The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness

Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.

Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never. img_0815.jpg

But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.

I’m still nervous about the cleaner.

Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.

But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.

A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.

Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.

Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’

 

Book Trailer Bonanza!

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Mount St Benedict College in Sydney to talk all things books and writing with some of the students there. It was pretty great because, not only were the girls delightful, but they also gave me cake.

As part of the activities leading up to the visit, the girls were invited to make book trailers for The Sky So Heavy, with the prize for the top three being lunch and cake-eating with me. I was also asked to pick a winner, which was tricky as they are all fabulous. Eventually I went with the entry by Grace Nicholson. I promised I would put links to the trailers up on my (much neglected) blog. So here they are. The first one is by Emily James. The second by Sarah Assaf. And finally, the winning entry by Grace Nicholson.

Enjoy!

Radio National review The Sky So Heavy

I’m quite the ABC Radio National fangirl, so to hear The Sky So Heavy reviewed on Books and Arts Daily (along with some other book called The Fault in Our Stars) was more than a bit spesh. 5528698-3x4-340x453

Follow the trusty link to have a listen…

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/book-review3a-young-adult-fiction-with-bec-kavanagh/5528660

 

Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.

It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.unnamed-1

From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.

To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.

Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.unnamed

The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.

I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as  etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)

But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.

The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.

At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.

And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.

 

Killing time: on character deaths

WARNING: May contain spoilers. I have done my best to avoid TSSH spoilers, but I accept no responsibility if you are too smart for your own good and inadvertently deduce key plot twists. When it comes to Game of Thrones, if you haven’t yet seen the ending to season one you only have yourself to blame. As for Offspring: everyone knows Patrick is DEAD. (Or they do now.)

Some weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to challenge my prejudices to all things fantasy and attempt to watch Game of Thrones. Despite predictions otherwise, I continued to watch beyond the first episode, largely because of two things: giant wolves and John Snow.  As I approached the end of the season I felt it was okay but given the choice between GoT and Mad Men or Breaking Bad, GoT would lose.

And then the protagonist was killed.

Yep, he of impressive coats, flowing hair and thoughtful gazing had his head chopped off before our very eyes. By a sadistic anime character who bares striking resemblance to a guy I had a major crush on in university, no less.

It was this character’s death that made me want to keep watching. As a rule, writers don’t kill off their protagonists. I watched the scene leading up to Ned’s death in a detached state of boredom: the entire time speculating on how he was going to miraculously escape his demise. And then he didn’t.

images I didn’t know at the time that George R.R. Martin – GoT’s creator and possibly also deep-sea fishing trawler captain – has quite a knack for killing off major characters. But it was the fact that he had killed off his protagonist in the very first instalment which made me want to keep watching. He had created a huge problem for himself and I wanted to see how he would solve it.

I saw a session with Markus Zusak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years ago, where he claimed that he wasn’t actually a very good writer, he was just good at solving problems. He said that his manuscripts were full of major flaws and problems and it was only his ability to fix these that made him any good. This really resonated with me. Story-writing at its core is about problem solving. At its most basic, you have a character at point A and you need to get them to point B.

Killing off a character can sometimes be the start of a problem, yet more often than not it’s the solution to one. I am quite a fan of Offspring. (These days less the ‘Keep em separated’ variety and more the TV show created by Deb Oswald. Although both have their merits). TV shows, especially free-to-air ones, that feature interesting and complex female leads are rare. If you are unsure of the value of Offspring I will offer only one argument, a quote from the protagonist, Nina:

‘My fantasies usually involve men carrying bearskins.’

Enough said.

Anyone who has access to any form of social media will be aware that last week Oswald did the unthinkable and killed off the much-loved Patrick: Nina’s aesthetically pleasing partner and father of her soon-to-be-born child. Patrick was a major character. He wasn’t the protagonist and he wasn’t killed by a sadistic anime man-child (although this too would have been interesting) yet he was still a major player and his loss will provide a much-needed plot revamp. In what can only be described as an act of remarkable generosity, Oswald wrote a piece about her decision to literally write off Patrick on SMH. (This gives you an idea of the level of outrage directed at her from the show’s fans.) In the piece Oswald implies that Matthew le Nevez had to leave the show and they needed to find a plausible and satisfying way to facilitate this exit.

As GoT was a book series before it became a TV show, it’s only fair to assume that Martin wasn’t dealing with a similar issue. As a writer who absolutely does not plan a single thing, I can’t help but wonder if Martin knew all along as he was writing the first book that Ned would die. (If you know the answer, tell me!) Or did he feel that the plot was getting a bit flat and decide to pull the rug out?

For my own part I wrote the death of one of my own characters in complete surprise. I typed the words with my own hands, yet I felt like a helpless witness to the event, practically screaming with disbelief as this character breathed their last breath. So why do it? Well, things were getting a bit flat plot-wise and I figured if I could make myself cry there was a fair chance I could get the same emotional response from my readers. I don’t think people will like it. But that’s not the point.

I was horrified when lovely Patrick died and when noble Ned lost his head. (No rhyme intended, I swear.) I didn’t want either of these things to happen. But when they did I found a whole heap of new respect for their writers. Because, good writing isn’t about taking the reader on a lovely journey they want to take, it’s about convincing them to come with you to a place they’d rather not visit at all.

This is why I will be eagerly awaiting season four of Game of Thrones and why I will be sobbing solidly between the hours 8.30 and 9.30 tonight.