Linda Gillard is both a well known author and a well known advocate for Mental Health issues. She writes with passion and conviction. She is a contributor to the 2012 Creative Minds Virtual Event.
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do – retaliate with a left hook? – I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.
What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.
I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear – fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents – and fear takes its toll.
My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide. Eventually I was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar affective disorder. Manic depression.
My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.
I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little commercial fiction that featured middle-aged women. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or wife, occasionally a corpse. They were rarely placed centre stage.
So I gave up reading about women half my age and decided to write what I wanted to read. I just sat down at my PC one day and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY.
I didn’t plan my book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote. To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box”, a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)
That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter, from a dramatic point of view, what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established, so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.
EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY wasn’t (as so many first novels are) fictionalised autobiography. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues. What I wrote was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I thought my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.)
I wrote EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY as a treat for myself, to pass the time while I convalesced, but I decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness. That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.
Much to my surprise, I found an agent and then a publisher. Faced with the inevitable author promotion, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. I’d already started work on my second novel and knew I was hooked on writing. This was my new career and I wanted to be taken seriously. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir?
I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. It was hard to begin with, but it got easier. Now, with six novels published, it’s not even an issue.
EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY is a book that comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness. (In 2006 it was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the best first British novel.) Over the years, many readers have come forward to thank me for the book, for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, life after a diagnosis of mental illness and for demonstrating that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.
NEW REVIEW: UNTYING THE KNOT By Linda Gillard
Fay is a textile artist and her ex husband Magnus is a former bomb disposal officer who suffers PTSD. They are in a pretty awful place both in their relationship and in their practical circumstances. It’s made clear from the start that Magnus has mental health issues. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Because Untying the Knot contains much more to the narrative than simply a compelling plot line. Certainly the plot cracks along and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you reading. But this is so much more than a standard so called ‘womens novel’ Gillard never writes down for women. She doesn’t stereotype or romanticise or sugarcoat her story. Untying the Knot works on a number of levels. The surface story is enough to keep people reading, but the depths are there if one wants to explore.
It would be crass to simply claim that ‘madness’ is at the core of the story. Gillard hints at this by showing that madness isn’t always what it seems and love isn’t always enough. There are more perspectives on madness than is first suggested but more comment than that would be a spoiler so I’ll not pursue that line further. Tackling mental health and love in one novel is enough of a challenge, but keeping it ‘real’ is even more of one and yet this is what she achieves time and again.
It’s a sign of her mastery of the novel form that Gillard manages to pull off something quite difficult in her character creation. While they all are recognisable characters (just like you and me perhaps, a bit ordinary and certainly not stock aspirational romantic fiction characters) at times the reader just wants to shout at or shake the characters to tell them to act differently! Daring to write characters like this is brave. And it works. Beautifully. Our hopelessness in seeing how they may be mucking up their own lives is reflected back at us and each time the characters ‘muck up’ or become ‘irrational’ in their actions or choices, the reader is forced to assess that yes, this is how we all act in the real world. We all want to say one thing but say another. We all lie and hide truth and pretend that we don’t love when we do, or do love when we don’t. We gain empathy for the characters through a shared recognition of humanity not through some romantic idealised aspirational desire.
In Untying the Knot, love is central but it’s not fictional romance where a happy ending is assured. Gillard’s take on love is much more complicated than that, much more real and this is the power at the core of the novel. Its reality. All the characters are flawed, all narrators unreliable and everyone’s story can be seen from more than one perspective. The sympathy or empathy one feels for the characters is precisely because of their realistic flaws. It’s what keeps them interesting. They are as frustrating as real friends. They are inconsistent, you feel they would never listen to the sage advice you would give them, and often they work against their own best interests. Just like real people!
The seemingly simple narrative is shot through with darker and deeper elements such as irrationality, fear and pain and the overwhelming understanding that this is how people feel. Gillard shows that life and relationships are a tangle and you have to work your way through it the best you can. And that sometimes you are your own worst enemy. The reality of all these observations, even coated in a fictional story, are enough to make this an interesting and thought provoking read.
You can find out more about Linda and her other writing from her website and buy Linda’s ebooks from Amazon
UNTYING THE KNOT (reviewed above)
EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (Linda writes about it above)
A LIFETIME BURNING (Kindle) This book deals with mental breakdown & suicidality as a response to sudden disability & trauma, also mental breakdown as a result of marital stress & alcoholism.
HOUSE OF SILENCE (kindle) This one deals with age-related mental decay and the effects that has on a family when the aged matriarch retreats into a fantasy world.