Fran and I are delighted to host the final stop in Anne Goodwin’s five week blog tour for her debut novel Sugar and Snails (Inspired Quill, 2015).
When I first met Anne at her book launch in Newcastle’s Jesmond library she was icing cupcakes. We’d connected only a few weeks previously, on Twitter, but I was greeted with a huge smile, a hug and a “Thank you for coming!”
It was Anne’s second launch event for her novel, and the first I’d ever attended. The little library soon filled with locals, friends and family, some of whom had travelled considerable distances to be there and celebrate Anne’s achievement.
As I listened to Anne read from her novel and talk about the years she lived and worked in the area (much of Sugar and Snails is set in and around Jesmond), I found myself thinking ahead to the day when Fran and I (one of us likely present via webcam!) will host a launch event for our book. If it’s half as warm, welcoming and successful as Anne’s I will count it a success. Note to self: don’t forget the cupcakes.
On invisible vulnerabilities and writing about self-harm, by Anne Goodwin
Seven years ago, I read a newspaper report about a distinguished academic, a professor with a PhD in psychology, who had died of anorexia. Two things were shocking about the case: firstly, the stark contrast between the confidence and competence she showed to the outside world and the depth of vulnerability hidden inside her; secondly, that she had managed to keep it secret for so long from colleagues, friends and family. And yet, on another level, although saddened, I wasn’t shocked by the story at all. I knew lots of people who were highly successful professionals on the outside and a morass of neuroses underneath. Let’s face it, I was a bit like that myself.
A few years before, a complicated bereavement had led to me taking a few weeks off work. But not before I endured a couple of weeks of dragging myself out of bed in the mornings and pushing my sadness down to my toes so that I could answer the call of duty. It was striking that, at the point when I was most desperately struggling to hold it together, I received feedback on separate occasions from two unconnected individuals commending me on my positive outlook. I knew from my work and my studies that people don’t always show their true selves to the world. Yet I hadn’t realised how easy it can be to hide the truth.
These experiences fed into the creation of my character, Diana Dodsworth, the narrator of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails. Diana is also a psychology lecturer – although less eminent than the woman in a newspaper report that had bugged me – whose academic understanding is of little help to her in managing her own life. The source of her vulnerability is a secret that is gradually revealed in the course of the novel, but its effects are apparent from chapter 1. Diana has self-harmed since childhood and, when in middle age a relationship crisis threatens her fragile sense of self, she slices through the scars in her forearm.
I found this one of the most difficult scenes to write, not because I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation, but because I could. While I’m fortunate in never having taken it as far as Diana does, I can identify with the emotions that might evoke such a self-destructive act. I have a very vivid memory of sitting with a Stanley knife, massaging my inner forearm to make the veins stand out. As I imagined myself into my character’s experience, I really wondered how far I’d take it (and used this as the springboard for a piece of flash fiction on my blog about how fiction can invade one’s life).
I think that sometimes we fail to empathise with people’s mental distress for fear of similar vulnerabilities within ourselves. We mask them behind a wall of competence, as if ability and disability can’t coexist. As if achievement in one area cancels out neediness in another. As if an elevated status in the family or the workplace denies us the right to help for ourselves.
One possible reading of my novel is that Diana becomes stronger as she embraces the source of her vulnerability. In fact, once she stops denying it, it ceases to be the threat she once perceived it to be. One of the lessons of psychotherapy is that it’s in using our whole selves, not only the apparently “good” parts, that we are strong.
Through my fiction I’m learning to integrate the vulnerable and capable aspects of my own personality. The themes arise out of my fears, disappointments and despair, but it’s the drive, discipline and doggedness that enables me to work at them to produce a story that people will actually want to read. And I’m finding, on launching my first novel, that for me that’s a pretty good place to be.
About the author
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.