The novelist talks about how mental health makes its way onto her pages
In the year since becoming a published novelist, there has been a common refrain in reviews of my work and that has been its representation of mental health. I’m hugely grateful for those who have taken the time to express that they believe I’ve done justice to the nuances of the topic in my books, not least because it is a subject that is incredibly close to my own heart.
But I would be lying if I said that this feedback hadn’t given me the odd moment of pause too; in neither my first novel, The Silent Treatment, nor my second, The Ends of the Earth, did I set out to write about mental health, per se. Rather, I dreamt up a story, the characters to inhabit it and let the rest flow from there. So how then, did the subject manage to make itself so manifest on the page?
For me, it boils down primarily to authenticity. As in all novels with high stakes, my characters have been put under intense pressure in their respective journeys towards self-growth. At every turn, I as the author have had to ask myself how a person would realistically respond to those circumstances and then draw the contours of that experience as faithfully as I can. That involves engaging with the full gamut of emotional response, yes, but on a deeper level, it also means tracing the ways in which our darkest hours can shift and reconfigure the complex network of fibres within our brain. In other words, how certain situations might affect our mental health.
At this stage, I begin to feel a very real responsibility to those reading my books. I am not a trained psychologist or therapist, so research is paramount. However, research can only take me so far. There will come a point at which, armed with my resources, I have to begin to put the words on the page, working to ensure that I’m putting my characters first and in a way that emphasises our common humanity.
I believe it’s this compassion that makes for stand-out writing, regardless of the subject matter at hand. Without compassion, what redemption? And without redemption, what great novel? Whether it is Frank in The Silent Treatment, weighed down by guilt and regret or Mary in The Ends of The Earth, trapped in a cycle of denial, I have always tried to approach my characters without judgement. In art, as in life, it is a strong rule of thumb.
As for my own life, there is plenty within it which informs my interest in writing about mental health. While there’s no straight-forward mapping of personal experience onto the page, the world around me still soaks onto it. It could be a loved one’s depression or an anxiety that I have struggled with myself but I’ve found that remaining alert to the influence of those sources has been invaluable. Before I was a writer, I was a reader, and I have always been compelled by books that feel the most raw and vulnerable, as if I’m hearing a voice that gives rise to feelings I didn’t know, until then, were communal. These are the books I aspire to write too.
A final word on hope. I believe that for every dark night, there is a sunrise, for every fall, the opportunity to stand up again – firmer, stronger, taller. That doesn’t mean I sugar-coat the content of my writing, not in the slightest. But it does mean that I see my characters get back on their feet again, often through the help of the support networks and communities that have been reaching out for a long time prior. In The Ends of the Earth, my protagonist Mary reflects on this very point: ‘“crisis point” is something of a misnomer—it doesn’t have to point to continued crisis, not for everyone.’
If that’s the note that my writing strikes with readers, then it will have made all the hours at the keyboard feel worthwhile.
The Ends of the Earth by Abbie Greaves is published on 29 April, Century, HBK, EBK audio
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