Tuesday 21 July 2015

A Conversation with Helen Barbour

Helen Barbour was born and brought up in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and now lives in North London. She began her working life as a journalist on the Express & Star evening newspaper in Wolverhampton, and has written for the lifestyle magazine, Complete Wellbeing, and for the mental health charities Mind and OCD Action. Raj Persaud, well known consultant psychiatrist, (and ex-member of Greenacre Writers) recently interviewed Helen about her OCD

She blogs as The Reluctant Perfectionist about living with obsessive‑compulsive disorder, perfectionism and anxiety. Helen enjoys red wine, live stand-up comedy and adventurous travel and experiences, which have included trips to the Arctic, ballooning and a tandem skydive. Her life’s ambition is to figure out what ‘good enough’ means. 

Helen is a member of Greenacre Writers, whose Finish That Novel group helped her to fine-tune her debut novel, The A to Z of Normal, which has just been published. This week, Helen talks to us about why and how she wrote it.

What inspired you to write 
The A to Z of Normal?
Like many a writer – and, indeed, non-writer – I’d been saying I wanted to write a novel for years, but did nothing about it until one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That made me reflect on what I would want to have achieved, if that were me, and provided the impetus for me to turn my dream into reality.

I was inspired to write about mental health issues by my own experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. There is still a huge amount of stigma around mental health, and I wanted to raise awareness and understanding, but to do this in an accessible way.

Tell us a little bit about the book
It’s the story of a woman struggling to overcome her obsessive‑compulsive behaviour, so that she can marry the man she loves, while also dealing with some difficult family relationships.

My approach is similar to that of Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Spot of Bother, in which the central character suffers a mental breakdown. I write in a similar vein: tackling serious topics, but with a light touch.

How long did it take to write?
It’s always hard to answer that question! I started it nearly 10 years ago, but when I say ‘started it’, I mean that I faffed about for the first 10 months, doing research, plotting and developing characters…until some friends on a writing forum pointed out that I had turned a necessary activity into a form of procrastination. It was certainly much more fun – and easier – to sit and make up characters than to put fingers to keyboard and actually write a book.

When I finally started, I set myself the target of producing 2,500 words a week, as the prospect of writing 100,000 words was too daunting to contemplate.

The first draft took a little over a year to write and I was pretty pleased with the end result. Just a bit of tinkering and editing and it’ll be done, I thought…until I read it again three months later. In fact, every sentence was badly overwritten, some chapters were utterly contrived and, worst of all, it was in the wrong tense.

The second draft largely consisted of converting the text from the past to the present tense, which wasn’t nearly as easy as it might sound.

And so began years of rewrites – if I’d known at the outset how many were to come, I might have thrown the whole thing on the fire at that point! In fact, I lost count of the number of so-called ‘final’ drafts, but none of that work was wasted. With every redraft, I learned more about my craft: from technical skills, such as how to use a semi‑colon correctly(!), to the subtler aspects of writing, like adding symbolism and developing sub-plots.

I also left the novel untouched for long periods, while I made submissions to agents and publishers.

What prompted you to self-publish?
In spite of getting a lot of great feedback, including two requests to see the whole manuscript, I didn’t receive any offers of representation; as most writers will know, it’s a tough time to be an unknown debut novelist.

Ultimately, I decided that it was more important to me for my book to be out in the world, being read, than to secure a traditional publishing deal. From the comments and reviews I’ve had so far, I know I made the right decision.

The A-Z of Normal (2015) is published by SilverWood Books
You can follow Helen on Twitter: @HelenTheWriter

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