The Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted author of ‘Mayhem: A memoir’ answers questions on health, inspiration and storytelling.
Where do you write most productively?
In any quiet room, preferably on a sofa. I never write or even edit in my office at Granta – there are too many people coming and going, catching up. I also don’t write much in my study at home, which is full of manuscripts and projects and reminders of this and that.
What research did you do for ‘Mayhem: A memoir’?
‘Mayhem’ is a meditation on addiction, posing questions rather than answering them, but I read many memoirs and other books, and quite a few scientific papers. Addiction is a highly politicised field, particularly in America, and the research is easily ignored if it’s not politically palatable. I wanted to problematise various questions, including what we mean by ‘treatment’ – we use the term as though we know what it is, but in fact it varies greatly.
There is such a lack of clarity around addiction – it is one of the last unsolved social conundrums, entangled with criminalisation, poverty and mental illness. Left to themselves, addicts are tragically likely to not survive. Families, social workers, psychiatrists, GPs, therapists and the police do what they can, but ultimately responsibility lies with the addicts themselves – and more often than not they fiercely resist all attempts to help them.
What are you reading right now?
‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Françoise Sagan, in preparation for Granta’s summer issue on gender, power and desire, and Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lost Daughter’.
The Ferrante is such an interesting book, more crudely psychoanalytic than her Naples quartet – the text revels in rotten fruit and broken glass; beauty turns ugly – but addressing similar themes of violence and maternal abandonment. It’s interesting and unsettling to read the two together – Ferrante’s book is about a woman who has lost (and had earlier abandoned) her now grown-up children, while Sagan’s novella is about a young motherless woman released from convent school, absorbed by an intense and playful love for her father, and, almost incidentally, a young lover. Both books are really about the nature of fate, and the profound consequences of unthinking acts.
What’s in your mental-health first-aid kit?
All the usual things... Walks, books, conversation. Hugging my dog.
What does good health mean to you?
Perhaps for me, a born sceptic, that scepticism itself is helpful only in moderation.
About the author
Jennifer Trent Staves
Jennifer is the Digital Content Manager for Wellcome Collection. She likes words, thinks you can do more with less and has an academic background in twentieth-century literature. You can call her Jen.