Jane Hawking on how an unplanned literary trilogy helped her grieve for Stephen

'I became very efficient in my use of time and I learnt to think through problems very quickly and clearly. I am grateful to him for that,' she says

Dubai, March, 02, 2019: Dr Jane Hawking pose during the  interview at the Book Festival in Dubai. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Saeed Saeed
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It was supposed to be a low-key affair.

Jane Hawking, at the behest of her publisher Alex Gallenzy, attended a dinner engagement in London last September. Before taking the stage to deliver a keynote speech, Hawking, fresh from completing her debut novel Silent Music, recalls how Gallenzy went rather off script.

"Alex said 'it is my pleasure introducing Jane Hawking and she's just finished her first novel Silent Music. And this is to be the first of a trilogy'," she says with a soft laugh. "He absolutely dropped me in it."

That's the kind of thing that could send a chill down the spine of any author, but Hawking took it with the same grace she has lived her life with, working as an author and academic, and while married to one of the world's most influential physicists. It is that sense of optimism that permeates throughout her interview with The National, at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. It has been a difficult 12 months following the death of her ex-husband at the age of 76, when he succumbed to the motor neurone disease he had lived with since the age of 21. But she maintains an impressive level of stoicism.

In a way, Hawking reasons, her publisher did her a favour. “The challenge really got me going and it is now working out beautifully,” she says. “I am thinking of making it into a quartet now.”

What she learnt from Stephen

And she is well on her way. She recently released the follow-up, Cry to Dream Again, which is a prequel to her Second World War family saga Silent Music, and she has already branded the four-part body of work The Immortal Souls Series.

Hawking, whose moving memoir, 1999's Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, was made into the 2014 award-winning film The Theory of ­Everything, says the enthusiasm for her latest literary pursuit stems from the fact that it was incredibly healing. She talks about the intensive research and character development work she threw herself into so she could capture the nuances of early 20th century Britain, all while grieving Stephen's death. But that sense of dedication is not new. Despite her gentle demeanour, Hawking has always lived her life in the fast lane.

"I don't recall a time where I haven't been busy. I've always felt I never had the time and there was rarely peace and quiet," she says. "I was doing my PhD thesis while I was raising the children. I would write it while they had gone to nursery school or when Stephen was in his office and was looked after by his students and colleagues."

For Hawking, the writing process is more about snatching little reams of time as opposed to waiting for exactly the right creative moment. "That is something I learnt from Stephen, or at least from living with him," she tells us.

"Stephen had to concentrate very hard. He couldn't use a pen and write on paper. He had to do all these calculations in his head, and because he was told he initially had two years to live, time for him was of the essence. He couldn't afford to waste time and that was infectious. I became very efficient in my use of time and I learnt to think through problems very quickly and clearly. I am grateful to him for that." But there are some things you can't intellectualise.

Hawking says Stephen's grand funeral service, which began at the church near his academic stomping ground of ­Cambridge University and travelled to London's Westminster Abbey where he was buried, remains an experience deeply ingrained within her. 

"I remember all of us coming out of the church – Great St Mary's, which was the university church – and there was this whole barrage of flash bulbs and the eyes of the world were on us as Stephen's coffin was put into the hearse and driven away. That was so hard and painful," she says.

“What helped was his burial at Westminster Abbey and his grave lying between those of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. That was a phenomenal honour.”

Life after death

Hawking says she intends to spend the rest of her time dedicated to her own creative pursuits, in addition to preserving Stephen's legacy. One aspect of which will be enshrined in a new £3 million (Dh14.5m) brain injury centre to be named after Stephen in the city of Ipswich in eastern England. The centre will provide rehabilitation services and accommodation for patients. "I'm so pleased to be doing that because I feel I have a lot of inside knowledge," she says. "It's not just brain injury but about illnesses that affect the brain as well

. I feel that I can talk to people and I know what they’re going through – the people, the victims of the diseases or the injuries and their families.”

Cry to Dream Again by Jane Hawking. Courtesy Alma Books

A lot of the ideas that will be shared, Hawking says, come from her own experiences of looking after Stephen. "There are things I would have done differently," she admits. "I felt that his prognosis was initially so short I just wanted to do everything for him and make everything possible for him. And that really got rather out of hand. I should have been a little bit more restrained in some of the things that he was wanting to do. It all got really too exhausting."

Through her work, both as a disability advocate and in support of the upcoming centre, she aims to educate carers on how to live a healthier life, alongside tending to their other responsibilities. It was something that she was able to achieve after years of struggle.

“Stephen was fiercely independent, but he could not be fiercely independent on his own, if you see what I mean,” she says.

“What I’m saying is that it is really all about balancing the disability with leading a normal life for everybody. That was actually quite difficult to achieve.”

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs until March 9 at InterContinental Dubai Festival City. For details on sessions taking place and to buy tickets to the events, visit www.emirateslitfest.com