On Strange and Norrell and Madness

strange-and-norrell

The BBC has once more proved the worth of the licence fee with the stunning adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Now we’re all had time to digest the series, I wanted to think on the depictions of “madness” in the adaptation and what writers can learn about depicting mental illness, particularly in the fantasy genre.

SPOILERS FOR THE SERIES AND THE NOVEL – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

The relationship between magic and madness
“Magic cannot cure madness.” – Gilbert Norrell

From the beginning, Strange and Norrell was explicit in its discussion of madness and magic, with an alternate early nineteenth century viewpoint. When Sir Walter Pole asks Mr Norrell to cure his wife of madness, Norrell is firm on the point. However, given what we know of Norrell’s role in Lady Pole’s resurrection and his subsequent distancing from fairy magic, Norrell may well be lying. However, his efforts with Strange on curing the King’s madness seem to uphold this assertion.

Jonathan Strange, much later in the book and series, identifies that the King’s madness enables him to see fairies. He then tries to bottle madness so that he too may see the creatures.

Throughout the narrative, we see characters who are labelled as “mad” by others but their individual situations are quite different. Some provide a fascinating interpretation of mental illness, and some are more problematic.

The curse of Lady Pole
“This is madness-”
“Madness is what it is not.”
– Stephen Black and Lady Pole

lady-pole-madness
Alice Englert as Lady Pole and Ariyon Bakare as Stephen Black (C) JSMN Ltd – Photographer: Matt Squire

By most definitions, Lady Pole is not mad. Her situation typifies the idea that insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. This phrase is attributed to RD Laing, a psychiatrist who believed in the lived experience of mental illness above the biological explanation.

When I have previously written on psychosis, I described a person unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. In Strange and Norrell, the writers take this a step further – a mad person can see both reality and the fantastical world of Fairy.

Lady Pole is labelled as mad because she cannot live in both worlds and she speaks nonsense instead of the truth about her situation, due to the fairy rose at her lips. Due to her psychological torment, she attempts suicide and then tries to exact revenge on Norrell. She is rewarded with confinement, restraint, sedation and finally institutionalisation. Her recovery occurs when she is removed from Lost-hope and returned wholly to “reality”, where she decides to leave her husband for better treatment elsewhere.

Mad King George
“Do not be angry! I am a king, you are a king – let’s all be kings together!” – The King

King George is an altogether different case. For one, he is based on an historical figure – George III. The cause of his madness is unknown, but has been described as both melancholy and depression and was possibly related to porphyria, a blood disorder when accumulating chemicals cause various complications including mental illness.

In the adaptation, George III is portrayed as blind, nonsensical and able to communicate with The Gentleman. He is summarily kidnapped through a mirror for Stephen to try to kill him. However, Strange manages to return him to his chambers. The insinuation is that the King is mad and he can therefore see fairies, not that his madness is related to magic.

In the novel, Strange attends the King alone, in defiance of his asylum jailers. They are an interesting study of nineteenth-century alienism, with their three principles of intimidation, isolation and restraint.

Mrs Delgado aka the crazy cat lady
“…a great wind of madness howled through her…” – Strange and Norrell.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that this particular portrayal is the most problematic for me. A woman who adopts all the habits of a cat while surrounded by them, played for both revulsion and humour, was never going to sit well.

This does resemble the rare clinical condition of clinical lycanthropy, its name deriving from the idea of werewolves. It is believed to be on the psychosis spectrum, with the delusions and hallucinations of the creature the person believes they have turned into.

And Jonathan Strange’s treatment for this woman’s condition? To turn her into a cat. Words, I do not have them.

In one of Strange and Norrell’s infamous footnotes, the novel narrator gives a potted history of Mrs Delgado’s life, with a reference to her descent into madness. It says that she lived quite alone, never speaking to another living soul, and she lost all her languages except Cat. As a precipitating factor for madness, I cannot endorse it.

Jonathan Strange’s quest for madness
“Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great floor of confused emotion and sensation.” – Strange and Norrell.

strange madness
Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange (C) JSMN Ltd – Photographer: Matt Squire

And, finally, we come to the depiction of madness in our protagonist. This particular brand of madness is part organic and part magical, contained in one dead mouse. Strange contrives to distill madness by putting a magical mouse in a bottle of water and taking drops of it to see The Gentleman.

Preceding this experiment, Strange tells Fiona Greysteel about the magicians who consorted with madmen and endeavoured to become mad themselves. Fiona tells him that old nonsense about creative people being mad and how jolly it is. And Strange lauds her for it.(She does not provide this encouragement in the novel.)

When Strange first ingests the mouse, the adaptation shows a rather lurid representation of his head apparently being torn in many diffrent directions. I was uncomfortable reminded of the idea of multiple personality disorder rather than a psychosis.

The book takes a different tack, where the writer has the advantage of sharing Strange’s thoughts on the experience – a burst of concentrated madness, all different kinds of it, bundled up in one dead mouse. It takes in everything from hypersensitivity of the senses to persecution to dysphoria.

When Strange moderates his experience, he becomes convinced people have candles inside their heads. When it wears off, he is troubled:

“He found he could no longer recall whether people had candles in their heads or not. He knew there was a world of difference between these two notions: one was sane and the other was not, but he could not for the life of him remember which was which.”

What’s interesting about this observation is that it’s very like what happens when people start to recover from psychosis. They often do not snap back to reality, but take a journey there through a period of being unsure of what is real or what is fiction.

Strange’s other experiences involve pineapples and wandering within his own mind, one bizarre and an object for humour, and the other resembling a catatonia or depressive ruminations.

Learning points for writers

What is evident in both the novel and adaptation is that madness is presented both as a dysfunction of the mind, and an illusion caused by magic or induced magically. When exploring either of these points, one gets the impression that the writers are grappling with a chimaera – we’re not sure exactly what it is, but it is large and vicious and frightening.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But mental illness is real in our world – it is not caused by magic any more than it is caused by demonic possession or abandonment by God.

Good points for writers to take from this is the sensible explanation of how madness and magic interact from the writers. They lay it out very clearly. We also experience vividly Lady Pole’s situation and how frightening that can be. In the novel, the depiction of the asylum keepers of the King is very well done.

One negative is laughing at the mad antics of the characters. Mental illness can be humourous and it can be alleviated with laughter, but if you choose this route, you are taking a well-trodden path. Just like the mad scientist or the violent schizophrenic, it reinforces a negative stereotype.

The other is this slightly alarming idea of seeking madness. Nineteenth century poets did seek it out, mostly by taking mind-altering substances – it didn’t work out particularly well for them. Madness does not facilitate genius or creativity, with the dubious exception of hypomania and mania, but those are not sustainable and often deteriorate. There are no real consequences to what Strange does, and I think that’s a missed opportunity.

What are your thoughts on Strange and Norrell and madness? What did the adaptation or novel get right or wrong? Would you do anything differently? Has it inspired your own work? Tell us in the comments!

Questions From My Editor

I’ve been fortunate to work with my excellent editor Deb Nemeth on three Amy Lane novels now. In the course of editing my work, she asks me a lot of questions. Some are to expand her knowledge of my characters’ world and some are to challenge me to grow as a writer.

I’m going to share a few (spoiler-free!) questions that Deb has asked me during different stages of editing for Binary Witness, Code Runner and Captcha Thief.

Welsh life

cerys-pronounce

I use a number of Welsh names in my novels, but Jason’s sister probably possesses one of the more challenging ones. Cerys is pronounced “keh-ris”, not anything like “cerise”. Additionally, Owain is less like Owen and more “owe-ein”.

damage-dai

Sticking with names, abbreviations aren’t always universally understood. As Peggy is to Margaret and Betty is to Elizabeth, so Dai is to David in Wales.

butt

Slang is obviously also highly-localised. “Butt” is a piece of South Walean slang, most often found around Cardiff and Newport, and it’s used like “mate”.

Cultural references

british-slang-collected

As a British author working with an American editor for an international audience, I am forced to confront my cultural bias as to what references are common knowledge outside of my own country.

For those not sharing my brain:
– Myra Hindley was the partner of Ian Brady, together forming the Moors Murderers
– GUM clinic is where you tend to your sexual health – it stands for Genito-Urinary Medicine, but also forms a nice euphemism
– Red-top papers are British tabloids, noted for their distinctive red ink headers
– Chav is a derogatory term for a young, low-income person with a penchant for tracksuits and cheap jewellery. It was popular in the late nineties/early noughties. In my area, we used the word “townies”, so chav was also foreign to me growing up.

I also forget that not everyone is conversant in Monty Python:

montypython

and that some idioms are uniquely British, particularly when it comes to rain:

pissingitdown

And this is my personal favourite “turn-of-phrase gone wrong” moment:

exploding-dishwasher

Calling me out

Like all the best editors, Deb is unafraid to question me when I’ve done something stupid.

naked2

Um…well, she…yeah, dunno.

too-many-arms

Well, the eggs are gonna get smashed for sure.

partially-shake

*tries to replicate movement with own head, gets dizzy, falls off chair*

tolkien

Red-handed.

Building a better novel

grocery-mailbox

If you’ve read Binary Witness, you will know that Amy doesn’t own a giant, chilled mailbox and that her grocery delivery actually turns up in the lift. In the early designs for Amy’s flat, she lived on the ground floor. In response to Deb’s comments and other practical considerations, I moved Amy up to the first floor (i.e. the one above ground level) and installed a lift at the front.

Because, seriously? A giant, chilled mailbox?

drquinn

This is one thing I fought to keep, and the reason is this: I actually lived in the house described at the beginning of Binary Witness, with my housemate. My housemate loves Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman and woe betide anyone who messed with her recording. British students have a particular affinity for retro TV and this is the perfect example for me. However, Deb was absolutely right about dating the novel – I instead lost the reference to The Clash.

jason-music

And sometimes, you just need to explain yourself in-text. Jason loves eighties’ music because it reminds him of his dad, a man he never really knew. An editor’s questions reminds the author that the world that exists inside their head isn’t automatically translated to the page.

But some mysteries can never be explained:

sugar-rush

But this one is my favourite…

favourite




Binary Witness and Code Runner are published by Carina Press.

The third book in the series Captcha Thief will be released later this year – join the newsletter for updates or add to Goodreads.

INTERVIEW: Ruth F Hunt on Mental Health, Disability and The Single Feather

At Freudian Script, we explore the relationship between mental health and fiction. Our guest Ruth F Hunt has written a compelling debut novel in The Single Feather, tackling the topics of disability and mental health without shying away from the realities.

What led you to explore issues of mental health and disability in The Single Feather?

the-single-feather
Since becoming disabled at the age of eighteen, and having Bipolar as well, I’ve been very aware of the missing voices in novels, with a real lack of disabled characters in adult fiction, being a particular problem. As well as having worked with adults with complex needs in a social services department, I’ve also worked in mental health, with my last role being a Trustee with a large mental health charity.

So along with this experience in my personal and working life, I was very aware that in the past few years, hate crime towards people with disabilities has risen and cuts to benefits have disproportionately affected those with disabilities making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. I was also aware that mood and disability are linked. The Christopher Reeves Foundation says that 20-30% of those with a spinal cord injury can present with clinical depression as well.

Therefore I was keen to have a disabled protagonist but I also wanted a mental health storyline to be included in the novel. In The Single Feather there are also a number of characters over the age of sixty, another group often missing or misinterpreted in fiction.

Did you draw on personal experience to craft your characters?

I would say that my own experiences helped a lot. I found it fairly easy to tap into my protagonist’s mindset, and understand how a traumatic experience led her to take a path she might’ve avoided otherwise. I could empathise with her decision to hide her background, due to fear of being ostracised. It can be hard “coming out” and telling people you have a mental illness or something happened that was traumatic in your past. One area I’m particularly interested in is how we present different versions and histories to people, according to who they are, or what situation we are in and how a ‘white lie’ could multiply and threaten new and existing relationships.

When I’ve been using my wheelchair, I’ve also had lots of strange reactions, from being patted, to being spoken about in the third person. How people react to disability, both positively and negatively and how social attitudes and stigma towards disability can impact on the individual were areas I covered in the novel, so my experience here helped as well.

There is a lot of stigma around disability and mental health problems. What do you think are the best ways to combat it?

I agree, there is still a lot of stigma, and also currently demonisation of those with mental health problems or disability in certain sections of the media. That’s why it’s crucial for writers to include disabled characters or those with a mental illness and to have empathy for these characters. 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill health, and physical disability is again very common. The more the public see these characters in film, TV, public life or in novels, the more they will understand. The more we talk about mental health or disability, the more we hopefully are giving strength to someone like “Rachel” who in The Single Feather is embarrassed to talk about her past.

When I was first injured, the consultant said to me: “You’re still Ruth, don’t let anyone treat you differently.” Just that one sentence helped me enormously. We can replicate that in fiction, by using disabled characters or those with a mental health problem, as a matter of course, not something strange or out of the ordinary.

As a writer, would you recommend any particular novels that do a good job of portraying disability and mental health that other writers could use for inspiration?

There are some books I’ve recently found to be excellent in dealing with a mental illness: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is also good to read, and dispels many myths surrounding anxiety and depression. Kay Redfield Jamison has produced many books on the subject of mental health; An Unquiet Mind is very enlightening.

I’m also currently reading A little Life by Hanya Yanagihara which combines both physical disability and mental health issues and there’s also a temptation by certain characters to “reinvent” themselves, just like what happens in The Single Feather.

As I was writing about complex characters and group dynamics, I also found The Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda N Edelstein helpful.

What would you like to see more in terms of characters living with disabilities?

As there is such a lack of disabled characters in adult fiction I would simply like to see more writers whether they are able-bodied or not, write about characters that have a disability. They are rich characters to use, and by writing about them, in an empathetic and positive way, you will be helping someone in the real world who has a disability.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their mental health?

A reviewer said about The Single Feather: “If we truly spend time to get to know each other, we will see that there is more that brings us together than separates us.”

This is the message of the book, so if you are struggling with your mental health, you need to reach out. Your GP will be someone who wants to help, but also try to reach out to your friends and family. The chances are you will find other people who have been in your situation or a situation like it. If you don’t feel you can do that yet, then reach out and talk to the Samaritans (UK phone number: 08457 90 90 90). If you would prefer to communicate by email, you can get in touch with them at: jo@samaritans.org

What advice would you give to writers wanting to portray that struggle accurately and sensitively?

For writers wanting to portray someone who is struggling with their mental health, the first step is to have empathy for your characters. Do as much research as you can, and talk if possible to people who have a mental health problem, so you can hear what it’s like first hand. Language and how people are treated in hospital and in the community changes every now and again, so it’s important to keep up to date. Websites such as Mind and Rethink can help with this. Most of all remember 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health problem; it’s a lot more common than many expect.


photo RF Hunt

Ruth lives in Lancashire and has worked in welfare rights and in social services with adults with complex needs. She paints for commissions and has her artwork in galleries and exhibitions. She loves writing and her debut novel The Single Feather, is available in bookshops, on Amazon (ebook and paperback), and direct from Pilrig Press. Currently she’s studying English Literature and Creative Writing with The Open University.

Ruth is also the special guest for April’s #psywrite on Tuesday 21st April at 8pm BST.

#KillerFest15 – Mental Health and Crime

killerfest15-banner

I was privileged to take part in Killer Reads and Waterstones’ Killer Crime Festival 2015 with a Twitter chat about mental health and crime fiction.

There were some great questions and an ongoing discussion afterwards about crime novels featuring protagonists with mental health problems. Please share your recommendations in the comments.

If you enjoyed the chat, why not check out #psywrite, the monthly Twitter chat about mental health in fiction. We’re taking at break for March but we will be back for your questions in April!

And if you have any detailed queries for your writing, please get in touch – I’m always happy to help with accurate and sensitive mental health portrayals.

Freudian Script: Cannabis and Psychosis

cannabis-psychosisWith the recent study from King’s College London linking “skunk” to diagnosis of psychotic disorders, I thought it would be a good time to examine the link between cannabis and psychosis in detail.

I have previously written about cannabis and psychosis while talking gangs and drugs, but we didn’t look at the evidence base.

As I was writing this post, I realised that I’ve also waded into the fields of statistics and research methodology. Hopefully, this will provide some clarity the next time a newspaper starts talking about odds and risk in healthcare.

Background
First, let’s get some definitions on the table.

Psychosis, in essence, is the inability to distinguish what is real and what is not. It is most often talked about it terms of schizophrenia. You can read more detail about it here.

Cannabis is a group of flowering plants native to Central and South Asia. To get biological, there are three main species – Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. However, the cross-breeding produces all kinds of different sub-species.

Sativa is the most prevalent and the one used for hemp production. Skunk is a hybrid of sativa and indica and contains two-three times higher concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. UK police seizures indicate that skunk is now the prevalent form of cannabis in the UK.

Cannabis and psychosis: the evidence
People have been looking at cannabis in relation to its mind-altering effects ever since they discovered it could be ingested, which is why a number of ancient cultures used it in religious rituals.

However, scientific research didn’t kick off until the 20th century (before which we used to give morphine and cocaine to babies). The key thing about research is this: you have to know what the researchers were looking for. Research can only answer the specific questions asked – remember that as we take a wander through the history of cannabis and psychosis research:

The most famous study of cannabis and psychosis is known as the Swedish conscript study, published in 1987. Firstly, it was HUGE – 45,570 military recruits followed up for fifteen years. Cohort studies don’t get much better than that.

What’s a cohort study, you cry? It’s when a group of people are followed up over a long time to see what happens to them. It is only observational not interventional – you find what’s there and don’t try to influence the outcome. It is a good research method for looking at causal association – the question of “does x increase the risk for y?”. It’s the method that was used to look at links beteween smoking and lung cancer. However, in defiance of the Latin phrase, “after it therefore because of it” is not always true.

What they found was interesting – “high consumers” of cannabis were six times more likely to develop schizophrenia than non-users. And by “high consumers”, they meant people who had smoked cannabis more than fifty times. Ever. That could be only once a week for a year.

Two points also worth noting:
One – psychosis does not equal schizophrenia. However, this was 1987 and “schizophrenia” was used fairly liberally. We might now recognise schizoaffective disorder, drug-induced psychosis and mania separately.
Two – this was self-reported. Therefore, it’s likely that people underestimated their usage. All told, this is pretty good evidence for a link between cannabis and psychosis.

To reinforce these findings, a Lancet 2007 meta-analysis – i.e. looking at the whole body of research – explored the assocation between cannabis and psychosis. Note here that we’re including studies which didn’t look at cause and effect, but looked at where x and y appear together (though they only included longitudinal studies). The study found that there was a significant association between cannabis and all psychosis (not just schizophrenia) which went beyond the transient intoxication effects. It also concluded there is a dose response – like smoking and lung cancer, the more you smoke cannabis, the more likely you are to develop psychosis.

Skunk and psychosis
Which brings us to the King’s College study. First question – what were their questions? The full title of the study is “Proportion of patients in south London with first-episode psychosis attributable to use of high potency cannabis: a case-control study”.

So, we’re not looking at schizophrenia here but “first episode psychosis”. This is relatively new term arising from the movement for early intervention in psychosis, which is the idea that we prevent long-term disability by throwing in a lot of support at the beginning of the illness. First episode psychosis can be just a one-off episode, or can be the start of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar affective disorder.

You will also have caught the word “attributable”, so it seems we’re thinking causation again. However, the methods used can only conclude an association. The introduction goes on to say that the researchers hypothesise that the frequency of use and the potency of cannabis increases risk – i.e. a dose response. They think we should focus more of types of cannabis used, using alcohol as a comparison – it’s not enough to know someone drinks twice a week, but how much they drink per session and what they drink (wine, beer, spirits) matters to the outcome.

“Case control” is a type of study where people with a problem – in this case, first episode psychosis – are compared directly to individuals without that problem but otherwise similar. This helps reduce confounders, factors that could potentially influence the outcome, like gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

Their findings support an increased association between users of skunk and psychosis, and a stronger association for daily use. Media reporting has focussed on this figure of 24% new cases of psychosis related to skunk. The study has calculated this as a population attributable fraction. This means that if you eliminated skunk from the population of South London, you would prevent almost a quarter of first episode psychosis cases in this area. However, this would be unlikely to be the same for Cardiff or the Scottish Highlands.

Conclusions about cannabis and psychosis
With the research evidence we have to date, we can conclude:
– Cannabis and psychosis are strongly associated
– Cannabis has a dose-related association with psychosis – i.e. the more you smoke and the more potent the cannabis, the more like you are to have psychosis
– If we eliminated all cannabis, we would significantly reduce psychosis

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg. We have not considered how cannabis affects people who already have a diagnosis of psychosis. We also haven’t looked into what influence other drugs might have on the illness.

As my role with Freudian Script is to look at fictional portrayals of mental health, we don’t see a lot of cannabis and psychosis. The amotivational and appetite-inducing side effects are well-covered, but the “stoner movie” subgenre focussses on the comedy not calamity associated with cannabis use.

What are your impressions of cannabis and psychosis? What does this research add to the public debate around drugs? Should Hollywood make more films about psychotic stoners? Let me know in the comments!

The Art of Waiting

waiting-stopwatch

I am currently in the strange position of waiting on all on my projects.

A couple of things are waiting on feedback and decisions, and a novel and a screenplay are in the brewing stage, where I’ve deliberately left them alone to gain some much-needed perspective.

So, what is a writer to do? Here are five dos and don’ts of waiting gracefully.

DON’T refresh your email all day and night
With most of us having our email literally at our fingertips, it’s very tempting to stay glued to your inbox. The very instant that success, rejection or those vital notes arrive, you will know it! I have a weird habit of avoiding my most-wanted email – I will check Gmail’s Social and Promotions tags and empty Spam before reading The One. It’s either avoidance or saving the best ’til last…

DO take a break from devices
This is an important point at all writing stages, but it’s particularly relevant here. Getting out and experiencing life gives our brains room to make new connections. I find a gentle walk at my local park really clears out the cobwebs, and public transport is great for dialogue. Read a book, play a game, take a bath, snuggle with your partner, pet or teddy.

DON’T stalk people on social media
I am really, really bad at this. When Binary Witness was on submission with agents, I created a list on Twitter so that I could obsess over all of their tweets. This is not a good look, folks.

DO chat to other writers
Other writers are your best support, because they understand all about the art of waiting. Most writing advice will tell you social media is a time-sink and you should ration it. This is undoubtedly true, but it’s also a way to socialise in a distinctly antisocial profession.

DON’T hurry yourself
If you’re not on a deadline, your writing takes as long as it takes. I like to leave a novel for at least a month and screenplay at least a week. More is better. Once you’ve forgot it a little, you can be pleasantly surprised by what’s good and get a new perspective on what sucks.

DO pick it up again
Fear is a powerful motivator. The biggest NaNoWriMo mistake is not editing the first draft. Editing is how you make a novel, or a screenplay. Think of it like making a statue out of marble. The first draft is the crude outline of what you want it to be. The editing is all the fine work to make it into a masterpiece. You have to keep going back, though it’s always painful.

DON’T pester
Six weeks is a normal MINIMUM waiting time, unless you’ve previously agreed on something different. Agents and publishers often have stated guidelines, from “no response means no” to “you should hear within eight weeks”. Harassing people will only get you a bad reputation in a very small industry.

DO follow up
However, if you haven’t heard and were expecting a response, you can’t go wrong with a polite email. It may be that you have slipped the net, but it’s more likely that they’ve just got held up. Checking in for progress is cool, but if you’re too forceful, you may force someone to say no.

DON’T react in the moment
When the waiting is over, it is tempting to jump right in. Hit “reply”, send out another wave of queries, delete your precious manuscript and empty the Recycle Bin. Do. Not. React. Take a deep breath and put it to one side. Have a cup of tea. Give the response time to settle into your bones.

DO act in response
Whether you’re waiting on an agent, feedback, or your own brain to take a break, what happens next is important. You need to pay attention to what you’ve been given. You may not agree with what’s been said, or the first idea that comes into your head, but it’s happened for a reason. The most obvious solution to a problem is rarely the right one in writing, if you want to be surprising and novel enough to stand up.

How do you cope with the writer’s curse of waiting?

Freudian Script: How Common Are Mental Health Problems?

common-mental-disorders-marbles If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know I like to bang on about the accurate and sensitive portrayal of common mental health problems. You may have noticed that I don’t find many good portrayals – in fact, I sometimes find it hard to find any examples at all.

Mental health has a visibility problem. Is that because it’s not all that common to have a mental illness? Or is it because we like to hide from things that scare us and that we find hard to understand?

Of course, some mental health problems are overrepresented. If you watch enough crime drama, you might be forgiven for thinking that one-quarter of the population of New York City is a psychopath – and the other three-quarters victims.

To clear things up, here are a list of mental health statistics, comparing common mental health problems that you might see in fiction to reality in the UK. I’ve included nods to other health problems, to give an idea of scale.

(NB: for most stats, I’m using prevalence, which is the number of people with a condition during a given time – as opposed to incidence, which is the number of folk diagnosed with a problem during a time period)

One in four adults will experience a mental health problem in any one year
That’s 25%. For comparison, 21% of adults have a university degree.

8-12% of the population experience depression in a year
Asthma has a similar prevalence at 9.6%.

Postnatal depression affects 8-15% of women
This is similar to the lifetime risk for breast cancer at 12.5%.

Social anxiety is the third most common mental health problem worldwide, with a prevalence of about 5%
In England, diabetes has a prevalence of 6%.

2-3% of the population will experience obsessive-compulsive disorder in their lifetime
2% of the population are vegetarian.

1 in 200 people will experience a probable psychotic episode in any year
1 in 200 people will be diagnosed with cancer in a year.

Schizophrenia is the most common psychotic disorder, affecting 1.2-2.4% of people at any one time
Epilepsy has a prevalence of just under 1%.

Over a lifetime, 0.9-2.1% people will have a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder
The risk of developing leukaemia is 1.7%.

0.6% of the population have significant psychopathic traits
0.4% of the population are doctors.

Each year, around 5,000 people die by suicide
About 1,700 people die in road traffic accidents and 550 are murdered. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young men under 35.

With thanks to Mental Health UK’s excellent Fundamental Facts

Not Accepted Anywhere? Authenticity and Diversity in Writing

woman-question-diversityFrom #WeNeedDiverseBooks to the recent #dontselfneglect, Twitter campaigns to encourage diverse voices in writing are gloriously active right now. This is awesome! I am delighted that there is a push to recognise the value of diverse voices in fiction and the benefits this has for wider tolerance and acceptance of all folks, just being who they are.

But I struggle with this recognition in my own writing and, from browsing the #dontselfneglect hashtag, I’m not alone.

So, I’m going to tell you a little bit about me – more self-disclosure than I’m usually comfortable with – and I’m going to try to explain why participating in conversations about authenticity and diversity in writing is so difficult for me.

Who am I?
If I had to describe my identity, I would say I’m a bisexual, Christian, mixed-race, cis woman. However, I would shy away from describing myself as a woman of colour or LGBTQ, even though I am both of those things. Why is that?

Woman of colour?y
My father is from Sri Lanka and my mother is from Norfolk. I grew up in Devon. There is not a lot of diversity in Devon. At primary school, I was one of three “coloured” children in my class – which is a fairly high percentage, actually. (I use the word “coloured” here not because I currently embrace it or endorse it, but it was the only word I had at the time. I only started correcting my mother on her use of it about two years ago.)

I didn’t have much exposure to other people of colour. My main cultural experience was visiting my father’s family in London. Southall was a revelation to me – for once, I was not the minority on the street. I loved to wear South Asian clothes and I would bring them home for my friends to dress up in, like fancy dress costumes. We had a tradition we called “Indian Christmas”, where we would all wear my clothes and my dad would cook curry for us, before we watched a Tamil movie (with subtitles, of course) and play Carrom. I tried to learn Tamil once or twice, but didn’t get very far, and it is a source of shame to me.

When I tried to interact with South Asian culture, it didn’t always end well for me. I went into a boutique looking for a nose stud and I was stared at for my short hair, my Western clothes, my ignorance. Before my cousin’s wedding, I was criticised by a complete stranger for not waxing the hair on my arms. I often felt rejected by that side of my culture.

I didn’t struggle with much racial harrassment as a child. I was called “muddy face” when I was about 6 and I was called Paki once or twice in senior school. I get a lot of people asked where I’m from, or about my heritage. I have been asked about my religious beliefs, or what kind of wedding I had. I carry a fear of harrassment. My husband (who is white) doesn’t understand why I don’t want to go to a football match, or to certain pubs in town. I fear prejudice, even though it has not formed a large part of my experience.

LGBTQ?
My sexuality is a different kettle of fish. I didn’t know any LGBTQ people when I was growing up, not in person. I did, however, have a broadband internet connection and total immersed myself in fandom. While I have talked before about the problems of gay stereotypes in fanfiction, it exposed me a lot of diverse people, attitudes and opinions. The internet was my education, and stopped me making a tit of myself when I finally met gay men at university.

But I’m also religious, moreso as a teenager than I am now, though I still believe in God and Christianity. When I started to recognise my attraction to women, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I sought out the support of a minister I knew, who helped me work out some of my fears via email in a very supportive and validating way. I’m so grateful to him for that outlet.

Yet I have never had a relationship with a woman. In total, I have had one relationship, with the man who is now my husband. If you’re looking for diversity in my dating life, you will not find it. I have never been harrassed because of my sexuality, but then I have only disclosed it to people I trust. I didn’t tell my mother until last year.

Authenticity
When I participate in conversations with other people of colour or members of the LGBTQ community, I feel like a fraud. I don’t have significant battle scars, I don’t feel regularly marginalised or excluded, and I am extremely privileged in terms of my nationality, education and financial situation. When I hear people talking about encouraging diverse voices, I don’t think of me.

I find it easier to talk about my identity in terms of achievements and choices, things that I’ve done rather than things that were given to me. I am a doctor. I am a writer. I am a wife.

I find it far easier to write about Cardiff, a city I lived in for five years, than about the Anglo-Asian experience, what I’ve been since I was born. “Other people know more about this than you”, I think. “Shut up and write about mental health or Wales or murder. If you write it, you’ll only get it wrong.”

I want to tell you that this is all nonsense, because of course it is, but it’s very difficult to shake. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I don’t feel like a person of colour or LGBTQ. And therefore I don’t feel like I have a “POC voice” or an “LGBTQ voice”. BUT I do feel pressure to include people of colour and LGBTQ characters in my work, because I should be out there, doing something about this – and I want to! I want so badly to write them, but I also want to do them justice.

If you write it, you’ll only get it wrong.

It’s an ugly feeling. I don’t have any answers, by the way – if you’re reading this and feel like me, I’m afraid I have no idea what the solution is. Because my voice is important and I want to be heard, and I want to tell other people’s stories, the ones that aren’t heard.

But, if you do feel like me, I want you to know that you’re not alone. You’re not a fraud. Your voice is your voice, and you need to use it and not try to be anything else. For me, that’s not trying to be “more Asian” or “more queer”, because I am who I fucking am.

I’m going to try to be more “me”. I would encourage you all to do the same.

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

Every year, I write a post about my writing and personal progress over the past twelve months and look forward to next year’s goals and challenges.

For this New Year’s Day, I’m going to look at some awesome things that happened in 2014 and pair them up with where I’m taking them in 2015.

In 2014, I became a published author


I can’t shout about this enough, because it fills me with a giddy joy that I’ve longed for since I was a child. It’s been a very steep learning curve, but the process of taking a raw manuscript and making it into a novel with the help of my fantastic editor Deb Nemeth and the rest of the Carina Press team has had such a profound influence on my writing. And then seeing my books out in the world, receiving praise and reviews – even the gut-wrenching negative ones – has been amazing. People have read my words! They paid money to buy them and then they told other people to buy them!

In 2015, I will write more books and send them into the world.
I am writing more Amy Lane, because I have many more stories to tell for those Cardiff friends of mine. I’m hoping to share more news about Book #3 soon, and a short story – #2.5 Car Hacker – will be released in February, via The Amy Lane Mysteries mailing list.

I’m also writing The Deaths of Miss Gray, which I started for NaNoWriMo 2014. When it’s fully baked, I intend to polish it up and send out to some literary agents later this year. I hope I’ve learned my lessons from my last round of querying – rejection is encouragement, after all. I’ve ready for another bout in the ring, but my novel isn’t quite there yet.

In 2014, I wrote a script.
Now, this doesn’t sound like much at all. In fact, it sounds like something I first accomplished in 2010 and what I should be doing every few months.

However, I note this script because it is my first feature-length script to enter pre-production. After many, many months of work in development with indie producer Nicholas John of Changeling Films, we are ready to take our next brave step.

In 2015, my first feature film will start production.
My optimism may be ill-founded by I have all my fingers and toes crossed that we can gather momentum behind out film. If we don’t quite make it to production, I would like to be significantly further down the road to making this film a reality. Watch out for updates on Doormats and Jezebels!

In 2014, I co-founded #psywrite
psywrite

With the peerless Vicky Newham, I started a monthly Twitter chat about mental health and psychology in writing fiction. It was aimed at combating stigma in the writing community by promoting the accurate and sensitive portrayal of mental health problems and psychological understanding of characters and plot, an endeavour I started with my Freudian Script series in 2012.

In 2015, I will keep fighting to end mental health stigma.
We are a lot further down the road to a public understanding of mental health problems and social acceptance that these crippling diseases need equal precedence in our consciousness to physical health issues. I will continue #psywrite and Freudian Script, I will answer your questions on Twitter and Facebook, and I will keep writing about characters with mental health problems.

In 2015, what will you do?

When Sidekicks Take Centre Stage

crime-fighting-partners-jam-watson
Hark, a vagrant: The Case of the Two Watsons

In any fictional universe, the world revolves around the protagonist. Any “extras”, sidekicks or love interests are very much subservient to the hero – though, if they are well-realised, they all think they’re looking out for their own interests. It’s only the writer who is leading them on to serve the hero and the narrative.

Over at the Crime Readers’ Association website, I wrote about Supporting Cast: Breathing Life into Secondary Characters. I even made reference to my favourite Hark, a vagrant webcomic.

I mentioned Cerys Carr, who started life as nothing more than a gobby teenage sister to one of my protagonists and ended up playing a major part in Code Runner. She’s also prominent in Book #3, and shows no sign of fading away.

The beauty of a well-developed supporting cast of “sidekicks” to your hero is that they can leap to the fore at any moment. In television, this may even progress to them gaining their own show – for example, Angel started life in Buffy and Frasier was part of the cast of Cheers. Joey’s leap from Friends is a much less successful example – partly, I think, because that character’s strength is in how he reacts within that specific ensemble.

A truly excellent author plans ahead that their supposedly minor characters are, in fact, pivotal. If you read only The Philosopher’s Stone, you would be incredulous that Neville Longbottom could be significant in any way to Voldemort.

In some cases, the high-profile or cult casting in a supporting role can bring an audience, like Anthony Head and Richard Wilson in Merlin. Other shows take note of the surprise success of some of their supporting characters. The rise of Castiel in Supernatural has been the result of vocal fan feedback, and The West Wing was never meant to feature Martin Sheen in such a large role.

For me, the development of all your characters beyond a name and a face is a no-brainer. If you are writing a project with longevity, whether that’s a series for television or in novels – or even if you just want your audience to make it to the end of the book – a compelling cast of characters is vital.

And who knows? Some of them may surprise you.