Nathan Filer is a poet and author. He has also worked as a researcher in the academic unit of psychiatry at the University of Bristol, and as a mental health nurse on in-patient psychiatric wards.
His debut novel The Shock of the Fall was acquired in the UK by HarperCollins in an 11-way auction. It is also being published in ten other countries, including Israel from where he was once deported for reasons of national security.
He lives in Bristol with his partner and their baby daughter.
Firstly, I wanted to congratulate you on what is undoubtedly one of the best novels tackling mental illness that I have read. You’re a trained mental health nurse; as such, did you feel a responsibility to represent mental health problems in a realistic way?
Thank you very much indeed, that’s really kind. It’s also interesting to me because I don’t feel that I ever set out to ‘tackle’ mental illness, as such. That isn’t to say that mental illness isn’t a part of this novel, but that for me it was secondary to the portrait of a family, and of the narrator Matthew Homes.
Matthew has a psychotic illness that is most likely schizophrenia. But there is so much more to him than this diagnosis. He is also an artist and a writer. He’s a brother, son and grandson. He’s a funny, clever young man who is trying to work things out.
My responsibility was to him as a character; to make his battles my battles, and to let it be his story that was unfolding. That said, in the scenes where I do explore his psychotic symptoms I certainly knew I had to get these right. There is a lot of nonsense written about schizophrenia. And I don’t want to propagate the myths.
This is your first novel – what inspired you to write it?
It’s funny – only published authors get asked what inspired them. If you had peered into my bedroom/office/entire world three years ago, I reckon you’d have gone with possessed.
This was such a challenging story to write, and for the most part unsatisfying – a search in the dark, when I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. Then on page 248 Mum and Dad cough in their sleep and “…we both froze. Simon made a show of it, making his whole body rigid, only his eyes moving from side to side, grinning at me.”
And I think: That’s it. That’s real.
It’s not a sentence anyone will stop to re-read, or copy out into their notebook. But it was the right sentence. I got to see him there.
I’m inspired by those moments; by the process.
Of course I also got to spend time in the company of Matthew Homes, who I grew to like enormously. Perhaps compelled is the right word. I felt compelled to tell his story.
The Shock of the Fall has a non-linear narrative. Did you write it as it appears or structure it later?
I pretty much wrote it as you see it. It is central to the novel that Matthew is physically writing out his story, that this process takes time, happens in different locations, and that his life is continuing to move forwards as he writes about it.
This means that he gets distracted sometimes. He might be sharing an event from his past when suddenly the student social worker (the pretty one with the minty breath and big gold earrings) starts reading over his shoulder – then all he can think about is that.
I’m very distractable too. My thoughts leap about all over the place, so perhaps I had to write it in this way.
Do you have any advice for writers wishing to see their work published?
I like that Banksy quote: “All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared to learn to draw?”
I think there is some wisdom here for writers too. It’s a strange thing that so many aspiring writers seem resistive to the idea of investing in classes or workshops or whatever. I don’t subscribe to the idea that talent is something you are born with. There is so much technique to writing, and I think a lot of it can be learned.
Then you need to get lucky. My main advice is be lucky.
Are there any writers who have particularly inspired or influence you?
I don’t read enough at the moment. That’s silly. Reading is probably the most useful thing a writer can do.
But I read books along the way, and I met characters along the way. I think characters make stories. If the people come alive, whatever they do is worth reading about. And I’m drawn to eccentricity.
Iain Banks’ Frank Cauldhame; Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone; DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little; and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield were among the characters who I met whilst writing The Shock of the Fall. I think they have all been an influence.
What’s next? Do you have plans for second novel?
I’ve written a lot of first paragraphs. I think I have a good one now. So I’m looking at paragraph number two. It’s hard work. I’m hoping I’ll be lucky…
Thank you Nathan.
Pic: Sarah Lee for The Guardian