What should audiences expect from your event at Faclan: the Hebridean Book Festival?
We’ll be thinking about the fear of death, and how our fear has stopped us discussing it. Silence doesn’t seem to be helping though: it’s just making us even more fearful. We’ll talk about normal dying and the amazing potential humans have to live every moment. We’ll probably laugh a lot; we may also weep a little. But in a good way.
This year’s festival theme is Fear. How do you think your event will fit in with that theme?
Death is becoming a huge taboo in Western culture. We avoid it, and spurn the words that describe it, almost unknowingly censoring our language into euphemisms. Yet death as entertainment is on the rise: films, plays, computer games, detective stories, forensic team TV series, suspense genre writing. So Death is a fitting visitor to a Festival of Fear. I hope that we will all leave knowing more, yet fearing less, after a session of examining what actually happens as humans die.
What are you most afraid of and why?
Despite being described as a ‘Death Expert’ after a career in palliative care, I fear bereavement more than death itself. I also find suspense terrifying: the horrid possibilities our imaginations can provide, to fill the void where information ends, is endlessly fascinating. Of course, our own mind knows its own darkest recesses, which is why ‘what you might encounter’ is always so much more frightening than dealing with something dreadful yet real. Once ‘the worst’ happens, the suspense is over and coping can begin.
What was the last book you read?
I’m currently enjoying The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, a book I’ve meant to read for many years, so I’m glad it’s living up to my expectations. The child narrator’s voice is really well written, and the communities it describes, with insights into a deeply unpleasant attitude to race, are powerfully drawn.
I’m also dipping into Helen Dunmore’s Inside the Wave. Poetry that makes time stop, and transfixes attention onto a subtle detail or a thought so huge it explodes the mind.
Who is your favourite writer and why?
Oh, too hard! I have so many! But I’ll choose Sally Vickers. I love her storytelling: the weave of human potential and frailty; our flaws and our redeeming qualities. Her observations of behaviour are acute and her psychotherapist’s ear for dialogue is wonderful. I always enjoy the slow reveal that she delivers by delicious stealth; the ‘oh!’ moment of seeing what is really happening – and then realising the whole book will need to be re-read with this new insight in mind.
What do you find is the easiest and/or the most difficult part of writing?
This feels like a trick question for a first-time author. I was utterly overwhelmed by the experience of writing: it overtook time and sometimes a whole day passed without meals as a story emerged onto the page. Those days were usually occasions when the story was insisting on being written – such an unexpected experience. A little niggle, a turn of phrase, a sudden recollection of a snatch of dialogue, sometimes a memory of a patient’s face or hand movements, or the arrangement of a group of people around a bed, and I felt like a time-traveller, re-encountering that situation in all its rich colours, human dilemmas, strong emotions and awe at human resilience.
Of course, there were other days. The blank screen days. But I learned from previous academic writing that writing anything is better than writing nothing; the ‘anything’ can be edited tomorrow, or will become a platform for the real story to emerge from.
Now I know that the stories are enjoyed by other people, I feel less anxious about ‘how’ to write and can relax into storytelling.
What are you working on at the moment that you are most excited about?
I’ve heard musicians talk about the ‘difficult second album’ and now I know what they mean. More of the same? A new take on the same theme? Indulge myself in something entirely different? I’ve had wonderful feedback from readers of With the End in Mind, and many have asked questions about aspects of end of life that weren’t included in the book. I have discovered what public appetite there is for good information, and that the story format makes this information digestible. So I’m drafting something that takes up the conversation about better forward planning of the last part of our lives, picking up where the first book left off.
Although a children’s book, a poetry book or a sweeping novel have huge appeal. That second album dilemma!
Kathryn Mannix appears at Faclan: the Hebridean Book Festival on Friday 2 November at 5pm. Book tickets here.
You can read more about Kathryn’s book With The End in Mind at her website.