Why did you write a book focused on a character with mental health issues?
I definitely didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a novel about mental health issues.” I wanted to covey absolute hopelessness and have that be a visual thing, as well as a dialogue inside the main character’s head. I used self-harm as a metaphor for someone being in great pain and stuck and needing a release, and that’s exactly what self-harm is, be it drinking too much, taking drugs or physically hurting yourself.
I’m not a self-harmer myself – in the traditional sense, although I have some issues with food – but I’m a serious nail biter. So in my places of work, I generally end up rummaging round in the First Aid Kit for plasters and I found some interesting things in there that sparked the initial idea.
Your main character Steph also deals with other issues such as depression and anxiety – where did your knowledge of these issues come from?
Life, mostly. I do know people who have self-harmed. I have also had periods of depression and huge anxiety, so I definitely know how it feels to hide in a toilet at lunchtime. For research about self-harm, I went on self-harm forums, which was really shocking. There were galleries of people showing off their scars. I think that’s an individual thing, though. Some, like Steph, are very private; long-sleeves at all times, and years of secrecy.
An author I really admire is Carol Topolski. Before she became a writer, she was a psychologist and it really shows in her work, but in a creative way. Both her books are about people who are psychotic, I suppose you could say, and very dark, but horrifically magical. She is a big inspiration.
What advice do you have for exploring mental health issues in fiction?
There is a fine line between being artistic and being exploitative. I spoke to a few women on the self-harm forums, but in the end I decided to back off and find Steph’s path on my own, because it didn’t feel right to use parts of their stories, even though I was honest with them and they didn’t mind talking about it. I did look at different methods of self-harm on there, though, but just stopped speaking to people directly.
How do you make characters feel believable?
I think most writers would admit that most characters have a basis in reality. You have to look at types of people and play up their eccentricities. I often combine two personalities together of people I know to come up with something interesting.
When I began writing First Aid Kit Girl I was working at a housing association in Wembley and it was about as depressing as it gets. I didn’t have to go very far mentally to get into the character Steph. I went as depressed as I was and added about a hundred to it. The difference between Steph and me, apart from the self-harm, is I know when to bow out of a bad situation, whereas Steph just seems stranded.
Are there media guidelines to be mindful of when writing about things like self-harm?
A while after I finished writing the book, I started working at Samaritans. Before that, I had little idea that subjects like self-harm and suicide in the news and in fiction such as soap operas could lead to such a huge copycat effect. However, I don’t think fiction or films can or should be regulated in the same way as the press.
People have to have freedom to tell stories and there shouldn’t be rules and regulations around that. It’s not the same as a paper telling you what platform is a good one to jump from as a salacious detail of a suicide news story. After all, there’d be no Romeo and Juliet if we applied media guidelines to fiction – which is unthinkable.
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Image courtesy of Lynsey Rose