About Tabitha

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Tabitha Suzuma is of Anglo-Japanese descent and was born in London, the eldest of five children. She attended a French school in the UK and grew up bilingual. However, she hated school and would sit at the back of the class and write stories. Aged 14, Tabitha left school against her parents' wishes. She got a job as an assistant dance teacher and also worked at a centre for children with Cerebral Palsy. She continued her education through distance learning and went on to study French Literature at King's College London. After graduating, Tabitha worked as a primary school teacher and wrote her first novel, A NOTE OF MADNESS, whilst teaching full-time. In 2004 Tabitha left classroom teaching and began to divide her time between writing and tutoring. This gave her time to write her next four novels: FROM WHERE I STAND - a psychological thriller. WITHOUT LOOKING BACK - about a family on the run. A VOICE IN THE DISTANCE - sequel to A NOTE OF MADNESS. And then her latest book, and most controversial and challenging book to date: FORBIDDEN, about consensual sibling incest: a brother and sister who fall in love. Tabitha is currently working on her sixth novel.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Favourite scenes and quotes from my favourite movie: Amadeus

 This is probably my favourite scene of all time from any movie:
Whilst plotting Mozart's death, the scheming Salieri helps a dying Mozart compose his own requiem mass

And this my second: a horrified and awe-stricken Salieri discovers the extent of Mozart's genius

Classical music has always been a huge part of my life. I started learning the violin when I was two and later taught myself to play the piano. I began teaching my brother to play when he was six months old and he is now studying at the Royal Academy of Music to become a concert pianist. As a teenager, singing was my great passion - I had weekly lessons and took part in amateur musicals. I still love to sing and regularly compete in karaoke contests or perform at friends' parties. It was perhaps no surprise then that my first novel A Note of Madness was about a teenage musical genius, and that the main character, Flynn, was loosely based on my then teenage brother.

I had been a musical child before seeing Amadeus - started the violin at two, taught myself the piano later on. But it was this film that started my life-long love affair with classical music and I remember the day I went to see it (aged 10!) as if it were yesterday. I had been invited by my mother's friend and I wasn't looking forward to it at all. I didn't want to go to see 'some boring film about a long-dead composer', but my mother thought it would be rude to cancel. Thank goodness she didn't, because that night I came out of the cinema a different person.

Salieri: While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.

Salieri: I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.

Priest: Yes, I know that! Oh, that's charming! I'm sorry, I didn't know you wrote that.
Salieri: I didn't. That was Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Priest: The man you accuse yourself of killing.
Salieri: He was my idol. Mozart... I can't think of a time when I didn't know his name.

Salieri: They showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.

Salieri: On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns - like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly - high above it - an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

Salieri: All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing...and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?

Salieri: I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.

Salieri: That was not Mozart laughing, Father... that was God!

Salieri (addressing a crucifix): From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.

Emperor: My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Count: Mozart, you are not the only composer in Vienna.
Mozart: No. But I'm the best!

Mozart: It's unbelievable, the director has actually torn up a huge section of my music. They say I have to rewrite the opera. But it's perfect as it is! I can't rewrite what's perfect!

Mozart: Sire, only opera can do this. In a play if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise, no one can understand a word. But with opera, with music - with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it's not noise, it's a perfect harmony!

Mozart: I am fed up to the teeth with elevated themes! Old dead legends! Why must we go on forever writing about gods and legends?

Salieri: So rose the dreadful ghost from his next and blackest opera. There, on the stage, stood the figure of a dead commander. And I knew, only I understood that the horrifying apparition was Leopold raised from the dead! Wolfgang had summoned up his own father to accuse his son before all the world! As I stood there understanding how that bitter old man was still possessing his poor son even from beyond the grave, I began to see a terrible way I could finally triumph over God. My plan was so simple. It terrified me. First I must get the death mass and then, I must achieve his death ... His funeral! Imagine it, the cathedral, all Vienna sitting there, his coffin, Mozart's little coffin in the middle, and then, in that silence, music! A divine music bursts out over them all. A great mass of death! Requiem mass for Wolfgang Mozart, composed by his devoted friend, Antonio Salieri! Oh what sublimity, what depth, what passion in the music! Salieri has been touched by God at last. And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at HIM!

Constanze Mozart: Why on earth won't you finish it? Can you give me one reason I can understand?
Mozart: It's killing me.

Mozart: 'Confutatis maledictis' - when the wicked are confounded. 'Flammis Acribus Adictis'. How would you translate that?
Salieri: Consigned to flames of woe.
Mozart: Do you believe in it?
Salieri: What?
Mozart: A fire which never dies, burning you forever?
Salieri: Oh yes.


Favourite quotes about madness

'In a mad world only the mad are sane.' Akira Kurosawa

'The courage of the poet is to keep ajar the door that leads into madness.' Christopher Morley

'There is no great genius without some touch of madness.' Seneca

'Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.' Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

'Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.' Voltaire

'Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those, who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in a human condition.' Graham Greene

'Sanity calms, but madness is more interesting.' John Russell

'Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.' Edgar Allan Poe

'I am interested in madness. I believe it is the biggest thing in the human race, and the most constant. How do you take away from a man his madness without also taking away his identity?' William Saroyan

'What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?' Theodore Roethke

'Pain is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria.' Naomi Wolf

'No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.' Aristotle

'What can you do against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?' George Orwell

'Insanity doesn't run in my family. It gallops.' Cary Grant

'I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.' Edgar Allan Poe

'For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.' Jean Dubuffet

'Everything great in the world is done by neurotics; they alone founded our religions and created our masterpieces.' Marcel Proust

'Insanity destroys reason, but not wit.' Nathaniel Emmons

'I quite agree with Dr. Nordau's assertion that all men of genius are insane, but Dr. Nordeau forgets that all sane people are idiots.' Oscar Wilde

'You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.' Robin Williams

'We are all born mad. Some remain so.' Samuel Beckett

'Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense.' Steve Landesberg

'Ordinarily he was insane, but he had lucid moments when he was merely stupid.' Heinrich Heine

'Truly great madness cannot be achieved without significant intelligence.' Henrik Tikkanen

'Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.' William Dement

'A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.' Nikos Kazantzakis

'The extreme limit of wisdom, that's what the public calls madness.' Jean Cocteau

'It is the act of a madman to pursue impossibilities.' Marcus Aurelius

'It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that they themselves are sane.' Ambrose Bierce

'And of course you are mad, if by a madman we mean a mind that questions and rejects every civilized norm.' Stephen Fry

'A large proportion of my best friends are a little bit crazy. … I try to be cautious with my friends who are too sane. Depression is itself destructive, and it breeds destructive impulses: I am easily disappointed in people who don't get it.' Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

'Melancholy men, of all others, are the most witty.' Aristotle

'I may be a lunatic, but then, wasn't my lunacy caused by a monster that lurks at the bottom of every human mind? Those who call me a madman and spurn me may become lunatics tomorrow. They harbor the same monster.' Akutagawa Ryunosuke

'Insight is often mistaken for madness.' Dr. Who

'Anybody remotely interesting is mad, in some way or another.' Dr. Who

'Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.' Raymond M. Weaver

'Did the hospital specialize in poets and singers, or was it that poets and singers specialized in madness?' Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted 


Favourite scenes and quotes from my favourite movie: The Hours

One of my favourite scenes: 
"If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark. And that only I can know, only I can understand my own condition. You live with the threat, you tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too. This is my right; it is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs but the violent jolt of the Capital. That is my choice. The meanest patient, yes, even the very lowest is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. I wish, for your sake, Leonard, I could be happy in this quietness. But if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death."

A woman's whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day her whole life.

Leonard, I believe I may have a first sentence.

Did it matter, then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street. Did it matter that she must inevitably cease, completely. All this must go on without her. Did she resent it? Or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? It is possible to die... It is possible to die...

It's on this day. This day of all days. Her fate becomes clear to her.

My life has been stolen from me. I'm living in a town I have no wish to live in... I'm living a life I have no wish to live... How did this happen?

If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my condition. You live with the threat, you tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too.

This is my right; it is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the capital, that is my choice. The meanest patient, yes, even the very lowest is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life.

But I still have to face the hours, don't I? I mean, the hours after the party, and the hours after that...

That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other!

He gives me that look ... to say your life is trivial. You are so trivial.

Your aunt is a very lucky woman Angelica. She has two lives. The life she is living, and the book she is writing.

I think I'm staying alive just to satisfy you.

Oh, it's about this woman who's incredibly - well, she's a hostess and she's incredibly confident and she's going to give a party. And, maybe because she's confident, everyone thinks she's fine... but she isn't...

It would be wonderful to say you regretted it! It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear ... It was death. I chose life.

Oh, Mrs. Dalloway ... Always giving parties to cover the silence.

Why is everything wrong?

Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.

- What happens when we die?
- What happens? We return to the place that we came from.

- Say something, Nessa! Didn't you think I seemed better? Do you think I may 
  one day escape?
- One day, Virginia. One day...

I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: so, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more! ... It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.

What I'm saying is that even crazy people like to be asked.

- We want everything, don't we?
- I suppose we do.

I've stayed alive for you. But now you have to let me go.

When I'm with him I feel - yes, I am living. And when I'm not with him - yes, everything does seem sort of silly.

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away.

Leonard, always the years between us, always the years. Always the love ... Always the hours.

Ed Harris as Richard Brown in The Hours

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I wanted to be a writer, that's all...

"I wanted to be a writer, that's all. I wanted to write about it all. Everything that happens in a moment. The way those flowers looked when you carried them in your arms. This towel - how it smells, how it feels, this thread, all our feelings, yours and mine. The history of who we once were. Everything in the world. Everything all mixed up. Like it's all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with it ends up being so much less. Sheer fucking pride and stupidity." The Hours (film).

Ed Harris's short monologue is one that I identify with more than any other because it reflects exactly how I feel at the end of each book: even when it's been accepted by a great publishing house, even when it's out and being stocked on the shelves, even when I receive wonderful reader-mail, even when it wins prizes ... it's never quite enough.

To quote Michael Cunningham, author of the book, The Hours:
"Any decent novelist suffers from the sense that even if the finished book turned out well, you had something greater in mind. You've been walking around with this idea in your head which is the book that contains everything you know and can imagine. The book is going to change people's consciousness, if not the actual world. But of course, even if the book does turn out really well, it's still just a book. And it's impossible not to feel disappointed in it. Artists fail. We all fail. It's never as good as you know it could be. That's part of what keeps us at it and part of what occasionally sends one of us out the window."

I hope I don't fall into the latter category but I think I oscillate to greater or lesser degrees between both camps. I always want more. The last book is good but the next one has to be even better. I win one award but now I've got to win another. You get past one hurdle and then there's another and then another. At the end of the day, you're striving to be the best - but that's unattainable, there is no 'best'. So you're reaching for the impossible. That can fuel your fire but also, ultimately, destroy you.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

We Don't Need to Bubble Wrap our Teens

Flynn - 'A Note of Madness'

I decided to start out writing for teenagers because it was during my teenage years that books helped me the most. I’d always been a book worm but as a teenager I became a book addict. Books became my refuge, a way from escaping from a world in which I was deeply unhappy. I also noticed the dearth of teen fiction at the time – most of the books for young adults were written by Americans and comprised a narrow shelf in the children’s section. This has improved but I think it’s still a problem and I’m still dismayed that bookshops don’t have a floor or a department dedicated solely to teen fiction, rather than having it incorporated in with the children’s fiction. It’s hard enough getting most teens to read with the advent of computer games and most 16-year-olds wouldn’t be caught dead browsing in the children’s section which is often where teen fiction is shelved. If anything, I think teen fiction should be in the adult fiction department – that would make it far more accessible to teens and also makes commercial sense since an increasing amount of teen books are becoming crossover books.

Adolescence is also a very exciting time – in retrospect at least – because it’s a time of change, of ending and beginnings, of confusion and intense emotion. People sometimes ask me how I get into the minds of teenage characters and the answer’s quite simple. We’ve all been teenagers and there’s still the teenager in all of us, even if it’s buried deep like one of those Russian dolls. I vividly remember what it felt like being a teen, in fact inwardly I don’t think I’ve changed so much since then, and a lot of the powerful emotions of love, fear, embarrassment, jealousy, desire that we all still experience are just more intense when you are a teen. So memories play a big part, but obviously in fiction you’re usually not writing about yourself, so that’s where imagination comes in.

Imagination isn’t something that you either have or don’t have; it’s something you can work at. Most people have a good imagination but don’t use it – either because they don’t have the time or maybe because they don’t know how to access it. Sometimes, using your imagination consists of lying on your bed in the middle of the day with your eyes closed for several hours: my family and friends call it sleeping, dossing, or pretending to work :) but actually when I come out of it, I often feel more drained and exhausted than after a whole day spent teaching. First you have to create your character and then you have to get to know your character very, very well – down to the tiniest detail, even if only a fraction of those details actually make it into the final book. That’s because in order to make your reader believe in your character, you have to believe in your character, to believe that they actually exist, even if it’s only in your own mind. And that takes a lot of imagination, time and concentration – so that’s the hard part; writing the book is relatively easy in comparison!

Most of my books are character-driven, in that I think of a character and then the story forms around that person. For example the character of Flynn came to me during a period of deep depression, when I was trudging around Helsinki, on my own, in the middle of winter, in the dark and the snow, listening to Rachmaninov on my iPod. It took me several weeks before he became a fully-fleshed, live human being, with a life of his own, friends, family, a history…and a story.

People often ask me about why I choose to write about difficult issues. The way I see it, I don’t write about particularly difficult issues: I write about what I know and what fascinates me. I like writing about real life and issues such as mental illness and emotional trauma are a part of real life. I don’t set out to inform or educate young people: I write about what I want to write, about what is meaningful to me, about a subject matter that I feel strongly about at the time. Adults have accused me of leading my teenage readers into the snake pit without always showing them the way out again - I don’t believe that it is always necessary, or my duty, to do so. I’m not writing information books, I’m writing books about life. There are plenty of self-help books out there and those aren’t the books I choose to write, although I do think that perhaps a page at the end of the book giving useful contact numbers could be a good idea. People often say that the main difference between a book for young adults and a book for adults is that a book for young adults needs to end on a note of hope, but I disagree. When I was a teenager and I read books about difficult issues, I wasn’t constantly looking for a happy ending. In fact, endless endings where everything seemed to suddenly be magically resolved used to infuriate me, because I knew that real life was often very different. Sometimes I just wanted to read real, heart-wrenching tragedy, because I knew that tragedy was a part of life too. I’ve had the same reaction from some teenagers when I’ve talked at schools – a lot of young people have said to me ‘I don’t want things to always turn out all right at the end.'

I think there is also the danger of talking down to adolescents, of patronising them. Most of them are pretty savvy, and know that in real life, stories don’t always have happy endings. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t and often it’s something in between. I think it’s important to reflect that in teenage literature and not to bubble wrap our teens.

Teenagers Reading and Writing: How Books Can Change Your Life

Aged 10 - my favourite pastime
My grandfather used to tell me stories. Stories that he made up as he went along, about two girls called Jacqueline and Eve. I was so young at the time that I can barely remember the stories now but I do remember the captivating power they had over me. When my grandfather started to talk, anything could happen, worlds could be created, adventures could materialise out of thin air and just by listening to him I could step into someone else’s life, just for an hour or so, have the most exciting adventures, and then return unharmed to the ordinary world.

Soon after, I discovered books. I discovered that there were millions of books out there for me to choose from, millions of different characters I could become, millions of different worlds I could explore. It was like being able to turn myself invisible, grow a pair of wings, and fly into another person’s house, enter another person’s mind. As a child and as a teenager, I spent most of my time reading – by day I was Tabitha and by night I was somebody else. I didn’t just have one life, I had hundreds of lives. I experienced the whole range of emotions possible to mankind, got to know many wonderful people, extraordinary people, evil people, and visited places that I’d never even heard of. I realised that books were doors and that to open a book was to open a door, and go on an incredible adventure.

Of course some books made me laugh and some made me cry, but I remember finishing one particular book late one night and hurling it across my bedroom. It was a hardback book, so I was lucky nothing got broken and nobody got hurt but that particular book made me realise that books could be as powerful, if not more powerful, than real life. I realised that books, even fiction books, were a part of real life – because they were written by real people who were using their own experiences or the experiences of others to create that story.

As a teenager, and during most of my twenties, I experienced clinical depression and so books became my refuge and an escape. I also discovered that I didn’t just have to read in order to step into another life, I could write and escape into another world too. The glory of writing was that suddenly I was the one with the power, I was the one in charge. I could make anything happen, anything I could possibly think of. I could create people out of thin air. And I found that when I let other people read my stories, I was creating worlds for them too. I could make my readers hearts pound with excitement or I could make them want to hurl a book across the room in fury. I could change my readers emotions and give them brand new experiences or take them on any journey I wanted. There were no limits, no boundaries, anything could happen. So I started to write, and by writing, I chose the characters I became and I chose the adventures that happened to me and the experiences I went through. It’s wonderful to read a book and have characters already created for you, stories already there for you to experience. But it is exhilarating to write and to be the one in control, because then really anything can happen and you are completely and utterly free.

Books don’t just change lives, they add lives, as many lives as you choose, to the one you already have. They allow you to live not only once but hundreds of times. During periods of distress, they allow you to get away from your own life and walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. Books saved my life, because there was a period when I was suffering from depression so badly that I didn’t want to live my life any more. And during that time, both reading books and writing stories allowed me to escape the life I couldn’t tolerate, and create new ones.

After spending a lot of time reading books and writing stories, I finally wrote a book of my own, A Note of Madness described as ‘A hard-hitting, rollercoaster-ride of a novel about a teenage musical genius suffering from manic depression.’ The book is about a teenager called Flynn, who is an seventeen-year-old student at the Royal College of Music in London, one of the top music conservatoires in the world. Flynn is a pianist, a very talented one, but as the story progresses, the pressures of studying, practising and performing become greater and greater, and he begins to suffer from increasingly dramatic mood swings and is eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder: a mental illness whereby your emotions swing from complete ecstasy to deep despair. The book is about Flynn’s experience of developing the illness, of trying to cope with the pressure of training to become a concert pianist and how he finally cracks, but ultimately finds a way through.

Although the book is pure fiction, the character was inspired by my  brother (also 17 at the time of writing) who is currently training to be a concert pianist at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I was inspired to write about mental illness because it is something I've lived with all my life. During my teens, reading got me through the horror of suicidal depression at its worst - the kind which makes you think you can't bear to stay alive for another day. Writing my first book gave me an outlet for my emotions, a way of expressing myself through a fictional character. It also allowed me to connect to the outside world. For every person that read the book, I felt like I was stepping out and giving them a piece of myself. In those first months of being published, knowing that other people are reading your book feels very dangerous, very scary and totally exhilarating.

Books not only gave me the chance to live many different lives but they also taught me how to write. They gave me wings so that I could fly out of my bedroom window every night and into other people's houses, other people's lives. My advice to any young budding writer is to read the books you want to read, that interest you. Find as many as you can, read as many as you can, and then write the perfect book for you.

Living with Depression

I was inspired to write books about mental illness, because it is something I have experienced first-hand, something I have grown up with, something which came very close to destroying me. As a child I hated school and spent a lot of time writing stories when I should have been listening in class. Although I didn’t realise I was depressed back then, I found the daily routine stifling and wanted to spend more and more time on my own. By the time I reached secondary school I would lock myself in the toilets at break-time just to get away from people. I felt increasingly alienated from my friends around me and out of step with the rest of my peers. I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was and I blamed myself for not being more like the others. Finally, things reached breaking point, and I quit school completely at the age of fourteen and did my GCSEs and A levels by distance learning. It was around this time that I started to write - books about mental illness and suicide - a reflection of my deeply troubled state of mind.

I studied French Literature at King’s College London and although I found the freedom of university easier to cope with than school, I was still desperately unhappy. My depression peaked in my final year, and just after graduating with a decent degree, I found myself walking around campus, looking up at the tallest buildings, trying to work out which one would guarantee me a fatal fall. In the end, I chickened out, wrote a suicide note, and instead went to bed with several bin liners tied over my head which slipped off during the night, sparing me my life.

However it wasn’t until I was twenty that I finally made the link between the horror of my existence and the term depression. I remember wanting to die for a very long time. In fact I think that wanting to die is the wrong expression. My family are all atheists, and the prospect of death was always terrifying and final. But when you are so depressed that life is completely and utterly intolerable, you see it as the only way out. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place - you’re terrified of dying, of never seeing your family again, of destroying your family as well as yourself, of the pain, of the terrible irreversibility of it all - but you know you cannot go on living. Being alive is simply, totally and absolutely unbearable and you get to the point where you would do anything, and I mean anything to make it go away.

I finally found the courage to speak out about my depression in my twenties and went to seek help. The first doctor I saw to told me I was not depressed at all. Like most severely depressed people I had become expert at hiding my emotions and so the doctor told me that there was no way a depressed person could smile and chat and be so eloquent. Instead of offering me help, he offered me a job! Being told my depression was a figment of my imagination was like a fist in the stomach. But I went on to see other doctors and was referred to counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Over the last fifteen years I have tried many different types of therapy and more than twenty different anti-depressants, many in combination, as well as anti-psychotics and mood-stabilisers. Some I've had to quit due to intolerable side-effects, some have made my condition worse, many have had no effect whatsoever. Occasionally a drug has helped for a while before wearing off. However, my official diagnosis is 'severe refractory depression with bipolar tendencies' which is rare. Most mood disorders respond well to drug and/or therapy.

Although I continue to struggle daily with the illness, I do have some good periods and writing about my experiences through my fictional characters has proved an amazingly cathartic experience. It has also allowed me to share what I have been through with others. Even though all my books are purely fictional, I draw heavily on my own experiences and this has definitely helped me make my writing more credible. Whilst in the throes of depression, I often force myself to sit down at my computer and write down exactly what I'm feeling, the exact thoughts that are going through my mind. Later, I try to incorporate those sections into the book I'm writing. Since my very first book came out, so many people have contacted me to say ‘I went through that’ or ‘it was like reading a book about myself.’ This allows me to talk about my own struggle with clinical depression and for readers to tell me about theirs. It has been an absolute revelation to discover there are so many people who suffer or have suffered from some form of mental health problem and it has been so reassuring to realise that not only am I not alone, but I am actually in extremely good company! Mental illness is alienating by definition. Breaking out of that bubble and making contact with other sufferers is an enormous and crucial first step.

Mental illness is still a taboo subject, however it is a biologically-based brain disorder which cannot be overcome through will-power and is not related to a person's character or intelligence. The simple fact is that mental-illness is rapidly on the increase and is fast becoming a massive problem in today’s high-pressured society. A staggering one in four people suffer from some kind of mental illness, 20 per cent of all deaths by young people are by suicide, and suicide is the most common form of death in men aged under 35. In this country alone, there are estimated to be 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents each year, which is one attempt every 20 minutes.

It has been a long road, shuffled from doctor to doctor and from therapist to therapist and trying just about every medication in the book, and I only wish I had told someone about my feelings sooner. But I hold out good hope that I will eventually be free of this illness: advances in the treatment of mental health problems are being made all the time. Nowadays, the vast majority of people who seek help get better very quickly and there really is a lot of help available out there if you have the courage to speak out.

* If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, there are many sources of help available. Depression is an illness, and like most illnesses it can be treated and cured. But you have to speak out. This is the only way to get help. If you often feel unhappy, you need to speak to an adult. You could speak to a parent, a guardian, a foster parent, a teacher, a friend’s parent, a doctor, a school nurse, an adult you trust, or contact one of the organisations listed below. Millions of people in the UK and all over the world suffer from a mental illness. You are not alone.

* If you need help, call CHILDLINE on 0800 1111 at any time day or night.
Alternatively, contact THE SAMARITANS on 08457 90 90 90 at any time day or night.
If you think you might be suffering from a mental health problem, or if you just want to learn more about mental health, please visit this website: Young Minds.
The following websites also contain a wealth of information: Saneline and Rethink.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why I Chose to Write a Book About Incest

It wasn’t an easy decision. When I first decided to take the plunge and write a love story between a brother and sister, I was, quite frankly, terrified. My first concern was that it would be dismissed out of hand as an unsuitable subject for teenagers. My second, that it would have to be so heavily censored that the physical side of the relationship would be glossed over, rendering the story over-romanticized and unrealistic. My third concern was that teenagers themselves would be put off – looking at their own brothers or sisters and feeling disgusted at the mere thought. It was a book that I wasn’t sure would ever be published, let alone sell, so I was full of trepidation as I embarked on what would turn out to be one of the most difficult journeys of my life. But despite these concerns, I was determined. I craved the challenge of writing a book about a subject that was universally seen as twisted and disgusting, and making it romantic and heart-wrenching by almost forcing the reader to fall in love with the two main protagonists so that they would feel their pain and understand what it might be like to be in such a situation. Most of all I wanted to show teenagers that this could happen to anyone – even them.

Three of my previous books have been about characters battling mental illness, and in many ways Forbidden was not such a huge departure from that: the idea that anyone can suddenly be struck down by a mental illness, that there isn’t an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, that people don’t choose to be ‘normal’ any more than people choose to be ‘abnormal’ – that it’s all about luck: upbringing, genes, brain chemistry, life circumstances . . .

I decided that I wanted my next book to be a love story – a tragic love story: star-crossed lovers who had to fight against the world to be together but were ultimately torn apart. I wanted to write a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, and I tried to think of a situation that would force two lovers apart despite their every effort to stay together. I had one basic stipulation – that the book had to be set in contemporary Britain . . . But therein lay my problem: what situation would totally and absolutely prevent two people in love from being together? Religion, culture, age-difference, teacher–pupil all crossed my mind, but as my protagonists needed to be older teens in order for their love to be taken seriously, there was always the option of eloping, running away from families or a community that condemned their relationship. I had to come up with something stronger. I had to think of something that would be universally condemned. So it was by a process of elimination that I ended up with incest: the last taboo, something that would never be accepted by the outside world; something that instantly provokes in people such strong feelings of disgust. We are biologically wired to react strongly against the mere idea of being romantically and sexually involved with a sibling or any close family member. For good reason of course: interbreeding usually produces deformities in any offspring. So our reaction is Darwinian and innate. But, like a mental illness, things can go wrong – biologically or circumstantially or both.

About a year earlier I had toyed with the idea of writing a book about child carers, having been one myself. Young people can be forced to become carers when a parent becomes ill or disabled, or are neglected by their parents to the point where they have to fend for themselves and younger siblings at the most basic level. This latter scenario was the one that struck a chord in me. Growing up as the eldest of five with an abusive and absent father and an overworked mother, I always had difficulty making friends at school, instead turning to my brothers and sisters. When my fourth sibling was born – a brother, fourteen years my junior – I happily took over the role of main carer. I left school the week he was born, and from then on did the school run and the morning and bedtime routines – recognizing his extraordinary musical talent when he was only ten months old and teaching him the piano. I thought of him as my son; I wanted him to be my son. I even changed his name! My sister, too, ten years my junior, spent the first year of her talking life calling me ‘Mummy’.

I realized that here were circumstances exceptional enough to feed an incestuous relationship – and the story of a carer to younger siblings was the most natural and easiest for me to write. With two child carers sharing the responsibility of parents, I could see how they might come to love and support and depend on each other in a way that the average brother and sister do not – the absence of parental love and the huge demands and responsibilities placed upon them pulling them close. In these circumstances they might seek comfort in each other, becoming isolated from the outside world and sharing a difficult and stressful existence that only they could understand, ultimately drawing them together into an inevitable but doomed romantic relationship.