Losing It is your second title to be published by Victorina Press – however they are two very different books. The Marsh People is dystopian fiction “pitting outsiders against inhuman tyrants”, whereas Losing It is a novel set in a high security hospital; a harrowing story of redemption and compassion in a dangerous and uncaring world. Can you tell us a little more about the novel, and about the character of Jane?
I had heard from staff working with imprisoned people labelled ‘criminally insane’ and was impressed by the understanding and care they gave to these people. They understood that faced with the full knowledge of what they had done, many could not live with themselves. Jane, damaged by her own early childhood, cannot escape the reality of her situation, or her part in the deaths of her own children. When the well-meaning doctor opens these old wounds, she takes her own life. I wanted to give a voice to Jane and other women like her, who society calls monsters, in an effort to aid understanding of how people become shaped and formed by early traumas and a society that doesn’t care. Jane is a person, not a headline or a statistic.
I know you have worked in mental health in the past. Is that why you wanted to tell this story? Do you often look to your own life for writing inspiration?
I don’t write much about mental health matters, partly because of confidentiality – I don’t know any Janes – but also because I find it depressing myself! But I do find people ‘on the edge’ fascinating, interesting and sometimes more alive than your average person. I’ve been lucky enough to have met some extraordinary people and heard their stories, and I’ve been down and out myself from time to time; it’s all grist to the mill.
In contrast, The Marsh People is set in a wholly imagined world – one which has been highly praised by reviewers for its feeling of authenticity. Did you enjoy creating this bleak dystopia? Do you find it easier to write about the world you live in or the worlds you create?
The Marsh People was partly based on an experiment with dogs carried out by Seligman, on ‘learned helplessness’. In this experiment, dogs were kept isolated in small enclosures with electrified fences, but with comfortable kennels, and were fed regularly. When the electric fencing was turned off, most dogs stayed put, despite having no real freedom. One or two, however, jumped over the fencing and made a bid for freedom, not knowing how they would survive out there. In The Marsh People, I put the dogs in charge and let Scummo and Kelpin out into the wide world to survive as best they may. The world outside the City reflects my own childhood in a way, as I hated school and spent as much time outdoors as I could.
More recently, coming across discarded clothing in a derelict warehouse, I realised rough sleepers had lived there and tried to imagine what it must be like to wake up in this bleak, draughty passageway – and The Marsh People was born.
Losing It covers sensitive issues and explores what goes on behind closed doors in a secure hospital unit. You must have been constantly aware of the need to portray this world accurately. What was your biggest challenge when writing it?
This is a hard one to answer. I did a lot of reading, talked to a good many people who worked in these settings, and have worked myself in Special Schools and in a prison. As a psychotherapist, one of the main challenges in writing is making sure there are no identifying details or any details people could regard as relating to them. The interviews between Bruce and Jane, for instance, are pure invention. So are all the characters. The challenge is to recreate them so that they could be understood as real.
Both of your novels are quite dark. What did you enjoy about writing them?
I like exploring the darkness. Testing myself and letting my imagination have free rein.
Are you a fast or slow writer? Do you find it difficult to carve out time to write, or are you quite disciplined?
I can be disciplined, and I’m a fast writer once I’ve started. I once lived over the road from Buchi Emecheta, who got up at five before starting work as a cleaner in order to write while her kids were asleep. I mean, bloody hell…
Victorina Press believes very strongly in the principles of bibliodiversity. What does this mean to you personally and was it a factor in your decision to submit your work to them?
My family has people from many places within it, and I love that. I fully support bibliodiversity.
What is next for you as a writer? Another novel, or something else?
Still thinking about that one. I have a half-written novel about the Italian mafia, Ndrangheda, and a woman who shopped the Boss. I’m also writing poetry.
REVIEWS FOR LOSING IT
1. ‘Losing It’ by Valentine Williams is a stark, cleverly-written book. Despite a very difficult subject the author manages to draw us very quickly into Jane’s small world and those who people it. More importantly, we are drawn into Jane’s mind. and with that her terrors and her awful nightmares. Although it’s written in quite a pared-back style, with short, fast chapters, the author uses wonderful detail to paint Jane’s surroundings. Few novels will pull you in as forcefully as this – or ensure that your sympathies will lie so completely at the end with a character like Jane.’
2. ‘Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down. The author expertly conveys the utter despair of the central character who is the victim of the most terrible abuse and exploitation. Despite having committed a terrible crime I could only sympathise with Jane and yearn for her to find some kind of peace. The ending left me with a sense of sadness but a feeling that Jane for the first time in her life was in control of her destiny.’
3. ‘Jane’s story is a difficult subject but is sensitively observed and described with true empathy. The narrative flows easily as the details of the murders unfold and we see what experiences drove Jane to such extremes. Working as I do in a mental health crisis house I know only too well the kind of childhoods some people have and the effect it can have on the rest of their lives. Showing true empathy and kindness is sometimes all we can do and I found myself comforted by her escape.’