Walking On Custard: An Interview With Neil Hughes

The more years that pass, the more I almost believe in serendipity. Certain things occur at certain times – experiences occur, ideas are discovered, people are met – all through seemingly fortunate happenstance.

Neil Hughes’ debut, Walking on Custard, is one of the reasons I believe this – that fate brings you exactly what you need when you’re ready for it. That meaning is made by us.

It all started in March. Following one of the most anxious periods of my twenty-something life, I somehow discovered Neil’s Ted X talk through twitter on the day it went public despite not following him. Insightful, hilarious, poignant: the talk remains one of my favourites.

Reading Walking On Custard, was a no-brainer after the talk (and even more so after speaking to Neil in person).

Part-memoir, part-self-help, and part-something-else-entirely, Walking On Custard is a journey complete with stick men and anecdotes, science and beautifully articulated advice.

And it had me from ‘hello.’

Literally.

That’s how the book starts.

With an awkward wave and a greeting and a nod to some themes and a subtle little bit of word play about preparing yourself for the ominous bit by giving you warnings about the ominous bit by overusing the word ominous. It’s amusing. Wry. And that humour continues throughout despite dealing with subjects like depression, suicidal thoughts, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.

In my opinion, this is precisely why the book is so wonderful. Because there is whimsy in some of the stories, a hint of the absurd in some of the examples, a joke smuggled in amongst the self-doubt and negative inner voices – the relative pragmatism of the narrative voice stands out. It makes the text feel exquisitely self-aware and compassionate.

Sure there are parts you may find yourself disagreeing with (are all comparisons negative? Can we admire another person’s achievements or aspire to do better ourselves if we don’t compare our present self to a potential future self?) but there’s no doubt that Neil’s arguments are sound and that the mental habits picked out are all too relatable.

For anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health – or who knows some who has – Walking On Custard is an absolute must-read. It’s reassuring, heart-warming. It’s as challenging and as helpful as you personally want to make it.

So with this as a little review, let me introduce Neil Hughes. Author. Comedian. Physicist.

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Can you give us your own summary of Walking On Custard?

Walking on Custard is the book I would have wanted to read while I was at my most anxious. A silly/serious exploration of painful anxiety, vulnerability, embarrassing stories, and the meaning of life. Where I occasionally get bored and do some doodles or write a chapter about a wizard.

I basically wanted to describe the process of changing the way I related to myself and the world through the medium of “stories about stupid things I’ve done” and jokes. I think I mostly managed it. 

How would you describe the writing experience?

Baffling. In a sense, it was easy – the whole book was present in my head from the moment I started.

But writing is always hard, especially as this was such a vulnerable, personal story. It simultaneously felt like the words wouldn’t come and the words wouldn’t stop.  

One of my favourite things is the inclusion of the Inner Voices – it’s absolutely something that all of us can relate to – but it seems from the first chapter that you weren’t sure whether or not to include them. Was this a tricky decision?

That’s interesting! I tried to make the relationship with my Inner Critic to have something of an arc – so in the beginning I resist, and then we argue, and then… well, no spoilers. It wasn’t a tricky decision to include them – they insisted on being included. As I wrote I had these voices saying “you can’t possibly write a book on anxiety and the meaning of life – you haven’t got everything sorted in your life! You’re a fraud!”

And I wanted to highlight that I wasn’t claiming to be some guru who had absolutely everything figured out. I hate that sense in some books that the author is somehow ‘above’ us mere mortals. My stance was more “we’re all a bit messed up, let’s be open about it and have a laugh and try and do better if we can”.

So I started to write the critical voices into the narrative, partly to shut them up, and partly to demonstrate that point: we don’t get rid of our critical voices, we just learn how to handle them better.

Were there any other complicated choices?  

Oddly enough, not really! Part of my brain wants to say that it was tough to know what to talk about… but it really wasn’t. The topics were obvious to me. All the strands I had to untangle as I worked through my anxiety were clear in my mind, I just had to put them in order and write. 

Despite the subject matter, Walking on Custard is a pretty hilarious read. We’ve talked about this briefly before but how important do you think humour is when dealing with subjects like anxiety and depression?

I love hearing this! I get all kinds of feedback on the book, which can broadly be grouped into two types: “this helped me through a tough time, thank you” and “this made me laugh on the train and now I’m embarrassed”. Both make me very happy as those were the two goals I had in my mind.

I think humour is real, and that one of the problems we have is a lack of authenticity and realness. So joking about suicidal thoughts, pain, vulnerability… it helps us to put those things into a new perspective, and also creates a sense of shared humanity.

Of course, you have to be careful. Humour can be misused, and I was super aware of treading lightly around sensitive subjects – making sure the target of the humour was always anxiety itself, and not those of us who live with it. 

On similar note – we’ve also discussed this super interesting idea of some people being ‘multipotentialites’. Could you talk about this?

I’ve always craved variety. One day a few years ago I decided I was finally going to pursue my dream of “doing everything”: writing, programming, speaking, doing comedy, counselling…

Luckily at this point I discovered www.puttylike.com and my now-friend Emilie Wapnick, who coined the term “multipotentialite” to describe people with this drive to do absolutely everything. I realised I had found my people.

How does that work for you?

Basically I juggle tonnes of projects at once. Currently I’m doing a lot of public speaking/comedy around anxiety, while working on my next book, and applying to start studying as an actual counsellor. And working on some software projects. It’s a fun, exhausting lifestyle, but it works for me as I know I’m doing what I really want to be doing. It’s less secure (and considerably less well-paid than my previous career… so far, anyway!) but I’m happier, and that’s what matters for now.

I’m really interested in this idea – though it reminds me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s metaphor of the Fig Tree – which makes me wonder if people who do have multipotential personalities may be more likely to suffer with certain types of anxiety. What are your thoughts?

I’ve wondered about this a lot. I think everyone can suffer from anxiety, and the expression of it in any individual’s life will be unique to them. So multipotentialite types will feel great anxiety about being caged, trapped in their job/lifestyle, afraid that they’re not doing the ‘right’ thing with their lives, and feeling like a square-peg constantly being forced into a round hole by society. “Specialise!”

But that’s not to say it’s harder or more anxious to be a multipotentialite. Others will have their own difficulties. I think we all struggle to see past ourselves sometimes, but I try to remember that everyone has a unique story and perspective and what seems easy/hard to me might be very different for them. 

Would you say writing a book dealing with mental health helped you?  

I did most of “the work” on myself prior to writing, but the writing process definitely helped me to put it all into a logical order. It’s a stressful process, though, so I don’t know that I’d recommend it as a general cure-all!

The responses you’ve had to Walking On Custard have pretty amazing from what I can tell from online. But how did it feel to publish something so deeply personal?

Terrifying! Publishing anything is frightening.

You can say that again. #writerslife

Yeah, you feel like you’re putting part of yourself out to be judged.

And publishing a book – my first book – which contained elements of my life story which I’d mostly kept secret even from my friends and family – is more terrifying still.

But the reaction has been phenomenal. Great reviews, lovely emails from people from all around the world thanking me for it… and none of the bad things I pictured have happened. Even if people don’t like it – which is fine! – I just think “ah well, it’s not for them.” The fear was there, but thankfully it didn’t turn into anything actually worth worrying about. 

You’ve outlined more books – want to shout about any of those? Will they also deal with mental health?

I have a couple of novels in the works at the moment, which I’m excited to be focusing on over the next few months. I’m sure I’ll return to the topic of mental health in future, as it’s something I’m passionate about, but I think that Walking on Custard said everything I have to say right now. Maybe in some years I’ll have accumulated enough wisdom (or just somewisdom!) to make another book about mental health worthwhile.

The novels do all touch on what it is to be human, and existential issues, and pain and suffering and laughter, so… I think it’s safe to say I have themes that will continue to surface in whatever I’m working on.

You also did a Ted X Talk (one of my favourites & I’m super glad it got us talking online). How was that experience?

I did! I have heard it’s good (I’ve not actually watched it myself yet). (It’s available at bit.ly/custardTED if anyone is interested)

It was an incredible experience. I loved meeting the other speakers and attendees at the conference – just a collection of fascinating people, it was a real privilege to be speaking to them. The response has been incredible – at the time of writing, around 30,000 views (!), and again I’ve been told it has helped people start to engage with their mental health for the first time, which is just staggering to hear.

I was terrified on the day, and there was a mild disaster with a clicker (which is in the video), but it all worked out okay in the end. I try to remind myself of that now when I’m scared and things are going wrong.

So you wrote a book. You’ve done your own Ted X Talk. Now you’re heading to One Track Minds. How does that feel?

I’m excited to be part of it – it’s a fantastic night of storytelling. 

Can you explain how OTM works?

It’s a night where people are invited to tell a story about a piece of music that changed their lives in some way. I went to it a few months ago and loved it – fascinating and hilarious and moving stories, all well told. I feel very privileged to be invited along, especially given the intimidatingly impressive portfolio the other speakers have. My inner critic is trying to tell me I’m a fraud, although I’m looking forward to proving them wrong.

Will you give us a hint as to your song?

 No.

(I’m the worst for hating spoilers! Come along or listen to the podcast. I will say that there’s more than one song in my story…)

What’s next for you?

I think I’ve answered this already! The big project coming up is my next book/first novel. Alongside that I’m doing more of these speaking engagements – using humour to get messages about anxiety and mental health out to as wide an audience as possible. After that, who knows? I have a whiteboard full of ideas, but I’ve banned myself from looking at it until the first draft is done of the next book.

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