Writing always accrues detritus so here’s some bits and pieces from Glitterland.
- Alternative titles for Ash’s first novel
- Extended chapter three
- Original cover
- Musings on the phonetic Essex dialect
- The Least Dangerous Game (the notorious Nabble board)
- What Long Strange Trip It’s Been (thinking about the choices I made in writing Glitterland)
- Assorted blog posts and interviews
I’ve always worked to music, and it turns out writing is no exception. I have a playlist for every book I write, usually about 20-50 songs long, depending on the length of the book. They’re not necessarily good songs, or even songs I personally like, but they’re the songs that feel right for the story or the characters or inspire a certain mood in me, and I literally only to listen to them when I’m writing that particular book. Of course, only when I’m writing a particular book means, in practice, every day for several months. It drives my partner absolutely batshit. Apparently it’s like a particularly sadistic form of Pavlovian conditioning. While I was writing GLITTERLAND, H was playing Xcom and now feels a terrible desire to shoot aliens every time Comfortably Numb comes on. Now I stop to think about it, I suppose it’s possible I’m Pavlovianly conditioning myself to write particular things when I hear particular songs. Which probably isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The playlist for GLITTERLAND turned out to be a bit of an odd one because Ash and Darian are such very different characters and I wanted the music to represent them both. Initially, I intended to alternate between an Ash song and a Darian song but, because Ash needed serious misery music and Darian was obviously all about the joyful cheese, I nearly gave myself a meltdown. I was basically spending three minutes weeping on the floor, then the next three minutes getting down with my bad self, and then back on the floor again until I got emotional whiplash.
So now the first half of the playlist is Ash songs, and the second half is Darian’s music, and it pivots around Bliss by Muse in the middle. That transitions me, with most of my sanity intact, from woe to elation, and I think it’s a good song for the way Ash feels about Darian:
Everything about you is how I wanna be
Your freedom comes naturally
Everything about you resonates happiness
Now I won’t settle for less
Also, the music video is adorably early 2000s and seems to involve Matt Bellamy throwing himself into a hole in the universe.
Obviously I won’t go on about every song on the list, but I’ll pick out a couple of my favourites. From Ash’s segment, I think one of the most devastating songs on there is The Letter by Kristin Hersh. I actually find it hard to listen to when I don’t have something else to concentrate on because it’s so utterly raw, lyrically and musically, stripped down to a breaking voice and a single acoustic guitar. It makes me a little bit breathless and a little bit weepy with, y’know, feeling stuff.
There are actually three versions of this song, and this one, from her debut solo album, Hips and Makers, is my favourite. Kristin Hersh is herself a bipolar depressive, and an incomparable artist and, although a lot of her early music touches upon her illness, I think The Letter is perhaps the most explicit exploration of it. Addressed to herself, and to her depression, it’s a desperate, haunting stream of consciousness, a paradoxical acceptance of the contradictions of her illness and a prayer for sanity she can’t believe will ever be answered:
Don’t kill the god of sadness
Just don’t let her get you down
See the man inside this book I read can’t handle his own head
So what the hell am I supposed to do ?
Gather me up because I’m lost
Or I’m back where I started from
I’m crawling on the floor rolling on the ground
I’m gonna cry you look for me
The other song that really stands out for me is After All by Dar Williams. I find Dar Williams pretty variable in general. She either leaves me completely cold or completely shattered (When I was a Boy, though, is … just … perfect) and After All, which, for me, is the standout track of her album The Green World, is one of the latter. It’s another song that directly explores the artist’s experience with depression but whereas The Letter is about despair, I think After All is about hope, however fragile. Williams delicately traces her journey from contemplating suicide to, well, not doing that.
But, what really works for me about this, is that Williams articulates a middle step not often addressed, which is that choosing not to die is not the same as choosing to live, and that actually the journey between suicide and life is (or can be) a journey of many subtle stages, none of which can feel particularly triumphant:
And when I chose to live
There was no joy
It’s just a line I crossed
I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost
So I was not lost or found
As GLITTERLAND opens, this is where I feel Ash is, just on the edge of that thin grey line. There’s a failed suicide attempt in his semi-recent past, which has left him in a strange non-space of having chosen to die and failed, but he hasn’t really chosen to live either. His relationship with Darian is part of what leads him towards life again. And that moment of finding meaning and beauty in the world again Williams articulates absolutely perfectly, the rush of forgotten feeling that is at once unbearably painful and unbelievably joyful:
Well the sun rose
So many colors, it nearly broke my heart
It worked me over like a work of art
And I was part of all that.
Or if you use Spotify you can get the link here.
By Any Other Name
There are a few references to Ash’s first book scattered through Glitterland – a horribly pretentious little piece of magical realism, which was probably about being gay and a genius in the early 2000s. I ended up calling it The Smoke is Briars. But there was a pretty hefty short-list of potential titles. To be honest, I probably spent longer pondering the name of Ash’s imaginary book than the real book I actually wrote. But I knew Glitterland was going to be called Glitterland pretty much before I knew anything else about it (which was really odd because normally I’m running around in circles shrieking that I need a name, any name).
Anyway, I’ve dug them out my notes, and I present them here for your entertainment. I should write one of these. For sure. I would totally win the Booker.
Lead and Gold
The Leaden Echo, and the Gold
Beauty in the Ghost
Fell of Dark
The Sights My Heart Saw
Longer Light’s Delay
Bitter Would Have Me Taste
Our Sweating Selves
Only in Time
The Stillness of the Violin
Sudden In A Shaft Of Sunlight
Figured In A Drift Of Stars
The Stillness and the Dancing
The Smoke is Briars
A More Complicated Pattern
The Sea Has Many Voices
The Wild Thyme Unseen
The Spectre Of A [The] Rose.
Prayers To Broken Stone
The Valley of Dying Stars
Like To A Little Kingdom
The Violet Hour
Red and Gold, the Gilded Shell
All the Devils
The Root Of All Heartache
A Brittle Glory
Extended Chapter 3
In chapter 3, Ash meets up with Amy on his way to his book signing. I like Amy, so I was inclined to give her more page time than she actually needed. This conversation ended up dragging on a bit, and I’m glad I cut it … but here it is anyway, full-length, for them as care:
I met Amy, as arranged, at the Three Crowns. It claimed to be a traditional English pub, which meant dark wood and warm beer. Not that I would be drinking. Not after Brighton.
Stitch on, lunatic.
Amy was sitting at a table in the dingiest corner, sipping a pint and reading on her iPad. I had a terrible record for showing up to things, but she still hadn’t given up on me. I couldn’t tell if that made her stubborn, foolish, or . . . nice.
“Hey you,” she said, jumping up and hugging me. I gave her an awkward squeeze. “Extravagant air kiss . . . mwah, darling . . . mwah. . .”
This was another fossil of a joke. I couldn’t remember where it’d come from. I had a horrible feeling it might have been me.
Leaning in, I went through the motions. Mwah. Mwah. Sigh.
“And I bought you a drink. Full-fat Coke, not diet, on the rocks, with lime not lemon.”
“Thank you.” I sat down, unbuttoning my coat and unwinding my scarf.
“It’s okay.” She smiled at me. “You’re a cheap date. It’s one of the things I like about you.”
“What about my swashbuckling charm and pretty face?”
“Went without saying, sweetie.”
I took a sip of my Coke to hide a smile. Amy was the sort of woman who occasionally made me wish I weren’t gay and clinically insane. She was pretty in what I thought was probably an Elizabeth Bennet sort of way: lively eyes, wicked smile.
“It’s colder than Satan’s arsecrack out there,” she went on cheerfully. “Where’s the bloody spring gone? How’ve you been?”
I hesitated, weighing fact and fiction, pride and friendship. “Well, truthfully, not entirely great. But I’m okay now.”
“Yeah, I heard about Brighton.”
Well, this was likely to be awkward. “Oh?” I adopted what I hoped was a neutral tone.
She nodded. “Max told me.” There was a pause. “Everything.”
Yes, this was definitely awkward, and there was only so much mileage I could get out of “oh.”
She ruffled a hand through her hair. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to dump shit on you. Shall we talk about how everyone loves the new Rik Glass instead?”
“God, no.” I recoiled in revulsion. “You know I hate talking about my books. Also, you can dump shit on me. Figurative shit, anyway.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll tell you straight away if my mental health starts to buckle under the weight of your emo.”
“Don’t be an arse.” She rapped the table in a manner that suggested it was substituting for my head. “I didn’t mean it like that. Even non-depressed people have a right not be whinged at.”
“I’m consenting, meaningfully, to be a whinge recipient.”
Maybe this was why I liked Amy. She was very good at making me feel like I might be salvageable. That I could be something other than a burden to someone. That I might be . . . all right.
“Okay.” She folded her elbows on the table and took a deep breath. “It’s, well, it’s about Niall. I mean, trying to shag Max on his stag night was kind of not okay with me. But, equally, I know you guys all go way back and I don’t want to be some kind of evil-bitch, straight-girl stereotype.”
“I think,” I said slowly, “it’s pretty reasonable to prefer that your partner isn’t, uh, fucking someone else, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.”
She shrugged. “Well. Max is a grownup. I mean, he wasn’t lying there thinking of Brighton. But the way I see it, if he wanted to be with Niall, he’d be with Niall.”
Sometimes the simplest truths could be the most difficult. I suppose it depended which side of them you were on. “I’m pretty sure he wants to be with you, Amy.”
She nodded. “Yeah, me too. It’s just Niall makes him miserable about it.”
“Couldn’t you set up some kind of, uh—” I made a distinctly ill-advised gesture with my straw. “—timeshare arrangement?”
“Hah, we talked about it years ago,” she said, grinning. “But Max isn’t up for it. And it’s not because he’s stuck in conventional notions of relationship blah, he’s just not in love with Niall.”
“I know that. You know that. Max knows that. The only person who doesn’t know that is Niall.”
“So.” She huffed out a sigh. “I don’t know what to do. There’s no point being cross about it, but I don’t like seeing Max unhappy and I certainly don’t like him sleeping with other people out of a sense of guilt and obligation. I mean,” she added thoughtfully, “if he’s going to cheat on me it ought to be fun, right?”
“You raise a . . . a . . . point.”
She laughed. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Possibly.” I shrugged. “It’s a mess.”
Amy was quiet for a moment or two, her finger tracing a succession of fading abstracts in a puddle of spilled beer, while I tried to come up with something useful and/or comforting to say to her and failed on both counts. I couldn’t tell if it was because the problem was complicated and insoluble, or if I was just hopeless. Some friend. Some lover. I couldn’t even indulge in a one-night stand without having a panic attack. And here I was thinking about myself, as usual.
Amy looked up and sighed. “It just feels like whatever happens, someone is going to get hurt. I’m not mad keen on that.”
“No, but that’s just the way it is, sometimes.”
We stared moodily into our drinks.
“Did happiness always used to be this complicated?” Amy asked after a bit.
I shrugged. “I have no idea. Happiness and I are barely on speaking terms these days.”
Her eyes held mine for a moment. There was pity there, which of course I hated, but also warmth. I waited for the clumsy platitude, but I had, as ever, underestimated Amy.
“Oooh, I’ll show you some happiness.” She slid her phone over the table. “Look. My wedding dress!”
I spared it a brief glance. “Yes, that’s definitely a dress.”
“Such a curmudgeon.” She glared at me in mock displeasure.
With an exasperated noise, I reached out, took the phone, and looked at the photograph. A smiling woman in a white frock; seen one, you’ve seen them all. Except, no, it was different. It was Amy.
“You look pretty. And happy.”
“Not half as happy as the sales assistant standing next to me. You wouldn’t believe what a wedding dress costs.”
“No,” I said firmly. “I wouldn’t.”
She laughed. “Curmudgeon.” She pulled her phone out of my hands and stuffed it back into her pocket, signalling that I was relieved of my wedding-related conversational duties. “Anyway, what happened to you in Brighton? Max said you pulled.”
“Oh . . . err . . .” An absolutely scalding blush burst across my face. As far as I was concerned, what happened in Brighton stayed in Brighton. “I didn’t think he’d seen. I barely spoke to him, actually. I’m shitty like that.”
If Amy noticed my inept attempt to deflect the topic of conversation back to Max, she still let me get away with it. “He’s more perceptive than he lets on. And he does care about you.”
“I know he does.” I hesitated, wondering how best to articulate something awkward. “It’s just, Niall is sort of the lynchpin. He’s the thing we have in common. Not that he’s a thing. But Max is almost like a . . . a . . . friend-in-law. Or something.”
She grinned at me over her pint of John Smiths. “Also, he’s really scary.”
“God, he is! Why are you marrying such a disgustingly perfect specimen of manhood?”
“I have really terrible taste. I should find some kind of broken, insecure, miserable weasel-type man with a tiny cock, right?”
I spread my hands. “Look no further. Um, except for the cock part. I’m phenomenally well-endowed.”
Her smile vanished. “Ash,” she said softly. My hands were resting on the table top, carefully placed so my cuffs didn’t drag in any beer rings, and Amy covered them with hers. It was nice, for about half a second, and then it was too much, even from Amy, so I shook her off. “You’re not broken. And everybody’s insecure. Even Max, would you believe it.” She paused. “You do have a touch of the weasel though.”
“I think it’s that intent, curious, dark-eyed look you have. It’s a bit musteline.”
I gaped at her, speechless, and she burst out laughing. Her laugh was nothing like my glitter pirate’s laugh, but the easy joy in it made my memories chime like bells. I felt a sudden, sharp pang of something almost like loss.
Before I had to wonder about it, my phone beeped a warning.
“Well.” I finished the watery dregs of my Coke and stood. “You may give thanks that you’re spared my withering and soul-destroying retort because I need to go.”
Amy gave me the “Be seeing you” wave. “Best of luck. And try to have fun.”
“Fun?” I gave a fastidious shudder. “Reading one of my own books? Why don’t you put me down for a colonic irrigation at the same time?”
I struggled into my coat, wound myself into my scarf, and headed out into the cold.
While it wasn’t the first book I wrote, Glitterland was the first novel I had published. I wasn’t sure what it would lead to, or what would be possible, so–while I had ideas and hopes for a series–it was initially published as a standalone.
‘Spires’ has quite a distinct look and the original cover of Glitterland didn’t match that, hence the re-cover.
But for those who miss it, here it is, in all its shiny, big-haired glory:
The Only Way is Essex
“I’m not really from arand ’ere,” he volunteered. No shit. Brighton was the gay capital of England. No one here was from around here. Besides, with the spray tan and the accent, he might as well have been wearing a sticker that read I’m from Essex, ask me how. “I’m staying wif a mate.”
He seemed to know where we were going, at least. We crossed the road and cut through a park, Brighton’s pale Georgian buildings gleaming on all sides.
“You don’t say a lot,” he observed.
“I have nothing to say.”
“Pity, you sahnd well nice.” Oh, that glottal stop. Pih-e.
“You said I sounded like the Queen ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah, but like,” a thoughtful pause, “sexy wif it.”
One of the elements of Glitterland that attracted the most comment (both positive and negative) was Darian’s dialect. Because the book was so resolutely narrated from Ash’s perspective, I felt that it was very important to give Darian his own distinctive voice, and a big part of that was to try to capture the patterns and rhythms of his Essex accent.
I was aware from the outset that this was going to present me with problems. There were logistical issues to think about – like making sure that an audience which would predominantly consist of non-Brits would actually be able to understand what was being said – but at least as important to me were what you might call the social issues. Language is profoundly political and it’s very easy, when portraying a non-standard accent, to think of it as just being a layer of “mistakes” applied over the top of standard pronunciation, rather than as a something complete and self-consistent.
There’s a nasty tendency to assume that people who speak with an accent (particularly an accent that is denigrated or associated with a class of people widely considered to be uneducated or shallow) do so out of simple ignorance and that their deviations from standard pronunciation are merely errors. Starting from this assumption, it becomes very tempting to try to represent the accent by simply spelling words incorrectly. Bad spelling = bad writing = bad speech = regional accent. Job done. Obviously I don’t actually think like that on a conscious level, but linguistic prejudice is a deeply ingrained part of my culture, and it took me a couple of passes of the text to weed out all of the examples of what I came to think of as the “wrong = wrong” school of accent transcription.
For example, Darian would almost certainly pronounce the word “what” with a glottal-stop. Now the glottal-stop is actually a very common part of the English language, even Standard British English and even, in some contexts, Standard American English this edition of SMBC points out) but because our spelling system was inherited from the Phoenecians via the Ancient Greeks via the Romans, it isn’t easy to represent in print. For several drafts, I had Darian saying “wot” but eventually I realised that this was absurd. The standard spelling of the word “what” in no way reflects its modern pronunciation in pretty much any dialect (I understand that it’s a holdover from the Anglo-Saxon “Hwæt” in which the “h” would have been sounded and the “æ” would have been pronounced as the short “a” in “cat”). Conversely the “wot” spelling reflects modern received pronunciation perfectly (or at least as perfectly as can be given the English language’s notoriously non-phonetic spelling system). The “wot” spelling didn’t convey any information at all about the way Darian’s accent actually sounded. It just indicated that Darian was uneducated (because “wrong” spelling means “wrong” speaking means “wrong” accent). So I went back to the standard spelling.
Obviously there were some things I did keep. I kept “f” for “th” in a number of places because it’s quite iconic of the accent – it’s also quite a deprecated pronunciation. I remember a discussion with a group of colleagues over lunch in which they expressed – in the same conversation – their outrage at a Yorkshire headmaster who had tried to teach his students to pronounce the word “bath” with a long “a” and their despair at parents in Essex who teach their children to pronounce the word “Thursday” with an initial “f”.
I kept “ahwight” which again I thought was iconic, and as much a dialect term as a variant spelling. I also kept “evva” for “ever” which, again, I felt was strangely important even though – like “wot” – the standard spelling doesn’t really reflect standard pronunciation. I think I thought “evva” and “nevva” were important because Darian uses them a lot when he’s talking about things which are important to him (things he’s “nevva” done or that are the best “evva”), and so I thought it grounded key elements of the dialogue in Darian’s voice and dialect without adding so much non-standard spelling as to be distracting.
This is probably a slightly spurious analogy, but I recently rewatched The Empire Strikes Back, and I was surprised at how straightforward Yoda’s speech is. Most of the things he says to Luke are actually in perfectly standard English, but the script gives him just enough variation to make his speech patterns distinctive so that, in retrospect, it feels like he every line in the wrong order delivered. I think I was aiming for something similar with Darian (although that isn’t to suggest that being from Essex is the same as being from Dagobah) – to use just enough non-standard vocabulary and spelling that it created a real sense of identity, while leaving the majority of his dialogue in completely standard English.
I have no idea if I actually succeeded – and ultimately that’s a call for the individual reader.
The Least Dangerous Game
“Nabble is the opposite of Scrabble. Basically you can only play words that aren’t in the dictionary. It’s really simple. Any made-up word counts, assuming you have the letters, and somewhere to place them, and you can make a case for what the word means. But if it’s not convincing, then it gets disqualified.”
— Ash, explaining Nabble, somewhere in the middle of GLITTERLAND
It has often been said that it is the little things that matter, and this is particularly true in a work of fiction. If one is reading a book and something happens in that book which you feel is not the sort of thing that should have been able to happen in the kind of book that you are reading, the whole illusion can be shattered, and your disbelief, willingly though it was suspended will come crashing down upon you like an unpleasantly large drinks bill.
Imagine my shock, then, when just as the final touches were being put on Glitterland, just as the final copy edits were being finished, and I was starting to feel like my role in the long and arduous process of publishing a novel was coming to an end, I received an email from my editor at approximately 4am my time with a subject line that read something like: “OH MY GOD ERROR IN GLITTERLAND.”
I freaked out. I had absolutely no idea what could possible have gone wrong. I’d been over every word in that manuscript a dozen times, and I could think of nothing that I could possibly have missed. I shook myself awake and through a drowsy haze read the rest of the email. It turned out that my publisher’s mother had read the book, and she had been shocked to notice that there were, apparently, three K tiles used in the Scrabble scene.
There’s always something, isn’t there.
And yes, I have a confession to make, gentle readers. Although Nabble is a real game – one I played at university with my friends after I got sick at their continually beating me at conventional Scrabble (as Ash observes in the book, Scrabble is at its heart a numbers game, not a words game) – the actual game of Nabble that Ash and Darian play in the book was not actually derived from a real life instance of gameplay and yes, I fear I did take a certain creative liberties with the actual rules of the came and the composition of the set in order to produce a result which sounded pleasant and provided the narrative effect I was looking for.
However, I do feel that my reputation has been somewhat maligned here (and you cast aspersions on an Englishman’s Scrabble-playing at your peril) and so I did go back to the text and make certain that the Nabble game which Ash and Darian play was indeed legal and possible using a conventional scrabble set. I admit that my editor’s mother was right, and the game does fall apart around flinkling (although I ran out of Fs rather than Ks), but I like to imagine that at this point in the game Ash and Darian had started just throwing words at one another flirtatiously, rather than actually trying to lay tiles out on the board.
So, in order that none may ever again question the plausibility and viability of the Scrabble scene, I present a full, unexpurgated, blow-by-blow replay of the Nabble game played by Darian and Ash in Glitterland, complete with pictorial evidence. The text only includes Darian’s moves, meaning that I had to add Ash’s words retrospectively. None the less, it does all work, and it works like this:
- Ash opens with kewde. Uncertain or uneasy. “I was feeling a little kewde.”
- Darian plays glink, using the K in kewde.
- Ash responds with didecue. A form of ornate ceiling moulding. “Notice the remarkably well preserved seventeenth century didecues.”
- Darian plays gloffle, using the E in didecue.
- Ash plays gadjorim. Yorksire dialect, the rubber or wax seal on a jar of jam. “Pass me a knife, I need to get this gadjorim off so I can have my tea.”
- Darian plays mooshes from the M in gadjorim.
- Ash plays thoz. A farrier’s tool. “He hefted his thoz in his hand, and brought it down on the glowing metal.” Ash was being a little bit competitive here, notice that he managed to get an H and a Z on a triple world score.
- Not to be outdone, Darian plays rapazzled, using the Z in thoz, with a blank making up the second Z.
- Ash responds with pinstier. More pinsty. “I say, you’re looking a good deal pinstier than you did this time yesterday.”
- Darian trimphantly plays quimpet, using the P in pinstier, and getting a Q, and M and a P all on a triple word.
- Ash plays svlenky using the L in gloffle, and the game disintegrates.
At close of play, the board looks like this:
I confess that I did not take the time to work out the final score, but I rather think that Ash and Darian didn’t either.
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
You know, publishing a book is really weird. I don’t think anything quite prepares you for just how weird it is. I mean, I love the writing part. I mean, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it. At the risk of sounding unforgivably pretentious, it’s like this whole enclosed, ever-changing world that can still never expand beyond the boundaries of itself. Like Koch’s snowflake. But then your part is done and the book is released, and readers come into it with their own ideas and perceptions and responses, and suddenly, it just … bursts its banks. And you’re left standing there with no more insight into what you’ve written than anybody else. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a beautiful one. An important one. I believe that books are, and should be, these fluid, interpretative spaces, shared equally by those who read them and those who write them. But it does mean that Glittlerland now is not really the same as the Glitterland I was writing almost exactly a year ago, and I’m not sure how to even begin thinking about it anymore.
I only really read reviews if someone actively draws my attention to them – it’s partly for my sanity and partly because I really do believe reviews are for readers, and having the writer peering over your shoulder and breathing down your neck would be like having a creepy guy turn up at your party and then refuse to leave – but people do write to me and talk to me, so I am aware of the sort of things people think about the book, what’s contentious and what isn’t, what some people like, and what some don’t. And I know the two big things are the phonetic Essex and the portrayal of the main character, Ash, and his bipolar depression.
And that’s really difficult because I don’t know how to engage with choices that I’ve already made. I occasionally pick up the book, skim a bit, get embarrassed like I’ve been caught masturbating in public, and put it down again. When I think about the Essex, I ask myself “is this annoying? Am I annoyed by this?” and, sometimes, I think it is and I am (but then there’s nothing I can do about it) so I try to imagine it written in standard English. Except that just means it’s Ash-Ash-Ash up to the eyeballs, and I end up coming to the same conclusion all over again: that I want Darian to have his voice. In England, the standard way of speaking English (what we called Received Pronunciation) is so unthinkingly and uncritically accepted as “right” that regional variation is literally treated like an aberration or, at best, like a charming decorative flourish. So it was really important to me to find a way to represent the reality of Darian’s speech patterns. Whether I’ve done it well or badly is down to individual judgement now but, looking back, I don’t regret it.
Which brings me, I guess, to the depression thing. Needless to say, I’m not trying to present myself as any sort of expert on this subject. Mental illness is very complicated and very personal, and what works for someone, might just annoy someone else or, worse, come across as appropriative or dismissive. So there’s no generalised messages here, just personal choices again. I’ve always been fascinated by first person narration, especially when its unreliable, and Glitterland is kind of relentlessly limited in its perspective and Ash is hopelessly unreliable. Not, I hasten to add, because he’s mentally ill – although, obviously, the fact he’s clinically depressed does affect his worldview – but he’s deceptive and self-deceiving in the way he presents things and hides things. He basically spends the whole book trying to squeeze Darian out of the narrative – just like he’s trying to, well, squeeze him out of his heart. And, by the same token, because he’s so profoundly alienated from himself he has this really contradictory attitude to Darian where he simultaneously over-values him (because he’s in love with him) and can’t/won’t acknowledge that value, because he’s so utterly terrified of caring for something (someone) that might be taken away from him.
At the same time, because of his illness and his experiences and the way he’s chosen to deal with both of those things, he’s so riddled with self-loathing that he persistently presents himself as negatively as possible. First person narrators have complicated relationships with their readers – whether they’re acknowledged or not – and I think there’s almost a sense in which Ash won’t court the reader’s affection any more than he’ll court Darian’s. Partially because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, but mainly because being unlikeable is kind of the last choice he feels he has left to him.
So I honestly have no idea how a reader is supposed to navigate that. Frankly, I’ve no idea how I did. But just to disentangle myself from Ash for a moment, part of the reason I essentially surrendered complete control of the narrative to him – even to the extent of letting him be a dick to basically everyone – was because I thought perhaps the only way to actually see past, or through, all his shame and despair, was to understand him. And in order to do that you kind of have to live in his world, of which his mental illness is a part, although only a part.
I think quite a few people have had, um, shall we say difficulty with how unpleasant Ash is but, for me, I felt his right to be an arse was very important. One of the problems with the way the world treats mental illness – or disability in general – is that it simultaneously sanctifies and demonises it. A while ago, I read Barbara Ehreneic’s Smile or Die, which is subtitled How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. In it, she talks about her experience with breast cancer and how off-putting and alienating she found a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the whole thing. There is, according to Ehreneic, a relentless pressure on people with cancer to maintain this positive, upbeat, fighting and surviving image, so much so that she felt unable to admit to anyone that having cancer kind of sucked. I think there’s a very similar thing going on with mental illness.
At the risk of causing death by reference, I remember listening to a radio interview a few years ago with the writer of Some Voices, a play, and now I think a film, about a man with schizophrenia. What I remember most from this interview is the writer talking about pitching the concept to whoever it is you pitch these concepts to. “So,” says he, “the thing about this script is that the main character is schizophrenic.” “Great,” say the Being Pitched To People, “but what’s his gift.” There’s this notion in popular culture that if there’s something “wrong” with you then the only appropriate reaction is to rise above it with Jedi-like serenity, and that this will necessarily manifest in your becoming more wise or more insightful or more caring than “ordinary” people. And if this fails to happen, the alternative is that you become a serial killer. Of course, neither of these things are true. I mean, obviously there are plenty of wise, lovely people with mental illnesses, just as there are plenty of wise, lovely people who do not have mental illnesses. But people with mental illness are essentially just people, and they can make the same choices and the same mistakes as everyone else.
I also think part of it is that there is a belief that people with mental illness (or with a disability or with cancer) are somehow morally obliged to behave in a particular, pre-approved way in order to minimise the distress they cause other people. And don’t get me wrong, not causing distress to other people is a perfectly laudable goal, but the idea that other people get to tell you how to react to your own life because they will be sad if you don’t react the way they want you to would be laughable if it weren’t so prevalent.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean Ash has any more right to be a dick than the rest of us, but he doesn’t have any less right either. Essentially, from Ash’s point of view, society presents him with two choices: take personal responsibility for the fact that other people are upset by your illness, or don’t care about people’s feelings. We catch little glimpses of this in his interactions with Niall and his memories of his mother. I think (I hope) that Ash really does care about both of them but they both take his illness so personally that he can’t invest in their happiness because they’ve made it so clear that they can’t be happy while he’s ill. And he can’t just stop being ill to please his loved ones. Part of the reason it takes him so long to accept that Darian really loves him is because, at first, he doesn’t recognise that it isn’t his illness that makes Darian upset, it’s his behaviour.
I said above that I very rarely read reviews unless people bring them to my attention but I did read a particularly heartbreaking one in which the reviewer said she too suffered from depression and didn’t believe in the happy ending because she felt Ash would inevitably drive Darian away. Obviously I entirely support this reviewer’s right to read the book however she reads it and I think she has a point because the ending is uncertain, particularly by romance standards. But, for me, that uncertainty is what it’s about. Ash has spent so long convinced that there was nothing he could have that he wanted that even the possibility of something is, for him, as important as a happy ever after. Truthfully, for me, even without mental illness in the picture, relationships don’t come with guarantees. They’re about trust and hope and simply being willing to try. The entirety of Glitterland is about getting Ash to this place. So, I guess, in a way, we leave him and Darian not at the end of their story, but at the beginning of it.
Assorted Blog Posts & Interviews
- Love Affair with a E-Reader: Interview
- Jessica Scott’s blog: Roofless Ducks: the notorious duck scene
- The Book Pushers Alexis’ Adventures in Writerland: another post about the process of writing, and publishing, Glitterland
- Pants Off Reviews: Love Reveals Us: talking about editings and endings
- Book Reviews & More by Kathy: All about Ash: why I chose to write such an arsehole of a protagonist
- That’s What I’m Talking About: The Least Dangerous Game: everything you never wanted to know about Nabble
- Sid Love: Author & Character Interview (omg, this was far too much fun)