Philippa Perry has come to a small cottage in the countryside, far from her north London home, to get some quiet writing time. The psychotherapist and author is too easily distracted when near her family and friends. “Here I can just keep my own hours and not be interrupted by anybody wanting to hang out.” How is it going? “It’s miserable. I’d much rather hang out.”
She is not generally tempted away from her desk by husband of 30 years, artist Grayson Perry, as he is usually in his studio, making ceramics and tapestries. “I do go there and make pottery sometimes, though,” she says, as anyone who saw her in the Perrys’ uplifting Channel 4 series Art Club will know.
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Her bigger weakness is 29-year-old illustrator daughter Flo. “If it’s a choice between work and hanging out with my daughter, I’m hopeless.” Yet even here, in this oasis of writerly calm, the 63-year-old can’t resist the lure of distraction. A giant lorry is reversing into the neighbour’s drive and causing consternation. Thrilled by this mini-drama, Perry holds up the laptop she is using to talk to me via Zoom, and turns it to show the lorry. “Can you see it? It’s huge, isn’t it!” For someone who doesn’t like the isolation that writing demands, Perry has done well to produce three books alongside her main job of being a therapist.
‘An imperfect therapist’
She recently published Couch Fiction, an updated version of her 2010 graphic novel, which wittily demystified therapy. She is open about being an imperfect therapist. “I had to put in all my mistakes; how I occasionally daydream, for example. It was quite embarrassing, but my idea of a good book is getting nearer the bone than anyone before.”
This time, Flo did the illustrations, which meant Perry got to work with the person she most likes spending time with. “No one knows me better than her, so she could tell what I’m trying to get at.” Was there anything Perry had to be wary of? “When you’re working with your children, you really have to be equals, or you’ll squash them,” she says, in true therapist style. “It’s a really good exercise; I recommend all parents do a job with their child once the child has grown up.”
She found her calling
Perry, who met her Essex-born, cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning husband Grayson at a creative writing class in 1987, trained as a secretary but struggled due to her dyslexia. After working for the Samaritans in the 80s, she found her calling. “The more you delve into why humans do what they do, why they feel like they do, it’s very difficult not to become a psychotherapist,” she says.
One of the most appealing aspects of Perry’s writing is how non-judgemental it is. In her bestselling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), which has just been reissued with a new chapter, her main message is that it’s best to acknowledge, rather than dismiss, children’s feelings, even if we don’t agree with them.
But there is also the message that parenting is not about perfection. “I say to parents again, and again, you have not messed up your kids, you are the best parent for your kids, even though you did yell yesterday because you’d had enough..”
Perry has found lockdown hard and often sad. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, she would have had great fun celebrating her books. “I’m an extrovert, I love parties,” she says. For now, she will make do with watching a huge lorry disturb the dull peace.
Couch Fiction (£9.99) and The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (£10.75) are both published by Penguin
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