Writing The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days by Juliet Conlin – guest post

Today I’m pleased to welcome Juliet Conlin to the blog. Juliet’s novel, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days was published by Black and White on 23 February 2017.

Here Juliet discusses writing the novel.

Writing The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days

I don’t hear voices; I never have. But the notion of hearing voices that others don’t hear has fascinated me since I met somebody who had heard voices when he was a teenager. It was only many years later that I decided to pick up the idea and try to turn it into a story. What began as an online research session ended up as a very lengthy, in-depth investigation (2 years, to be exact). I soon discovered that although it is commonly assumed that hearing voices is a symptom of severe mental illness, there is a growing movement of voice-hearers who are attempting to challenge the psychiatric model – that is, hearing voices is not necessarily a sign of madness. Many famous people have reported hearing voices, including Joan of Arc, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud. Sadly, though, voice-hearing is still heavily stigmatised, and those who hear voices often suffer just as strongly from discrimination and isolation as they do from what their voices say to them. In fact, recent research has shown that voice-hearing is a complex, heterogeneous experience, and that there are a good many voice-hearers out there who would not wish to part with their voices.

As a result of my research, I decided that this complexity of the experience, and the different meanings given to what psychiatrists term ‘auditory verbal hallucinations’, is what I wanted to tackle in my book. I decided to give one of my central characters – Alfred Warner – ‘good’ voices. In other words, Alfred hears the voices of three mythological women who provide advice and guidance throughout his life. Without them, his world would be a very different place. The other main character – Alfred’s granddaughter Brynja – hears ‘bad’ voices. For her, it is an agonising, confusing experience and her coping mechanisms include self-harm and heavy medication.

As the novel spans a period of more than eighty years, it required extensive research. But research for a novel, especially one that is set in a different time or place, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it fed my insatiable curiosity for new information, led me to read books I would never have thought of reading, and to reach out to people I would never thought of talking to. But I also had to be wary of research becoming an end in itself (procrastination feeds off distraction!) and too much background information would make the novel read like a text book. In fact, the first draft was close to 600 pages and required a number of re-writes – and the invaluable feedback from others, in particular my agent Jenny Brown – to beat it into shape.

In The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, my aim was to frame the phenomenon of voice-hearing in two contrasting ways, chronicling the joyful, wondrous experience of hearing voices, but also the agony and despair that some voice-hearers suffer. In choosing to tell the stories in this way, I wanted to explore this phenomenon beyond mental illness, and to defend the validity of complex human experiences that do not fit into a very narrow understanding of what it is to be “normal”. I would certainly invite my readers to consider that there are many people who experience the world differently, and that it is worthwhile to approach them with an open mind.

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About the book:

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“Approaching 80, frail and alone, a remarkable man makes the journey from his sheltered home in England to Berlin to meet his granddaughter. He has six days left to live and must relate his life story before he dies…

His life has been rich and full. He has witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis, experienced heartrending family tragedy, fought in the German army, been interred in a POW camp in Scotland and faced violent persecution in peacetime Britain. But he has also touched many lives, fallen deeply in love, raised a family and survived triumphantly at the limits of human endurance. He carries within him an astonishing family secret that he must share before he dies…a story that will mean someone else’s salvation.

Welcome to the moving, heart-warming and uncommon life of Alfred Warner.”

 

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