The comedian and artist’s debut novel ‘Sunrise’ was born from her own grief after the death of her brother Ben. She speaks to Alexandra Pollard about making something meaningful out of the disaster that ‘ruined my life’
In the days after Jessie Cave’s brother died, she walked into a coffee shop, foggy with grief. “I remember thinking, ‘They’re all going to stop and say something, because it must just be so obvious,’” recalls the 34-year-old. “I thought it was written on my forehead. But no one knew. I looked the same as I did the week before.”
It was the second to last date of her Sunrise tour when it happened. In the decade since she played Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films, Cave has become a prolific comedian and artist, trading in manic, self-eviscerating humour both on stage and in her cartoon-strip doodles. This particular emotional disembowelment was about her break-up from fellow comedian Alfie Brown, the father of her two children; it followed 2015’s I Loved Her, about the one-night stand with Brown that led to their first child. It was going well. Reviews were glowing. Then, just as the tour was nearing its end, her younger brother Ben was found dead. He’d made what Cave describes now as a “bad mistake”, and been killed on the Hackney Wick train tracks. Still in shock, she decided to go back and do the show in Soho the next night.
“Because I’m in a rush all the time with my life, I immediately see the bottom line,” says Cave, speaking over Zoom, rocking her eight-month-old baby Tenn (she now has three children with Brown – they’re back together). The patchwork cover art of her new novel Sunset is pegged up behind her, just underneath a string of fairy lights. “I make such rash decisions in those stressful moments. I’m like, ‘Just get to the point quicker. Are you going to live? Are you going to die? Are you going to be happy? Are you going to be miserable?’ With my own grief, it was definitely, ‘OK, I’m gonna continue to work as f***ing hard as I can, because that’s the only way I’m gonna make it through.’”
It was from this resolve that Cave’s debut novel was born. It is a book about grief, because anything else felt impossible, and it is also funny, sharp, insightful and neurotic. It revolves around Ruth, an aimless twenty-something, and her older sister Hannah, a kind-hearted go-getter. It is Hannah who keeps Ruth tethered: she nags her about cleaning her water bottles, gossips with her about celebrities, and – towards the start of the novel – cajoles her into jumping off a cliff in the Mediterranean. But when Hannah jumps, she doesn’t come back up. For the rest of the novel, which leaps back and forward in time, Ruth grapples with a loss too big to fathom.
Ruth’s internal monologue is as sad as it is sardonic. Sometimes it is downright bitter. “I don’t know what I would do if a friend lost her sister but I know I wouldn’t send a text saying, ‘I’m so sorry < sad emoticon > xxx’, and then two weeks later ask them if they wanted to go to a gig as if everything was OK again, as if everything was normal. There’s no back to normal now, bitch.”
“I did want to share that side of grief,” says Cave, as Tenn grizzles in her arms, “because you do have really ugly thoughts. One of the first things I realised when I was grieving was, ‘I’m so angry. I’m so angry that other people haven’t experienced this.’ And that’s mean of me, because obviously you don’t want people to go through something that’s just devastating, but it’s so isolating because no one can understand you. Very few. You cannot help but have ugly thoughts. You didn’t decide for this to be your world, and now you’re in it. So horrible, mean, unforgivable thoughts are what happens.”
There are, frankly, a lot of funny thoughts in the novel, too. After Ruth tries to numb her pain by having sex with a former fling – a fellow art student who “did such bizarre and basic installation art that people mistook him for a genius” – she goes to pee in his bathroom. “It’s been so long since I’ve had sex that I forgot how messy it is, and how many secret toilet trips are involved,” Cave writes. “I check under the cupboard to see if my make-up bag is still there, hidden away because I was too timid to ask if I could leave my toothbrush. It’s still there. I open it and find my toothbrush and a ‘shimmer’ cheek highlighter which I sometimes applied just before we f***ed, thinking that would help things along.”
It is that same mix of self-deprecation and jolting honesty that has earned Cave such a loyal fanbase. “It’s fiction, but it’s definitely got my voice,” she says. “I think that’s why I’ve always written truthfully in my previous work, because you just have this amazing thrill afterwards, that you just told everyone your dirty secrets. Now they can make the decision whether to like you or not. It’s up to them. You’ve shown them everything.”
With her exceptionally long hair and big, round glasses, Cave reminds me a little bit of Olive from Little Miss Sunshine. They share a misfit energy, too, which is perhaps what got her cast – at an open audition in 2007 for which 7,000 people turned up – as the loved-up oddball Lavender in the sixth Harry Potter film. That, and the fact she was thin and pretty – tenuous attributes onto which to pin self-worth.
“I gained a lot of weight after doing Harry Potter, just because I wasn’t starving myself,” recalls Cave, whose only credited screen role before then was in the CBBC show Summerhill. “And I was growing up and that’s just what happens.” When she returned to film Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2, “I was treated like a different species. It was horrible. It was probably more me and my insecurity, knowing that I wasn’t fitting into the same size jeans, but it wasn’t a time where actresses were any bigger than a size eight. And in the previous film I had been, and now I was a size 12. So that was horrible. It was a really uncomfortable experience.”
The attention she got from Harry Potter, she says, felt like a light being shone on her. “But you get a bit bigger, or you’re not as relevant, and it goes off, and you have to make your way in the dark. I definitely felt invisible when I gained a little bit of weight. And since then, it’s made me have weird issues with weight and work. And it’s so f***ed up, but it’s just how it is. Women have to deal with that all the time.”
In fact, Cave’s body image issues pre-date Harry Potter. Her formative blueprint for womanhood was Friends, so like many of us, she looked at Rachel, Monica and Phoebe’s rail-thin frames and saw what she should be. She didn’t know then that Jennifer Aniston, having been told she was too fat by her agent, had lost 30 pounds to get the role; that Lisa Kudrow had made herself “sick” from dieting because she felt like a “mountain of a girl” next to her co-stars. “They were minuscule,” says Cave. “They were so thin. And for years I put it down to, ‘Oh they must be naturally small, they’re just lucky.’ And now it’s obvious that they were just so starved.”
The costumes, she adds, were designed to emphasise how big their breasts were and how small the rest of their body was. “That must just mess girls up. It definitely messed me up, thinking, ‘Oh, the ideal body should be: big boobs, tiny body.’ I had such a Jennifer Aniston complex. Her boobs were so obvious, and her nipples were always out.” At school, Cave used to take the plastic dome bits off her clip-on earrings and shove them down her top to resemble nipples. “Eventually one dropped down and one boob was completely lop-sided,” she says, laughing. “And I just realised what I was doing was mental.”
The body hang ups stuck around, though – which is unsurprising, given that her chosen profession only ever confirmed them. “It’s the most toxic relationship, acting,” says Cave. “Unless you’re doing well, you’re only being rejected. It’s like going on a million first dates, and them going brilliantly, and then you never hear from them again. It’s like getting ghosted a thousand times a year and it kind of sends you crazy. I definitely went crazy in my early twenties, thinking, ‘But they said they liked me and that I was perfect for it?’ But then you realise there’s 100 other girls who are as good as you if not better, maybe prettier, maybe thinner, and they’re perfect for it.”
In a roundabout way, gaining weight is what led Cave to the career path she’s on now. “If I’d stayed thin – unnaturally thin, unhappily thin – I would have probably got more acting roles, and then I wouldn’t have started writing. And then I don’t know who I would be now because writing is who I am. I’m almost grateful that I gained all that weight.”
Having to carve out her own place in an industry that rejected her seems to have left Cave with a mixture of resilience, determination and imposter syndrome. “I’m somebody who makes things and really puts myself out there, even though I’m not the most talented person,” she says. “I wanted to show Bebe [her sister, who’s 10 years younger and an actor] that you just have to be brave sometimes and put your work out there.”
Listening to Cave talk about Bebe, I can understand why sisterhood is at the very heart of Sunset. Cave already had three brothers when Bebe came along, and had begged her mother to have one more baby so she could have a sister. “And it happened, and she’s just been the biggest, best thing in my life,” says Cave. “I’ve used her in every bit of work I’ve ever done. She’s funnier than me; I think she’s kinder than me; she’s more talented than me in lots of ways. It was just inevitable that our relationship would flood into this book.” Since their brother died, they’ve grown even closer. “We now know how bloody lucky we are to have each other still.”
In Sunset, Ruth has no one. At least, not until she allows herself to grow close to Hannah’s boyfriend, Rowan. “I feel like I’m on a bridge, between two cliffs,” explains Ruth. “It’s dangerous and rickety and could collapse at any second. I was put on this bridge the day Hannah died and I either make it to the other side – or I just give up and f***ing die too. He’s put himself on this bridge with me and he’s struggling like I am. But whatever he’s doing, even if it’s just being nearby, it’s helping me.”
When I mention that passage, Cave says it was one of the few things kept in from a very early draft. “It felt so crucial to me, that metaphor,” she says. “I just wanted that to stand out as the point of the book, because you can decide to be destroyed. You could just give up.”
Cave, just like Ruth, decided not to. “I could sound incredibly cold-hearted saying that it was a decision to be OK – that’s not what I mean,” says Cave. “It was a decision to make something out of this disaster that was going to be meaningful. It’s just… It’s completely ruined my life.” She starts to cry – unconcealed tears that suggest crying is now a frequent and familiar thing. “But there’s still joy in so much of my life. It felt really scary to have to suddenly be like, ‘But I still have my kids and I still have my sisters and my brothers and my work, but this awful thing happened, so is that it? Does that mean it’s all over?’ It was so vital to me to hang on to whatever good I could.” She breathes out deeply. “And make the most of what I had left.”
Sunset is out now