Book Spotlight & Giveaway (US/Int): Glitterland author Alexis Hall on dealing with depression, beating stereotypes, & talking like a Brit
Please help us give a HUGE warm welcome to Alexis Hall, author of the exquisite contemporary romance Glitterland…
As a quick note, you’ll notice this post is considerably longer than what we usually feature. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read through it in its entirety. Alexis has some insightful thoughts on mental illness and common social judgement, and this post will give you a very good idea of his writing style. I imagine if you’ve already read Glitterland, I don’t need to encourage to soak it all up, because you already know how addicting his writing is. *smile* I’m not exaggerating when I say that Glitterland is one of my most memorable and enjoyable reads of 2013. Check out my full featured review here, complete with glitter pirate quotage.
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Thank you so much to GraveTells for hosting me today. And, to you, dear reader, for stopping by. I hope you enjoy the time we spend together.
You know, publishing a book is really weird. I don’t think anything quite prepares you for just how weird it is. I mean, I love the writing part. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it. At the risk of sounding unforgivably pretentious, it’s like this whole enclosed, ever-changing world that can still never expand beyond the boundaries of itself. Like Koch’s snowflake. But then your part is done and the book is released, and readers come into it with their own ideas and perceptions and responses, and suddenly, it just … bursts its banks. And you’re left standing there with no more insight into what you’ve written than anybody else. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a beautiful one. An important one. I believe that books are, and should be, these fluid, interpretative spaces, shared equally by those who read them and those who write them. But it does mean that Glittlerland now is not really the same as the Glitterland I was writing almost exactly a year ago, and I’m not sure how to even begin thinking about it anymore.
I only really read reviews if someone actively draws my attention to them – it’s partly for my sanity and partly because I really do believe reviews are for readers, and having the writer peering over your shoulder and breathing down your neck would be like having a creepy guy turn up at your party and then refuse to leave – but people do write to me and talk to me, so I am aware of the sort of things people think about the book, what’s contentious and what isn’t, what some people like, and what some don’t. And I know the two big things are the phonetic Essex and the portrayal of the main character, Ash, and his bipolar depression.
And that’s really difficult because I don’t know how to engage with choices that I’ve already made. I occasionally pick up the book, skim a bit, get embarrassed like I’ve been caught masturbating in public, and put it down again. When I think about the Essex, I ask myself “is this annoying? Am I annoyed by this?” and, sometimes, I think it is and I am (but then there’s nothing I can do about it), so I try to imagine it written in standard English. Except that just means it’s Ash-Ash-Ash up to the eyeballs, and I end up coming to the same conclusion all over again: that I want Darian to have his voice. In England, the standard way of speaking English (what we called Received Pronunciation) is so unthinkingly and uncritically accepted as “right” that regional variation is literally treated like an aberration or, at best, like a charming decorative flourish. So it was really important to me to find a way to represent the reality of Darian’s speech patterns. Whether I’ve done it well or badly is down to individual judgement now, but, looking back, I don’t regret it.
Which brings me, I guess, to the depression thing. Needless to say, I’m not trying to present myself as any sort of expert on this subject. Mental illness is very complicated and very personal, and what works for someone, might just annoy someone else or, worse, come across as appropriative or dismissive. So there’s no generalised messages here, just personal choices again. I’ve always been fascinated by first person narration, especially when its unreliable, and Glitterland is kind of relentlessly limited in its perspective and Ash is hopelessly unreliable. Not, I hasten to add, because he’s mentally ill – although, obviously, the fact he’s clinically depressed does affect his worldview – but he’s deceptive and self-deceiving in the way he presents things and hides things. He basically spends the whole book trying to squeeze Darian out of the narrative – just like he’s trying to, well, squeeze him out of his heart. And, by the same token, because he’s so profoundly alienated from himself he has this really contradictory attitude to Darian where he simultaneously over-values him (because he’s in love with him) and can’t/won’t acknowledge that value, because he’s so utterly terrified of caring for something (someone) that might be taken away from him.
At the same time, because of his illness and his experiences and the way he’s chosen to deal with both of those things, he’s so riddled with self-loathing that he persistently presents himself as negatively as possible. First person narrators have complicated relationships with their readers – whether they’re acknowledged or not – and I think there’s almost a sense in which Ash won’t court the reader’s affection any more than he’ll court Darian’s. Partially because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, but mainly because being unlikeable is kind of the last choice he feels he has left to him.
So I honestly have no idea how a reader is supposed to navigate that. Frankly, I’ve no idea how I did. But just to disentangle myself from Ash for a moment, part of the reason I essentially surrendered complete control of the narrative to him – even to the extent of letting him be a dick to basically everyone – was because I thought perhaps the only way to actually see past, or through, all his shame and despair, was to understand him. And in order to do that you kind of have to live in his world, of which his mental illness is a part, although only a part.
I think quite a few people have had, um, shall we say, difficulty with how unpleasant Ash is, but, for me, I felt his right to be an arse was very important. One of the problems with the way the world treats mental illness – or disability in general – is that it simultaneously sanctifies and demonises it. A while ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, which is subtitled How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. In it, she talks about her experience with breast cancer and how off-putting and alienating she found a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the whole thing. There is, according to Ehrenreich, a relentless pressure on people with cancer to maintain this positive, upbeat, fighting-and-surviving image, so much so that she felt unable to admit to anyone that having cancer kind of sucked. I think there’s a very similar thing going on with mental illness.
At the risk of causing death by reference, I remember listening to a radio interview a few years ago with the writer of Some Voices, a play, and now I think a film, about a man with schizophrenia. What I remember most from this interview is the writer talking about pitching the concept to whoever it is you pitch these concepts to. “So,” says he, “the thing about this script is that the main character is schizophrenic.” “Great,” say the Being Pitched To People, “but what’s his gift.” There’s this notion in popular culture that if there’s something “wrong” with you then the only appropriate reaction is to rise above it with Jedi-like serenity, and that this will necessarily manifest in your becoming more wise or more insightful or more caring than “ordinary” people. And if this fails to happen, the alternative is that you become a serial killer. Of course, neither of these things are true. I mean, obviously there are plenty of wise, lovely people with mental illnesses, just as there are plenty of wise, lovely people who do not have mental illnesses. But people with mental illness are essentially just people, and they can make the same choices and the same mistakes as everyone else.
I also think part of it is that there is a belief that people with mental illness (or with a disability or with cancer) are somehow morally obliged to behave in a particular, pre-approved way in order to minimise the distress they cause other people. And don’t get me wrong, not causing distress to other people is a perfectly laudable goal, but the idea that other people get to tell you how to react to your own life because they will be sad if you don’t react the way they want you to would be laughable if it weren’t so prevalent.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean Ash has any more right to be a dick than the rest of us, but he doesn’t have any less right either. Essentially, from Ash’s point of view, society presents him with two choices: take personal responsibility for the fact that other people are upset by your illness, or don’t care about people’s feelings. We catch little glimpses of this in his interactions with Niall and his memories of his mother. I think (I hope) that Ash really does care about both of them but they both take his illness so personally that he can’t invest in their happiness because they’ve made it so clear that they can’t be happy while he’s ill. And he can’t just stop being ill to please his loved ones. Part of the reason it takes him so long to accept that Darian really loves him is because, at first, he doesn’t recognise that it isn’t his illness that makes Darian upset, it’s his behaviour.
I said above that I very rarely read reviews unless people bring them to my attention, but I did read a particularly heart-breaking one in which the reviewer said she too suffered from depression and didn’t believe in the happy ending because she felt Ash would inevitably drive Darian away. Obviously I entirely support this reviewer’s right to read the book however she reads it, and I think she has a point because the ending is uncertain, particularly by romance standards. But, for me, that uncertainty is what it’s about. Ash has spent so long convinced that there was nothing he could have that he wanted, that even the possibility of something is, for him, as important as a happy ever after. Truthfully, for me, even without mental illness in the picture, relationships don’t come with guarantees. They’re about trust and hope and simply being willing to try. The entirety of Glitterland is about getting Ash to this place. So, I guess, in a way, we leave him and Darian not at the end of their story, but at the beginning of it.
Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.
But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?
Read an excerpt
My heart is beating so fast it’s going to trip over itself and stop. Everything is hot and dark. I’ve been buried alive. I’m already dead.
I have just enough grip on reality to discard these notions, but it doesn’t quell my horror. My mouth is dry, strange and sour, my tongue thick as carpet. Alcohol-heavy breath drags itself out of my throat, the scent of it churning my stomach. I’m pickled in sweat. And there’s an arm across my chest, a leg across my legs. I am manacled in flesh.
god, god, fuck, god, fuck
My body is far too loud. Blood roaring, heart thundering, breath screaming, stomach raging, head pounding.
I’m going to have a full-blown panic attack.
The first in a long time. Not much consolation.
Where am I? What have I . . .
out, fuck, have to get out
I twist away from the arm and the leg, rolling off a bare mattress onto the bare floorboards. Maybe my first instinct was right. I am dead and this is hell. The darkness scrapes against my eyes. Where are the rest of my clothes?
And breathe, I need to breathe more. Or breathe less. Stop the light show in my head. My vision sheets red and black, like a roulette wheel spinning too fast, never stopping.
god, fuck, clothes
Scattered somewhere in the void. Trousers, shirt, waistcoat, jacket, a single sock. My fingers close over my phone. A cool, calming talisman.
Half-dressed, everything else bundled in my arms, I ease open the door, dark spilling into dark and, like Orpheus, I’m looking back. The shadows move across his face, but he doesn’t stir. He sleeps the perfect, heedless sleep of children, drunkards, and fools.
My footsteps creak along a narrow hallway of peeling paintwork and I let myself out onto a wholly unfamiliar street.
About the author
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret. He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car. He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
Because I <3 this book so much, I’m personally sponsoring a giveaway of an e-copy of Glitterland (gifted via Amazon) to one commenter on this post. Leave a question or comment for Alexis with something relevant to either the book or his editorial above. If you’ve read this, shout out your thoughts on it! Good luck!