Opening Up About Mental Health – Anna Vaught on Saving Lucia

Now I’m immersing myself more into the social media of booksville (it’s a great place, the Twitter is much nicer) I keep coming across great writers and lovely people. One of those is Anna Vaught. Seeing as she also did her time in the classroom, I felt a bit of a connection and thought I’d get hold of her most recent novel, Saving Lucia. It’s a treat. The kind of novel that lulls you into its own rhythm through the prose while holding you close to the characters at the same time.

The novel focuses on four remarkable women. The first is Violet Gibson, who shot and wounded Mussolini in 1926 and ended up living out the rest of her days in a psychiatric hospital. The second is Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce who also found herself at St. Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, although her time alongside Violet wouldn’t have been that long. Blanche Wittman was known as ‘Queen of The Hysterics’ and featured in a painting by André Brouillet in 1886 while she was a patient of Charcot. Bertha Pappenheim was credited with helping Freud develop his ‘talking cure’ and went on to do impressive work with disadvantaged women. Simply including these remarkable women would be interesting enough, but Vaught is not just writing a re-imagining of how these women lived. Instead, she takes us on a surreal journey with all of them, interlacing first-person musings, fluid passages which weave in and out of history and reality, alighting on gorgeous themes such as the birds that attend Violet in the garden of the hospital and return to signify the women’s aspirations for freedom. I wanted to find out more about how the writer achieved such a vivid style and what her hopes were for the book around issues of mental health. Read on to find out!

Here is the painting by Brouillet featuring Blanche Wittman. Lots of men looking at a crazy woman, sound familiar? The book delves into the many ways women were and have been seen and asks the very pertinent question – who is crazy here?

The thing that struck me immediately when reading Saving Lucia is the language. I haven’t opened a book for a while that has been so bold with language. Sometimes dense, sometimes light, weaving and threading your way through stories and characters, it is as striking as the women themselves. Is the style something that came naturally when you started writing about the women or was it something you developed as the book grew?

It came naturally, and – though it is hard to describe – I say that what is in the book is very much what the inside of my head looks like. It is absolutely NOT intended to be a pastiche of how someone with mental illness might speak, as has been supposed by some; if it is ever too stream of consciousness or too freely associative to seem palatable, then this reflects an intense discharge of creative energy. An imaginative flurry released by Violet in her last days. Another thing which is important and which I was so sad not to be able to capitalise on or discuss, is that the book is indebted to the works of James Joyce, and Finnegans Wake in particular, Ulysses to a lesser extent, are threaded through in style, word, and phrase. 

Although Bertha was ‘cured’ by Freudian methods, she was sceptical of her experience in later life.

Mental health is of course at the centre of the book. For me, I felt that although there was the historical idea of how women were treated in the past, I got a sense that it was just as much an indictment on how mental health continues to be addressed by contemporary society. What do you hope this book will open up in terms of discussions around mental health?

I have always been open about my own struggles and the problems I have had since childhood really, largely because of complex and extended trauma. So, in terms of opening up? More discussion. More openness; more conversation and understanding. That was what I hoped. I hope that I will be able to do more with the book on this topic in future. Its content is very personal to me because my life is also threaded through it; that is, how I have managed dissociation, fear, stress, and anxiety through the use of my imagination. 

This cover is just as delightful as the book. You can buy it here.

Another impressive element in this novel is the sheer scope. What was your process when it came to integrating the factual elements of these women’s lives into your novel?

I heard them in my head; felt their presence and wrote them out. In that way, it was less planned than you can imagine. This was, I ought to add, after a lot of research and thought!

You also released a collection of short stories, Famished, this year. Which came first, the short story writing or the novels? How do you approach them and how have the different forms helped to develop you as a writer?

I started writing the stories while waiting and feeling discouraged about my work. So, while I was waiting for Saving Lucia to be published, but before I had a decision on another novel I had written (which was subsequently rejected, and I have put that to one side for now). They grew into a coherent collection; thematically linked. I wrote eighteen. Then, in a fury, I wrote eighteen more – also linked by theme – and made those into another book which I will be delighted to introduce to the world, all in good time. The stories energised me. How do I approach them? Again, I heard each one as a voice – my writing process is very lively and involved and kind of loud, which might be because I am not neurotypical, but I don’t know. I sit down, splurge on what that voice says and then edit later. I hear it and feel it. The endings are important. Vital I have always remembered that advice. I always read my work aloud, too – stories and novels. I can hear what works and what does not. Or try to!

Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner. You can buy it here.

For anyone in the early stages of their writing career, what advice would you give them?

There you have me. I AM early stages, under five years in; I have just written a lot in that time really, I think, because I lacked the confidence to do so for so long. It has been a mixed bag in that time and I really feel I am just starting out. But advice? Back yourself; that is where it starts. Understand this is commerce as well as art if that is what you want and be observant of that. And do not be dissuaded. ALSO keep the day job! Read voraciously. I absolutely believe that reading is your best teacher. Experiment with writing in different forms and genres. Network and chat and help others. Always take in more than one source of advice; find a mentor if you have been treated badly. Do not give up BUT do consider giving up on a project if it’s not working or you can’t shift it, however hard you try. Hmmm…a good idea always to be working on something, I think? Also, do not wait for ideal conditions or what you perceive to be the ideal domestic conditions for writing. Start now, ragged as life is.

Can you give us some insight into what you’re working on at the moment?

Only partially! There is a lot of waiting and sorting and things are slower because of our current situation so I have several things on desk, as they say. All future work is through my literary agency. I have completed a second short story volume and a new novel. The stories are called Ravished and the novel, The Zebra and Lord Jones. The stories are about angels and mortality and faith and last things – intended to be darkly comic, like Famished. The novel is magical realism; it is set during WW2 in London, Dresden, Lisbon, South West Wales, and various places in Ethiopia and France and stars the zebra who escaped from London Zoo, when it was bombed during The Blitz (which really happened). I am preparing a non-fiction project (must be vague here) and I am writing another novel called The Cabinet of Curiosities; this is historical fiction and about some very curious things in early museums and collections and in secret rooms within rooms. It is set in the 16th and 17th-century and now. I also have an account of mental health and creativity, ‘In Order to Live’ out in Dodo Ink’s Trauma this month, a short story called ‘Temple’ which I will be able to tell you about soon plus a couple of pitched articles I am waiting for responses to. I am not wildly active at the moment though, owing to Long COVID-19, work and some complex domestic stuff. But I have enough faith in myself growing to know that I will make it all work, in the end. Believe you can, too. x

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose), which was recently longlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. She is currently finishing a new novel and working on some non-fiction, while a further novel and second short story collection are on the desk. Anna’s essays, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She is represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agents, in New York City. Her website is here. She is also on Twitter @BookwormVaught and Instagram @bookwormvaught6

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