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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

‘It made me sad to think I’d never write a book again. The intricacies of plotting and the sta

Today on #SETBACKCOMEBACK I’m sharing a very personal story of how, just as you’re flying high, you can hit a brick wall that can seem to end everything… This is my own story, and one that gave me the idea to start the #SETBACKCOMEBACK hashtag, in order to inspire people who feel like they can’t go on right now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series so far – I know I have been incredibly moved by the tales that have been shared with such honesty over the past few days.

In case you don’t know who I am… I’m Barbara Copperthwaite, the Amazon, Kobo and USA Today bestselling author of five psychological thrillers, INVISIBLE, FLOWERS FOR THE DEAD, THE DARKEST LIES, HER LAST SECRET and THE PERFECT FRIEND.

My writing career started in journalism, where I interviewed the real victims of crime – and also those who have carried those crimes out. After a successful move to fiction, which included hitting Number One on Amazon and Kobo, disaster struck from out of the blue…

It’s funny how life often turns in full circle, each of us strapped to its wheel and helpless as it spins on, sometimes taking us to the top, at other times plunging us to our lowest points. But that’s why it’s always important to remember that life is always changing and that nothing – success or failure – lasts forever.

Nine years ago, in 2012, I was offered what I though was my dream job. Just a year later, after twenty years as a journalist, I realised I’d outgrown the industry and no longer felt the buzz of excitement that had always been present. But that was okay, because I had an idea for a book and a crazy dream about becoming a full-time author. Yes, it felt a bit like saying ‘I want to be a rock star’, but the dream happened for some people so I decided, as I turned 40, that it was now or never to see if it could happen for me. After all, as a teenager growing up in Skegness, Lincolnshire, it had seemed almost ridiculous to me to imagine one day I’d be writing for the national newspapers and magazines on sale in WH Smith. That had happened, so why not this, if I worked hard enough?

Seven years ago, in 2014, I pressed publish on my finished book, and my first psychological thriller, Invisible, was self-published on Amazon Kindle. A year after that I self-published a second book, Flowers For The Dead. Both became bestsellers.

In October 2016, my dream came true of signing a contract with Bookouture. It was a four-book deal and I was raring to go. They published The Darkest Lies in 2017, followed later that year by Her Last Secret, and then The Perfect Friend came in 2018. My wish had come true: my books were consistently hitting the ebook bestsellers’ lists, and I was earning enough money to be a full-time writer. I may not have been a rock star but I was very happy with the way life had turned out – it had been worth all the long hours, hard work and self-doubt.

But then…the wheel turned…

By the time The Perfect Friend came out I knew something wasn’t right with me. It had been niggling for a long time in the background – I was often ill, hit by bouts of shingles far more than a healthy women in her early 40s should be. I tried to start the fourth and final book in my contract with Bookouture but suddenly I was completely felled by chronic fatigue.

I was felled by chronic fatigue. Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash

This wasn’t the kind of tired you can push through or shake off. This was tiredness so profound that sleep felt more like passing out. It was terrifying. I could barely move from bed to sofa. I slept for 12 hours a night, got up and fell asleep again. I couldn’t walk my dogs. I couldn’t form sentences at times, the tiredness had wrapped itself around my brain like suffocating fog, deadening all sense. Sometimes when I spoke I could hear the slur in my voice from the effort. I couldn’t even stand under a shower, I had to sit.

What’s more, the chronic fatigue set off the shingles – I was getting it every fortnight. To be honest, it felt like I always had it. My GP didn’t know why my immune system was so terrible, he just knew it was.

The wheel had sent me with dizzying speed from feeling like all my dreams had come true to plunging me into one of the worst times of my life. There was no thought of writing when I couldn’t even concentrate long enough to read. The person I had been disappeared – the one who had been well-known for her speedy, accurate work as a journalist, who had pulled incredibly long hours and loved it, who had lived for the buzz of pushing herself. She didn’t exist any more. She’d never come back.

After six long months, at the start of 2019, I could finally read again. It was a huge – and incredibly welcome – step, but it also made me so sad to think I’d never write a story. The intricacies of plotting and the stamina involved in writing a book was out of my reach.

A month after that, I started watching square-eyes amounts of true crime documentaries on tv. Right near the end of one about TV presenter Jill Dando’s murder, her brother, Nigel, said something that instantly hit a nerve with me:

‘I just wish someone could explain to me – or a judge and jury – and tell me why they killed her. It makes no sense to me. It will never make sense to me.’

I rewound it, grabbed a notebook and jotted it down. I was struck by the incredible sadness of never knowing and couldn’t help thinking: What if the killer is watching this programme too? What if s/he got in touch and tried to explain? What then? It was like someone had thrown open a window in my brain and along with lots of light flooding in, so did scenes and scenarios…

I started writing immediately even though all I could manage was a couple of paragraphs a day, at best. I got frustrated often, remembering the person I used to be and wishing I could work and think like before.

There were a couple of sayings that kept me going during this, as I grew a tiny bit stronger with each month that passed. The first was about finally accepting that I would never be the person I had been. That once I had been a hare and now I was a tortoise – and that was okay, because even a tortoise crosses the finishing line eventually, simply by putting one foot in front of the other. And so my motto of: Be More Tortoise was born, and it’s one I still have to remind myself of from time to time.

The other saying was one I wrote down early on in my illness, and stuck the note beside my bed so that it was the first thing I read in the morning and the last thing I read at night. What was it? The comeback is always stronger than the setback.

It comforted me hugely. The setback had been terrible. But now…now I had to keep concentrating on that comeback and never take my eye off it. I was the tortoise, plodding towards it. Colleagues and friends zoomed on to greater and greater heights, while I was left behind; but there was no jealousy just the motivation to keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of another. Do it for long enough and, even if it took me the rest of my life, I’d get there.

And one day it happened. I finished my first draft. Words are my business, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain the feeling of reaching that goal.

The book is The Girl In The Missing Poster. I’m so, so proud of it, because for me it isn’t just a psychological thriller, it represents getting through the worst time of my life. I’ve done it. No matter what the future holds for my health, I’ve managed to write a book. No matter what chart position it reaches, or how many people read it, nothing can change the (to me) incredible achievement of its existence. My comeback feels stronger than my setback.

The wheel will turn again, and when it does who knows what it will bring, but for now I’ve done what I set out to do: I’ve become a writer again.

HUGE THANKS TO EVERY AUTHOR WHO HAS TAKEN PART IN #SETBACKCOMEBACK ! HAVE YOU BEEN INSPIRED BY THE SERIES? DO LET ME KNOW – I’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU! IN THE MEANTIME, HERE’S SOME INFORMATION ABOUT THE GIRL IN THE MISSING POSTER…

MISSING – Have you seen this girl? Nineteen-year-old Leila Hawkins was last seen on 24 June, 1994, when she left her parents’ anniversary party early and ran into the stormy night wearing her twin sister Stella’s long red coat. She was never seen again.

I wrap my arms around the tree trunk, pressing my cheek against it until the bark digs in and the missing poster is finally secured. I try not to look at the photograph on it. At the features so similar to mine. Perhaps this will be the year someone comes forward.

Were crucial mistakes made by detectives from the very beginning?

Could the pressure of living two lives have led my sister to run away – or even end it?

Or did someone in her tight circle of friends and family have reason to want her gone?

Someone out there must know something.

But the last thing I ever expect is a direct response from the person who took Leila. Wracked with guilt and completely alone in the world without the other half of me, I have no choice but to agree to his strange request: private, intimate details of my life in return for answers.

As the final moments of my sister’s life play out before me, I feel closer to her than I ever dreamed I’d be again. So close, it could almost be happening to me. But when I finally realise who is behind this terrifying tragedy, will I make it out alive?

THE GIRL IN THE MISSING POSTER is out on 23 February, but can be pre-ordered now on: Amazon | Apple | Kobo | Google

To find out more about me, follow this blog, or visit my website, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram

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