Florence Read meets the Harry Potter star turned novelist, artist, comedian and mother to talk grief, the consoling power of food and dreams of coffee shop proprietorship
Jessie Cave has made her own rules. At 34 her work history is as colourful and pleasingly odd as she is. After leaving art school she got her big break playing Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films – not a bad place to begin an acting career. But Jessie had more to offer. She went on to write and perform an award-winning stage show at the Soho Theatre, found Internet fame with her comic illustrations, started a podcast with her sister Bebe, and has just released her debut novel.
Jessie lives in Hammersmith with stand-up comedian Alfie Brown and their three children, Donnie, six, Margot, four, and their new baby Tenn. Her book, Sunset, is a surprisingly zany story of siblinghood and grief, inspired by Cave’s experience of losing her brother, Ben, suddenly in 2019.
I meet Jessie over Zoom, beaming in from the bedroom she shares with her children. Tenn bounces on her lap and occasionally vomits, thanks to a nasty case of acid reflux. Jessie tells me to just ignore it. She’s got business to attend to…
Florence Read Did you set out to write a funny book about death?
Jessie Cave I wanted to get something out there that would have helped me in the periods when there was no hope, so there are moments of joy and light-heartedness. People assume that once you have a tragedy happen to you, life is over and you’re ruined. I remember me and my sister saying very early on after my brother died: “We’re ruined, we’re ruined, we’re ruined.” Everyone’s going to look at us like we’re ruined. That was the hardest thing to get our brains around because we’re not ruined. We’ve been hit badly but we’re still here.
FR Coffee seems to play a major therapeutic role in the book.
JC My life revolves around coffee shops. I choose where to live based on coffee shops. I’ve always had a fondness for Costa. Something about Costa just makes me feel safe. A huge part of my family life was having coffees with my siblings and my mum. The shittier the Costa the better. It would be a gross branch where pigeons would just walk in and out. I’m in a phase at the moment of reading books with a lot of references to food and drink and that’s a response to grief for me, because eating and drinking are still things I can do which at first were taken away from me. Overnight I thought, “Well, I’ll never eat again. I’ll become a shrivelling, tiny, gaunt woman. That’s what I’m going to have to be now, because obviously I can’t eat food. Food is something nice and now nice is not a part of the deal.” So I think there’s something quite joyful about reading about people consuming [food and drink].
FR Did you ever work in a cafe?
JC I worked at a coffee shop as a teenager and I worked at a gastro pub that did coffee but I wasn’t allowed to touch the coffee machines. But it’s always been a dream to start a coffee shop. It’s something I want to happen before I’m 40. I came up with this name when I was 13 for my coffee shop, because of my love of coffee and chocolate: Choffee. So if this book is a failure I might just give up and start Choffee.
FR An unorthodox backup plan.
JC Yeah and probably the book would have to be a massive success to start a coffee shop, because it would cost loads of money.
FR The Idler had a coffee shop with events in the evening, before I arrived. From what I’ve heard it was a bit of a pain in the arse. But that’s the dream for you?
JC It’s definitely the dream. I’ll have to try at some point, though I think I’d have to do some awful reality TV show following the process to make it worth it: Jessie Cave Fails At A Coffee Shop.
This is an extract from a longer interview in Idler #79, July/August 2021