Thursday, August 6, 2015

Graham Old, Author of Of Madness and Folly

Autism, comedy, graham old, Mental Health, of madness and folly, Self-harm, aspergers novel, humor book, humour novel, missionary author, psychiatric patient

Today we are interviewing Graham Old about his comedy/memoir/fiction book "Of Madness and Folly."

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Graham Old. I am a working-class Brit, staunchly anti-establishment and a wimpy pacifist. I'd be a revolutionary communist or anarchist, if I could justify throwing bricks at department store windows or guillotining the rich. (Note: I reserve the right to re-visit that intention once I'm rich and famous!) I guess I'm what they call a champagne socialist, if I could afford the champagne.

I am a former missionary, church leader and university chaplain. I have also worked in Social Services and for adults with Learning Difficulties. I am currently a certified Hypnotherapist and work in private practice.

Describe the plot of your new book in a few sentences.
Rob Auldam is a Social Worker with a love of red wine and a diagnosis of Aspergers. Following a drunken incident of self-harm he is admitted as a psychiatric patient. There, he discovers a world of unexpected humour and learns that we are all a little bit crazy.

Who do you think would most appreciate this book?
I hope that the book will appeal to anyone who enjoys comedy books. Although the content might be considered dark, gritty or 'unsuitable for minors', my intention is that the humour throughout the book makes the raw expereinces within digestible and strangely enjoyable. I also hope that it appeals to people who have an interest in mental health, autism, self-harm or have ever wondered what life inside a 'mental hospital' is really like.

What inspired you to write a fictional comedy memoir?

I think there were three sources that lead to me writing this book. Years ago, my brother and I were talking about the surreal experience of working within social services. We briefly toyed with writing a sitcom set within that environment, but concluded that if it was true to our experiences, it would be dismissed as unbelievable! Although this book is not set within Children's Services, that serves as something of a back-drop.

Secondly, I read the book Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, which is an account of his journey through depression. I cannot recommend that book highly enough.

Finally, I re-read Philip Roth's magnificent Portnoy's Complaint. Reading Roth and Haig in close proximity persuaded me that it was possible to discuss topics that were deeply theoretical and essential – like ethnicity, sexuality and identity – but to do so in a way that was humourous and engaging.

Tell us a bit about the protagonist, Rob.

I love Rob! I think of him as something like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. But imagine a Sheldon who desperately wanted to be liked and was fully aware of his own foibles.

Rob is a Social Worker and also works as a Life Coach. He had a less than perfect upbringing, though in this book you only receive vague details of that. Rob was also diagnosed with Asperger's a few years ago and is probably still in the midst of reviewing his life's history and figuring out the part that Aspergers played in all of that. As such, Rob has experience of mental health and family crisis from both sides of the fence. He is perhaps the epitome of a 'wounded healer'. Yet, rather than giving up, he stubbornly believes he can really make a difference in people's lives. He should probably have quit some time ago!

Rob, as an autistic social worker, is a unique character. What steps did you take with your writing to make his character feel authentic?
I kinda feel like I cheated with this one. Due to my own work in Social Services and in private practice, plus some family insight and personal first-hand knowledge, I can probably relate to Rob more than you might think. However, I wrote and re-wrote every line that he said and every internal monologue he had. I then asked friends and family to read them.

The reaction I was hoping for was 'believable shock'. I wanted people to be offended, but to accept that Rob meant well. If they weren't offended, then I was pulling my punches. If they actively dis-liked Rob, then I had gone too far. I hope I've achieved a realistic balance. I want people to feel for Rob, whilst also thinking that he's a bit of a well-meaning jerk. There's a good tradition of characters like this in British comedy, such as Basil Fawlty or David Brent. Rob doesn't have a malicious bone in his body, though his quick judgements and self-imposed isolation may cause you to think otherwise.

People with autism are not always perceived in the best light in media. They might be treated like non-emotional automatons, or heartless self-centred nerds. I have tried to create a character for whom you will feel some sympathy, perhaps even admitting that you like him, whilst acknowleding his own unique perspective on the world. In a sense, the character of Rob is the most important part of the book.

Humor is a big part of this novel. Has humor always been important to you? Or did it develop as you wrote?
Humour is HUGELY important to me. I guess I have had a fairly unqiue work history, which has included giving sexual advice to adults with learning difficulties, counselling elderly parishoners who have lost their life's Love and mentoring teenage Dads with a glue habit. Humour has been an essential part of empowering people in such situations, often the only effective way to seeing the possibility of a hopeful future. Aside from that, it strengthens the practitoner in such situations.

We all know the stereotype of the bullied fat kid who turns to comedy to win-over his classmates. It's a stereotype because it happens again and again. There is something about the power of comedy that can change people, challenge roles and stereotypes and set us on a new path. I'm not saying it's easy – and anyone who dabbles in comedy whilst talking about ethnicity or prejudice needs to have balls of steel and a sharp wit – but I do believe that comedy can open doors that may otherwise be firmly shut.

So, I wouldn't dream of talking about mental health without injecting humour throughout. To suggest that such an environment is devoid of humour simply devalues those living through it. If you think that nothing funny ever happens in a psychiatric hospital, you are simply refusing to acknowledge the absurdtiy and humanity inherent in such an arena.

Are there any authors who have influenced your writing style?
Charles Bukowski, Matt Haig, Kurt Vonnegut, David Sedaris and Mark SaFranko. I have oodles of respect for authors who can take subjects that shouldn't be funny and fill them with humour. This strikes me as a uniquely human thing to do. Who hasn't had that experience of being in a stressful or traumatic situation and feeling the relief that a moment of humour brings?

Tell us about your creative process, from initial idea to published manuscript.
I tend to start by 'brain-storming'. I don't write any stories or dialogue, but I jot down scenes or headings that occur to me. I'm looking for things that are funny and significant. I avoid any out-and-out jokes, because they seem cheap and lazy, but I'm looking for the ludicrous and authentic.

I then read whatever fiction books I currently have on the go. It's a bit of an act, because I convince myself that I'm just reading to enjoy reading-for-reading's-sake. Yet, it's obvious that I am digging deep for inspiration. I focus on authors who write i) well, ii) realistically and iii) humorously. David Sedaris would be a good example.

I then return to my headings and look for one or two that feel like they have potential. Anything that feels like it is trying too hard to be funny gets rejected immediately. (I'm not just after laughs for their own sake.) I flesh out one or two ideas and at some point I get caught up in the flow of writing. When I look back on my day's work, I might have combined half a dozen of my early ideas without having been aware of it. When I have a handful of 'episodes', I send them off to some trusted friends who have my full persmission to pull them to pieces. They know about my desire to be funny yet authentic and help me to shave-off anything that is lacking in either of those areas.

Recently, it's become important to me to read my work out-loud. When I have the bulk of a chapter, I will read it aloud to get a feel for it. I'm looking for anything that feels forced. I know that something is genuinely funny if I still chuckle to myself on reading it through. Although I obviously know the punchline, it should still be funny enough to provoke a reaction. After all, I still laugh when watching Curb Your Enthusiam, Fawlty Towers or Only Fools and Horses, even though I know what is coming.

Finally, I send out the full book to another group of trusted readers. I give them no idea at all what to expect and that is the most nerve-wrecking. Obviously, not everyone will share my sense of humour or sensibilities. However, at the very least, I'm looking for them to agree that it is well-written and insightful. I then re-read the whole manuscript again and again.

How do you feel about the increasing popularity of ebooks?

In an ideological sense, I don't have a problem with it. However, I personally still prefer to have a book in my hands. If I read an ebook that I love, I will most probably buy a hard copy, just to hold it in my hands.

However, I'm slightly concerned with the inequality that ebooks and kindle deals can bring. Perhaps if Libraries stocked kindles or ipads, so that people could check them out for 3 weeks and make the most of the 99p deals, I'd feel slightly happier with the situation. I'm not sure what the answer is there, but I think it's more than achievable.

What are your goals as a writer for the next ten years?
I'd like to make enough money to buy J. K. Rowling.

Failing that, I would like to write comedy so well that it gets taken seriously. Comedy books can be seen as 'light' reads, which I think does the genre a real disservice. Unless I am completely wrong about all of this, comedy books are able to tackle the 'heavy' subjects in a way that nothing else really can.

If I can be a part of that, I would be thrilled. If I can have a ride at Disney Land named after me, even better!

Is there any aspect of writing you don't like?
Reading and re-reading the final manuscript. I'd like spell-checks to reach the point where they genuinely know what you mean and we can trust auto-correct to do its job. Frustratingly, when you know what you want a sentence to say, your mind plays tricks on you and you're convinced it actually says that. It's embarrassing to read a manuscript for the 19th time and find a rogue spelling mistake!

What do you have in mind for your next project?
I would like to continue exploring the life of Rob Auldam. As he is based very much on a composite of me and those I have known, we have naturally had some shared experiences. I would like to write about his experiences as a Social Worker, bringing my conversation with my brother full-circle. I would also like to write a little about his experiences of religion from the inside.

In a sense, I want to look at some of the archetypal experiences that many of us go through, yet never talk about. And I want to find the humour within, to allow us to talk about them.

Is there anything else you'd like potential readers to know about your book?
More of it is based on the reality of my life than I'd ever admit! :)  Also, you probably shouldn't let your children read it. 

An excerpt from "Of Madness and Folly":
I will begin with today, which started - as all good days are prone to do - with a rude awakening.

For whilst I was happily biting Scarlet Johansson's lower lip, Charge Nurse Grace was knocking on my bedroom door and calling my name. It is a peculiar feature of dreams that the mind seems capable of incorporating outside noises and distractions, without them appearing out of place or incredulous. How many times was my adolescent mind indulging in darkly perverse yet deeply satisfying fantasies, whilst my mother was standing at the bottom of the stairs, yelling at me to wake up for school? Yet, my dreaming mind, aroused and unfazed, included my mother's voice within the content of my fantasy, no doubt encouraging me to "Get up!" and "Come-On!", whilst I protested that I didn't need her encouragement and knew very well what to put where, thank you very much!

No, no, we are not yet ready for tales of childhood trauma or the blurred lines of my adolescent mind. Let's return instead to my mind, such as it is, today. Unsurprisingly, the sound of Nurse Grace's voice invited her into my dream, where she knelt at the head of my beloved Scarlet. The sumptuous ruby lips of Ms. Johansson had finally met their match in Grace's generous enticing bosom. A Kenyan woman, with an imposing backside, Nurse Grace was a wonderfully welcome stereotype. As she bent over Scarlet's now smiling lips, Grace's uniform began to slowly unbutton from the top, of its own accord.

I had just about caught a glimpse of the outer lace of a surprisingly seductive purple bra, when the sky exploded into a field of brightness and I awoke to find my door open, my bedroom light on and Nurse Grace standing at the foot of my bed.

"Are you up?" She asked.

I am, in retrospect, painfully aware that my porn movie training - which has consisted of digesting at least half of the content of the entire World Wide Web - should have equipped me to respond, "why don't you check for yourself?". However, I meekly uttered a breathless "yep", whilst sitting up, hoping that my beer barrelled belly would cast its shadow over my Depravity and hide my shame.

"Breakfast", Nurse Grace grumped and swiftly left my room.

And, so began day 29 of my stay at Greenfields Psychiatric hospital.
More Information
Buy the ebook on Amazon UK
Buy the paperback on Amazon UK
Check out Graham Old's Twitter
Find the book on Goodreads

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