Elizabeth McCracken opens the door to her apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, holding a baby in her arms. "Hi," she says, smiling. "This is Matilda. Come on in."
The apartment is cluttered, colourful, chaotic: an unpretentious family home. There are toys and books everywhere, pictures on each available wall. It is unusually quiet today, McCracken explains, because Matilda's brother Gus, who is nearly two, has gone to the aquarium in nearby Boston with his father. Normally, he would be tearing around the place creating havoc. "Matilda loves to watch him play," she says.
The little girl has another brother, a year older than Gus. But she has never met him and she will never see him play. He was McCracken's first child and he died on the day he was born, just under three years ago. His name was Pudding.
A novelist and short story writer, McCracken has written a remarkable memoir about Pudding called An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, which was published last year in the States to both critical and popular acclaim. Time magazine compared it to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking; Oprah Winfrey featured it in her O magazine. Heartbreakingly sad, yet devastatingly calm and utterly unsentimental, it is an extraordinary book - and one McCracken says she simply had to write.
"I felt it was absolutely necessary for my mental health to write it," she explains. "I am not a therapy person but I understand what therapy does. It's a way of translating dark thoughts into something manageable. That's what writing the book did for me. I was worried I'd forget my first son. Now I know that is not possible, that he will be with me forever. But at the time when I started to write the book, that was one of the things that really worried me. I wanted to capture how I felt about him right then. I wanted to remember everything, the happiness as well as the pain. The sentence that kept threading through my brain after he died was, 'This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending'."
The story begins before Pudding was even thought of, when McCracken was 35 and a self-proclaimed "spinster, a woman no one imagined marrying". She had never had a serious relationship and thought she was unlikely ever to have children. "That suited me," she writes in her book. "I would be the weird aunt, the oddball friend who bought the great presents and occasionally drank too much and fell asleep on the sofa. Actually, I already was that person."
Then she went to a literary party in New York for the English writer Edward Carey whose odd, illustrated book she had liked. They fell in love and took off together around Europe - Paris, Berlin, rural Ireland, England - chasing jobs and literary fellowships, both writing all the time. McCracken's work began to attract attention, winning her, among other prizes, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a nomination for the US National Book Award. She was included among Granta's Best of Young American Novelists, alongside Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss. Four idyllic years went by. Then she found herself, approaching 40, pregnant, in deepest south-west France.
She and Carey were delighted, even though it meant the end of their footloose existence. "I loved being pregnant," McCracken writes in her memoir. "I didn't write much but that didn't bother me. Edward cooked and cleaned and tucked me into bed. I rubbed my stomach and loved my husband profoundly." They called the baby Pudding (intending to choose a more conventional name when he was born) and ticked off the days until he was due to arrive at a hospital in Bordeaux. "And then," as McCracken puts it, "the calamity".
One morning, already more than a week overdue, she could not feel the baby moving. The local midwife picked up a heartbeat on her portable monitor but it was not as strong as it should have been. She arranged for McCracken to go for tests at the hospital late that afternoon. By the time she arrived there, the baby was dead.
She recalls in her book the moment she heard the devastating news: "'C'est fini', said the midwife. It's finished."
McCracken then had to endure labour and the anguish of giving birth to her dead son. In pieces, she and Carey left Bordeaux, not with the beautiful newborn child they had hoped for, the baby they had thought such "a sure thing", but with his ashes in an urn.
Initially, she felt black despair: "All I could think was, 'our child died and our life is over'." But they vowed to have another baby and within three months, she discovered she was pregnant again. She felt blessedly lucky but paralysed by anxiety. "I spent Gus's pregnancy trying not to think anything at all," she remembers. "Writing was out of the question. I just wanted to get through it and get him out safely. But once he was here I realised I would have to get down on paper everything that had happened, just so that I could manage on a day-to-day level. I was struggling. When you've lost a baby, everyone around you expects you to be fine once the new baby is born, as though that somehow takes away the pain of losing the first child. I needed to express how wrong that was."
As she writes in her book, "I wanted to acknowledge that life goes on but that death goes on too. A person who is dead is a long, long story."
One of the things that rang most true for me in An Exact Replica was McCracken's description of the intense bond that exists between people who have lost a child. "It's a sort of kinship, as though there is a family tree of grief," she writes. "You discover all of a sudden that you have a whole new set of relatives, people with whom you can speak in the shorthand of cousins." The reason this rang so true, the reason McCracken's story affected me so profoundly is that I belong to that family tree of grief myself: she and I are related.
My baby, Adam, died just over seven years ago, aged two weeks. He was not my first child: I already had a son called Joe, who was nearly three. But since I was almost 40 and recently divorced I had not imagined I would have another child. So he was a wonderful surprise. His father and I had not known each other long but we were in love and he was delighted at the news, especially since he had no children of his own. We married and settled down to wait for our baby.
The calamity came earlier for me than it did for McCracken. I was 36 weeks pregnant when I woke up at 5am with contractions. Unsure what to do, I dithered, calling the hospital to ask advice and waiting until a civilised hour to ring my parents and ask them to come and look after Joe. By the time we reached the labour ward there was no heartbeat. I had had a placental abruption: the placenta had come away from the wall of the uterus and stopped providing the baby with oxygen. I was rushed into the operating theatre for an emergency caesarean section but when Adam was delivered he was not breathing.
A crash team resuscitated him but not soon enough to prevent devastating brain damage. He spent two weeks in intensive care before passing peacefully away in my arms. I have had two more children since Adam died, which is a source of great happiness and I consider myself blessed. But as the years pass, the pain of losing him remains the same.
McCracken knew something of Adam's story before we met because she and I had exchanged emails. Nonetheless, she looks genuinely stricken when I relate it in full, as she asks me to. "Since Pudding died it has meant so much to me to hear other people's stories," she tells me.
And there are thousands upon thousands of stories out there like hers and mine. Hard though it is to believe in an age where childbirth is so heavily monitored and medicalised, 6,500 new babies die every year in the UK alone - that's 17 babies every day. Ten of those 17 deaths are stillbirths, seven are neonatal deaths. Most, like Pudding's, are unexplained. To put these figures in context, 10 times more babies are stillborn than die of cot death each year in Britain. This is double the number of adults who die on our roads annually. And these numbers are not going down: the stillbirth rate has remained unchanged for 10 years. Campaigners such as the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society (Sands) claim many of these deaths could be prevented by improved maternity services.
McCracken has received "tons and tons" of emails and letters from women - and some men - who have lost babies since her book was published. "I don't think it is to do with the execution of the book itself, I think it is just the fact that the book is out there," she says. "It seems to have given these people permission to speak about what happened to them. Some emails have come from people who lost babies 20 or even 40 years ago, some just two months ago. Almost all of them say that when it happens to you, you feel like you are the only person it has ever happened to and that hearing about someone else's experience is incredibly helpful."
Some people McCracken has heard from just once. With others, she has entered into a correspondence and become friends. A few days before I met her, she had brunch with a woman she met on a website for bereaved parents called glowinthewoods.com.
I tell her how meeting people through Sands pretty much saved my life after Adam died. The hospital had suggested contacting the group straight away but I resisted: the idea of belonging to such a sad, sad club was too bleak to contemplate. Then, after a few months of feeling steadily worse each day, I went to a local meeting and discovered the solace of sharing what had happened to us with people who had experienced similar losses. The relief of being able to talk about it openly was immense. I would have been very glad to have had McCracken's book to read in those dark days.
When she first started writing about Pudding, McCracken had no idea whether her words would actually be published. "I just needed to get them written," she says. The trigger was the arrival of a shipment of clothes from France, among them some tiny items she had bought for Pudding while she was pregnant with him. "I'd kept them after Pudding died and I wanted Gus to wear them as a way of keeping his memory alive but I was so worried people would think that was macabre, that it was morbid to cling to the memory of how happy that pregnancy had been. I started to feel like I was going crazy and I knew then that I had to start writing. It is the only way I know of ordering my thoughts and making them manageable."
Even after she had finished, she felt it read more like a diary, or maybe notes for a future novel, than a fully formed book. But then she began to think that "putting the book aside would have felt like putting the child aside". Carey encouraged her to have it published and so did her agent. "But he didn't push me, he said, be careful, it is intensely personal, you need to be sure you will be comfortable with this being in the public domain. I think I was worried for about 30 seconds, then I just started to feel I would really like to be able to get it out there."
Several publishing companies turned the book down. "They were nervous about the subject matter. They wanted some sense of redemption or that terrible word, closure. There was one editor in particular who gave me a long list of extra things she wanted from it, feel-good stuff. I still have it somewhere."
I ask her what she thinks is the hardest thing of all to bear about losing a baby and she says immediately "people not mentioning it". Like me, she was amazed at how many friends and acquaintances simply never referred to her loss. Instead of saying they were sorry or asking how she was, they smiled uncomfortably or changed the subject. Each time this happened it felt to me like a stab in the heart. In her book McCracken writes, "I could feel how uncomfortable my mere presence made people feel and I couldn't bear it. I felt like the most terrifying object on earth, a cautionary tale made flesh: a horror story." At parties and dinners, unable to bring up the subject herself among people who so obviously did not want to address it, she listened politely to the conversations going on around her: "All the while, all I could think was: 'Dead baby dead baby dead baby'."
I tell her about cooking supper a couple of months after Adam died for some guests who had just had a child of their own. Neither of them mentioned our dead baby but they talked and talked for what seemed like hours about the birth of their own, how tricky it had been choosing a name, how well he was sleeping at night and so on. Eventually, I burst into tears and retired to the bathroom. McCracken shouts out loud in recognition: "Oh God, I've been there. I don't think people mean to be cruel. If only they knew how much worse they are making it for you by pretending nothing has happened."
We talk about the other desperately distressing situations we faced on a daily basis after losing our babies, the occasions that would pass unnoticed by anyone else yet literally brought us to our knees. Worst of all was seeing newborns or pregnant women in the street. "My legs once gave way from under me," recalls McCracken. Equally unbearable, when pregnant again, was being asked "Is this your first child?". "I could never bear any of the possible answers," McCracken says. In her book she writes that she often wished she had a stack of cards in her pocket that explained what had happened so that whenever the question came up she could just reach in and hand one over. My first child was stillborn, it would announce, saving her the heartache of having to say it aloud herself.
Another thing that still makes me feel as though I've been kicked in the stomach is encountering children who were born around the same time that my baby died. McCracken feels the same.
"I sometimes wonder," she says, "if there will ever come a time when I will stop looking at children who are the same age as he would have been and thinking, 'Oh, he would have been three by now, too, he would have been four'. Do you get to the stage where you are still saying, 'Oh look, he would have been 21 now, he would have been 30'? I think you probably do, I'm afraid."
There are no photographs of Pudding in the apartment. We have a picture of Adam in a frame, and many others in a memory box that mean a huge amount to me, and I know how precious photos of their lost babies are to so many bereaved parents, so I am surprised.
But McCracken says, "We didn't want photos and I do not regret it. Anything that pretended he was born alive would feel wrong. A picture of him would be a picture of his dead body. I love my grandmother but I don't want a picture of her dead body in my house. The same thing applies to Pudding. I guess I might feel differently if he had lived even just for a few minutes."
However, this does not mean he is absent from the texture of their family life. Far from it: she and Carey told Gus all about Pudding when he was still a tiny baby and they continue to talk about their lost son all the time. The little boy and Matilda will grow up knowing Pudding's name and everything about him. I tell her how important it is to me, too, that Adam should continue to be talked about as a member of our family. We have planted a tree for him on the village green near our house and we walk past it every day on the way to school, watching the new leaves grow in the spring and fall to the ground each autumn. Every year on his birthday we leave flowers there, one for each year of the age he would have been.
It will be the third anniversary of Pudding's death in a couple of weeks and it will be the first time it has come around when McCracken has not been pregnant with one of his two siblings. "I'm not at all sure how that will feel, I am quite apprehensive about it," she says. "All I know is I want to do something to mark it all together," McCracken says. "I want to establish it early on in our life as a family that Pudding is someone we love and miss and think about often." After Pudding's death, they scattered his ashes on the sea at Holkham Beach in Norfolk, near where Carey grew up. "So I think we will go to the ocean near here and look out to sea and think of him. It's a different body of water but I think it will help us to feel connected to him," she says.
I ask McCracken if she can pinpoint the most fundamental way that Pudding's death has changed her as a person. "I suppose it has made me much less optimistic," she replies. "It's not that I'm a pessimist now but I have lost that innate sense I used to have that everything is bound to turn out fine. Having said that, with two kids now I feel a profound sense of luck. I almost hate to think of what might have happened to me if we had not been able to have another child. We would have been OK, I'm sure, because we like each other an awful lot but it surely would have been a different life. It's not because one child can ever replace another or even make the loss itself less. But joy is a really good treatment for sadness."
The phone rings. Gus is on his way back from the aquarium with his father. It is time for me to leave. McCracken says she and Matilda will walk me to the Harvard University campus a few minutes away to pick up a cab. It's where she teaches creative writing now. As we stroll along chatting about her work I think about the last line of her book and how perfectly it describes my life, and the life of probably every other person who has lost a child: "It's a happy life but someone is missing. It's a happy life, and someone is missing."
• For details of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society (Sands) go to uk-sands.org