Since moving to Sydney in September 2015, I’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of my very best friends come and stay with me. Given the expense and distance of travelling from the UK to Australia, however, I’m well aware that it won’t be possible for all of my nearest and dearest to pay me a visit. Thankfully, with the likes of Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp, staying in touch with my loved ones has been a fairly easy affair, and often the distance does little more than reaffirming the strength of the friendships I spent so many years building prior to my departure.
Here, one of my favourite authors, Lucie Whitehouse, has written about how friendships change when one emigrates, drawing from her own experience of moving to New York after 36 years in the UK.
In 2011, when I was 36, I emigrated to the US. I’m British but two years earlier, during a visit to New York meant to last as long as a 90-day tourist visa, I’d met Joe. Many thousands of Air Miles later, we got hitched and Green Card in hand (eventually), I packed up my life in London and moved to Brooklyn.
Mostly, it’s been a smooth transition. My career as a writer is portable, I love New York City (bar the winters – why wasn’t I warned?) and even without the martini haze of our beginning, if I met Joe today, I’d still think getting married was a good idea. We have a daughter now, the love of our lives.
What I’d failed to understand, however, were the consequences of living so far away from my friends.
I’d been very lucky with my friendships. I met my two best friends, Charlotte and Caroline, in our first term at Oxford and was amazed to find people so completely on my wavelength. We got into scrapes together and often did things ‘for the story’: any regrettable experience could be respun into stand-up for an audience of two.
The three of us met at university-wide classes but I had another set of good friends within my own college, Oriel, and another at the university newspaper where we sat up long nights editing pages.
After college, I went into publishing and made friends among my immediate colleagues at the literary agencies I worked for and among the editors and other agents to whom I pitched writers. One in particular, Katie, became a best friend. When I published my own first novel, I continued to work part time as much for the people as the salary.
But then came the New York trip and Joe.
I transplanted myself to Brooklyn in a particularly bleak November. When emigrating, the big advantage of being a novelist is that you need only yourself and your computer. That, though, is also the big disadvantage: no work-mates.
Soon after I moved, Joe went with his best friend to see another old friend of theirs in a play. While he was out, I listened to the BBC online and looked at the distant view of Manhattan from our tiny apartment. Away across Fort Greene Park, the shimmering lights seemed like a symbol of the connected life from which I had cut myself off. I considered Skyping a friend in England but the time difference meant everyone was in bed. Plus, I’d discovered, it can be depressing to laugh for an hour then close your laptop to find yourself in an empty room.
Joe’s large network of friends were incredibly welcoming and I loved them (I couldn’t have done a better job if I’d chosen them myself) but they had a bank of stories going back thirty years in some cases, stories I loved hearing but played no part in. Here I was woven into no one’s memories, essential to no one’s anecdotes.
I began to feel as if by emigrating, I had caused a rupture in my life. I’d left behind the people who knew my story and come to a place where I was a stranger with no history.
One of the great things about New York is how often people come through, especially publishing people. It was a joy – really not an exaggeration – to see them and hear about shared friends and memories, evidence that I had existed before 2009, when the stories of my New York life began.
Six months after I moved, my father became extremely ill and then, in 2013, my daughter was born. Between spending as much time as possible with Dad before he died in 2014, the sleep-deprived, frenzied business of a new baby and publishing a new novel, two years of my life went AWOL.
When I emerged blinking on the other side, I found that somehow, amid the craziness, I had started to put down roots in America, to make friends and – slowly, organically – new memories and stories.
Having my daughter made a big difference. A baby is a major event in anyone’s life story and, with one, you can’t help but meet new people. I’ve met a lot of great people with children of similar age – my downstairs neighbor Susan is a stand-out – and it’s not all baby-talk: among the fellow parents at pre-school, there are other writers, journalists, an artist.
The baby also led to change in my work life. It’s impossible to write at home so I rent a desk at a space for women writers. I’ve made friends here and it’s lovely just to be able to share a casual anecdote over lunch.
Having written four novels now, I know that writing – telling stories – is how I process the issues that affect me most deeply and so it’s no surprise that my new novel, Keep You Close, written in the past three years, is centred on an intense female friendship suddenly ruptured. I write psychological suspense and so the book, woven around the ambiguous death of one of the characters, explores not only the life-altering magic of a deep friendship but the potential for darkness that comes with emotional ties so profound.
Emigrating taught me how vital it is to be able to understand one’s life as a continuous narrative, an unbroken thread. Separating myself from the people whose narratives had been woven together with mine for the first 36 years of my life was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We all need friends for our stories: to make them, listen to them and tell them back to us when we need to be reminded. My history lives on with my old friends but with my friends in America, I’m making new stories now. One of my favourite things is introducing them to one another.
About the Author
Lucie Whitehouse was born in Gloucestershire in 1975, read Classics at Oxford University and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The House at Midnight, the TV Book Club pick The Bed I Made and Before We Met, which was a Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick and an ITV3 Crime Thriller selection. Her fourth novel, Keep You Close, is available now. Head here to buy your copy.