“Approaching 80, frail and alone, a remarkable man makes the journey from his sheltered home in England to Berlin to meet his granddaughter. He has six days left to live and must relate his life story before he dies…”
You are what you read. Which is why you should never trust someone who doesn’t read and why I like books that make me think, take my brain for a spin, offer a challenge.
Juliet Conlin’s second novel, The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, certainly fits into that category.
Not because it’s a difficult read. Not because the characters are unlikeable. Not because it’s a struggle to get through. But because it looks at a number of issues from love and war, to loss and identity. It’s a book about journeys and relationships. It’s a voyage and return. And yet, beyond any of that, it’s a book about storytelling. About the relationship we have with the stories we tell, to others and to ourselves.
Having been asked to take part in the blog tour for the launch of Conlin’s book, I therefore settled in and pulled together some questions that I think will show you just why this book is one that will make you think and why I very much recommend it. If you’re a fan of The Book Thief or partial to a neuronovel, this is one for your bookshelf.
HA: In The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner In Six Days, the eponymous Alfred Warner hears voices – how did this idea come to you?
JC: A friend of mine once admitted to having heard voices as a teenager. I was intrigued by the fact that he framed it in terms of an ‘admission’, and also by the notion of hearing voices no-one else can hear. I can’t quite recall the moment I decided to give Alfred Warner the gift of voice-hearing, but once I had made that decision, it seemed to fit perfectly.
HA: Voice hearing is generally associated with psychosis or schizophrenia – did you set out to challenge the stigmas around voice hearing
JC: This was one of my main objectives, to challenge the stigma and to offer a possible alternative framework with which to understand this phenomenon. Although it is the case that people suffering from psychosis often hear voices, many voice-hearers are mentally healthy individuals who lead well-balanced, productive lives. There is certainly an argument to be made that the stigma, discrimination and isolation faced by these individuals is far more harmful than the voices themselves. I wanted to shift the focus away from the pathological voice-hearer, and instead question the interpretations that the non-voice-hearing public imagination imposes on the subject.
HA: How much did you look into Voice Hearing – its history and current theories?
JC: The history of voice-hearing is fascinating and there is a huge amount of literature on the subject. It is a phenomenon that has been described and reported in almost all known cultures and goes back millennia. Famous voice-hearers include Socrates, Freud, Gandhi and Joan of Arc. However, in my research it soon became clear that the way in which voice-hearing is constructed depends very much on who is the moral/social authority. That is, in Joan of Arc’s lifetime, the Church assigned a theological meaning to voice-hearing, and was primarily interested in whether the voice(s) came from God or the Devil. It is only relatively recently, since the emergence of modern psychiatry in the 19th century, that voice-hearing became a mental illness, a symptom of a brain malfunction. For me, the history of this phenomenon is so interesting, because it shows how whether or not a behaviour is “sick” depends on who holds the explanatory authority.
HA: Ok little question – I spotted that you attended Durham University – was Alfred Warner’s story inspired or informed by the Hearing The Voice project?
JC: I completed a PhD in Cognitive Psychology at Durham, and also know one of the scientists working with Hearing The Voice, Charles Fernyhough (HA: Coincidentally me too). However, I began writing the novel before I heard of the Hearing The Voice project, but I have been following their work closely since I became aware of it. I particularly like the project’s interdisciplinary approach, combining perspectives from clinicians, academics, mental health professionals, artists and, most importantly, voice-hearers themselves.
HA: In Alfred’s narrative, there seem to be strong links made between voice-hearing and the role of storytelling in creating our sense of self and identity (particularly once we add Brynja to the equation as well as the motifs created through travel and journeying). Is this something you deliberately drew out in the book?
JC: You’ve phrased this far more eloquently than I could have, so thanks! I think this was an aspect that drew itself out during the writing process, if that makes sense.
I tend to begin my writing with as open a mind as possible (I don’t plan in much detail before putting pen to paper), which enables things to come to the surface while I’m writing. I come from a family of storytellers; every little anecdote, from how my grandmother survived the Second World War in Berlin, to what happened to my mum in the supermarket yesterday, is framed as a complete, often embellished (!) narrative with characters, dialogue etc.
As such, my sense of self is inextricable linked to stories and storytelling. In the novel, my aim was to create not just three main characters (Alfred, Brynja and Julia), but also three separate stories that are distinguishable in terms of tense and point of view.
Alfred’s story – told in third-person singular and past tense – reflects a more traditional storytelling form. By contrast, with Brynja’s narrative – second-person singular, present tense – my aim was to create a more urgent, slightly claustrophobic atmosphere to reflect her own state of mind.
HA: Amazing. Without giving too much away – there are clear allusions throughout to Norse mythology (Hugin and Mugin’s relationship with Odin in particular). Could you share any thoughts on this?
JC: Thanks for this question! Yes, the story is in part inspired by Norse mythology, but not by the story you mention. Hugin and Mugin were probably slumbering somewhere in my subconscious, but the idea for the voices – the Voice-Women to be precise – came from the tale of the Norns, three female entities, or goddesses, who spin the threads of life and rule the destiny of humans. In fact, one of the early (and later discarded) titles of the novel was Best of Princes, taken from the Poetic Edda.
HA: Slightly cheeky, but a lot of writers talk about ‘hearing voices’ – those of their characters among others. Is this something you identify with or have experienced?
JC: I don’t hear my characters’ voices directly, i.e. they are not audible, but I do have a specific sense of what they sound like. I often ‘act out’ the voices, sometimes even in dialogue, but only when I’m sure no-one is listening! In terms of my ‘inner voice’, I sometimes hear a fully-formed sentence in my mind, which I then only need write down. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as I would like – it would make the writing process so much easier…
HA: I love this question: do you have a particular writing method? Do you have a routine?
JC: I love this question too, and always love hearing about how other writers go about it! My mind works best in the mornings, so I make sure to be at my desk as early as possible. I’m a slow writer, so 500-600 words a day is pretty good for me. This may have to do with the fact that I like to get a sentence into good shape before I move on to the next. I also usually write first drafts of a scene or dialogue in longhand, then I type what I’ve written into the computer. I use this as an opportunity to do first revision/editing work.
HA: Going back to your interest in historical settings, how do you find that research process?
JC: I love history and I love research, so this aspect of the process is great fun. I find it very fruitful to combine different research approaches, and there are so many resources out there: libraries, written testimonials, the internet, and – best of all – talking to contemporary witnesses. The only problem is that when I find the subject matter captivating, I forget that the research is only a means to an end, and have to prise myself away and get some writing done!
HA: Do you ever find yourself bogged down in ideas or details whilst researching?
JC: Yes, very often!
This ties in with my answer earlier – the more I research, the more sources I become aware of, the more I want to read etc. My solution is that I allow myself a fixed period for the main research, say 6-12 months, and then commit to the writing. As for ideas, I just make notes about everything that pops into my head – I have reams and reams of idea notes – because they might just be the seed for the next story.
HA: What do you find the most challenging thing about writing?
JC: Overcoming my impostor syndrome: the little voice (yes, there it is!) inside my head that tells me that what I’m currently writing is too mediocre to ever get published, and if it ever does, it is due to good luck and I will be exposed as a fake. When this happens, I have to work quite hard to ignore it and just focus on getting down one word at a time. However, when the voice is silent and I’m right inside that creative ‘zone’, I am completely isolated from the world – it’s just me and my writing. This is quite a beautiful thing, akin to meditation, and makes the whole thing worthwhile.
HA: Was there anything in particular that you found challenging in writing the story of Alfred Warner?
JC: Alfred’s story was surprisingly easy to write. I suppose I’d been thinking about him for so long, several years in fact, that he pretty much walked right onto the page. By contrast, Brynja’s story was very challenging. I struggled for a long time to pin down her narrative voice, possibly because her voice-hearing experience is really quite disturbing. Also, it was only through an effortful trial-and-error process that I managed to slot her story in alongside Alfred’s, in reverse chronology.
HA: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
JC: Read widely and abundantly. Write a lot, if only to get used to that awkward self-consciousness many writers feel about their own writing. Subject your senses – all five of them – to a wide range of different experiences. Challenge your preferences and dare to be uncomfortable. I think that if we always stay inside a narrow comfort zone, this weakens our ability to perceive and understand the world around us. Make your brain work!
HA: Give us the main reason why you think people will enjoy The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner In Six Days
JC: At the heart of the novel is a story.
There is something quite primeval about a narrative, about transporting readers (or listeners) into a fictional world that is, for all intents and purposes, anchored in the real world. There are real evolutionary advantages that underpin storytelling, ranging from social cohesion to conveying essential information in a memorable way. For me, a good novel will tell a good story, first and foremost. Aspects such as genre, period setting, even language, are always (only) vehicles for storytelling. I hope that with The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days, I can offer readers a good story that lingers for a little while after closing the book.
You can buy Juliet Conlin’s The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner now from Amazon for £8.99 (paperback) or £2.99 (Kindle).