Interview by Julie Bull
Sadie Nott talks to Interviews Editor Julie Bull about late starts, writing what you can’t say, and avoiding labels.
The opening chapters of her completed novel will appear in a forthcoming TLC/AM Heath free reads anthology. She is also a winner of a 2018 Creative Future Literary Award for under-represented writers.
I talked to her about coming to creative writing late, writing from life experience and about what being ‘under-represented’ means to her.
Tell me about your life before writing.
I wasn’t someone who wrote stories as a child. I couldn’t trace my desire to write back to those very early years. I chose psychology for my degree because I wanted to find out about people’s inner lives and how they were impacted by outside events. I went on to do a PhD and halfway through it, I had my first child. I then wrote a non-fiction book about childbirth experiences, which drew on stories told to me during my research - story-gathering was very much a part of my method. After my PhD I took a break and had another child before getting my first academic post, so you could say I was starting late with a lot of things.
My professional research career then moved towards looking at experiences of health care and services, and mental health services in particular. The ‘stories’ that are told around mental health are interesting to me, they can help and hinder. There’s a medical story and a social story and it is different and nuanced, what flows from that for people. In terms of my own experience, I would say I have been a person with psychological troubles to some extent since I was a child and I have been engaged with services myself at certain times.
What was it that made you start writing? Or what stopped you doing it before?
The genesis of my writing was in my own psychotherapy. As part of this, at one point I wrote down about ten or twelve words about my childhood. They were a list that felt like the beginning of a story. Then I wrote about 800 words of a novel (the same novel I have written now, though these words aren’t in it) and there it stopped. It was about two years after that I began writing properly.
I was fifty by this time and I was thinking what do I want to do with my life? My children were grown up. I had that greater freedom from not being a day-to-day mother. Fifty was a very big landmark. I thought, well I might live to a hundred, but I might not. My own mother died when she was 66. I had this story I wanted to tell and I knew I wasn’t actually going to do it at the same time as having a demanding job. The timing coincided with redundancy. I had a period of mourning for the academic me once I had given up, but I have made a clear break now.
Tell us about the inspiration for your novel.
I think some of the hesitancy about writing came from knowing where to start. You sometimes wonder where a story begins. If you are writing a story that draws partly on your own life, it might start with you as a foetus or with your mother or grandmother. My novel, A Ton of Feathers, starts when the character is eight, which meant I was drawing on some things I could actually remember.
I had seen an image of a mother and child in a painting by Marlene Dumas and there was something about the image that seemed all wrong when I looked at it. I was interested in this idea that there’s a space between a mother and child that goes too close and in the other direction too distant. I became interested in where the line should be, and what it is like for a child when that line is crossed.
My book is about this and the more extreme end of 1970's alternative therapies and about how when a parent is very involved in these, it can impact on a child. I feel this is relatively new territory, to write about the specifics of this.
How much of your personal story appears in your fiction? What do you see as the relationship between fiction and memoir?
Writing fiction has given me the freedom to explore my experiences and feelings. For me, writing fiction solves the issue about what people want to say and at the same time are driven not to say. You can express both in it. Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby says, ‘Writing is saying to no one and everyone the thing it is not possible to say to someone.’
Fiction is all about trying to capture the emotional truth of characters and events. In my own work, some of the events are similar to those in my own past, others are not. I like to think it’s for me to keep to myself which is which. I am faithful to what I want to say, not to what happened. That’s what makes it fiction, not memoir, but the distinction is sometimes a blurred one because in both types of writing there is an inevitable gap between what is experienced and written.
Short or long form?
I’m gradually finding my way into the short story form. The story that will appear in Wild and Precious Life was originally inspired by an image of Ophelia in the National Gallery in a painting by Odilon Redon. It was different from other depictions, less passive. I wrote a story prompted by it for a competition, where it was commended but not placed. The story is about identity and madness and the redemptive power of art. Later, when I saw the call for the Wild and Precious Life anthology, I saw the fit with my story and I really loved the anthology’s title, which definitely spoke to some of what I had felt during that watershed moment when I turned fifty.
Your writing will appear in an anthology about recovery. I wondered if writing had played a part in your recovery and if you could reflect on that.
Someone, I can’t now remember who, said that we write what we need to know. So through the process of writing we discover. In some contexts the word ‘recovery’ has been co-opted and misused, so I’m not that keen on it. It has, for example, been used as a way of discharging people from services, so it’s a bit problematic.
Giving up my previous academic life was part of me wanting me to be a happier, healthier person. As my career had progressed, I felt life in universities changed and I had little time to think, a lot of constraints. I have definitely felt freed by creative writing by comparison.
Writing is in some ways therapeutic. It’s one of the things that has played a role in me feeling better. But all writers acknowledge the downsides. You are isolated, you have no external routine, no colleagues, and the rejection is sometimes hard - especially when the rejection can feel like a rejection of your personal story, a part of you.
The delving around in darker issues is also hard, it’s not a straightforward positive catharsis. The first draft of my novel was painful to write in many ways, but in the process of editing, there’s something like laying things to rest happening, not quite, but perhaps this sense of making something easier. Writing is a way to find metaphors for things that are inexpressible in other ways, and for the processing of memories. Sharing your work with other people and being heard is also of value.
You need to be supported though. The writing workshop I attend has been incredibly supportive throughout because it’s a small trusting group, mostly of people that have been in it a long time.
What does it mean for you to be an ‘under-represented’ writer?
The concept of under-representation is complicated. The Creative Future award was rare in including mental health issues as one dimension of what might make a writer under-represented. A lot of others simply subsume it under a label of ‘disability’, which is a label which may or may not feel right. All labels can be both helpful and problematic.
I am keen to avoid being seen primarily as a writer with mental health issues though. I am a writer just the same as any other, who is interested in certain themes. I don’t want to over emphasise the barriers I have faced because of mental health issues, though they exist. I am quite a private person so I don’t want to talk about my mental health in every author profile. I am proud of myself and of other people who have faced similar issues to me, so I don’t want to downplay it either. I am still working it out.
Your writing fairy godmother appears with a few wishes to grant. What are you going to ask her for?
I want my book to be out in the world. How it gets there I am open about. If I don’t find an agent, I will look for an independent publisher. I just want it to be read, it doesn’t matter to some degree about numbers. It’s just that I want someone to find something in it.
The readings from the Wild and Precious Life anthology, the stories I have heard so far, have been moving and brilliantly written. So we are looking forward to getting fully funded.
Interview by Julie Bull
Anna Sayburn Lane on Refugee Tales
The UK is the only country in Europe to hold migrants in indefinite detention pending deportation or decisions about their leave to remain. Around 27,000 people are held in detention centres in the UK at any one time. Many of them can be there for months or even years, under conditions that are, more or less, imprisonment.
Refugee Tales is an outreach project of Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. They believe indefinite detention to be a ‘cruel and debilitating’ practice and are calling for a 28-day limit on the time that people are held. Their campaigning methods—walking and storytelling—are at once ordinary, ancient and powerful.
The walks organised by Refugee Tales and the tales that arise from them are intended to ‘reclaim the landscape of South East England for the language of welcome.’ Anna signed up to join two days of the summer walk of 2017, having no real idea what to expect.
I had signed up for the walk and thought little of it until two days before. I turned up on the Friday night and was suddenly part of this huge group. I was immediately drawn in.
A walk will comprise over a hundred people; they are supporters, people involved with the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Project, some of the people are former asylum seekers with leave to remain who might have been through the system and in detention centres themselves. Anna talks about the fellowship and the encounters in the group.
I met people from Eritrea, Sudan. They are not the kind of people I would normally come across in my day-to-day life.
After a day’s walking, you arrive at the place that’s hosting the walk and there is food, there are events. It’s been said that we are like a mobile arts festival. There will be two stories told, they might be read by writers and actors, or even those whose stories they are. There is music and dancing. Then you go to your ‘dorm’, roll out your sleeping bag and start afresh the next day.
The sense of community comes about very quickly. There is an amazing feeling of people looking out for each other. Everyone gets footsore, you get tired, everyone needs a little looking out for at some point or other and that’s what they get. It feels like a lesson—like life could always be like this.
Just like the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a diverse group of people share a journey and talk along the way. The walking facilitates the talking.
There’s a lot of talking on the walks, but there’s nothing forced about it. It’s just a human encounter where you talk about whatever arises. People find it easier to talk while they are doing something else—i.e. walking, it’s like the intensity is broken. No one is obliged to talk about anything in particular, we can talk just as well about the weather as anyone’s life story.
The Refugee Tales as told in the books and recordings that come out of the project are written and told by some of our finest contemporary writers, based on the real life tales of detainees. Hearing some of them is hard, of course, People have survived terrible, desperate things—but there are always other things to counter that.
There is a symbolic power in the whole experience, as well as a personal one.
The walk is a kind of radical act. It is. It feels like we’re saying ‘Here we are, these are our hills and beaches, here is our hospitality, you are welcome.’ It’s a very different way of receiving people than our current hostile immigration system. It does feel radical in a way, to say welcome.
Photograph: Chris Orange
I ask Anna what she has gained from the experience of taking part now for two consecutive years (in 2018 she was one of the leaders of the walk from St Albans to London).
The experience has opened my eyes to the ways people live in this world. The absolute vulnerability of these people makes it a humanitarian issue. I had thought people who’d made it here were in a place of safety, but often a whole lot of new risks await them if they are held indefinitely in a quasi-prison without the support they need, including PTSD or other mental health issues.
The argument for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention seems to be gaining traction. It now has the full support of the Labour Party. Some opposition MPs have joined the walk or supported events along the way. Sadly though, there will need to be another walk in 2019 as the practice of indefinite detention continues. Anna is fully involved with the planning and practice walks along the south coast for next year’s walk. She’s pretty happy to remain involved and to keep on walking for as long as it takes.
Some of the people I’ve walked with have stories with happy endings and the things they’ve overcome, they are an inspiration. They’ll be the ones carrying kids on their shoulders when the walk gets tough, the ones carrying other people’s bags, the ones playing a game of football after walking twelve miles. They are amazing. I’ve got so much from this experience, it doesn’t feel like any act of sacrifice or charity on my part.
You can find out more about how to support Refugee Tales at refugeetales.org
You can hear some of the refugee tales at 28for28.org
Interview by Julie Bull
Mick Sands, Arts Therapist talks about his work at St Christopher’s Hospice
Mick Sands had been a successful theatre composer, working with Peter Hall and the RSC, but he always had a parallel life, using his musical and artistic talents to work with people with learning disabilities. When, twelve years ago, his professional life took a new turn, and he became part of the Arts Therapy team at St Christopher’s Hospice, he knew that the nature and the rewards of the work he would do there would be very different to those offered by the theatre. I talked to him about his work at the hospice, about dealing with the fundamentals of life and death on a day-to-day basis.
St Christophers hospice in South London was founded in 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, whose guiding philosophy was that ‘you matter until the last moment of your life.’ The hospice movement exists to provide the highest possible palliative care for terminally ill people, and to not only treat them medically, but provide emotional and spiritual support alongside clinical care. They provide this support to over 6,500 people in South East London each year.
Patients who come to him will have reached the end of curative medical treatment. While clinicians will help them manage their physical pain, it is the other pain, what has been termed ‘soul pain’, that the Arts Team are there to help with. I ask what patients are bringing to the session, what kind of things they want to explore. Mick sums it up as being about the search for meaning. People are often asking why, how come this has happened, what does my life mean now and what have I done?
A referral from the clinical team will often be on the basis of someone needing something to do, but there is a lot more to it than diversion or distraction.
There’s an element of life review. Sometimes it’s putting that on record. One man, for example, wants to talk about his lifelong passion for Millwall Football Club. So I sit with him and we record him recalling it all, the magic of the Stadium of Light. We’re just two blokes talking about football, but it’s so much more than that, he is recalling and recounting his love for his wife, his friendships, his memories.
In some cases they are also facing down demons or struggling to reach a point of acceptance as their life comes to a close. Stories and metaphors have power here. Mick is reminded of the image of King Canute, how one patient became absorbed in the story, the image of holding back the tide, part of the journey to recognise that he himself must face the inevitable.
The ‘products’ of work like this can be valuable things to leave behind for loved ones. A chance to tie up some loose ends, to have some reconciliation. They can be expressing something that they can’t otherwise talk about. Working through creativity, there is the possibility of finding a language to speak about the unspeakable. Reaching some accommodation or acceptance, having the final conversation – Mick is at pains to point out – doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the metaphor just hangs, you can’t go further. That’s just how it is.
It’s salutary to be reminded that there is a context to the work – that it doesn’t take place outside of a social and economic context of austerity. This is, after all, the NHS.
There are more people in need of palliative than we can serve. There’s more focus now on brief interventions and there’s more targeting. We can’t work with people who are medically stable. The pressure is for us to have a goal for the work, a limited but focused intervention. The work, though, is relational, it depends on relationship to enable the broaching of certain subjects. The argument is for us to be providing a model of care which is much more open ended, even if it doesn’t fit with the resource argument.
The work seems a world away from the excitement and acclaim of his former life in the theatre and Mick has thought hard about the difference, probing the question of audience and attention. One story tells it all.
One Friday afternoon I get a call from a doctor on the ward asking for a musician to come and play the blues for a patient who is dying. I take my guitar upstairs and introduce myself. I’m not a blues guitar player but I play 'Summertime' for him. I play it with my whole self. It’s an experience I have before where you play for someone who really drops down into themselves and profoundly listens. It was a receiving- a profound connection. I have played in front of 25,000 people and of course this was not the same, but it was as big as.
When I ask if his job is unbearably sad the answer is of course yes. Mick tells me about the bad days, the ones when he goes home ready to cry into his dinner, but for each of those there are the days when the work brings patients to anger, inspiration, and life.
Soon he will retire from this particular chapter in his professional life to become a psychotherapist and I ask him what he will miss or not once he moves on. He’ll miss his team, working with patients.
Whatever happens, I think St Christopher's will miss him.
Julie Bull is a writer who lives in South London and Sussex, which sounds much posher than it is. In another life she was a civil servant but now writes full time. Her short stories have appeared in MIRonline and the Retreat West Anthology, The Word for Freedom. She is currently working on a story collection. She is nothing if not nosey, so she finds interviewing people to be a great non-fiction writing opportunity. You can find her @juliebu72