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UNDIAGNOSIS
Writing – Health – Life
States of not knowing 

Oh my God it's July already

To kick off, some news of events this month: in August I’ll be back at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, doing three events; a creative writing workshop, a readers’ workshop on John Polidori’s The Vampyre, and an event with Charlie Fletcher, which will be the first time I'll be talking about my new book, Snowflake, AZ. It's a very personal story, the most personal I have ever written in fact. And it's not a bunch of laughs, but I'm sure the event should be enjoyable!

More details about these events here, on my website, or here, on the Festival’s website.
A view of Charlotte Square during the Festival
Now for this month’s interview. Appropriately enough I met S E Lister at the Edinburgh Festival some year ago, when we did a joint event. She was promoting her first book, Hideous Creatures, and that’s where I started the questions...
Five questions with...
 




S E Lister

 
S E Lister is a British writer, who’s published two amazing novels to date. I love her writing - it’s weird, fresh, original and yet has that timeless quality that good writing often transmits to us. 
1 - Thanks very much for agreeing to be ‘undiagnosed’. I’ve read and really enjoyed both of your published books to date. I’d like to start with Hideous Creatures, which is a hard book to describe briefly (often a good sign, I think!). It’s a sort of botanical-gothic-exploration-horror tale. It’s weird and unsettling, again both good things in my book, in which as a reader you don’t ever feel your feet are not about to slip into a patch of quicksand in some far-flung jungle. Can you tell us a bit about where and how the ideas for it developed?
I’m never entirely sure where my ideas come from. I always like to say that they grow out of the primordial soup in my unconscious, and I think that’s particularly true of this book, which is all about repressed horror and shame and the things we don’t want to look at too closely. 
I think the seeds for Hideous Creatures were sown during my time studying post-colonial and Native American fiction at university. I had an image in my head of a man with a secret, cutting his way through unexplored jungle. But it was years before I knew what that secret was, or what he was doing there. 
 
When I started writing the book I hadn’t fully planned it. I only had feelings about where it might go, and pictures in my head of a certain scenes. I read a lot of exploration narratives from the time – particularly the diaries of Alexander von Humboldt – then I just set off on my own journey, not really knowing where it would lead.
2 - Since I’ve just asked you the most obvious/dumb question that all writers get asked all the time, let me try to remedy matters, and ask something more writerly. Your second book, The Immortals, is also full of richly strange notions, but I felt it was somewhat more commercial in tone than your debut. Do you agree with that, and if so, was it a conscious decision, or just the way the idea fell out? Did you feel in any way constrained or impelled by your first book in the writing of your second?
I do agree that The Immortals is an easier sell – for one thing, unlike Hideous Creatures, it’s actually possible to describe in one sentence (‘It’s a time travel story!’). But I absolutely didn’t set out to write a more commercial book. In fact, it wasn’t until I started getting feedback from editors that I realised Hideous Creatures was… not a commercial book. If I was smart, maybe I would have written something with broader appeal for my debut. 
Rightly or wrongly, I don’t think about what’s going to sell when I’m sitting down to start a new book. I just scratch the idea that’s itching. Of course, there may come a time when I have to be more strategic. But for now, I think I still believe that if you just write for yourself, and do it skilfully and honestly, you’ll connect with the right readers – even if there are fewer of them.
 
For me, every book is a new experience. Just because you’ve written one, it doesn’t mean you know how to write the next one! Hideous Creatures gave me some confidence that I could see the process through, but other than that, The Immortals was an entirely unfamiliar adventure.
3 - I call this newsletter ‘Undiagnosis' to try to explore the states of not knowing involved in both matters of health, and matters of writing. How do you see your relationship to your work? Who’s the boss? Do you take turns? Do you find it easy to write or is each book a painful process? I’m asking all the writers I speak to this question: does all writing come from a place of un-ease of some kind?
When I was younger, I used to really resonate with George Orwell’s idea that writing is itself a sickness. I felt infected by my stories until I’d got them down on paper. It wasn’t particularly fun – it was urgent and all-consuming.
 
I think I’m slightly more detached from the process now, and somewhat more in control. I’m less afraid to try and bend the story to my will. But I still resonate with that idea of disease, and unease, when it comes to writing. There are not very many days when I enjoy the act of writing, in the simplest sense of the word. It’s uncomfortable because it demands such meticulous attention, and because you’re trying to excavate something true and bring it out into daylight. 
 
For me, writing is ultimately about working through the things that I myself find most profoundly uncomfortable, the questions that keep me up at night. Fiction lets me cloak those things, put them in fancy dress, so maybe the reader won’t see my vulnerabilities quite so directly.  
4 -  It was only when I became ill that I understood a paradox  - a physical illness makes you feel the separation of your mind and body as two things, as your mind struggles to operate well in the face of physical barriers, yet simultaneously, the interdependence between the mind and body is made totally clear, it reinforces that they are one. I know you suffer periodically from TMJ - a chronic pain condition. Could you explain what that is? How it is to try to work when you’re in pain? Is it possible for you or do you have to wait for better moments? Has it influenced your writing in any way?
I have a stress-related condition that means I clench my jaw when I sleep, leading to facial pain, neck pain and a lot of cluster headaches. It’s fairly standard for me to feel quite foggy and spaced-out, or to need long chunks of downtime to break out of a headache cycle. 
 
I used to have another chronic pain condition too, so I actually consider myself pretty lucky these days that I only deal with TMJ on and off. I’ve always experienced stress and anxiety very physically, though, so even when I’m not in pain, I’m hyper-sensitive to stimuli and get tired very easily.
 
I’m so acutely aware of that mind-body overlap that it’s actually what started me off writing magical realism, a genre where metaphor leaks into reality. I’m fascinated by the idea that our bodies can manifest our thoughts and feelings in such literal ways, and it’s central to my books. Arthur, the protagonist of Hideous Creatures, has a shameful secret that’s located in his body; Rosa in The Immortals finds that her fears and desires can sweep her body away through time. Her journey is about mortality, too, and how our bodies are vulnerable, which is something I feel keenly.
 
5 - Finally, what’s next for you? Any books coming up?
 
My next book, Augury, is coming in Spring 2020. It’s set in a city in the ancient world, where the balance of power is disrupted by a doom-laden prophecy. We follow a small group of characters who are trying to work out what’s true, who they should believe, and what really matters to them in the face of imminent disaster. 
 

I wrote this book some time ago, before the real world felt quite so apocalyptic, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s received!
 
A big thank you again to S E Lister for agreeing to be interviewed. I recognize a couple of things she spoke about - I've always felt that writing a book is like falling in love, or becoming infected. And as for what she says about metaphor/reality is fascinating. It reminds me of something that fantastically mystical writer D M Thomas once said: ‘The unconscious is a precise and even pedantic symbolist.’ - something I will be looking at in greater detail as this interview series develops.

She can be found here on her website and here on twitter.

See you next month...

 
Undiagnosis
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