So here’s the cover, with some nice words, at back, from Martha Roberts (author and journalist) and Alex Campbell (YA author of Land and Cloud 9). At the moment, media interest is building momentum prior to the launch. Fingers crossed for pitches up and coming…
While it’s a work of fiction, the experiences Killing Hapless Ally describes are very much based upon my own – the extraordinary measures a child went to to stay afloat, and how she maintained them in her adulthood: varied gallery of imaginary friends, alter ego (who turned nasty) and all. So while I hope the book entertains and makes you laugh, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope readers might reflect on what mental health is, what we think mental illness is (clue: there are many different types of it), how problems can develop very early in a child who learns to compensate quite flamboyantly, but who feels under a great deal of stress, and possibly how – even within someone who is otherwise healthy – there may be a great lability of mood; a rather too quick shift from normalcy to near despair and back again. I loathe, however, any text that insists you dissociate yourself from negative thought, because feelings of melancholy, sadness and even despair may be benchmarks of an emotionally healthy person able to run the gamut of all human feeling.To run away from those things is to live fearfully. I already know that some people may be horrified at my literary evocation of self harming, suicide, therapy, funerals and maleficent dead relatives, but these things I stared in the face – and my protagonist stared in the face – and found that feet were still on the ground and eyes were to the stars.
It’s interesting. As I was bemoaning on twitter earlier, a couple of folk have said, for all the best reasons, that they’ll be glad to buy the book – it’s important to support ‘people like you’. By which they mean, I think, that as kind and civilised members of our society we have to support those members referred to – in a tongue in cheek way in my book – as ‘those who can’t’. But there is another narrative tumbling along in the book, you see: it comes first from the mouth of Helen, Alison’s (the protagonist’s) godmother who is dying in a house on Cyclamen Terrace on Tyneside, to the tune of Countdown jacked up to full volume downstairs and stifling plug-in air fresheners. (Actually, this was a formative experience for me, I must admit – for Helen is based on my own godmother and the situation not dissimilar). But as I was saying, Helen looks at little Alison with fire in her eye and she says, ‘You will be the girl who did.’ She understood and she was right. People go through tremendous difficulty, but that does not mean they don’t have an intellectual life, raise a family, run a business, maintain friendships or hold down a job. I want to say that – albeit by the skin of my teeth sometimes – I have managed to do these things, never more so than when I finally accessed the care and support that, for me, was life changing and enabled me to effect permanent change. Having difficulty or illness does not make a person lesser or someone for whom we should give the sort of sympathy that also manages to demean them and suggest that they are not autonomous.
Hey look: I’ve had about thirty five years of mental health problems, but I’ve written three books, taught many hundreds of secondary age pupils, am raising three boys, feed three cats, rescued many chickens, been to two universities, travelled the world, married a bloke who stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Yeah, I know. People with MH problems do those things too. I’ve been off and on meds, received hospital support and spent a lot of time with my GP and MHRS: sometimes I broke. Then I couldn’t do any of the things I describe. I stared into a hole in the middle distance and everything was through a glass darkly and hope was a broken, jagged thing.
So how about this: say that the person who, after many years of anxiety, depression, breakdowns, self harming and OCD, kept rebounding and, eventually and moreorless, got better, well that would be some marathon, wouldn’t it? Say that the person didn’t, but kept battling. Is that not impressive? It isn’t the work of a weakling – as some may see it. It isn’t the work of a sub-species; a sort of collusion of ‘people like yous’. It’s the determination of an individual to survive and thrive. And my battle has been but a skirmish compared with what others have to combat.
But back to the book. Read it for a laugh, for company, to be startled; root for Alison; be horrified at The Hill and what happens to Muffled Mfanwy; wince at siblings like Jaggers in his vile horsehair-stuffed chair and never look at a pickled egg again! And if the book does just one tiny thing to diminish stigma around mental health problems, I’ll be so happy. And maybe no-one will come up to me and say they are glad to support ‘people like you’ – because I am you, and you are me and I am glad we met.