The child’s hand groping out of the earth is undoubtedly real. As real as Cabdi’s own hand, when it lay on the earth after the machete fell, long ago. But this hand is alive. And it isn’t in a war-zone, far away. It is in the playground of a school, just outside the grounds of the English psychiatric hospital where Cabdi is now held. And the man who is stamping on the moving hand is a pigeater. Pigeaters are in charge of everything. As an accidental asylum seeker, Cabdi is friendless in a country he does not know. He cannot speak English. But he knows that he should not have gone into the playground. He should not have seen the hand in the earth. And whatever lies behind this, it is not his war. He walks away. Why should the crime have a witness, anyway?
When and where do you prefer to write?
Whenever the spirit moves me and wherever I am at that moment. Perhaps for a minute in the middle of a meal, because I’ve thought of a word that needs changing. Or maybe for the rest of the day, until three or four in the morning, because I’m ‘on a roll’. My partner regularly tells me (with a pained and weary expression) that great authors set aside a proper time each day – he feels that “3 hours in the morning after an early breakfast” would be splendid. But that would never work for me. (I identify profoundly with the woman in ‘Love Actually’, who cannot stop herself from answering her sick brother’s phone calls, no matter how intimate or compromised the moment. It’s a problem. I’m very bad at boundaries.) I write everything on a tiny ancient laptop, which is rarely more than a meter from me, in the garden, at work, at the dentist’s… I often get up in the night to write. I don’t sleep a lot.
If you had the chance to co-write a book, whom would it be with?
Difficult. It’s tedious how much I argue with myself as a writer, never mind tangling with anyone else. However, I do a lot of editing for authors, which is a bit like sneakily being a co-writer: not the storyteller, not the creative talent, but the person who ‘licks the book into shape’ (a wonderful image that comes from the way a mother bear sorts out her cubs after they are born). Recently I’ve been doing this with the prolific and glorious Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven, for two books he’s translated into English. My job is to take his translated sentences, and (firmly or gently) caress his translation till it gets as close as I can make it in English to his original elegance and intention. (It’s an intense privilege doing that with a seriously good author: I’m really proud of doing this!) But if I really had to co-author a book – I mean doing the whole thing : plot, storytelling, editing – I’d be intrigued to work with Chris Roy, author of ‘Sharp as a Razor’ and several other books. The circumstances of Chris’s life – (I’m not going to tell you: go and buy his books, read the back blurb!) – are more grim and constrained than anything you can imagine, but he appears uncrushed by this and is the coolest, most multi-talented person I can think of. I’d love to create a story with him, taking the dark, transgressive exuberance of his writing and somehow plaiting it together with my own bleak preoccupations. (I think we’d fight though, and he’s certainly a better fighter than I am, so probably not a good idea. Perhaps the only thing we’d agree about is which of us wrote it down – unlike him, I possess a keyboard…)
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
A lot of research and a lot of trial and error. Names are important. They have to evoke a specific time and place. Often a particular culture or set of aspirations. The resonance of an individual personality. (Roger and Juliet? Ronaldo and Juliet? Shakespeare, are you kidding me? Do you actually think that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’?). Several times I’ve changed the name of a character, late in the writing of a story. (BTW – if you ever do this, don’t just rely on global find-and-replace. You have to read through the whole book again, very carefully. Not just for the authorly reason that with a different name you may need to change a lot of adjacent words to recapture the original poetry, but also because you can fall down embarrassing rabbit holes. Once, after I’d changed ‘Adam’ someone pointed out to me that another character had become curiously Michaelant about something.)
Who would you like/have liked to interview?
Last year we fostered a desperately disturbed little boy whose story we never knew. I loved him so much. He hated me so much. Everything breakable in our house got broken – precious things, furniture, doors. I was bruised and bitten all over, but when he progressed to knives, we knew, (intellectually at least – I will never know this in my heart) that it simply wasn’t safe for him to stay with us, in an ordinary home, very often on his own with me. The fostering system in the UK is brutal, cruel and bleak. After the final crisis, he was bundled, in a couple of hours, to a secure children’s unit, with barely a moment for ‘goodbye’. As his ex-foster carers we are not allowed to know where he is or to have any news or further contact. This little boy haunts me every day. But in ten years’ time, when he is an adult (and by then I plan to have grown calm and wise!) I would like to track him down and interview him. To know what happened. To know how his life has turned out. To know what he remembers of his life with us, and what story he can tell us, as an adult, of his life before us. But be careful what you wish for, Carly.
Is there someone you sometimes discuss a dilemma with?
There’s a character in my head – I call him Henry Caralli – who’s been there since I was a child. An imaginary friend who never found a different head to live in. I’ve always talked through my dilemmas with him. (Unfortunately, though I like him a lot, he is both thick and seriously irresponsible. His advice is invariably rubbish and when I take it, it gets me into trouble.) For the last few months, however, I’ve been blessed by similarly disembodied (but much better and apparently not even imaginary) people, all authors, who seem to send me unsolicited solutions, whenever I’m really troubled. (Thank you @TheMilesWatson for the blog about Pain – Twitter was helpfully determined I should read this and kept on notifying me about it. Thank you @LunamillerNoir for sorting out my angst about ‘bad reviews’. Thank you @FromGreenhills for the various emails and Facebook offerings in which you have gone straight to a problem you didn’t even know about, and given me the answer.) (I do believe in magic).
Say someone asks if they can use your name in a book. Would you rather be the ‘good one’ or the ‘bad one’?
Seriously? Would anybody ever want to be “the good one”? (Writers take note: if you’re short of a name for a dodgy character, feel free with “Carly” or “Rheilan”. Or be my guest: have both. I’ll be hugely entertained.)
Which character would you like to be in this book?
Cabdi. No question whatsoever. Cabdi is finding his way out of the darkness of an intolerable war. He is utterly disconnected from the UK where he has turned up as a refugee. He finds this world quite mystifying. Yet somewhere within himself he remains centred, curious, positive. He has no false virtues or pointless altruism. Writing him, I fell absurdly in love with him. Even now, on sad days, I look for him in my head and channel him.
Where can I find you when you are not writing/reading?
I look after an acre of land around our local community centre. I started as a ‘guerrilla gardener’, secretly clearing the nettles and brambles and planting flowers when no one was watching. Eventually I got ‘outed’, so I’m known as ‘that mad woman who does the garden’. It’s still a pretty wild place. You can find me there most days. Sometimes at night even.
What goes through your mind when you hold your new book in your hands for the first time?
Hmm. Basically I’m happier with e-books. (I love the way they have no smell or texture, aren’t ‘things’, can be effortlessly sorted alphabetically without disturbing the woodlice in my bookcases, and are dead cheap to buy…). On the other hand, whenever I see one of my books in Amazon’s ‘print-on-demand’, I just think “Really? Such feeble cardboard for the cover, when I’ve worked so hard? Amazon, really, you could do better…”.
Where did you get your inspiration from for this book?
I don’t really get ‘inspiration’, I’m more of a bag-lady. This dark story formed itself in my mind over many years, constructing itself out of whatever came my way to trouble me. Newspapers told me the reality of the institutional abuse of children. Some Somali children we looked after alerted me to the civil war in Somalia and – via circuitous routes – to the fate of the Somali Bantu. The decaying mental hospital in the story is various places I’ve worked in as a nurse, and seen closed down. The dislocation of various characters is of course a metaphor. I could go on. But the birth of a story is a mysterious thing, and there are always scenes which seem to arrive from nowhere – like Cabdi asserting his dignity in the bathroom of the hospital, and his dance in the penultimate chapter. Perhaps that’s inspiration. But I can’t answer your question here – by definition, I have no idea where those scenes came from. I’m sorry! (I usually like them though.)
About the author
Carly Rheilan was born in Malta and lives in the UK. She was educated in the grand cloisters of Oxford University (which she hated and left) and then at Brunel (a small-town technological university where she discovered new worlds and stayed for a PhD). She is a psychiatric nurse. She has done research into criminal justice. She has children of her own and has also fostered two children with mental health problems. She has worked many years in the NHS. Her novels address issues at the edges of psychiatry, crime and personal trauma.
Carly Rheilan is shy and private person. If you want an image of her, you may picture her working late into the night in the rain of an English village, in a conservatory full of tropical plants, hunched over a computer and drinking too much coffee. When not working or writing, she spends time with family, rages against the politics of her unequal country, and battles against acres of nettles in a community garden.
Amazon : https://t.co/TPxPf4iKJV