Psychotherapist and writer Rachel Elliot’s spirited debut novel Whispers Through a Megaphone joins together the broken lives of a quiet woman who’s been living in the shadow of her abusive mother and a timid mental health specialist who runs off into the woods when he realises his wife no longer loves him. In Miriam Delaney, Ralph Swoon and their circle of family, friends and acquaintances, she creates a delightfully defective community with whom we can laugh and learn to get the hang of modern living. We put her on the couch for a quickfire Q&A.
In what ways are you a quiet person?
I’m not brilliant at small talk, and I have a terrible memory, so this can make me quiet, and as a result I’ve become good at asking other people questions. I like to work by myself, rather than in a noisy, open-plan office (which I did for years). I can happily go hours without speaking. That said, my closest friends call me a chatterbox. When I’m not writing, I have a part-time psychotherapy practice – I engage in conversation for a living. My mum and I regularly chat for ages on the phone. So I guess, like most people, I’m full of contradictions. But give me the choice between a dinner party with strangers and an evening in front of a Nordic Noir box set and I’ll choose the box set.
What is the biggest insight you gleaned from reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking?
This book affected me a lot. It’s easy to beat yourself up for being introverted, because extroversion is more valued by society. I express myself better when I write than when I speak, I get tired if I’m with people for too long – both are characteristics of introversion, which has nothing to do with shyness. Susan Cain explains that extroversion and introversion are not about capability, but our relationship to outside stimulation – introverts thrive in environments that are not overstimulating. But the key insight for me was about the importance of stretching yourself – in my case, being more out in the world and braving something I’d always avoided: public speaking. Quiet is full of examples of people acting more extroverted than they are in service of their projects – to do this often and well, without burning out, introverts need to allow themselves ‘restorative niches’. So basically, Susan Cain’s book made it easier to be myself.
At what point did you realise you wanted to tell Miriam’s story? And had her abusive mother already appeared fully formed in the background?
I was pestered by vivid images. I could see Miriam standing at her window. The house became clearer, then her mood and brokenness. I had a view from the air, I could see a man playing a guitar in the woods. I wrote the opening scene, with Miriam listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, then the whole chapter. I tried to write it in the first person, it didn’t work, I realised she had no voice. Only Miriam and Ralph were there at the start, fully formed – Frances Delaney appeared later, quite slowly.
I had the urge to write in broken-up language. But the other characters emerged and I realised that this woman was surrounded by warmth and life. Unbrokenness was part of her too.”
What other fiction had you written up to that point?
I’d been writing in various ways, initially in arts and technology journalism, then short fiction, and a previous novel was a finalist in the Dundee International Book Prize and the Mslexia Novel Competition. But with this book, something different happened, something seemed to fall into place.
What was the biggest leap of faith in getting started, and how long was the writing process from start to finish?
Getting started was easy – the leap of faith happened after finishing the first draft when I realised that I hadn’t listened to the story, I’d swamped Miriam, I’d let ideas dictate the tone. Instead of hacking into it, I started from scratch, which required the confidence that it was worth it after all the time I’d already put in. The whole process took just over two years.
As you went, did your aims for the book shift focus, for example from highlighting mental illness and embedding a positive message about a fresh start, to simply laying out the characters on the page to see what they got up to?
My aim with version 2 was to write ‘from the gut’ in a kind of emotional, stripped-down way. To let the characters inform the story and the story inform the style. My aim was precisely, as you say, to lay the characters out on the page – and also to turn images into words. I wanted to reflect things I felt and saw – a form of social commentary that involves listening rather than saying something. I loved what Tom McCarthy wrote about novel-writing in the Guardian: “… the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it – not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively.”
Was the comedy there from the outset, or did the book start out wholly darker?
At the outset, it was all darkness. And because I knew it was about a woman’s brokenness, I had the urge to write in broken-up language. But the other characters emerged and I realised that this woman was surrounded by warmth and life. Unbrokenness was part of her too – we can always be both. And while I’m a fairly serious person, I’m also quite silly. The slightest thing will make me laugh. I value humour so much, especially during dark times in our lives. Sometimes, in the worst moments, it’s all we have.
Music plays a big part in the novel, affecting and signalling different characters’ moods. Do you listen to music as you write or only during downtime?
Both. I had a playlist that I listened to while writing Whispers, which grew by the day, and I played it on repeat. I can only listen to music I know really well while writing, though, so it doesn’t demand anything from me, and helps drives the mood and the atmosphere.
Sadie Swoon is pretty much addicted to social media, while her husband Ralph does his level best to ignore it. Do you have a conflicted relationship with modern communication devices and outlets?
I’m addicted to my iPhone and my MacBook Air. I’m a bit of an Apple geek. I used to work on magazines about digital arts and technology – I love gadgets. As with anything, I think there are wonderful and problematic aspects to technology and social media. I suppose I am conflicted, in a way, because I keep intending to join Twitter and it never happens. My friends tell me how Twitter can sometimes evoke a fear of missing out, and yet I also wonder if I’m missing out on connecting with people and discovering wonderful things to get involved in. The problem is, I always feel like there isn’t enough time in the day and I’m rubbish at multitasking. How do people do it? There’s a line near the end of the book, where Miriam is commenting on her friend, Fenella: “One minute she’s jogging, then she’s making a lamp shade from a pair of old knickers. Some people just spring from one thing to the next so easily don’t they?” I am in awe of how people do that – and social media involves some serious springing!
Do you find you are more guarded or more open in the presence of fellow psychotherapists?
Do you adopt a different persona when you are working as a psychotherapist, in order to help your clients open up?
As a psychotherapist, it’s important to be yourself. The idea is to be as present as you can, to really engage with someone and what’s happening in the room, to be aware of what you think and feel. So I try to be open and honest.
Who is the real Rachel Elliott?
I’m not sure I believe in the idea of a ‘real’ person – a fixed self, consistent over time. We’re all many characters – different places and life events bring out different aspects of our personalities. In a way, this is what the book is about. Miriam, Ralph and Sadie all confront the narratives they have bought into about who they are – the tales they have come to believe and the tales they are still spinning. Each of them is made to confront the same question: is this really the story of who I am?
Is it good practice for psychotherapists to seek psychotherapy from time to time? (And are there those who refuse it once they have qualified, preferring to self-analyse?)
All psychotherapists have long-term psychotherapy during their training – it’s an essential part of the process. After qualifying, they all have supervision. It’s up to the individual whether they want to seek psychotherapy from time to time – it’s a private matter.
Which fiction and non-fiction writers do you particularly admire, and why?
Ali Smith – her work is like electricity. I love the graphic novels of Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel, which express more in images than I ever could in words. I regularly return to Virginia Woolf (for her associative style), A.M. Homes (for the way she makes everything unravel, particularly marriages, minds and suburban life), and Lorrie Moore (I’m addicted to her observations, she’s hilarious). Then there’s Jon McGregor and Nicola Barker, who never fail to surprise and whose dialogue is wonderful. I really admire Jonathan Coe for his mix of humour, melancholy and social satire. Evie Wyld is brilliantly inventive – worth reading several times over. I also love the work of Patricia Highsmith, who evokes menace, malevolence and emotional darkness with such ease. Tove Jansson creates worlds full of simplicity, complexity and mystery. In terms of non-fiction, I recently read two books by Alexandra Horowitz – Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know and On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. The first gave me a deeper understanding of the creature I spend my days with, while the second made me view the world in a whole new way while I’m out walking – both of which are pretty great things for a book to do. I’m reading H is for Hawk right now, it’s beautiful and deeply moving.
Which other novels about mental illness do you recommend?
Your question raises an important issue: what do we consider to be mental illness? Mental illness needs normalising, destigmatising. We all experience moments of it at different times, whether it’s something like trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, or something hard to define. Major life events can plunge us into overwhelming emotions. So while labels or diagnoses can be important to people, and there are of course degrees of distress, the concept of ‘mentally ill’ and ‘sane’ seems unhelpful. Countless books feature characters in emotional turmoil. I think that’s the great thing about the novel, the way it exposes us to depths of feeling, the way reading makes us step into someone’s shoes, engages us in empathy and curiosity instead of judgement and fear. And what’s also wonderful, is most novels full of serious, emotional distress are not classed as being about mental illness – there’s something normalising about this in itself. So while I could list books like The Bell Jar, Mrs Dalloway or Notes from an Exhibition – or most novels by Patricia Highsmith – I wouldn’t categorise any of them in this way.
Where and when are you happiest?
It doesn’t take much to make me happy, I’m easily pleased. I really appreciate small pleasures, like sitting in Sam’s Kitchen in Bath, my favourite cafe, drinking coffee and chatting and watching the world go by. This cafe is on Walcot Street, a version of which appears in the book – I placed Julie Parsley’s Nordic House there.
How much time in a typical week do you devote to writing?
Usually four days and as much time around that as I can. When writing Whispers, I worked on it every day, even if just for a few hours.
What are you writing next?
I’ve started a new novel and am playing with images, getting to know the tone. To use Zadie Smith’s term, from her essay ‘That Crafty Feeling’, I’m a ‘Micro Manager’. Smith says: “Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters – all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence.” Just as I spent weeks on Miriam’s first chapter, then sped off from there, I’m immersed in the opening pages – it’s compulsive and strangely enjoyable…
Are you an advocate of creative writing classes and workshops?
I haven’t done any kind of class or workshop myself, but I know many people who have benefitted from them – either by putting the time aside in a structured way, receiving feedback from others or finding a literary agent. Whatever works, I think.
Rachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. Her writing has featured in a variety of publications, from digital arts magazines to the French Literary Review. She has also been shortlisted for a number of short story and novel competitions in the UK and the US. She was born in Suffolk, and now lives in Bath. Whispers Through a Megaphone is published by ONE, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Jacqueline Spanton
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.