The Greatness of Grudges
This is an amended extract from an interview with Julia Llewellyn-Smith that first appeared in The Times on October 25th 2018.
Do you hold any grudges? The crime writer Sophie Hannah does — in fact, she nurses dozens. Years on, she hasn’t forgotten the boyfriend’s mother who told her that if her life was in danger she probably wouldn’t try to save her. She’s still reeling at the fellow famous author she calls “Michael Baker” who, when informed that Hannah had been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write the first Hercule Poirot novel since Christie’s death, said: “That strikes me as a rather second-rate thing to do. Why can’t people be original?” “I didn’t mind that he didn’t like the idea, until I started getting emails with headers like, ‘Bloody cheek,’ ” Hannah says. “It turned out ‘Baker’s’ new book was a retelling of a selection of someone else’s stories. I thought it simply couldn’t be true.”
Rather than allow such grievances to gnaw at her soul, however, Hannah, 47, revels in them as a positive force. “Everyone’s always told you, ‘Don’t hold grudges because it’s bad for you and not very nice,’ ” she says, “but what if grudges are the psychological equivalent of leafy, green vegetables that nourish us and strengthen us?” So having produced 14 novels, three Poirot continuations, a murder-mystery musical and six volumes of poetry that are fixtures in the GCSE and A-level syllabuses, Hannah has written her first non-fiction book, How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment — The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life.
The subject, as she proudly points out, is unique.“Grudges are such a universal human experience, right up there with love, hate, anger, grief. If you watch any movie or read any fiction or hear any songs, half of them are on the theme of grudges, but — crazily — there was not one book about them and certainly no one questioning the orthodoxy that they are negative things that poison us from within, when I knew that my grudge-holding was wholly positive.” Initially, Hannah’s logic puzzles me, not least because her book triggers memories of dozens of grudges of mine, to the point that when I meet her in a café in King’s Cross station in London before she catches a train home to Cambridge, I’m seething with memories of hitherto-buried rancour. The injustices stretch back to primary school days and the nasty thing my needlework teacher said, carry on through my education and into the workplace and up to those that are centred on the lives of my school-age children.
Hannah’s aim is to use our grudges to “help us live better lives”, but I tell her it’s so far made me feel angry with pretty much everyone I’ve encountered and with myself for being consumed with such trivialities. “Ah, but that’s because at the time someone treated you badly you never gave yourself permission to deal with your feelings towards them,” Hannah says, plonking down her cup of Earl Grey. “And you shouldn’t in any way allow yourself to feel guilty about those feelings because they’re teaching you important lessons.”
Hannah says she has been “a grade-A grudge collector” all her life. She is cheery and friendly, but in the book she admits to spending “a not insignificant chunk of my life being scared . . . of controlling, tyrannical, bullying, emotionally manipulative” people. The book is full of stories of how, as “a compulsive people pleaser”, she used to be continually brow-beaten by acquaintances, friends and family. She lists several grudges she holds against herself, such as being too weedy to stand up to others, including the occasion when a friend bullied her into visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, despite her having no desire to do so. For years she was also too quick to accept other people’s bad behaviour. “Now my grudge system enables me to give everyone a second chance while not making me think I’m letting them get away with it,” she says.
Hannah’s system involves grading her grudges on a scale of one to ten, which distances her from any hurt she might have suffered. “I’m so practised at it now, I often get to skip the bad feelings altogether because I’m immediately into ‘OK, what kind of grudge is this?’ mode.” Grading completed, Hannah reflects on the lessons that each grudge has imparted, applying them to future interactions with the grudge-provoker. The aim isn’t to wreak revenge like Liam Neeson in Taken (“I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you”), but rather to be able to deftly protect herself from any future harm.
“I know a person who’s perfectly lovely and I’ve always had a very enjoyable evening with him, but if ever anyone does something bad to me, he always sides with the person who’s injured or wronged me,” Hannah says by way of example. “So my grudge tells me that if I don’t need support, which is most of the time, it’s safe to hang out with him, but he’s not the person to go to if a lorry driver deliberately ran me over because he’d say: ‘Well, the lorry driver might have been having a bad day and anyway you’re not perfect; remember that time in 1983 when you did X? That wasn’t very nice.’ ”
Also vital to Hannah’s system are “gratitude grudges”, in other words noting others’ kindnesses as well as their misdeeds. Equally, we need to recognise that people will hold grudges about us and, if these are justifiable, we must attempt to make amends. Hannah uses the book to make a public apology to her ex-boyfriend Simon, whom she dumped, only to go out for a drink with him shortly afterwards, during which she unkindly regaled him with stories of how badly her new boyfriend was treating her. “I behaved really selfishly towards Simon, so although he may not have given me any thought for 20 years, he could quite reasonably have a grudge against me. I’ve tried to apologise in person, but he has a common surname so I can’t find him online.”
Hannah is entertaining company and the book is even more amusing. I confess to her (risking an eternal place in the grudge cabinet) that I read it not so much for serious advice as for the comedy of the grudges she’s compiled from her life, her Twitter followers and recent history. There’s Gordon Brown’s hatred of Tony Blair for grabbing first dibs as prime minister, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s alleged database entitled “for me and against me” and Taylor Swift’s feud with her rival singer Katy Perry, after Perry apparently poached Swift’s backing dancers mid-tour, which provided the inspiration for Swift’s song Bad Blood.
Grudges are also at the core of Hannah’s speciality, crime fiction. “Grudges are the motive for most fictional murders,” she says. Yet readers who come to this book in hope of the twisty mysteries that are Hannah’s USP will be disappointed. Instead they will find a hilarious compendium of — with just a few truly tragic exceptions — everyday pettiness, tactlessness (Hannah gives one example of a woman describing a woman as ugly, telling her friend “I mean, she’s much uglier than you”) and fundamental oddness. “One of the great things about crime fiction is it allows you to create scenarios that are much more gripping than real crime, which usually involves drunken assaults,” Hannah says, “but, even so, fiction doesn’t quite allow you to show the full ridiculousness of humanity. I’m pretty sure if I’d put any of those true grudge stories in a novel my editor would have said, ‘Er no, no one will believe this could actually happen.’ ”
I’m curious as to how Hannah’s publishers plan to market the book — do they seriously see such a quirky tome stocked in the new-agey self-help section? “It’s definitely self-help,” says Hannah, who is an “addict” of the genre. “Let’s call it an unusual, counter-intuitive self-help book, a realistic one that takes into account what humans are actually like.” Generally, she says, self-help is too focused on positive thinking. “If one of my favourite gurus Eckhart Tolle [the author of the multimillion-selling The Power Of Now] was approached by a stranger and punched in the face, he would probably be able to think of it as their problem and be unaffected. That’s what it’s like if you live on a higher plane of enlightenment, but if — like most of us — you live on the lower plane it’s empowering to be told that if someone treats you like shit, you’re entitled to hold a grudge, and doing so can make you feel better. Holding grudges is not the opposite of being a forgiving person; holding grudges is what I have to do in order to be a forgiving person.”
So taken is Hannah with her philosophy that she is launching a weekly grudge podcast. There’s certainly no doubting her commitment to the cause; our interview morphs into an ad-hoc counselling session as Hannah absorbs every detail of my long-winded grudge story about a falling-out with a neighbour and how — a decade on — I feel guilty that I’m still so cross that I avoid him in the street. “Take away all that pressure you’re putting on yourself to feel differently about him,” Hannah advises. “He’s probably an annoying git and your grudge is entirely justified. Grade and categorise it, put it in your Grudge Cabinet and I bet within a year the negative feelings start to lose a bit of their power.” Okeydoke. On to my needlework teacher. This could take some time.
How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment — The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99