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Why writing a romance with your husband is no love story

He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and kissed the furrow of my brow. ‘I love you so much, Olivia. You are the most beautiful woman, inside and out. I want to create with you. Something lasting. Something that binds us together, for ever.’

A shaft of sunlight broke through the slit in the curtains and landed on our interlocked fingers. A blessing.

‘Let’s write a novel, Livs!’

I raised my eyes to meet his earnest expression. ‘But we’ve never even…’

‘Shh.’ He placed his forefinger over my lips.

‘Just say yes.’

I smiled. ‘Yes.’

Strong-willed: Writing team Olivia and Laurence discuss bringing their book, 12 Hours To Say I Love You, to life and reliving some painful memories along the way

Strong-willed: Writing team Olivia and Laurence discuss bringing their book, 12 Hours To Say I Love You, to life and reliving some painful memories along the way

This is the way I could have written the romantic version of how my husband Larry and I came to write our first novel as a married couple, 12 Hours To Say I Love You. But that would be fiction.

The reality is infinitely less schmaltzy but also far more rewarding. Writing a book together would turn out to be an experience that would highlight our strengths and weaknesses. It would challenge us, frighten us, thrill us and, ultimately, unify us.

We have been married for seven years and have a little boy aged one. We are both actors: I played Emma Messinger, the Tory special adviser in The Thick Of It, and have had roles in Doc Martin and Holby City; Laurence is best known for playing Alexander Randall in the Netflix historical drama Outlander.

Olivia Poulet and her husband open up on writing 12 Hours To Say I Love You

Olivia Poulet and her husband open up on writing 12 Hours To Say I Love You

Olivia Poulet and her husband open up on writing 12 Hours To Say I Love You

In 2018 we were approached by publisher Sherise Hobbs. She told us she’d heard a play we had written and performed in together for BBC Radio 4, titled #blessed. It was loosely based on an experience we had been through while undergoing IVF and she said it had knocked her for six. In a good way.

She wondered if our radio play might become a novel — a hilarious but heartbreaking love story told from both partners’ perspectives.

Our first reaction was blind panic. No way! Yes, we had written TV scripts, radio plays and short films together, but a real-life, full-length novel was uncharted territory. The territory of clever people. Focused people. Bona fide ‘writer people’. Not ‘Me and Larry’ people.

But with much encouragement, a few strong gin-and-tonics and a fair degree of hand-holding, we began brainstorming. Poor Sherise didn’t know what had hit her. I don’t think she had anticipated becoming our editor and marriage counsellor at the same time.

In our novel, Larry and I wanted to explore the messiness of love; how it sustains or struggles when pitted against the joys and the griefs that a marriage can face. We know, more than most, that love isn’t a straightforward business.

We first met when we were both in a play at the Chichester Festival in 2012. I was playing a pink-haired, dreadlocked Trustafarian on an extended gap year. Larry was a very convincing teenage tearaway who was sleeping in Oxfordshire lay-bys.

We had a scene together where Larry’s character tried to hold up a diner, threatening me with a stick concealed under his sweatshirt. Each night, as he waved his stick at me, we laughed a lot. All the time, in fact. It’s a wonderful feeling when someone can make you belly laugh and we seemed to do that to each other on a regular basis.

One rescue dog, one beautiful son and a decade later, we’re lucky that we still do.

We didn’t laugh so readily, though, when writing together.

Our novel starts with Steve sitting beside his wife Pippa’s hospital bed. She is in an induced coma after a car accident. The surgeon tells him the next 12 hours will be critical, and that he should keep talking to Pippa because it may help her recover. Steve spends the time telling her why he loves her, and the story goes back in time to when and how they first met.

For a debut novel, the advice is ‘write what you know’, so we called on experiences that have touched our own lives. Pippa and Steve’s IVF experience in the novel was inspired by our own. We had been on the rollercoaster of IVF before finally having our little boy.

Reliving it was tough, but both Larry and I felt willing to share it in the hope it might provide insight and support to others.

Olivia and Laurence Dobiesz at the National Youth Theatre Fundraiser 'Strictly Come Downton' in 2014

Olivia and Laurence Dobiesz at the National Youth Theatre Fundraiser 'Strictly Come Downton' in 2014

Olivia and Laurence Dobiesz at the National Youth Theatre Fundraiser ‘Strictly Come Downton’ in 2014

A chapter went missing, but we managed not to kill each other 

Because Larry has his heart tucked farther up his sleeve than me, I was surprised he wanted to write about it. But he felt strongly he wanted to give the man’s, often overlooked, perspective. During our treatment, we realised how things can feel very different for the man and woman involved.

On one memorable occasion, while I was in one hospital, he was on a Mission Impossible-esque voyage to another, where he would have to quickly produce a sperm sample after waiting in a nervous line of other men.

It was a side of the journey I’d had no idea about. It wasn’t just the hopeful mothers going boldly through an uncertain, awkward and embarrassing maze. The fathers-in-waiting had their struggles, too.

There is another scene in the novel in which Steve ferries a heavy insulated case containing Pippa’s follicular fluid (and potential eggs) across London while she lies in recovery, waiting and wondering. When we added more details involved in the event, our publisher wondered if we had got carried away — she couldn’t believe some of it was true.

Aside from the emotional trauma that came with sifting through our most painful memories, Larry struggled with the domestic chaos involved in writing a novel. Our flat was full of highlighted papers, bullet-point flipboards and fluorescent Post-it Notes on cupboard doors. I thrived in the Technicolor maelstrom.

During this early stage, when ideas and inventions were in freefall, it was vital not to reject each other’s suggestions, even if we didn’t agree. The ability to accept and improve on an idea was crucial.

The next stage was to sit down and put fingers to keyboards.

It turns out we are equally good at procrastinating. ‘Should we write first,’ I pondered, ‘then coffee, then walk the dog?’

‘I can’t write until I’ve had a coffee,’ Larry would say. ‘But after a dog walk and a shower and a coffee, it’ll be about time for lunch.’

In the end, we knew we had to bite the bullet. He commandeered the study — and the swivel chair with lumbar support, citing his ‘bad back’. But that meant I was at the kitchen table, nearer the biscuit supply.

Laurence Fox as Prince Charles and Olivia Poulet as Camilla Parker Bowles in Whatever Love Means (2005)

Laurence Fox as Prince Charles and Olivia Poulet as Camilla Parker Bowles in Whatever Love Means (2005)

Laurence Fox as Prince Charles and Olivia Poulet as Camilla Parker Bowles in Whatever Love Means (2005)

It took time, during which Covid flipped the world upside down a few times. But over the next year we inched our way towards a first, second, third draft.

As people we argue hard and love hard. Both of us are strong-willed and stubborn. Larry can come across as placid and cool and in control, and for the most part he is — I go to him when I need my head cooled or a rational response to something I’ve heard that has infuriated me. Larry can always get to the core of the issue.

But his calm nature will only be pushed so far. He has strong principles and woe betide someone who has overstepped the mark or been disrespectful or cruel to someone he loves. He will take you on like a prosecution lawyer during closing speeches. We have the odd humdinger of a row.

It wasn’t always possible to check in with one another’s progress as we wrote, so when I ruthlessly killed off a character at the same time as Larry slung in a love interest for Pippa, all hell broke loose.

Suddenly various chapters no longer made sense and the novel’s timeline was thrown out of whack. That night, we were both fuming and neither of us was prepared to back down.

After several slammed laptops and a few sullen suppers, we managed to reconcile our chapters’ differences and ended up with an even stronger story.

It is safe to say that most disputes between us are resolved when we start meal-planning.

Laurence Fox and Olivia Poulet as Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in the film Whatever Love Means

Laurence Fox and Olivia Poulet as Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in the film Whatever Love Means

Laurence Fox and Olivia Poulet as Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in the film Whatever Love Means

We can feel angry, hurt, vengeful, but those emotions are quickly overridden by hunger, then excitement when faced with mozzarella-topped macaroni cheese, for example, or a surprise glass of wine and cheeky bowl of Monster Munch on the patio. Our shared love of food definitely acts as an olive branch to be dangled in times of stress.

At times it was intense and difficult and we irritated each other wildly.

If Larry re-stacked my already stacked dishwasher one more time, I’d be ready to throw a plate at him. And my inability to screw the lids on jam jars properly, so they came off in his hands and the jar and contents ended up on the floor, nearly drove him to therapy.

But those moments of stress paled against the euphoria we felt when it was working — when the writing was flying and the story was developing under our eyes. It was like piecing together an enormous jigsaw that we were dreaming up together.

The closer we got to completion, the more wedded we became to little bits we liked. We would occasionally find ourselves trying to make changes to the same section of text in our shared document. These were flashpoints for disagreement, remedied by a walk around the block or an anaesthetising dip into Love Island.

In hindsight, trusting each other’s perspective always led to a better result in the end.

Olivia Poulet and Benedict Cumberbatch in 2009. Olivia says of her and Laurence: 'We are both actors: I played Emma Messinger, the Tory special adviser in The Thick Of It, and have had roles in Doc Martin and Holby City; Laurence is best known for playing Alexander Randall in the Netflix historical drama Outlander...'

Olivia Poulet and Benedict Cumberbatch in 2009. Olivia says of her and Laurence: 'We are both actors: I played Emma Messinger, the Tory special adviser in The Thick Of It, and have had roles in Doc Martin and Holby City; Laurence is best known for playing Alexander Randall in the Netflix historical drama Outlander...'

Olivia Poulet and Benedict Cumberbatch in 2009. Olivia says of her and Laurence: ‘We are both actors: I played Emma Messinger, the Tory special adviser in The Thick Of It, and have had roles in Doc Martin and Holby City; Laurence is best known for playing Alexander Randall in the Netflix historical drama Outlander…’

Then the unthinkable happened, on Deadline-Day Eve. After a solid month of re-rewrites, something went awry. A whole chapter was missing, vanished, lost in the ether between Google Docs and Microsoft Word.

Another one had been split apart, with sentences blown to smithereens. We would find lonely words scattered throughout the novel, out of context.

Larry claimed he had could solve it with a ‘resurrection of the original lost file from the server’, which made him sound like a tech Indiana Jones. I’m a Luddite and had no idea what he was talking about.

Somehow, we managed not to kill each other. And after a long night spent trawling through various versions of the novel, then copying and pasting, we (he) patched the lost chapters back together and we were finally able to click ‘Send’.

Sometimes we had both felt like quitting. But when one of us was down, the other rallied.

Now we have a partnership in love, life…and work.

…AND LAURENCE’S VERSION OF EVENTS 

My first question was: how would we write this together, logistically? In the same room? Surely we’d drive each other up the wall. And she uses Windows. while I’ve got a Mac — a conflict of operating systems which, in the end, turned out to be a bit like Mars and Venus.

When the words weren’t coming and the same four walls were giving us cabin fever, we took ourselves away for a couple of nights, usually to the coast.

A writing retreat is such a good idea in theory. Writer friends had posted pictures of their scribblings in a Moleskine notebook next to an iced coffee, with a sea view from a rustic balcony table. That looked like the life. We could be productive and leisurely.

Laurence and Olivia pictured in 2016. Olivia says: 'In our novel, Larry and I wanted to explore the messiness of love; how it sustains or struggles when pitted against the joys and the griefs that a marriage can face...'

Laurence and Olivia pictured in 2016. Olivia says: 'In our novel, Larry and I wanted to explore the messiness of love; how it sustains or struggles when pitted against the joys and the griefs that a marriage can face...'

Laurence and Olivia pictured in 2016. Olivia says: ‘In our novel, Larry and I wanted to explore the messiness of love; how it sustains or struggles when pitted against the joys and the griefs that a marriage can face…’

In reality, after a morning spent trying to keep the dog off the soft furnishings, we’d find ourselves Googling where to find the best fish and chips in Deal, Herne Bay or St Leonards. Then, finding the wi-fi in the Airbnb didn’t work, we’d have to go to the nearest pub to get online, where we’d sit, taking guilty sips of our drinks, having little on the page to show from our supposed working holiday.

I still feel like a novel-writing novice. But on the subject of marriage, I feel we have learnt a lot. As with all great tasks, working with your other half is sometimes the most uplifting of experiences; at other times, the most painful. Their opinion matters more than anyone else’s, so when you’re dancing to the same tune, the process is magical.

A book, like a marriage, takes time, effort, imagination and staying power. I’m proud we stuck it out. It wasn’t easy, and at times the strain made us question our decision.

But when the first proof copy arrived in the post, happy tears flowed. It was a high we will never forget. And the highs are that much higher when you have someone to share the view with. 

12 Hours To Say I Love You (£8.99, Headline) is out in paperback on August 18.

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