Professor Dame Sue Black has just had her new book `All That Remains’ published, and it has quickly made its way to the top of the bestseller charts, accompanied by a book tour to sold-out audiences across the UK. We asked Sue to tell us the story behind the book.
The reason I wrote my book, `All That Remains’ (available in all good shops now!) is simple. My father and his mother were both great storytellers. They both had an endless stream of great stories, most of which were true although they often gained embellishments and had bits added to them over the years.
When my father got Alzheimer’s we were all robbed of his stories, a sad fact which had a great impact on me. My daughters gave him a notebook and a nice pen as a Christmas present around this time and said `Grandad, write down your wonderful stories.’ Sadly, he was never able to and they were denied that pleasure.
And there were some great stories. Of being in Edinburgh when on military service and meeting the King, when he offered him a second whiskey, something which by all accounts was not the proper thing to do (probably a family failing!).
I still have all of these stories, or what I can remember of them, in my head, but my children don’t. I find that sad and I was determined that they should have mine. So that was the compelling reason for writing the book and they are the only audience I have written it for. It is wonderful if many other people also share in the stories, enjoy them and are stimulated by them but for me it is about doing something for my children and grandchildren and in due course great grandchildren who I may never meet. There is nothing I would like more than to have a book of stories written by my grandmother about her life. My children may well cringe at this moment at the very thought of what has been written, but I suspect that in years to come they might find some value or comfort in having this as a document written in my own fashion. It comes from a place of wanting to tell family stories and to talk about subjects that are really important.
For some of us the journey to death is a long one, for some it is much shorter. I wanted to show that death is something which has many different faces. That is why the book is a mixture of stories that are personal, technical, professional and even humorous. I have experienced death from all of these perspectives and that is what I wanted to highlight.
I believe the work we have done here at the University has been so important in making people more comfortable in talking about death, which after all is the one thing which is a certainty for all of us. It has been hugely encouraging to me to see that we can speak to large audiences at events here where there is no awkwardness or taboo in talking about death, and what we do with the bodies that are so generously donated to us in the name of medical science. That was not the case not so long ago and with the help of many colleagues here at the University we have made a real difference and for that I will not only be eternally grateful but am also hugely proud.
Writing the book and all the attendant activities that come with it is something that isn’t within my natural comfort zone, as I have found out all too often. One thing I have done recently is record the audio version of the book and that was a very strange experience, sitting down for four or five hours and narrating the whole book. By the end of that it felt like having someone else’s teeth in! But to know my children will always have that and can listen to my thoughts in my own voice is precious to me.
There is one little thing I would like to clarify, particularly for all of my colleagues at the University. The book was not written as a sign off to Dundee. I wrote it a year ago and the fact that it appears now, at a time when I am preparing to leave Dundee for a new adventure, is simply the most wonderful coincidence – or perhaps fate has a hand. I have genuinely had a wonderful fifteen years here, and feel that so much has been achieved with the help of this wonderful university and the utterly marvellous people in and around Dundee. For that I will always be thankful and think of this as home. It is only my feet that are heading south to Lancaster (for a while) and one day when they head north again, they will be reunited with my head and my heart.