Your book deals with some heavy and taboo subjects: self harm, depression, sociopaths… can you tell me a bit about your choice of these topics?
Haha, who is the sociopath? Is it Sam or Steph?! I suppose I should say something like I’m this tortured artist with lots of experience of self-harm and mental illness, but I’m not. The self harm aspect actually came from something really mundane; I bite my nails really badly (in fact, I pick them with pins! Hardcore) so I am often rummaging in the First Aid Kit at work for plasters. I noticed there were some weird and wonderful things in there and wondered what the point of them was, and the idea stemmed (!) from there. I have personal and family experience of mental illness and depression but nothing as extreme as this.
Do you think these are important subjects to bring to the light?
I do, but it isn’t a political book. I’m not making a specific statement about self harm. It’s more of a metaphor for her mental state. Which is what self harm is anyway. I did do some research on self harm message boards. I spoke to a few people and was quite shocked that there were galleries on these sites where girls (primarily) showed off their scars and discussed methods. It was like being on a messageboard for a band, but they were worshiping at the altar of their own suffering. That sounds a bit wanky. It was horrible, anyway.
Why do you think it’s important to push the boundaries in storytelling?
I don’t think that at all. You must tell whatever story is in you. Any boundaries are self-imposed so pushing them would be useless. Just ignore them.
You started working for Samaritans after you wrote this book, and learnt there that there are media guidelines which encourage the press not to report details self-harm because of research that shows this can provoke copycat situations, particularly amongst young audiences. How did this affect the way you see your book (if it did)? Do you think there’s a place for conflict between fiction and reporting?
What we do at Samaritans with regards to our media guidelines is extremely important. Newspapers have a responsibility not to be irresponsible, and in fact it’s one area where Samaritans do have some control over the media. But we cannot influence art or we’ll end up banning Romeo and Juliet. It made me wary that when people read my book at work I might get into trouble. But I wasn’t going to go back and censor my book. I would have had to delete the whole thing! I don’t think Steph is a hero anyone would copy. It’s obvious that she’s drowning. And hopefully, although you root for her, no one would aspire to be her.
Who do you feel this book is ‘for’? Eg when you were writing it, did you have any one or any group of people in mind that you wanted to leave an impact on?
No writer should ever think about that when writing a book, in my opinion. I always write for myself. The audience will find itself if the work is strong enough. This is probably why I’m still broke.
What’s the impact you want/hope the book to have on someone reading it?
That they enjoy it and think it was worth reading.
Do you see any of yourself in Steph?
Of course there are elements of myself in Steph. She is a very exaggerated version of me. I’m not Steph but I could have been – especially if I’d stayed in a certain job a few years back.
The book takes on an almost oppressive style of running Monday to Friday, week after week, and we never get to see Steph ‘off duty’ at the weekends. Was this deliberate?
Very. I wanted the style to be oppressive. I wanted her home life and past to remain very much a mystery. I didn’t want her to have some Simon Cowell style ‘sob story’ – although there’s the tiniest hint at one point. I deliberately wasn’t explicit about where she worked or what her job was as I wanted the reader to feel it could be any place, any job, relatable. For a long time I didn’t even give the main character a name, but that proved quite impractical.
Where did you/do you draw your inspiration from?
Reality and misery, usually. I’d prefer to have a more fantastical imagination but my ideas seem rooted in the mundane.
Although the book deals with serious issues, it’s also darkly humorous. Did you always want it to have that comedy side?
I never intended that, but I didn’t intend for it to be some misery-fest either. I think there’s always humour even in the grimmest things I write otherwise it would just be a drag. I always read out something really horrible at the writing group I go to and then laugh at the end! Some people have read the book now and have come up to me and told me it’s hilarious. I find that quite weird as I see it as tragic.
In the blurb about your book, you say ‘for anyone who has ever wanted to kill everyone they work with’. Would you recommend anyone who is unhappy in their job to write a book?
No, I’d recommend they get a new job. Not everyone can write a book. But most writers write to get pain out.
Why doesn’t Steph get out of her job, do you think?
I almost feel like it’s never occurred to her, although it does at times in the book, but I think it just feels like too much for her to cope with. I always wondered if readers would get behind her, or if people would just get frustrated with her and think ‘why don’t you just get a new job?’ I hope readers understand why it’s not that easy for her. It’s like saying to someone, ‘why don’t you just run a marathon?’ She just doesn’t have it in her.
When did you first start writing? Was it an outlet, something that just came naturally, something you fell into?
I have written since I was three years old. I have boxes and boxes of my old stories from that time, stapled together on post-it notes, and with illustrations, too. Luckily I’ve given up the drawing. Then I went onto the usual tormented poetry and all that. I had a very vivid imagination as a child – I find it harder now. Most writers find it a struggle, I think. That’s the joy of it!
What do you like most about writing?
Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and it has kept me sane. Even if something awful happens, I think ‘well, at least I can write about it.’ I almost hope something awful will happen so I can write about it.
Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
No! But I remember I used to get my friend to give me a subject to write a poem about at school and I’d write her a poem, pretty much on a daily basis. Such a show off.
When did you realise that being a ‘writer’ was something you wanted to aspire to?
I’ve always just been a writer. My boyfriend disagrees with me, but I say you either are a writer or you aren’t. It’s not something you pick up. It’s not a hobby. It’s in you or it’s not. It’s more of an affliction than a leisure pursuit. No sane person would take it up by choice. Most writers feel guilty when they’re not writing – I definitely do.
As well as books, you’ve had poetry published, have your own TV blog and you help run a writing group. Which style of writing do you get the most satisfaction over? Where would you like it to all lead?
I don’t mind. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy. I like writing in all different styles. I also write for a living, so you think I’d probably be sick of it, but I’m not. I really enjoy writing my blog because it’s just opinions on a page and doesn’t need an edit. First Aid Kit Girl required years of slog! But of course you get the most satisfaction from that once it’s in your hand.
Your book and poems have a very different feel to your blog. Do you think that the different formats help you tap into different emotions or that one style of format lends itself better to a particular kind of thought process than another?
I just think people just have different sides to their character. I can be very silly and very opinionated but with my fiction writing I try harder to write the best sentence possible. I go over it again and again.
Who are your favourite authors? Do you read a lot? Do you think you need to read a lot to become a good writer?
I do think you need to read a lot to be a good writer, and I don’t read nearly enough. I could blame modern technology but I think I’m just lazy. I used to read constantly. My friend’s reading list puts me to shame. My favourite writers are all sort of dystopian misery guts; Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palahunik and Irvine Welsh. My favourite writer has only ever written two books, though, and that’s Carol Topolski. I think her debut novel Monster Love is the best book I’ve ever read; truly chilling but almost a love story at the same time. She has a really smart turn of phrase, too – I’m envious of her. I wonder why she’s not very prolific and it gives me hope! I also read a lot of Morrissey books. Every Morrissey book that comes out, even though I know it all! If you’ve ever read Morrissey and Marr, you’ll know it’s like doing an A Level in Morrissey. That’s my sort of thing.
Tell me a bit about your course in Creative Writing at Middlesex. How helpful was it?
Extremely. It was initially writing and publishing but I specialised in creative writing. It beat all the clichés out of me. I learnt all the obvious stuff like show and not tell, but it was brilliant. The image and imagination section was so useful, reading stuff like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and seeing how a banana could be described so exotically really surprised me. It’s not my style of writing but it showed me what was possible. I wrote a novella about a girl with a terminal illness where she can’t sleep, and having a deadline forced me to finish it. The course was also really fun. As part of a group we wrote a sitcom called Studmuffins which was about a bakery which was next door to a sex shop, but the joke was that all the dirty stuff happened in the bakery, not the sex shop. Unfortunately, that was our only joke, but it was a good one. It’s really hard to write scripts, and to write by committee, actually! I think I can only write comedy unintentionally. I also wrote my dissertation on Eastenders, which I enjoyed, although I’ve given up watching it now – terrible writing.
You’re book has been described as a ‘darker Bridget Jones’ – how do you react to that? Is it good/bad? Would you liken it to anything else you’ve read?
I’ve not read Bridget Jones, and I wouldn’t touch it, but I take it as a compliment because I think it’s a comment on the internal monologue, not the rubbishy romances. The same person said Catcher in the Rye but I wouldn’t be so bold. It’s just one voice, one perspective, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like it. I like books and TV all set in one place or one room. It makes me feel safe.
Where do you want to go next? In a fantasy world, I would love to be a novelist and a TV columnist. But to be honest, my life’s work is done. I’ve got my book out. I’m happy.