Earlier this month I presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary about representations of mental illness in the media. You can listen to it on BBC iPlayer by clicking on the young Jack Nicholson.
I feel really proud of this documentary. The interviewees were so generous in sharing their stories, and make such important points. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Robin Ince had to say in his review for The Big Issue:
My wife and I were recently interviewed for Israel Story. If you haven’t heard of this podcast then I strongly recommend you check it out. It’s a lot like “This American Life”.
From their website: “Israel Story is a bi-weekly podcast, hosted by Mishy Harman and distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. It tells modern tales from an ancient land – the kind of stories you’d share with a friend over a plate of hummus on a Friday afternoon, or with your partner at the end of a long day. These are everyday stories, told by, and about, regular Israelis. The award-winning show is one of the most popular programs in Israel, where it is aired nationally, on prime-time.”
I think it’s brilliant. They’ve put together an impressive edit our particular story, turning mine and Emily’s sleep-deprived ramblings into a beautifully coherent narrative arc.
Our contribution starts at around 5 mins 45 secs:
P.S. This show first aired on 30th December, which by a nice coincidence just so happens to be Ayda’s birthday…
I was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Abertay University. Here is a very nice video celebrating all of the winter 2015 graduates:
I’m very happy to announce that The Shock of the Fall is part of the Waterstones Buy Books for Syria Campaign. Pop into Waterstones and buy a copy with the sticker on, and 100% of the royalties will go to support Oxfam’s vital work in the region.
I’ve been getting involved in an important local campaign calling for our Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to remain integrated and within the NHS. I’ve shared some of my thoughts with The Bristol Cable, which you can read by clicking the logo.
I’ll also be at the demonstration on Wednesday 26 August, meeting at the Bearpit at 12.30pm and walking to CCG offices at South Plaza, Marlborough Street. Please do come and join us.
UPDATE: Here is a video made at the protest.
Never again will I be able to say there hasn’t been an interpretive dance inspired by The Shock of the Fall. I’ve been on the road a bit lately, and am just back from a wonderful literature festival in Chambéry, France.
As much as I enjoy giving talks at festivals, I suppose they do feel a bit samey after a while. But it’s fair to say this one took me by surprise.
Arriving to give a talk to students from a near-by secondary school (Lycée Ambroise Croizat), I was asked to take a seat in the audience first. They had prepared a dance inspired by The Shock of the Fall that they wanted to share with me. My shoddy camera work doesn’t do it justice, but you’ll get a sense of how much time and effort they had put into this. I was dead impressed, anyway.
At a similarly terrific event students from lycée Vaugelas had written their own creative responses to the novel, in the form of letters from Nanny Noo:
I think they’re wonderful, as were the responses of students from Le Granier high school who presented a beautiful “keepsake” box filled with original artwork, objects and letters inspired by the novel.
Thank you to all the students who have been working so imaginatively with The Shock of the Fall, and to the Festival du Premier Roman for inviting me over. It was a real treat.
I spent the whole of last month in hospital and I wasn’t even sick. Ha. I wrote all about it for the The Guardian Weekend, landing my first cover story. Below is the blurb that ran with the feature, and if you click on the photograph of the brilliant Dr Nick Sargant (resuscitating a plastic baby) you’ll be taken to the online version.
On a wing and a prayer: The NHS is struggling after years of cuts; its future a key election issue. But what is the view from inside the wards? Following everyone from a senior doctor to a nursing assistant, a porter to an executive, novelist and ex-nurse Nathan Filer charts a month in the life of an English hospital. Photographs by Robert Ormerod.
Following on from that last post, the video from my LSE lecture is now available online. Right here, in fact:
I’m speaking alongside Dr Sarah Carr, Dr John McGowan and Paul Farmer. My own talk starts about 17 minutes in, and there is a very interesting Q&A at 1hr 08 mins.
The other day I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the London School of Economics, alongside Dr Sarah Carr, Paul Farmer and Dr John McGowan.
It was recorded and you can listen to the audio here. I gather a video is to follow and if it does I’ll be sure to post that too. It was a really fascinating event.
I’m at about 17mins.
Look. It’s Claudia Hammond, host of BBC radio 4’s All in the Mind.
I recently met with her for a brief chat about mental health and writing. The author Matt Haig was with us too. If you click on Claudia’s microphone you’ll be transported to another part of the internet where you can have a listen to our conversation.
We’re at about 12mins 45 secs.
The Shock of the Fall recently won “Popular Fiction Book of the Year” at the National Book Awards.
The reception was at 11 Downing Street so I used my speech to talk about this government’s woeful underfunding of mental health care. Only the day before the ceremony the Royal College of Nursing issued a major report warning we’re “turning back the clock on mental health services”. There was a time in this country where poorly people were left to cope alone until they became so unwell that they needed to be sectioned and locked up in institutions. We are returning to those days.
Mental health care has always been chronically underfunded but since 2010, under this government, the cuts have been even deeper. We’ve seen thousands of bed closures, representing a 6% reduction during the same period that there has been a 30% increase in demand. We’ve seen a loss of 3,300 nursing jobs. We’ve seen cuts to early intervention and crisis resolution services, placing an ever greater demand on the police and A&E services – which is more costly in the long term, making the whole exercise a false economy. It’s myopic, it’s cruel and it is ruining people’s lives.
I’ve written about all this stuff before but I was pleased to get the opportunity to say it in the belly of the beast, as it were.
Here’s a rather charming illustration of an engagement ring by Melinda Josie. The ring I gave Emily wasn’t nearly so nice or expensive-looking, but everything else is true. Indeed, it was verified as true by a New York Times “fact-checker” over the course of a forty minute telephone interview and a couple of emails, requesting scans of various legal documents etc. He was really nice, though, my New York Times interrogator.
(Nicer than Israel and Tel Aviv, anyway.)
If you click on the ring you’ll be taken to my essay. Then be sure to have a read of the comments section. Perhaps you too will think I’m an irredeemable monster, but hopefully you’ll want to know more about the actual work Emily and I did with the ISM – in which case you can read this blog I kept at the time.
The other week I gave a talk for TEDx Youth Bath. It was essentially an edited version of an essay that I wrote for the W&A Yearbook. The advantage of the video is that you get to see my corporeal form and make private judgements about my shirt, hair, glasses, shoulders etc.
It also saves you the hassle of reading, which as we all know is a frightful bore. So to that end:
You can watch all the other speakers from our event over at the TEDx Youth Bath website. I would especially recommend the inspiring and heart-rending story from young North Korean political activist Yeonmi Park.
To celebrate what has proved a remarkable year in the life of this book, The Borough Press have teamed up with the NHS SWIMS library network and are giving away loads of copies of The Shock of the Fall to hospital libraries. I think that’s a brilliant thing to do, and have been quoted saying as much in this Telegraph article all about it.
Oh and it’s even been given a special festive cover. Brrrr.
I really enjoyed this conversation, which I think covers all the major themes of The Shock of the Fall, and more besides. Great questions from the audience. Also, yes, it is a new shirt – thanks for noticing.
I seem to work for the Guardian all of a sudden. I didn’t write this one (or indeed know that there was a journalist in the audience) but since I’ve been quoted here’s the link:
I stand by what I said.
… was my suggested title for an article I wrote this week. I suspected the Guardian subeditors wouldn’t run with it. But they have published the article.
It’s about why you should ignore the superlatives on book jackets, and they’ve called it: Why you should ignore the superlatives on book jackets.
(I admire their clarity.)
Follow the link to have a read and join the discussion. Interesting comment thread on this one…
This week my American publisher asked me to provide a reading list of books that influenced The Shock of the Fall to feature in the soon-to-be-launched US paperback. If you think my unequal weighting in favour of American novels is an unconscious effort on my part to ingratiate myself with this readership then you’re wrong!
It was entirely conscious.
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
As a schoolboy I had a determined lack of interest in reading. I would occasionally steel myself to suffer the books prescribed to us on the English syllabus, but even then if I could get away with a revision guide and the film adaptation then I would.
My journey into reading came a little later. I was a teenager when I idly plucked a copy of The Cement Garden from a friend’s bookshelf. I was astounded by it. Still am really. Something about McEwan’s precision; the control he has over each and every sentence. I found myself re-reading passages, trying to unlock their secrets. By the end I had not only discovered reading, but also knew that I wanted to write.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
I was studying for a master’s degree in creative writing, and well into my first draft of The Shock of the Fall, when my tutor recommended Maxwell’s classic. He suggested I might find it helpful when thinking about my book. Detailing a tragic feud between tenant farmers in 1920s Illinois, I’ll confess it wasn’t immediately clear to me how they related. Then on page 27 Maxwell captures in a single perfect paragraph a notion I spend my whole novel trying to grapple. I copied it out into my notebook and referred to it often. ‘In any case,’ the paragraph concludes, ‘in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.’
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I sometimes joke that I must owe a royalty cheque to the Salinger estate. For all my interest in structure and form and themes The Shock of the Fall is first and foremost a book about voice. The eccentric voice of a socially alienated young male protagonist.
There are many, many novels in this lineage, but I don’t suppose anyone has done it better than Salinger. I reckon Matthew and Holden Caulfield would get along famously.
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursing
Because it’s not all about fiction. Research. Research. Research.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I was tempted to bookend this list with another British novel (I never realised how American my reading habits have been.). But I want to mention To Kill a Mockingbird. This was actually one of the books that I avoided reading at school. It was on the syllabus but I settled for the revision guide. I don’t know what made me revisit it, but I have, and very recently. It’s the book I’ve just finished. So I can’t call it an influence.
But you know that feeling, when you’ve just read something so profoundly wonderful that you’ll seize any given opportunity to talk about it?
Well, this is me doing that.
Naturally I recoiled at this because I do try, wherever possible, not to sound like a dick. However it did strike me as a rather catchy title and, well, I did write an award winning first novel.
Also, I thought it might provide a nice excuse to talk about mental well-being and other important issues like that. If you click on the image you can order your copy. It’s a terrific book packed full of invaluable, practical information for the aspiring author and published authors alike.
Here’s my contribution:
On a rainy spring day in 2009, I shuffled into a lecture theatre at the University of Bristol to watch a presentation entitled ‘Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology’. I was deeply, deeply miserable.
Depression – somewhat ironically – was my bread and butter. I’d spent the last two years of my working life surrounded by filing cabinets in a cramped office, a short walk up the road from the lecture theatre. Here I helped to administer large trials – comparing side-effects of antidepressants, the effectiveness of talking therapies, that sort of thing. It was good work, important work. The problem: I wasn’t any good at it. My aptitude for statistics is woeful. I’m slow with databases and spreadsheets. My heart was elsewhere.
At home, hidden away in a cardboard box, were the first 20 pages of a novel that I’d been planning to write for years, only where was the time?
Then on that rainy spring day, slumped at my desk, composing a newsletter, I noticed an email arrive: it was a reminder that all were welcome to the lunch-time lecture, starting in 15 minutes. I reread the title. Evidence-based Approaches to Positive Psychology. These things tend to suffer from lofty verbosity. Translate: How To Be Happy.
I grabbed my coat.
The notes I made during the lecture remain pinned to the wall above my writing desk, five years and one novel later. They don’t contain any insights on shaping a compelling plot. Nothing on characterisation or how to write convincing dialogue. There are no well-worn wisdoms on the importance of cutting adverbs. Writing a first novel demands far more than the words we place on the page. Here are my thoughts on how to do it, and moreover, for the experience to be a happier one.
Have specific goals
The operative word here is ‘specific’. My stack of pages hidden away, my hope to be a writer one day – were a start, but it was too vague.
It didn’t bother me that I would often put aside my manuscript for a month, three months, six months at a time. Why should it? I’d write it eventually. The problem, the lecturer explained, is that when our goals aren’t specific, it’s too easy to convince ourselves that we’re getting there when we’re not. Then at the other end of the journey, we tend not to properly savour the attainment of ill-defined goals, because it is less certain that we’ve reached them.
Here’s what I did. I replaced ‘I want to be a writer’ (something I’m still not convinced I’ve achieved) with ‘I’ll write something today’.
That’s pretty specific.
The first evening, in a frenzy of positivity, I wrote a page. The next day I deleted it. But I also wrote a new paragraph. That went too. By the end of the week I’d written 2,000 words that would never make it into The Shock of the Fall, and I had also written a sentence that would become the opening line. It was there, waiting.
Make sure your goals are achievable
As my novel grew, as I found the voice of my central character and knew with greater certainty how his story would unfold – I set myself tougher goals.
Today I will fix that irksome issue with the chronology. This week I will complete chapter four. Next week I shall write to an agent, etc.
My vague desire to write a novel had now been replaced with the clear intent to write this novel, to tell this specific story. That felt great, because now it felt achievable.
All too often we set ourselves unachievable goals. Then we feel bad for failing (more on failure in a bit). Many writers set themselves word count targets, and for some this is helpful. I tried it a few times – setting out to write 1,000 words a day. That isn’t so much, but I still struggled. I’m precise. I edit as I go along. My style isn’t suited to generating work quickly. So I set myself an achievable goal instead. I told myself that it didn’t matter if I only wrote ten words, or if I deleted 50. All I had to do was spend the time at my desk. A lot of time.
I couldn’t quit my job, but I could write in the evenings. Two hours every evening, without fail. Five hours on a weekend. That was achievable. It worked for a while too, but writing can be hard and lonely and disheartening. I’d written to an agent, sent off 30 pages. Then the rejection letter arrived. I took that day off, took the week off. Stopped.
Be prepared to fail along the way
I’m glad my lecture notes are pinned to my wall. It’s obvious, I know, but we can all do with a reminder sometimes. ‘The important thing,’ the lecturer had explained, scanning the room before fixing her gaze on me. ‘The important thing, is to see failures along the way for what they are. Set-backs in a longer journey. Not the end of the road.’
I wonder if there is a novelist alive who hasn’t run into some kind of failure in their career. A rejection letter is a hiccup. Three rejection letters – that’s three hiccups. What about 30?
I’d say if you get 30 rejection letters there’s a chance that your novel isn’t any good. That’s not the same as you not being any good. However much of ourselves we pour into our writing, it’s never the whole of us.
Besides, you’re not trying to be a writer, remember? You’re trying to write this specific novel. If it doesn’t work out, consider writing another one. My debut – a book that won me a big prize and garnered much praise and attention – wasn’t the first novel I had writtten. It’s just the first one that got published.
Years before, I completed a children’s book. It had a talking worm in it. That manuscript got a whole heap of rejections. But they weren’t automated rejections. Not all of them, anyway. There was encouragement amongst them, kind words about the style. I was being told that it wasn’t bad. The rejection letter for my ‘second debut’ went a step further: It’s good. It’s not for us. But it’s good.
Base your affirmations on fact
Good isn’t great. But good is good. Good might be good enough.
I think it’s important to give ourselves a pep talk from time to time, a word of congratulations, a pat on the back. Writing is, on the whole, a solitary experience. We could be waiting a long time to hear praise from anyone else.
The key is to base our affirmations on fact. If you tell yourself you are the world’s most remarkable storyteller, you’ve a long way to fall. But you can be good. That description you wrote earlier, capturing the precise moment when your character realises the truth – that was bloody good. It would stand up in any novel.
Savour these moments. It might be your private burden to suffer the anxieties of writing, but it’s also your unique privilege to be first in line to enjoy what you create.
Be flexible in how you get there
Nearly a 100 pages in, I hit a wall.
A first novel is a huge undertaking; we learn about ourselves as writers along the way. Sitting alone at my computer – even with the pep talks – was no longer working out. So I changed my approach and enrolled on an MA in creative writing. I didn’t plan this at the outset, but that doesn’t matter. The specific, achievable goal is what matters. I had committed to writing my novel; not to doing so without help.
For me, to be in a place with other writers sharing feedback and encouragement was very useful. Also useful was to be reminded that my novel wasn’t the only one being written. I could contribute positively to other people’s work. I could help other writers enjoy their successes. That felt good.
But writing courses bring their own challenges. When sharing early drafts with people, there’s a danger of being buffeted around by conflicting advice.
So remember, above all else, this is your novel.
If it is published then it will be your name on the cover. You can’t write a book by committee.
That doesn’t mean we should close our ears to all suggestions. If we share an early draft of a chapter with ten friends, and all ten come back saying that the scene with the meringue doesn’t work, then probably it’s worth reworking the scene with the meringue. But if only one person says it doesn’t work – well, your opinion counts too. I saw people who forgot this, who afforded other people’s ideas a greater weight than their own.
I was fortunate. By the time I enrolled on the course I had a clear sense of the story I wanted to tell, and this made it easier to be selective about the advice I took. If your reader fully understands what a scene is intended to achieve, and can explain why it’s not achieving this – that’s valuable advice. If they just don’t have a taste for meringue, but you do – that’s not so useful. Take responsibility. Keep the (delicious) meringue.
Focus on the stuff you can control
If we’re seeking representation from an agency, we can buy the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook; we can be sure to select agents who are accepting work in our genre; we can carefully read submission guidelines and fastidiously adhere to them. These are the things we can control. What we can’t control, is whether or not the agent chooses to represent us, and if our writing gets published.
If our novel does get published, we can’t control how it’s received or how well it sells. Heck – we new authors rarely even get a say on what the book cover looks like. There is so much in the world of publishing that is beyond our influence.
Put it all aside.
Don’t give another thought to writing a prize-winning first novel. Think instead about your next sentence, and you might just be on the way.
Five years on from that rainy spring day, my debut novel is on the shelves and has been well received (better than the talking worm, anyway).
But that doesn’t mean it’s all a breeze. I keep the notes from that lecture pinned to my wall and still use them.
Writing is hard and I falter often.
As for being a writer – I think that’s always a work in progress.
The other day, when I received the request to write for this Yearbook I wasn’t at all sure how to go about it or what I wanted to share. So I set myself a goal: ‘Spend an hour at the keyboard’. This article is the result. Here’s wishing you every success with your novel, and more importantly, every happiness.
Look! It’s that incredible author Eimear McBride standing on a staircase between myself and the journalist Anne McElvoy. I’m actually quite a lot taller than Eimear but she’s standing on a higher step. These are minor details.
If you click on the photograph you’ll be taken to BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking, where you can listen to us having a friendly chat about literary experimentation and that sort of carry on. We’re right at the start of the show.
Yesterday I was named as one of the Nursing Times Nursing Leaders of 2014 for “influencing the way the public thinks about mental illness and mental health nursing”.
This award means so much to me. For all the good things that have happened in my writing career recently, nursing remains such a very important part of my life. Mental health is something that I believe should be right at the top of the healthcare agenda, and to have contributed in any way to this conversation is a legacy of which I am hugely proud.
You can read the full list of Nursing Leaders here.
I am delighted to share that The Shock of the Fall has been longlisted for the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize. I’m on the list with:
The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison
Idiopathy by Sam Byers
Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy
Sedition by Katharine Grant
The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera
Ballistics by D. W. Wilson
The shortlist is announced on 26th May. Watch this space. Or better yet, read Idiopathy.
Didn’t make it to the Costa 2013 Award Ceremony? Not to worry. It went like this (but with a lot more standing around):
Look! Here is a picture of me and my good friend Byron Vincent. We’re just hanging out under the M32, casually pretending to chat about stuff whilst a photographer from The Guardian captures the moment.
Click on the photo to read our thoughts about NHS psychiatric wards. And thank you to all of those who have left comments – it’s great to be part of this important conversation.
Yesterday I was interviewed by Huw Edwards (very nice chap) on the BBC News Channel. You can watch us here:
P.S. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I am wearing the exact same shirt-jumper combo as seen recently on BBC Points West. To you people I say this: It’s my TV outfit, okay? I got them for Christmas and now they’re my TV outfit.
That is all.
I’ve had an interesting chat with Tim Franks from the BBC World Service. We talk about The Shock of the Fall, the costa prize and all that kind of carry on. You can listen to it here.
I’ve had another go at being on the telly, this time back in Blighty. It was a brief appearance on local news with BBC Points West. Here it is:
Today a friend shared this with me. I think it’s really good.
That’s all for now.
I’ve recently returned from a few days in Holland and Belgium where I was promoting the Dutch translation of my novel. As part of the tour I did my first (perhaps only) TV appearance.
I was terribly nervous and came away with 1000 regrets, but it was worth it to share a studio with Andrew Soloman. He’s an extraordinary presence, has written a profound and fascinating new work, and gave a masterclass in how to conduct oneself in an interview.
Unfortunately, for me, he gave this masterclass after I’d been up.
Here I am with Andrew. If you click on the photograph you’ll be taken to the interview.
The Shock of the Fall has been nominated for a Specsavers National Book Award in the category ‘New Writer of the Year’. It’s up against Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach; Natural Causes by James Oswald; The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon; The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence and Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann.
In celebration, I share with you my favourite advert for Specsavers:
Here’s a fact: The conflict in Syria has left every 3rd Syrian in need of humanitarian aid. This includes everything from food, clean water and medical care to socks and sanitary towels.
My girlfriend and I are volunteering with the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, which is organising a national programme of fundraising activities called ‘The Big Winter Aid Drop’. The folk at The Station (Broadmead, Bristol) have kindly offered their venue as the Bristol collection point.
This is where you come in. Please, please come to The Station between 11am and 3pm on the 9th November and donate any of these items:
– wet wipes
– baby milk
– new coats and jumpers
– snow suits
– Wellington boots
– hat scarves and gloves
– socks and tights
– blankets, duvets, sleeping bags
– ground sheets
– paracetamol and ibuprofen
– sanitary towels
– medical equipment
If you can’t make it on the day get in touch with me through my contact page (or on twitter @nathanfiler) and I can arrange to collect donations from you. If you are able to hand out any flyers/ posters at your local school, play group, cafe please let me know and I’ll get them to you.
You can also donate using this amazon wish list.
That’s all. Thanks.
Here’s a recent conversation I had with Dr/DJ Phil Hammond. We talk about my ‘dream’ dinner party guests and music choices. We also talk about mental illness and the state of the NHS. I say ‘interesting’ quite a lot. Why not make yourself a nice cup of tea and have a listen…
On the 5th of November The Shock of the Fall will be released in the US under its original title where the moon isn’t. From the outside they look pretty different, huh? But between those covers is the exact same story.
Well, almost. On page 102 in the UK you will feel the dry warmth of a Calor Gas Fire, and this will suggest something to you – something about class and social drift, something strangely at odds with the Hungarian Goose Down Pillow. In the US it’ll simply be ‘the heating’, because there isn’t Calor Gas in America, so in America – it would suggest nothing at all.
I think you will agree it is vital to own both versions.
If you click on the books you’ll be taken to their respective on-line homes.
So this has arrived:
It’s the cover design for my UK paperback due out in February. I’m rather pleased with it and I love that it riffs on the glorious hardback design. It’s a little lighter in tone – but hell, who wants my opinion on these things when I can share the accompanying email I received from HarperFiction’s creative director Mr Ben North (an excellent fellow):
“So. We have what I think qualifies as a Bloody Lovely Cover.
Obviously the image isn’t a literal illustration of a scene from the text or anything, but thematically it seems to me that it’s bang on, while also being really appealing. It has a nice link to the HB cover through the type and the tree motif. While it doesn’t have the starkness of that cover, it does have a sort of late summer/autumnal melancholy which I really respond to, and I think potential readers will too.
Your name and the quote are in ‘straight’ type because the tree and type are fairly complex images, and we need to make sure that they are left nice and clear. Conceptually I see the brush-work type, the tree and the boy as part of a physically crafted object with the other type as copy on an image of that work, if that makes sense.
So far as finishes are concerned we’re thinking of a lovely ‘soft-touch’ matt which will make that blue look really deep and vibrant, maybe some subtle gold foil here and there on the tree and possibly some embossing too. It will not only look great on-screen but will be an object of real physical loveliness too, with a rich, quality vibe.”
Amen to that, Ben.
It’s fascinating to witness the process (this wasn’t the first design). There is so much publishers need to consider in terms of marketing, placement and all that stuff we writers wish wasn’t so important – yet clearly is if we want to sell books. And ultimately it’s the publisher not the author who decides on the final package, so I count myself very fortunate to have been granted an audible voice, if not an actual vote.
Of course it isn’t only the UK cover I need to think about – but I have no say whatsoever in the others.
In fact, I only discovered this Serbian edition had been released when it popped up on my Goodreads profile. I’ll keep my counsel on the design. But from now on I only answer to Nejtan Fajler.
Ah ha – I have an interview in ‘CBT Today’. It’s a journal about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
And if that print is too small to read, don’t worry it goes something like this:
We are both mental health nurses although I am pre-project 2000 and therefore prehistoric. How old were you when you started mental health nurse training?
I was a spritely twenty-one year old. That’s also when I first started to imagine my novel, or at least its central character. I’m thirty-three now and have started saying things like: ‘Gosh, where does the time go?’
But seriously. Where does it go?
Why mental health nursing and where did you train?
I trained at UWE in Bristol. Our campus was made up of incredible old buildings that – at various junctures in their history – have served as a prison, a workhouse and an asylum. I think their current incarnation is probably the best yet.
I’ve recently been invited back to give a talk about my novel in the Student Library. It’ll be strange walking through those doors again, but I’m really looking forward to it too.
As to why mental health – it’s hard to say. I worked as a Health Care Assistant in a general hospital first (as did my mum, so perhaps it’s in the blood). I didn’t even know mental health wards existed until a colleague of mine suggested that I might find it interesting.
I never looked back.
How difficult was it to steer your story away from being a polemic against the chronic failings of mental health services?
I met with lots of difficulties in writing this story, but that wasn’t really one of them.
For me it was never going to be a polemic against anything. At its heart it’s the story of a young man called Matthew who really misses his dead brother. My job was to inhabit Matthew as a character: to prioritise his priorities and to let it be his story that unfolded. I never felt an urge to push an agenda onto him.
That isn’t to say that when he encounters mental health services he isn’t critical. He clearly is. But I think Matthew is surprisingly understanding towards the doctors and nurses who treat him, even when this treatment is against his will and delivered poorly. He seeks to find the good in them – and, indeed, they are good people. Flawed, of course. But ultimately trying their best in difficult circumstances. I wanted to avoid writing a novel where the mental health staff were the villains, or the system corrupt. That’s an over-simplification, and not one that Matthew would make.
As for the closure of the Day Centre in the novel, I can see how this might be interpreted as a political statement. And perhaps it was, a bit. But I was only interested in this insofar as it affected the characters in the story. It’s a book about them, not the health service.
As a CBT therapist I am expected to use a variety of rating scales to assess the life out of my clients. There are times when completing these forms I feel like a little piece of each of us dies. In the novel Matthew expresses frustration at the way the data collected takes control away from him and his life. CBT therapists pride themselves on their collaborative approach to therapy. Do you think we are kidding ourselves?
There’s a chapter in the novel called Is this question useful? which is modelled on a Likert scale. Matthew is not only frustrated by the questions he is asked, he’s afraid of them. He’s afraid of what giving the wrong answers (or indeed, the truthful answers) will mean.
Rating scales clearly have their uses. But I think they can encourage us to be too reductive in our thinking. Almost by definition, they place people in boxes.
Take the Becks Depression Inventory, which I’ll hazard a guess you are very familiar with. As a validated measure it has this kind of holy status in mental health, especially in research where to design a depression study without it would be unthinkable. But to my mind the BDI, and many other rating scales, tend to simplify the experience of illness by focussing on symptoms within the individual (your sleep, your appetite, your libido etc). The ‘location’ of illness is very interesting to me, and is a concept that I seek to explore in The Shock of the Fall. The mental health problems of Matthew and his mum reside as much in the space between them as they do within either one of them.
I’m sure there is much written about this and far more coherently than I’m managing. But I suppose my broad point would be that when we are totting up scores on a questionnaire and assigning a single numeric value to a person’s experiences, as though measuring their shoe size – we’re probably missing a few things out. And we may well be missing out the things that are most important to the person sitting in front of us. If we don’t consider that, then yes – we’re kidding ourselves.
CBT dominates the market in self –help. The ‘Overcoming Series’ covers pretty much everything aside from Death. Do you think that novels as well as self –help literature should be included in current recommended mental health reading lists?
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? I think that a big part of the wonder of novels is that they make us feel less alone. We see ourselves in others and we empathize. We empathize with the most unlikely characters.
But I wouldn’t go so far as prescribing which novels people should read. We do enough prescribing already.
In ‘The Shock of the Fall’ Matthew was painfully aware of his own character deficiencies which he owned right at the start of the novel. What are yours?
How long have you got?
Compassionate Focused Therapy and Mindfulness are both part of the third wave of CBT Therapies. CFT encourages clients to imagine their ideal compassionate image. It can be a human or fictional character . Matthew’s Grandmother, the glorious Nanny Noo is for me the embodiment of the ideal nurturer. Who or what inspired the creation of Nanny Noo?
I love Nanny Noo so much and it gladdens my heart when readers talk about her. She’s a clear favourite.
Interestingly she started off as quite a minor character in the early drafts, but she was so nice to write that I ended up giving her more and more work to do and now it is impossible to imagine the novel without her.
I’m aware that I do give Matthew a fairly hard time in this story, so it was important to me that I gave him a source of strength and hope as well. This came in the form of Nanny Noo who borrows traits from both of my grandmothers, but has many all of her own.
I think our relationship with our grandparents is a really intriguing one, something about how we are a step removed. There is less pressure than exists in the relationship with our parents, but still (hopefully) lots of love. I think if we all had a Nanny Noo (or perhaps CFT, then) our lives would be happier, and we’d score less on those rating scales.
Isn’t the internet clever? Here’s a bit of the internet that you can listen to:
More of that sort of thing (with other authors) can be found at Fiction Uncovered.
Today I received the dust jacket for the Israeli edition of The Shock of the Fall. Here it is:
Pretty cool, huh.
Anyway – I want to share some of my thoughts about my decision to publish in Israel, which was not an easy one. Those of you who know me will know that I am involved (though no longer as actively as I would like, following an unfortunate deportation incident) in the peaceful protest against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. This occupation is illegal under international law, and is – to my mind – clearly and unambiguously immoral.
I have spent time in Palestine and have witnessed at first hand the devastating impact that the Israeli government’s policies have on the lives of Palestinian people – a people who face daily violations of their human rights, who live under the constant threat of imprisonment without trial and of having their homes destroyed.
I do not believe that any amount of history, however fraught or complicated, can ever justify a human rights abuse today. I believe that Israel, beneath the thinnest veneer of international respectability, is perpetrating an apartheid similar to that witnessed in South Africa. And I believe that the UK and the US are on the wrong side of history through our implicit sanctioning of this atrocity, as demonstrated by our various votes and abstentions at the UN.
In short, I believe the Israeli government is a horrible cunt and that we’re not doing enough about this.
So perhaps I should have taken the stance that the late Iain Banks took in supporting a cultural boycott. He refused to be published in Israel and explained his reasoning here. I didn’t take this stance. I have written a story and I want to share it. I want to share it with whoever wants to read it.
I did make a sort of stance though. I have donated my entire fee (as has my agent) from my Israeli advance to ICAHD, a human rights and peace organisation dedicated to ending the prolonged Israeli Occupation over the Palestinians. My Israeli publisher, Keter Books, is sympathetic to my position and agreed to put a prominent line in the book to this effect. This way I get to share my story with Israeli readers whilst at the same time making my beliefs known and helping to raise the profile of this important charity.
So yes, that’s my position and I just wanted to share it. If you are interested in learning more about my time spent in Palestine you can read my blog about it: Getting off the armchair. I recommend ‘Shuhada Street‘ and the ‘Schools Out’ trilogy for a general flavour of our work.
Often people send me Qs and in return I send them As. An example of this sort of carry on took place with the good people at Killer Reads. Other times I simply get to have a lovely telephone conversation with someone, then they do all the hard work. This can happen as far away as Culture Street, which is in Australia.
Then, very occasionally, I’m asked questions before a live audience in Holland and have to wear a special microphone so that they can hear me:
The rest of my time is spent in silence.
Remember Udo? Udo Prinsen? No? I talked about him right here. Ah, yes. It’s all coming back. And I said that I hoped an English language version of his wonderful TSOTF inspired animation would be forthcoming.
Well just look what he went and did:
Isn’t it something? I, for one, love it.
Look! Here! Is! Another! Photograph!
It’s Mariella Frostrup’s head floating (coquettishly) through space. Don’t worry. It’s art. In real life she remains attached to her body. I know this because I met her the other day to record Open Book for Radio 4. I was horribly sleep-deprived and utterly useless. Fortunately I was interviewed alongside Clare Allan – author of the extraordinary Poppy Shakespeare – who proved ample erudite enough for the both of us.
If you click on one of Mariella’s dimples you’ll be directed to the clip.
Look! Here! Is! A! Photograph!
It’s of me and radio 2 Drivetime DJ, Simon Mayo.
I featured on his show the other day to chat about The Shock of the Fall. I was terribly nervous, but it went okay really. He’s a nice guy. If you click on the photo (anywhere, even my adam’s apple) it’ll link you to the BBC page, where you can listen to the interview and hear some listener reviews.
I always hoped my novel would be published, but never for one second imagined it would be published abroad. At the time of writing this post, it has sold in ten countries (with an eleventh on the horizon). I take none of this for granted; it’s humbling to think of my story being read so far from home – and the Italian version is especially important to me.
My Italian editor, Ricciardo Barbieri (at Feltrinelli publishers), was the first foreign editor to write to me. She sent a beautiful letter about her experience of reading my novel – and immediately I knew that she understood what I was hoping to achieve, and that my story was in safe hands.
The Italian title is Chiedi alla luna. Here is the trailer:
In 2005 my poetry career was getting interesting. I found myself at a film festival in Berlin where my debut poetry short, Oedipus, scooped a top prize. It was here that I met with a Dutch animator named Udo Prinsen, and we resolved to one day work together.
That sort of happened, but hardly, so for the sake of this story let’s pretend it didn’t and skip ahead to us drifting apart.
Now – seven years on, without a word shared – fate brings us ineluctably back together. It transpires Udo was commissioned by my Dutch publisher, Ambo Anthos, to make a short film in response to my novel.
Small world, eh?
He has done far, far more than make an advert. The animation is stunning, truly beautiful. And I love the soundtrack. It’s a band called Malcanisten and the track is called Clive Wearing named after the British musicologist who suffered from amnesia. But aside from all that, it sounds wonderful:
Now it probably helps that I know how all those typewritten words translate; they’re taken from the novel. But if you don’t speak Dutch fear not because the English version is (hopefully) soon to follow…
director: Udo Prinsen
Music editing, sound design and audio mix by Jorge San Martín Beuk for HapSlik.
Music: Clive Wearing by Malcanisten
Written, performed, recorded and mixed by Malcanisten.
Produced by Jorge San Martín Beuk.
Sjaak Kassies: lead vocals, clarineau and percussion.
Olivier Wieringa: ukulele, banjo, harmonics, cajon and choir.
Robbert Houtman: ukulele, percussion and choir. Jorge San Martín Beuk: guitar, percussion, accordion and choir.
download the song ‘Clive Wearing’ @ http://malcanisten.bandcamp.com/track/clive-wearing
Common side effects is a short poetic film produced by Carambolas Films and directed by Udo Prinsen in co-operation with Ambo | Anthos Publishers. The film is inspired by the novel ‘The shock of the fall’, written by Nathan Filer, published by Harper Collins in the UK and in the Netherlands by Anthos Publishing.
This week I was guest on the podcast of Iain Broome, author of the superb A is for Angelica. We sound a lot like two knackered new dads – he trumps me with twins – bemoaning how we got everything we ever wanted. In that respect it’s excruciating, but there are a few gems, and if for whatever reason you would like to know either of us better, then it provides an honest account of how we feel about writing and the world of publishing.
The episode is here: Performing, writing, editing and going through the change.
Or if you’d prefer, simply gaze upon Iain’s beautiful living room, complete with twins boys:
but these guys weren’t to know that. And nobody was taking any chances.
That was the opening line from the first draft of The Shock of the Fall. It wasn’t called The Shock of the Fall back then. It wasn’t called anything. It was just that line; those two short sentences repeating in my head, and an immediate sense of the character who had said them.
I then wrote, re-wrote and tweaked a scene depicting a group of nurses restraining and medicating Matthew on a psychiatric unit. I drew upon my own experiences as a nurse to get the setting right, the terminology, the surprising methodical calmness. Then I deleted the lot.
Nothing from the first draft of my novel made it into the finished book. Nothing except Matthew. I think this isn’t so unusual. I’ve done most of my learning about How To Write A Novel since finishing mine. It’s only now that I own books on the subject, and speak to other authors. Characters make the story, I’m told. If the people come alive, whatever they do is worth reading about. And we are drawn to eccentricity. Iain Banks’ Frank Cauldhame; Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone; DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little; and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield were among the characters who I met, whilst still grappling with the irksome little detail of what my plot should be.
I resolved to let Matthew lead the way. That isn’t to say I was a spectator, watching the action unfold. I’ve heard writers use that line and it’s a nice notion, contributing to a mystique, but it wasn’t my experience. Mine was an extended role-play, a kind of acting exercise. We’d pace the paving slabs in my back garden, with a mug of cold tea and a roll-up, muttering a few dozen versions of the same paragraph; stripping back anything too sentimental, too indulgent or too me. I got to know Matthew Homes by spending eight hours a day in his company, and for a person who doesn’t exist, I’ve grown absurdly fond of him. He is funny and humble and perceptive and stoic and brave. He is also conflicted, damaged and angry. A pernicious disease shapes every decision he makes, yet it fails to define him. That won’t surprise people who have known mental illness, but it might surprise those who have known it only through fiction. It’s strange now letting him go. I feel protective, somehow. Or else I’d just like a bit longer tweaking and deleting.
But I’m also very proud to be able to share his story. So to paraphrase something that never made it in: I’ve no intention of putting up a fight.
(This article is published in the April 2013 edition of Gardner’s Select + Magazine)
What’s just about the worst thing you’ve ever heard of?
Discover my opinions on this and other pressing matters by clicking here. Better yet, learn the views of Alain de Botton, Nick Laird, Roger McGough, Laura Dockrill, Deborah Levy and a whole lot of other people. They’re here at fleeting interviews.
In other news, the US cover for my novel should be decided upon this very week. Here’s what my lovely American editor had to say:
“The US design may feel more ‘commercial’ than the UK cover. But I promise it will be right for the US market—a bit dark around the edges but with heart and a tenderness. Not edgy, but soaring and real. I can almost see it in my mind’s eye but it’s not quite in focus. Kind of like a face you see disappearing round a corner and feel you know from somewhere? I am busy chasing it down the block, as soon as I tackle it, I will share with you.”
I like that a lot. Maybe that could be the cover…
Right. Back to work.