Writing Therapy explores the use of language and the way it helps to shape both memory and experience. There’s something in it for almost everyone – authors, teenagers, readers looking for something just a little bit different – the lot. It explores the relationship between fiction and reality, and the extent to which we’re all the authors of our destiny.
On a narrative level it’s about a girl who’s read so many novels she becomes convinced that she’s a character in one. So it’s a book within a book, two books for the price of one! And that’s part of the fun. Because – just as many writing courses refer to great works of literature, so does the central character. She takes her cue from the books she’s read and – in taking them apart – constructs a novel of her own.
But Frances Nolan is a patient in a psychiatric hospital, too. So writing a book is her therapy as well. Her nurse takes the role of tutor, I suppose: feeding her exercises, getting her creative juices flowing and developing her writing.
Why did you write it?
Two things got me started: one, teenage mental illness and the stigma attached. A book in with a protagonist who struggles with depression and triumphs (writing a novel) might help someone, somewhere (so I thought). 10% of the book’s royalties are going to the charity Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk) though, so someone’s benefitting. Second, the way we all (especially bloggers, twitterers and so on) make fiction of our lives, if only in the editing. Where does fact end and fiction begin? That’s the central question in Writing Therapy.
A third element – which emerged powerfully as I started writing – was a desire to do something different. What’s the point of writing something someone else might easily have written (and written better)? Rightly or wrongly, I really wanted to do something just that little bit different. A book within a book, a book about how books get written, meta-fiction, seemed an ideal vehicle for taking things apart and putting them together in a slightly different way.
What do you hope readers will get from it?
Judging by the responses I’ve been getting, the book seems to work on at least three different levels. I’m fascinated by the way we all, to some extent, actively create the story of our own lives, shaping both the outside world’s and our own view of ourselves. That’s a theme I wanted to examine closely. Authors have referred to it as a ‘self-help book for writers cunningly disguised as an innocent novel’, while to a teenage audience it deals, as Richard Coles puts it, with ‘growing up and breaking down’ and offers some insights into teenage mental illness. In this respect the book deals with issues I’d experienced first-hand as a teacher. In one of my roles I was responsible for pupil welfare and I was seeing a rise each year in the number of pupils suffering mental and emotional trauma. Young Minds exists specifically to support young people suffering from mental health-related problems. It also supports parents and other adults involved in the care of such young people. As a teacher I’d found Young Minds invaluable; as a writer I’m keen to do anything I can to help.
How long did it take you to write?
Writing Therapy too the best part of five years from first ideas to completed manuscript. It was very stop-start at the beginning, because I knew what I wanted to do but didn’t have the confidence or skill to see it through. I actually signed up for a Creative Writing course with the OU mid-way through the novel. That helped enormously.
Did you use a fountain pen to write it?
Almost everything was written either direct onto computer or else in pencil on a plain white sheet of paper. Being left-handed I find fountain-pens very hard to use, although I do own a very fine (and under-used) Mont Blanc!
Tell us something about you.
I cut my teeth writing for the Yorkshire Post as a contributor on the old ‘This World of Ours’ column. I’ve also written stuff for ‘The Dalesman’ and ‘Railway Modeller’ magazines, and the Times Educational Supplement.
I was a teacher for over twenty years, teaching RE, history and geography in secondary schools in the north of England. For the last five years I was Assistant Headteacher at Boston Grammar School, Lincolnshire. I left in July 2008 to be a stay-at-home dad to my young son, Charlie, and to write full-time. My progress changing nappies and keeping a toddler entertained is being recorded on the blog, http://bringingupcharlie.blogspot.com.
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently completed a two-book commission for Wayland (part of the Hachette children’s group) as part of their ‘Countries of the World’ series. I’ve written their titles on India and the UK, both published next year.
Two further novels – Marriage Guidance, and Set in Stone – are slowly nearing completion. The former follows a group of thirty-something’s on the threshold of tying the knot adjusting to the demands of monogamy in the twenty-first century; the latter is a book for young adult readers and concerns a boy-runaway, searching for his family.
Future plans include a senior school philosophy manual, and a book revealing the pagan origins of many Christian festivals and rituals.
Anything you’d like to add?
Only my thanks, Nik, for hosting this leg of the blog book-tour!