Describe The Lightman System in a sentence?
A brother and sister struggle to come to terms with the fallout of her psychotic breakdown.
What prompted you to write The Lightman System?
It has roots in my own family’s experience. It’s fair to say that there was a need for catharsis, but that had to come from inquiry. There are mysteries that are unlikely ever to be solved, but the attempt is the point.
Who is the book for?
It will speak directly to those who have had similar experiences, either as the sufferer of mental storms or those close to them. But I think the last couple of years has laid bare the fact that this is not an exclusive group. So there’s something here for everyone who has had difficulties with their mental health, everyone who’s known someone who has, and anyone who’s interested in the way minds try to deal with the unmanageable.
What experience do you want your readers to have?
It’s a cliché to say I want them to laugh and cry, but it’s true. This is a tough story, but a human one: there’s no intention to create misery, just to portray it. I also want them to come away from the book feeling that their understanding of mental states, from the extreme to the apparently-normal, has expanded.
What is the importance of place to you as a writer?
Very important. A lot of my writing comes out of places; their special atmospheres, their existence outside human presence, especially those that are built entirely by humans. I’ve made several short films that explore this in one way or another. In The Lightman System, there’s particular attention to the magic and disturbance of places; from the texture of the Lake District to the temperature and light inside a psychiatric unit.
Music, and a cello, are constants in the book – what’s the importance of this?
For a musician like my character Ellie, her instrument is a way of both showing her skill and expressing her inner life. When psychological and neurological damage make it increasingly hard for her to handle the instrument, those vital outlets are choked. So the cello, which also has a humanoid shape and an exquisite sound, becomes a repeated motif in the book. Apart from gathering dust, the instrument stays pretty much the same throughout decades; yet the characters, over the same span, change in quite extreme ways. Music is a life-force for Colin, too; it speaks to him rather than through him, but it reflects and provides an outlet for his emotional life. It’s notoriously difficult to write about music, so I’ve had to confront that in successive drafts.
How would you describe yourself?
I write scripts and prose (and sometimes lyrics) and make films; I’m also a freelance script editor, and a visiting lecturer at the London Film School and Central St Martin’s. I used to be an actor, I’ve worked as a director in Baroque Opera, I’ve written the book and lyrics for two musicals and a short story for BBC Radio.
As a novelist I’m writing about things that delight and disturb me. I try to do that in the simplest way I can, as closely as possible to my characters’ experience. I feel the need to draw the reader into that experience, however limited, because that’s the way we live; limited by our selves as they are from moment to moment.
What was your route into writing?
Long and winding. When I was a kid I liked messing around with words, then wrote poems when I was at primary school, then love poems, then song lyrics – school bands etc. – and then I was an actor, so I had to be very sensitive to words. Typography, too, has always fascinated me. Later, while I was working as a script editor at the BBC, I began to write scripts. Nothing got picked up, but it led me towards screenwriting and filmmaking. And I began concurrently to find things in my own experience that suggested prose. I wrote a first novel, which has gone back into the figurative bottom drawer for now, and then embarked on The Lightman System.
Could you tell us more about your other work as a screenwriter and script editor?
Film is very important to me, so it’s thrilling and daunting to be writing it. The obvious distinction between that and what I’m trying to do in prose is that you can’t explore directly, except in voice-over, the internal movements of someone’s mind. And since I’m really interested in that, I have to find other – visual, aural, textural, dynamic – ways to express it. So I’m a bit obsessed with point-of-view; how it changes what the film looks like, how it suggests where the camera should be, and a lot more. I can go on about this, frankly, and I often do when I’m working with other writers. But my work with them is also a way of exploring. We have a conversation about their film that expands to theme and closes in on a single moment; we’re as likely to be talking about the writer’s own experience as we are with the rhythm of a dialogue exchange or a cut from scene to scene. With luck, this sometimes-sinuous path leads to greater clarity for the writer.
Was there a significant person in your life that encouraged you to write?
Several. My mum did, and I had a couple of very good English teachers at secondary school who were really alert to the fact that I was excited by language. Then, years later, I was working at the BBC and having a conversation with an agent who was also a writer; a fairly unusual combination. He told me quite bluntly that I should get on with it and write, and I’m very grateful to him. The producers Brian Eastman and Alex Thiele have put a touching amount of trust in me. Latterly, among all the many encouragements that I’ve received from friends, the one that pops out is from a writer called Albyn Leah Hall. I might not have written The Lightman System without her nudging.
Could you tell us something about your creative process?
I try to write enough that I don’t leave my desk annoyed at myself. That doesn’t necessarily mean a number of pages (though it’s always gratifying); it can just mean that I’ve done something I know will be useful. That could be some background exploration, such as notes on a character, or research, or it could be a walk – to let my thoughts reverse out of a cul-de-sac and wander more freely. Actually a lot of the little, significant realisations arrive when I’m cycling.
Who are your favourite writers? And which writers are you influenced by?
This is one of the most welcome and most difficult questions anyone could ask. The list, obviously, is much too long.
The writers I keep coming back to, the ones I believe get closest to the world as I understand it, are Chekhov, W.G. Sebald and George Eliot. George Saunders is, to me, a new but big discovery. I also admire Anne Tyler enormously, and during lockdown I discovered Sherwood Anderson. Geoff Dyer makes me laugh aloud. I want to go on. Actually I will go on for a second, because there are playwrights: Chekhov again, Shakespeare – as an actor I’ve been lucky enough to live with several of his plays for a lot of performances, and I kept hearing new things. And screenwriters, who tend to get lost behind the director’s name – so a quiet shout for Kôgo Noda, who worked with the great Ozu.
And lyricists! John Prine, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, Aimee Mann, Andrew Phillips, Cole Porter and Randy Newman.
As far as influence goes, with the understanding that influence isn’t necessarily discernible either in style or talent, I guess you could say that Hemingway was there before I read it. And Anne Tyler for sure: trying to stay simple so you don’t get in the way of the important things.
What is your favourite novel?
Another impossible question, but I’ll say Middlemarch and The Rings of Saturn because they both expanded my view without seeming to try. At number 3, I might say American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I know it was supposed to be just one, but sorry.
Why The Lightman System, now?
The simple answer is that I had to write it. A friend suggested that The Lightman System is ‘the story of a quest for understanding’, and that goes for me as well as for the characters.
I also think that, as terms like ‘mental health’ have become so much a part of everyday language, it’s timely. I wanted to write my way into the complex experience of two people whose lives are being changed, radically, subtly, by internal storms. Like any fiction, it doesn’t offer answers, but I hope it affects perceptions. On a similar note, I had great help in my research from an eminent psychiatrist, who described the book as being an incidental portrait of the development of modern psychiatry.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
Wrecking Ball is my experience, and it’s revelatory. Apart from sharing their name with a great song by Gillian Welch, they have a seriously intelligent view of book design, which is more than refreshing.
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you?
I’m halfway through the first draft for a new novel, I’m hoping to make a short film I’ve written later this year, and I’m working on two feature projects. In case that sounds grand, none of it is commissioned, and films may be even harder to get off the ground than books.
What would you say to someone who was keen to write, and would like to see their words published?
It’s usually very hard to get published, but in the end this is not why you do it. It took me around five years, alongside other work, to go through several drafts of The Lightman System. It was, from the publishing point of view, a complete gamble. Lots of people said no, or ignored my letters entirely. But for the activity of writing, it went from tears, frustration and sinking doubt to moments of real freedom and revelation. I’m still writing, and I expect to continue that very uneven journey. Honestly, if you want to do it, you’re probably already doing it in your head; so welcome to the caravan!
I’m also privileged to be in a writing group – on the invitation of Albyn Leah Hall – which consists of several extremely talented writers, all of whom I admire and respect a lot. That means that the process I’ve described (all those drafts) was not done alone. Not only did I feel supported by my colleagues, but they were tough, detailed and frankly relentless critics. That meant I had the courage to continue, and the material with which to do so. So if you can gain a support network of people you trust, that’s a really great thing. I know some writers work in isolation, but there’s enough isolation in the process already without actually being cut off from intelligent views and kindly voices. I could not have written this book without those people.
What are your hopes and dreams for the book?
Of course I hope a lot of people will read it, that it will move most of them (well, all of them, naturally), and that it might gain some recognition beyond that. But mainly, I genuinely want it to expand people’s perceptions.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One thing in particular. I’m ridiculously lucky that my partner has stayed kind, insightful and encouraging through my many moments of collapse.