Most young people find going away to university an exciting
and life-enhancing experience. What made you decide to write about
a character, Luke, for whom this is not the case?
In fact I think most young people find the transition
to university more testing than they might imagine. I know I did!
I remember feeling as if I didn’t fit in for nearly all
of the first term, and being terribly homesick. Sure, there were
new friends and parties and late night coffees and the rest, but
I also worried about how well I was doing, found independent learning
was challenging in different ways, and I missed my mum! Now I
lecture at a very popular university, and I have observed that
my experiences are common. Most students have some sort of teething
problems. So it was a small step to imagine that the first term
at university might well trigger an episode of mental illness
in a person who was already predisposed. Also, for plot reasons,
I wanted Luke not to have support around him – it made for
a better story!
The novel is told in the three distinctive voices of the
main characters. Which voice did you find the most easy to adopt,
and which one the most difficult?
Oddly enough, Jamie was the easiest of the three.
Despite being female, and at some distance from my teenage years,
I have quite a strong inner teenage boy! I really can’t
imagine why. I enjoyed Jamie’s vanity, flip attitude and
honesty – and I enjoyed even more his discovery about how
important other people are. But because I gave him a wisecracking
voice, it helped me to avoid a sentimental ending.
Less oddly, Luke was the most difficult. I had to try to imagine
and then convey what it was like to experience a psychotic episode.
In order to do this I had to research – I couldn’t
rely on my own imagination. I visited several hospitals that offer
mental health services, and spoke to sufferers too. A big thing
I learned was that to the sufferer, a psychotic delusion is reality.
I had to try to get that across – that Luke believed in
everything that was happening to him, while at the same time the
reader needed to see that it wasn’t happening to him. Hence
my choice of a multi-voice novel.
Kate, Luke’s sister, is still at school, but with their
mother out of the country it is she who has to take up a caring
and responsible role towards her older brother. Is this something
you were particularly keen to show.
Yes. I know - because I’ve seen it - that
teenagers have a huge capacity for caring and shouldering responsibility.
And also I thought it would be a better story if Kate and Luke
had to manage by themselves. Writers like to test their characters.
Kate was severely tested. A particular test for her was that she
is naturally self-sufficient, the sort of person who pushes down
a lot of her feelings, and doesn’t like to draw attention
to herself. So she had to decide when to ask for help, fighting
a tendency to want to make her brother better all by herself.
Mind you, it isn’t only teenagers who have to learn when
to ask for help. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking
that self-sufficiency is a virtue, but it’s not. We all
need each other.
I think one of the great strengths of the book is the way
you manage to make Jamie develop as a character. Without giving
too much away, what can you tell us about the things he learns
in the course of the story.?
That life isn’t all about scoring! That even
though boys pretend that emotion is yukky and confining, boys
need love too. That the best highs you get come from being there
for other people – they don’t come from getting what
you want for yourself – odd, but true. But, but, but! Jamie
learns these things and develops without changing, without stopping
being his essential self. He stays a joker, a bit of a lad –
he has the gift of not taking himself too seriously – and
that can be a life-saver.
This is a novel about depression, but it is never a depressing
or an oppressive read. It is a pageturner with the three different
voices advancing the story step by step from their different perspectives
towards an exciting denouement. How carefully was the construction
of the plot planned in advance?
Not that carefully! I find it impossible to plot
in fine detail, and I wouldn’t want to. That would take
away the fun of writing, which is to discover stuff as you go
along. I had a rough road-map in my head – I knew that Luke’s
breakdown would happen incrementally and that Kate would be preoccupied
with her own affairs in the first instance. I suppose I did have
to think very carefully how to dispose of the parents –
yes – that took some forethought. But the development of
the story between Luke, Kate and Jamie happened in the writing.
I only I’d reached the end when I got there!
Your bibliography lists nearly 20 books published
traditionally, and you have picked up a significant number of
awards. What attracted you to publishing M|ENTAL as an exclusive
Because I think ebooks are the future. I have a Kindle and I prefer
reading from it than a paper book. It’s lighter, more portable,
quicker – and fun. But there’s a more important reason.
I love writing for young adults, and think it’s important
for them all to read – and to read fiction. Fiction teaches
empathy, and empathy is as vital to us all as breathing. But teenagers
don’t read as much as they should. They either have no time
as they’re taking too many GCSEs, or they’re on their
PlayStations – and – not many of them will spend their
small disposable income on a book. A paperback novel is typically
£6.99. But! A Kindle book is much, much cheaper and teenagers
don’t even need a Kindle – they can just download
a Kindle app on their smartphone or computer, and they’re
If, as I hope it does, reading MENTAL encourages people to
seek out any of your previous novels, which one would you hope
they picked up first, and why?
PARALYSED is similar to MENTAL both in being in several voices,
and dealing with disability. But (and I’m being cheeky here!),
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT is a novel about joining a religious cult,
and also deals in abnormal starts of mind. And CLOSE-UP has a
lead character somewhat like Jamie. No author can resist naming
as many of her books as possible!
Do you have to have certain things around you
or certain conditions to be in existence when you do your writing?
Nothing weird! Obviously a reasonable amount of silence –
I wouldn’t respond well to my husband playing death metal
in the next room. And I need to have a tidy desk. If there’s
physical chaos around me, it makes my mind feel chaotic too. But
I have no lucky objects or superstitions – I just crack
on – it’s the only way!
When did you first begin to perceive yourself
as an author?
Round about after my third novel had been published. And maybe,
if I’m honest, not even now. I am most def a writer! Anyone
who writes consistently and is prepared to work at their writing,
is a writer. I find the word author rather odd. It kind of hints
at a specialness and I don’t think writers are special –
no more than anyone else with a talent or a set of skills. I can’t
stand writers who take themselves too seriously or think the world
owes them a living. Good writers have insights and can share them
– which is a wonderful gift – but my mum had insight
too, and shared it with me. She wasn’t an author, but I
learned more from her than any author.
I’ve heard you (online) talking about
characterization and advising aspiring writers to compile an imaginary
questionnaire for each of their characters to answer. Is this
still a method you recommend when teaching creative writing?
Oh yes!! Because it’s a lot of fun and you learn the oddest
things about what’s in your subconscious. It’s relaxing
too. Moreover, I use it for my own writing – used it just
the other day, in fact. And what came out was immensely helpful.
Writing is playing – and the more fun you make it, the better
it’s going to be for you and your readers.
Recently, Sherry has been...
Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens
– A Life
OMG I am such a Dickens’ fan! (hardback as it was
The complete Frasier (so funny and well plotted)
Suede - Greatest Hits
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help –
another multi-voice novel! (e-book)
Kevin Brooks iBoy – so gritty and unputdownable
Elbow (our local band – the best blokes ever!)