In this edge of your seat thriller, Ali Land explores where we come from and how that impacts where we go. As Milly acclimates to her new life away from her serial killer mother in the novel Good Me, Bad Me, the dark undercurrents of her past seep back in.
Nature versus nurture—where do you come down in that debate? What do you think your book says about it?
We used to call this argument ‘the slippery fish’ on the adolescent unit where I worked. How to measure the unmeasurable. Even after a decade of working in mental health, I’m not sure where I stand. I don’t believe a child can be born evil but I do believe certain traits are inherited and in a loving, nurturing environment can lie dormant. Put that same person in an abusive, violent environment however, and those traits grow in strength. I’ve seen twins brought up separately who end up developing the same mental illness. I’ve seen children who you would expect to be ill, but aren’t, the factor of resilience muddying the water further. I’ve seen teenagers take on traits, not just from the parent they live with, but the absent parent they haven’t seen since they were a baby. I’ve seen all of that, yet I still don’t know. It has always, and will always be the greyest of grey areas and what I hope Good Me Bad Me says about nature versus nurture, is that even if it seems futile at points, we should never stop trying to understand or care for our young people, the product of both their environment and their genes.
What does it take to tackle mental health issues accurately in writing without pandering to stereotypes? What would you like to see writers do better?
It takes a great deal of care and sensitivity. No gratuitous details should be included and the focus must be on drama and psychology, not melodrama or a flashing headline approach. Writers must use their privilege to write about mental health issues in a way that creates discussion, improves understanding and ideally leads to compassion. I view my writing as an extension of my nursing and being up close and personal with emotional trauma undoubtedly injects authenticity into my work. Nathan Filer, also with a background as a mental health nurse, does this brilliantly in The Shock of the Fall but that’s not to say only writers who have a work history within the mental health field should tackle these issues, anybody can, but by reaching out to those that do have experience, either as a patient or carer, writers can be sure that whatever lands on the page is respectful and arranged in a thoughtful manner. As Susanna Kaysen says, ‘Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified.’
Good Me Bad Me is your debut novel; what path did you take to becoming a writer?
The long one, however the clues were there all along – the English prize I won at school, my voracious appetite for reading and the fact my books have always and will always be my most treasured possessions. In addition to that, and from a very young age, I experienced voice-hearing and a continual stream of vivid images filling up my mind. I didn’t come from an artistic family and therefore learnt to suppress my creativity and instead went to university and trained as a mental health nurse. But by the time I got to my thirties the voices became too loud and the images too sharp to continue to suppress. I knew then that it was time to explore my creativity. With a massive leap of faith, and to garner the psychological energy to write, I gave up nursing, took a job as a nanny while doing an evening class in creative writing and the absolute joy was that, almost as soon as I put pen to paper I experienced a palpable sense of relief, as if somehow I’d arrived home and I could finally exhale. The first draft of Good Me Bad Me tore out of me in five months.
What’s next for you and your writing career?
2017, my debut year, has been pretty stellar. From being on bestseller lists around the world to being nominated for one of the most prestigious crime writing awards. It truly has been humbling and mind-blowing and it’s hard not to feel paralyzed by what’s next. I used to say to the kids I looked after as a mental health nurse, ‘just do your best and don’t forget to breathe.’ I’m going to try very hard to take my own advice as I begin climbing the mountain of my second book. More than anything I want to become a better writer, the best I can be. I want to continue to learn and explore as I write and I’m hoping my next book, another drama/thriller heavily loaded with psychology, but this time set on a scarcely inhabited Scottish island, will bring readers as much enjoyment as Good Me Bad Me has.
This article originally appeared at The Tall Poppy Writers Blog: Bright Authors, Smart Readers, Good Books.