Today I’m pleased to welcome to the blog John Harding, author of What We Did On Our Holiday, While the Sun Shines, One Big Damn Puzzler, Florence and Giles and The Girl Who Couldn’t Read. John kindly answered some of my questions
1. Tell us a little about The Girl Who Couldn’t read.
It’s set in an asylum, a mental hospital, on an island in New England, in the 1890s and is narrated by a man calling himself Dr John Shepherd, newly arrived as assistant to Dr Morgan who runs the establishment. Shepherd is appalled and shocked by the harsh treatment meted out to the unfortunate patients by Morgan and his head nurse, Mrs O’Reilly. He suggests an experiment to show that a kinder regime might achieve better results and chooses as his guinea pig a mysterious young amnesiac girl who has been given the name of Jane Dove and who has a habit of using her own invented words.. .
2. The Girl Who Couldn’t Read has been described as both a sequel to Florence and Giles but also a standalone novel. Did you know that there would be a sequel to Florence and Giles when you wrote it or did it appear organically as Florence and Giles developed?
Neither. Florence and Giles was written as a single novel and when it was done I felt it was about as good a book as I could write, and that appeared to be that. But, as you probably know, it became something of a cult read over Twitter and other social media. It didn’t get much of a publishing push here, although it garnered really good reviews, but in other countries, especially Brazil and Italy, where the publishers were keen to promote it, it did phenomenally well and I think, all told, sales are well over 250,000 worldwide.
There was quite a clamour for a sequel, and I couldn’t decide whether to write one or not. That fact that there were readers who really loved the book cut both ways. I didn’t want to ruin the perfection of the book (I don’t mean that boastfully, but simply that the book was whole and complete in itself and that adding to the story might actually take something away) and there were readers who begged me not to do a sequel. At the same time there were good commercial reasons to follow-up a bestseller. I’ve never written a book for commercial reasons and I’ve always avoided repeating myself, writing the same book again. I think when readers really love a book and want a sequel what they really want is to experience again the joy of discovering that book for the first time, which of course, is impossible. So the whole thing was a problem that I ummed and aahed about for ages. In the end I realised I should stop seeing it that way and regard it as a challenge that would hopefully stretch me and hey, if it didn’t work, I could just add it to the pile of unpublished manuscripts on my computer. After several false starts I saw a way I thought might work which was to change the location and introduce a different narrator. The other difficulty of course was to make it work as a standalone book which was a big worry for me and my publishers. Because we all knew Florence and Giles there was no way for us to know if The Girl Who Couldn’t Read would work on its own. What’s been really gratifying is that the reaction from readers has been that it does. Although I guess this doesn’t mean much to readers, I’ve drawn huge satisfaction from this, as a technical achievement. I’m a very severe self-critic, always full of self-doubt about my writing (hence that pile of discarded attempts) and always looking for ways to improve, to succeed at something different.
3. It has been said that Florence and Giles was inspired by James’ The Turn of the Screw. What were your inspirations and influences when writing The Girl Who Couldn’t Read?
Well anyone who reads it will notice the influence of Jane Eyre but best not to go into too much detail about that as it could be a bit of a plot spoiler. Edgar Allan Poe, again, mainly for atmosphere, and The Secret Garden for that things-that-make-noises-in-the-middle-of-the-night shiver. But the other influence was from reading books about the treatment of mental illness, especially ‘Mad In America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill’ by Robert Whitaker, which catalogues how mental health patients have been mistreated over the last few centuries from sheer physical abuse of the kind Dr Morgan employs in The Girl Who Couldn’t Read, to practices like lobotomy one form of which involved sticking an icepick in the corner of someone’s eye and fishing out a bit of their brain. If it didn’t kill them it made them more docile and easier to manage, what you might call a zombie solution. And there is a whole way of thinking that now more and more forms of mental illness are being diagnosed so that huge numbers of people are given mind or personality altering drugs, including vast numbers of children prescribed for ADHD and both children and adults with bipolar disorder which seems to have reached epidemic proportions. I’m not a medic, but after all my reading it strikes me that people who suffer from mental illness – which is a hell of a lot of us over our lifetimes and is in the majority of cases temporary – still get a very bad deal.
The other major source was a little book called ‘Ten Days in the Madhouse’ by Nellie Bly the pseudonym of an investigative reporter named Elizabeth Jane Cochcrane who went undercover, feigned madness so that she was sectioned and put into an asylum on Blackwell’s Island, off New York and reported upon the terrible conditions and treatment she found there. This happened at precisely the same time as my book is set.
4. As well as an author you also review books for the national press. Have you found that reviewing influenced how you write and conversely has writing influenced how you review?
It certainly influences the way I read. When I’m reading something simply for pleasure I often catch myself thinking, ‘What am I going to say about this? What’s the thing this book is about?’ I have to switch that off as it can take away some of the pleasure of reading.
Writing has definitely influenced how I review. Unless a novelist who reviews is bitter and twisted or very competitive, being a writer oneself makes one a much more generous reviewer. You always have in your mind that the writer you’re reading has spent probably years on this, that it really matters to her or him, and that while it is always much easier for a reviewer to make himself look good by writing a smart put down it’s never the right thing to do. There are people who differ, I know, but my view had been that the reviewer should keep himself out of the review. It shouldn’t be about me it should be about the book and its author. A bad review can be devastating to an author, it can destroy someone’s psyche, so I hope I’m always careful to be fair and honest and to mention the good I managed to find in a book I don’t like. And I always read every page of every book I review (believe me plenty of reviewers don’t). It’s taken the author a lot longer to write them and it’s the least I can do to respect that.
I guess reviewing has influenced my writing. There’s a back-and-forth thing going on. As a writer you can see the nuts-and-bolts of how someone else has constructed a book and you can learn from that. You can always learn something from other people – even if it’s how not to do something or how clunky something that you do too is when you read it cold. I think much of the influence is subliminal. I read at least 120 books every year and I truly believe that to write well you have to read. Not that I’m claiming quantity is a guarantee of quality! I’m not claiming to be a great writer, or that reading a lot has made me one, but I am sure that I’m a less bad writer than I would have been without devouring all those books.
5. What can we expect from you next?
That’s the one question I don’t like to answer. I’m not being coy it’s just that verbalising an idea always sounds so mundane, and makes me go off it. It reduces my confidence in the project. And it’s impossible anyway, for me, at least, to give me a meaningful answer. I never know what a book’s going to turn into until I’ve finished it. For example, with Florence and Giles, I was toying with the Turn of the Screw idea, so I started writing it with Florence telling the story with no idea where it was going and then she started on page one using this strange made-up language and that would obviously have to be a secret language and there had to be a reason for that which was that she was forbidden to read and so on and all of this was flowing out of my unconscious so that when I’d finished my first writing session I had Florence’s voice and her character (and the library!) and that more or less dictated the rest of the book.
I suppose what I really mean is that for me the very great pleasure in writing (the thing that makes up for all the torture of it) is the way stuff just comes out of your unconscious, how your brain makes all these little connections without you knowing it. It’s like magic (and it’s the same for anyone who creates anything) and I find myself in awe of it, not my brain in particular, but the human brain, how it can do that and having some kind of plan would just stop that working.
Having rambled on about all that I’m currently working on two books that are very different from one another and neither of which is another Florence book, although that’s still a possibility.
6. You must have answered a few of these Q&As. What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
That’s a very clever question! Surprisingly the one thing nobody has ever asked me is ‘Do you like writing?’ I think I’ve answered a bit of that above, but in case not the answer is yes and no and mainly no. I dread sitting down and starting and have all kinds of things I do to avoid it. I will even do the washing up! And dry it too! So mostly I find it torture. When I’m in a book I’m preoccupied, distant to my loved ones, often short tempered. But then there are moments when you’re really humming when it’s going well and the ideas seem to be jumping one after another into your brain, or not even that, just appearing on screen like Victorian automatic writing and especially when you just know that what you’re writing is good (by your own standards I mean this is not a boast) and it’s the best thing. There’s nothing that comes near it, and at the end of the day when you look at what you’ve done and you like it and it gives you a real buzz then there’s simply nothing that compares to the feeling. I should say that most days that doesn’t happen, so you really appreciate it when it does.
All of John’s books are available to buy now.