Today, I’m excited to welcome back crime fiction author Kate Evans. She’s talking about using her Scarborough Mysteries series as a vehicle to explore human truths, psychology, and mental health. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, this is a fascinating take on one author’s approach to fiction! Stay tuned tomorrow, when I’ll be reviewing Kate’s latest book, The Art of Breathing.
‘What should the novel do: be a mirror to the reader’s world, reflecting it back at her, or be a clear pane of glass, not reflecting but offering something away from the self, a vista of a bigger, wider, different world outside? The moral energy of the novel form derives from its capacity to imagine the lives of others. This empathy can be seen as the beginning of the moral sense.’ Neel Mukherjee, shortlisted for 2014 Booker Prize.
Mirror or window, I enjoy novels which are either or both. I want my reading to make me think, make me ask questions, offer me perspectives on parts of the world I am unlikely to visit.
I write the kind of novel I would like to read, which means a novel which looks askance at the world we live in.
My own experience of depression and therapy and then my training as a psychotherapeutic counsellor led me to interrogate how we in the UK (and, perhaps, more widely in Western culture) perceive mental health. I am intrigued by discussions around why we talk about physical and mental health, why are the two separated? What we mean by good and bad mental health, what is the line, the distinction? About the idea of diagnosis, are we medicalising too much what are straightforward human responses?
These kinds of questions underpin my three Scarborough Mysteries novels: The Art of the Imperfect (long-listed for the Crime Writers Association debut dagger); The Art of Survival; and The Art of Breathing. The series is set in Scarborough, the North Yorkshire coastal town where I live. The stories are told from the point of view of three characters: Hannah Poole; detective sergeant Theo Akande; and Aurora Harris. Hannah is training to be a counsellor, but her own rickety sense of self is sent into turmoil when her father dies and she begins to get back in touch with the memories of the childhood abuse she suffered. Theo is black and gay and a new-comer to Scarborough, trying to find his place on the town’s police force. Clever and kind, he undoubtedly has the most psychological equilibrium of the three story-tellers. Aurora Harris is neighbour and friend to Hannah; solicitor and new mum she struggles to balance these roles. Each book has a different crime which the three characters are drawn into, plus the emotional stories of Hannah, Theo and Aurora twist, interweave and develop.
Through Hannah’s narrative, in particular, I hope to give the reader a taste of depression from the inside and also the experience of a possible route towards recovery. I know that several readers found Hannah ‘too hard to like’, missing, perhaps, the point that depression leads to a self-loathing which is unutterably distressing and all-encompassing.
The Scarborough Mysteries are a result of a thirty year long journey of writing and they didn’t find their genre – crime – until I made the decision to give my novel writing the time and space to come to fruition. So why crime? It was one of those weird writing experiences when I’d been tussling with the problem of structure and one day I woke up knowing that a crime novel would offer me the scaffolding within which to construct my story. Since I’ve always enjoyed reading a lot of crime novels, it was relatively easy for me to reacquaint myself with the crafting of one and the writing began to flow. It was a good decision. Having said this, the first in the series, The Art of the Imperfect, is less like a traditionally plotted crime novel than my third, The Art of Breathing, and I did a lot more planning for this most recent book with the usual shape of a crime novel in mind.
It was only after taking my decision that I began to hear writers talking about crime as a genre for exploring the way our society is today. For instance, author Val McDermid has said that, of all the genres, crime is the best at tackling current issues. In a recent Artsnight (BBC2, 22nd July 2016), she explored what she described as the ‘complex relationship between truth and fiction.’ She said she had, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’
In addition, I want my novels to go against what I see as a wrong-headed trend in modern day crime writing, the propensity to label the perpetrator of the crime, usually murder, as a psychopath. For me this is too easy. It also has the tendency to mark out the murderer as ‘other’, it’s too cosy, for me, for the reader to think, ‘I am not a psychopath and so I would never do anything as awful as this.’
In my stories I want to explore what measures very ordinary people might take – out of fear, jealousy, hate, love – and how it might all go horribly wrong. I do believe most people who commit crime, particularly abuse and murder, are able to justify their actions to themselves, and I am very interested in those justifications. I do think we have many potentials within us and if we ignore what may be lingering in what Carl Jung called our ‘shadow’ we do so at our peril. Firstly because we are not fully aware of all of ourselves. Secondly, we might unknowingly act from our shadow which could have disastrous consequences for ourselves and others.
In the UK, around a quarter of the population live with emotional or psychological vulnerabilities. I hope they may recognise some truth in my novels. And, maybe, those who are around them may gain an increased understanding of what mental health and resilience means.
Kate Evans is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her non-fiction articles have been published in (among other publications) The Guardian, The Independent, Counselling Today, Poetry News, The Journal for Applied Arts in Health and The Journal of Poetry Therapy. Her book Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment was published by Sense Publishers in April 2013. She has created two word-based installations for the arts festival Coastival, one inspired by the works and life of Edith Sitwell. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sussex University and teaches on the Degree in Creative Writing at the University of Hull, Scarborough campus. She is trained as a psychotherapeutic counsellor.
In October 2016 she will be appearing at the Beverley Literature Festival. The Art of Breathing will be launched in WH Smiths in Scarborough on the 29th October 2016.
Connect with Kate Evans
The Art of the Imperfect: https://goo.gl/JrGat2
The Art of Survival: https://goo.gl/6RPzk5
The Art of Breathing: http://amzn.to/2fbu1g7