesomeness of the natural world to put things in perspective.
- Avoid stuff that makes you feel small in a bad way. Nature makes you feel small in a good way. Social media, traffic, the news make you feel small in a bad way. When you’re feeling down, avoid the nonsense that will make you feel insignificant.
- Appreciate what’s under your nose. Take joy in the tiny things that make life beautiful. The stunning end papers of Cathy’s book illustrated this point (they are gorgeous) but you can pick anything that makes you think “oh, that’s pretty, I’ll stroke it” (within reason, obviously. There’ll be no unsolicited stroking on my watch, thank you).
I left Tea and Tipple actually skipping back to my car such was the uplifting effect of this event. Death, loss and sadness are awful but they are things we will all have to face in our lifetimes. Finding your strategy for coping with them is the key to survival and A Manual for Heartache provides the perfect tools for developing your plan.
A Manual for Heartache is out now in hardback from Picador.