November Thoughts

The topic I’m about to write about is always hovering not far from my consciousness. This week, of all weeks, it feels like a good time to commit some of my thoughts to virtual paper. Since the launch of Beneath the Skin in September, I’ve been very busy with author events and interviews. I’ve even ‘appeared’ on radio –Booked on Pulse 98.4FM -which is a first for me! Invariably, the question which crops up the most is this:

Your main character Walt is suffering from PTSD. How difficult was it to write about this?

In the run up to Remembrance Day, when our thoughts turn to those who have lost their lives, or have been wounded, in the line of duty – now seems a fitting time to address this question, and the challenges I faced in developing the character of Walt.

Robert ‘Walt’ Walton is an ex-soldier who has been physically, emotionally and mentally scarred by his time on the front -line. His way of dealing with his trauma is to run. Walt runs away from his home, from his family, from his mates, and finds himself in Edinburgh, staring into the window of a taxidermist’s studio. Taking on the role of the taxidermist’s assistant is possibly the worst job choice Walt could have made. He’s faced with the ‘undead’ on a daily basis, and the other inhabitants of the household; Alys the taxidermist, her sister Mouse and little William, are in the grip of their own dark past.

My first challenge was writing the novel in the voice of a man, and a man who’s experienced things I can only imagine. I’ve never walked in his boots. I’ve never been to war, or suffered injury. I’ve never killed anyone or experienced extreme violence. Therein lies the skill of the writer, you might say, but imagination carries responsibility. Walt may be a fictional character, but I was very aware that for many, many people Walt’s situation is all too real. As soon as you put a label on a character (Walt has PTSD; Alys has an undiagnosed spectrum disorder), you have a responsibility to get it right.

I spent a lot of time talking to people- former soldiers and their families, physiotherapists, medical personnel. I watched documentaries, read diaries, accounts and, interestingly, poetry. Two evocative and haunting books which inspired and informed me are pictured below. Helmand: Diaries of Front-Line Soldiers (Osprey Publishing), edited by Simon Weston and ‘Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets’ (Ebury Press), which is sold in aid of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Poetry is the greatest expression of emotion, and it’s Walt’s emotional life that I want the reader to invest in, rather than the nuts and bolts of conflict. The fact that the poetry of the ‘old generation’ of war poets- Sassoon, Graves, et al- is still so hauntingly relevant to us tells its own story.

So Beneath the Skin– a work of fiction, and of course I hope you will be entertained and enthralled by it. But I also hope you will close the book understanding a little more about the ticking time bomb of PTSD that dwells among us. I hope it makes us a little gentler with each other. I hope it makes us think.

‘Ireland writes about powerful and troubling subjects and shows how the past can have devastating consequences’ – Daily Mailhelmand-books

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