A good novel draws its authenticity from the personal experience of the author, but adds to this the drama, suspense and excitement that the author weaves into the plot using his or her imagination and storytelling craft.
My first novel, The Episode, draws heavily from personal experience: my lead character, Victor Turnbull, suffers what he believes is a minor accident but is helpless to prevent his subsequent descent into what we commonly call madness.
The authenticity of my account of this frightening journey derives from my own experience as I too found myself hurtling into a psychotic episode, during which my normal reality was suspended and replaced by a fantasy world in which I enjoyed extraordinary powers to do good.
The experience – which, unusually, only lasted a couple of months in its acute phase – remains dramatically etched on my mind and so it was easy to transpose this into the character of Victor, who shares some of my characteristics, while being geographically removed from Durham to Yorkshire. Much of what happened to Victor during his episode also happened to me around the same time but some of it did not, as the reality was too “close to home”.
Equally, some of the other characters bear at least a passing resemblance to friends, colleagues and family members.
Of course, much of the content is both quite personal – for this reason I guess I’m ultimately not unhappy that it’s taken a full eight years from writing my first words to actually seeing The Episode in print.
However, the long gestation was never really intended. Rather, it was a product of “not giving up the day job” and, in short, finding the time and the belief to actually complete what has ended up as a bit of an accidental epic.
The turning point only came when I took myself off on a six-day writers’ retreat at The Hurst, the former Shropshire home of one-time “angry young man” John Osborne. Deprived of external interruption, I rattled off 30,000 words, and pretty decent ones at that, and suddenly I was within a chapter and a bit, and an epilogue of completion.
“Did you find it a cathartic experience?” asked my community mental health support worker when we had a bit of a reunion the other day, ahead of the forthcoming launch of The Episode.
Odd as it may sound, it wasn’t a question I had ever really asked myself. Indeed, vivid as my recollections of my own manic episode remain, the process I went through eight years ago in deciding to write the book, and how to write it, is far more hazy.
Mine is not the first book to tell the story of a manic episode, nor is it the first novel to deal with the question of madness or mania. However, I believe my USP has been in creating a new set of characters to inhabit the fantasy future world created by Victor during his time in psychiatric hospital.
The evolving story of this fantasy world takes turns in the narrative with the more-or-less chronological story of Victor’s intensifying mania and his ultimate slow journey towards recovery. I thought it might provide a bit of light relief between the grim reality of the chapters that describe a mind increasingly losing its connections with reality, and the consequent terror caused to friends, colleagues and relatives.
While the story of the road to madness and back is told in a compulsive present tense first person narrative, I tell the story in the “future strand” in the third person historic tense, with the aim of creating the illusion that the sounder, more firmly founded reality is the fantastic projection some time in the future.
But that’s not to say I never had doubts, not least because – once I began writing in earnest – The Episode to some extent acquired a life of its own. That’s code for saying that I never initially intended to write an epic, but – once having done so – could see no easy way of reducing it to “normal novel” length without destroying the very essence of the work.
So, the hero of the future strand is a naïve young man called Felix, who’s spent his adult life drifting between not especially satisfying relationships. And then he finds himself at a business event on a fictitious Australian island with Jameela, a former colleague he has not seen for some years.
He’s unsure whether it might just be her unattainability, but he is powerfully drawn to her, only for her to suddenly vanish from both the “real” and “virtual” worlds. By now smitten, he sets out with Michelle – a woman, the object of whose love has similarly vanished – on a pan-global odyssey to track down Jameela and Michelle’s beau, Kenny.
As the adventure evolves it becomes increasingly clear that someone behind the scenes – within the empire of the social media entrepreneur, Lord Lindisfarne, previously just plain Victor Turnbull – is pulling the strings.
This future vantage provided me with more than one additional narrative point of view from which to dissect the experience of the manic episode and, I’d like to think, to inject more humour – not least around Felix’s seemingly irresistible charm to women.
As Victor recovers from his psychotic episode he goes on a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and it is his therapist who stimulates new ways of looking at reality. That too is a process I shared with Victor, and my own therapist bears a heavy responsibility for ensuring that The Episode has finally become a reality. Our discussions on the worlds of philosophy and quantum mechanics, not just psychiatry, proved fundamental to the creative process and I believe it helped to make The Episode a more important book with regard to the understanding of issues of mental health than it might otherwise have been.
So now I wait tensely for further reviews in the fervent hope that the wider public will echo the positive feedback received from all those who have read The Episode at various points during its evolution.
Some glibly say we all have one novel in us and I now know that my “one” was never the abortive attempts that preceded The Episode. More positively, however, I believe it has lubricated my creative processes and my second novel, which deals with a quite different subject, is now taking shape.