Richard feels trapped in his hectic family life of commitment and responsibility, and the only place he can escape the dark cloud descending on him is the bathroom. But does his neighbour really have the idyllic life Richard imagines in the darkly humorous novel Drift Stumble Fall (Hideaway Fall, paperback £8.99 and ebook, £2.99)?
The story touches on the effect depression can have on family life. How much of the book is influenced by your own experiences?
Drift Stumble Fall is based on my own experiences to a certain extent. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, and the feelings that Richard, the lead character, experiences are loosely based on my own. I know the feeling of being trapped, wondering whether you are worthy and whether your previous choices were the best choices for the people you love. The story really developed from hearing people talk about escape and pondering how different life could have been. I find it interesting that people regularly mourn for a life they could have had, whilst they are still living in their current life and could change it at any moment if they really wished.
The protagonist, Richard, often finds himself comparing his life with that of his elderly neighbour Bill, but behind closed doors Bill has problems of his own. Is it a fatal human flaw to think the grass is always greener?
Absolutely. We are all guilty of daydreaming about moving overseas or living in the countryside or having the car that next door have just bought. We all believe that our lives could be so much different if only we had XYZ. In this novel, the lead character yearns for the life of his neighbour without even knowing what that life entails. He has literally just seen the surface, his perception, of that life and without missing a heartbeat he is clamouring to swap. This happens every single day of our lives. People want what others have without knowing exactly what they are signing up for. The cult of celebrity and modelling “perfect” lives to feed to the general public certainly doesn’t help at all. Every day people are left to feel like they are somehow failing.
The book opens with Richard’s plans to leave the monotony of family life and start again. Should the reader sympathise with him?
In my opinion, yes. It’s an interesting question, because early reviews of the manuscript left people divided as to whether they should empathise with the main character. On the one hand he is specifically planning to leave his family behind and potentially fake his own death; on the other he is a good-natured genuine father and husband. It never crossed my mind when writing the story that people wouldn’t feel for him. He is obviously suffering beneath the surface and his plans are conjured from a mind that isn’t thinking straight. As always, however, good stories will leave people divided and should inspire further conversation.
You are based in Barnsley. To what extent does the Yorkshire landscape inform your writing?
I am indeed, Barnsley being officially the centre of the universe, of course. I was born, raised and educated in Barnsley and live about two miles from my previous family home. About a mile from home is the town centre and, a mile the other way, the fields open up and you are in the middle of miles and miles of beautiful countryside. I don’t know how many times I have driven those country roads thinking and developing stories. In answer to your question, I am immediately inspired by the beauty of the area around me. Most of my stories take place in the cities, towns and villages around Yorkshire, although they are usually not identified. This is usually because I take a little bit of lots of places and mould them into one. My current manuscript, 5ive Truths, is based in and around York.
You are a mental health campaigner and give talks in schools and colleges. What should we be teaching young people about mental health?
I have spent my life surrounded by mental health issues and lost my brother to suicide in 2004. I am so pleased that finally there is a concerted effort to get mental health issues into a more public sphere. We should not be afraid to talk about these issues and my generation has the responsibility to get our children talking and being open with their feelings. A large number of the issues I hear about are feelings of isolation, loneliness and, most importantly, an individual feeling that they are the only person in the world experiencing these problems. More openness about how we feel will lead to a far better understanding of the spectrum of illnesses, which will lead to better, more sophisticated treatment. Our children should not be afraid to speak out and seek help.
Your first novel, The Radio, took almost five years to write, yet your latest novel is the fifth you have published in as many years. Did your first book open the floodgates to a wave of ideas? And what other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Very good question. I think the simple answer is that when you practice something over and over again you get better at it. The Radio was my first manuscript and I made a catalogue of errors in writing it. For example, I wrote the first chapter and then honed it night after night to make it perfect. Then I moved to chapter two and did the same. By the time I was at chapter five, parts of the story were changing, which meant I had to go back and alter chapters one to four, and so on. It was laborious. I also wrote chronologically, picking up where I left off each time. This was a waste of time, because I would have a terrible day and then find myself having to write a scene that was supposed to be joyous. Now I write what I feel and piece everything together at the end. None of the chapters are done in order. I have journals galore of new ideas for stories and constantly come up with more, so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas. I have written my sixth novel but parked it for now. At the moment, I am about three-quarters of the way through my seventh, 5ive Truths, which I am really enjoying writing. It tells the story of a famous crime author whose recent books have flopped and what it takes to capture the public’s attention once again. It’s a bit grisly and is giving me nightmares writing it! At the moment we are working on a December 2018 release.