As those who check in regularly with this blog know we do occasionally manage a bit of culture (films and books), when it’s related to psychology and mental health. It’s a great pleasure therefore, not only be able to talk about a new novel that goes into both areas, but to interview the author.
Beth Miller is a novelist who used to be a psychologist (she’s got a doctorate that doesn’t make it to her book covers). Her most recent novel The Good Neighbour is part domestic drama, part psychological thriller, part exploration of some scary places in the human psyche. It starts in a nice street, in a nice town (Hove, actually), with nice neighbours. We initially see this through the eyes of Minette, a rather bored stay-at-home mum, who makes friends with Cath: older, feistier and coping incredibly with her son Davey’s illness. Under Cath’s spirited influence Minette also becomes a different sort of friendly with the hunky fellow down the road.
The job of interviewer isn’t the easiest here as the story is a craftily put together teaser where what’s going on is revealed bit by bit. Spoiling would be bad form, but suffice to say that the niceness lasts for about as long as the veneer in Blue Velvet, and things quickly get complicated. Beth dropped into speak to us as part of a ‘blog tour’, a modern phenomenon that was, I confess, new to me. We’re the only psychology/mental health blog to nab her though, and we were pleased to be able to ask her some questions about psychology, mental health in fiction and what lies beneath nice neighbourhoods.
You ‘used’ to be a psychologist. Putting aside whether psychology is something you can ever truly leave (like the Catholic Church or the Mafia), why did you end up writing fiction?
Because it was something to keep me occupied while I was in the witness protection programme, following my middle-of-the-night escape from psychology. OK, not really. I have always written, alongside my other work, and gradually the need to write became more pressing, until it took centre-stage and I stopped doing my other work.
How does your background in psychology influence your writing?
I don’t consciously use the psychology I’ve learned in my novels, but I think it’s there, bubbling under the surface. I guess I retain the essential curiosity that propelled me into psychology in the first place. Like many people, I’m fascinated about what goes on behind the public faces of complicated people. Yes, I accept that curiosity is another word for nosiness. If I see a couple having an argument, for instance, I really want to know what it’s about, and have been known to loiter near them, risking their wrath, to find out.
One of your characters is identified as having pretty serious mental health problems. However, you don’t really play that ‘mentally ill’ aspect up. I wondered why if you thought of making more of it?
Once you give someone in a story a label, you create expectations about that character, which then can limit their options. Maybe the same is true in real life? Of course, having expectations can be very useful, in that others know, or at least think they know, how to react to someone with a particular label. But I didn’t want to direct the reader as to how they should think and feel about this character (whom I’ll call Chris, to save me having to type ‘this character’ every time). I didn’t want it to be ‘this is a story about Chris who has X diagnosis.’ Although Chris does have some psychological problems, I was interested not so much in the name or origin of the problems, but more in the unique ways Chris deals with them. In general, I think I’m interested in the unique way we all deal with our problems, whether we call them mental health problems or not. Fiction has a tendency to treat people with mental health problems as either unremittingly bad, or as saintly and wise. I hope I have portrayed a more real and nuanced person.
And I didn’t want it to be an ‘issues’ book. One of the other characters says something like, just because someone’s been diagnosed with something doesn’t mean that you necessarily understand them any better. That’s how I feel. I don’t think labels necessarily help you understand, though they sometimes feel as if they do.
The Good Neighbour explores the mundaneness of everyday life and also the terrible things that people can sometimes do to one and other. What drew you to both types of material?
Good question! I am very interested in the layers of extraordinariness that lie just under the surface of everyday life. How you can just be going about your usual day and then one new little thing happens: someone falls down the stairs, or a car breaks down, or an unexpected letter arrives, and the whole of a person’s life takes a different path to the one it was heading down. And I am also very interested in the terrible things people do to each other – in fact, I’m drawn towards exploring them out of grim fascination. I want to know why someone does the terrible and seemingly inexplicable thing they do. Because presumably they have reasons, however hard those might be for us to accept, and however unaware they might be of them. It seems to me that in their different ways, psychology and fiction are both quite useful methods for going inside a person’s head and trying to figure out why they do what they do.
I don’t think so. I tend to wander round assuming people are nice until I’m proved wrong. I think that’s at least as good a principle as assuming everyone’s awful. As the book is called The Good neighbour, I ought to say on the record that of course all my neighbours are lovely (though I believe some people are less lucky).
Beth Miller’s latest novel The Good Neighbour is published by Ebury press and is available from a variety of outlets including this well-known internet bookseller. You can follow Beth on Twitter @drbethmiller.
By John McGowan