Based in Frederick, Maryland, Digital Ink & Parchment is a blog by Alexandria Pallat. Her posts explore the integration of faith in every day life.

Interview With An Author: Carly Rheilan

Interview With An Author: Carly Rheilan

As a writer and a blogger, it’s simultaneously exciting and terrifying for people to read your words. They can be deeply personal, strongly opinionated, research heavy, or a combination, which can add to the pressure of hitting “publish”. When I was contacted by author Carly Rheilan, I was thrilled (and nervous!) to find someone was reading and could relate to what I am writing. But what really excited me was that she had the courage to publish work that explores themes that can be personal, dark, and socially-oriented.

I had the pleasure to interview Ms. Rheilan, and I am excited to share that interview with you. We talk about the themes of her novels, how writing really chooses the writer, mental health, exercise, and the animals we cherish. Check it out below and see how, no matter what themes you are writing about, you can write for yourself and still develop a message and a story that breaks boundaries and resonates with readers.

Q: Tell us about the theme of your books. 

CR: It never occurred to me, in the twenty years when I was writing my four books, that they had themes in common. But now, as I look at them together, I realise that they are all, really, related.  Of course they are all about secrets and lies - but perhaps that’s too glib – aren’t all novels about secrets and lies?  But I see other common themes in them now that I look.  There are lost, unanchored, unparented children in all of them – sometimes at the centre of the story, sometimes disturbing the periphery, but always there. And women who are clever but not wise. And lonely protagonists who are somehow out of place, outsiders, uneasy, awkward. And they’re all dark books, so they all explore evil. I’ve approached it crabwise, but with each of my books I’ve got a bit braver in asking what evil is. The book I wrote last (though the first to be published – Asylum) is the one that looks at this most explicitly. Many readers find Asylum quite a harrowing book because of this, but there are a few (and I love these readers!) who see that it is also a hugely optimistic book. I never feel the dark is far away, but I think I’ve got more optimistic, really, as I’ve got older.

Q: Can you give us a glimpse into your most recent book?

CR: I’m now about to publish the book I wrote first, BirthRights. This is the story of a childless psychiatrist who is seeking to achieve motherhood through an elaborate deception – complicated by her controversial professional life, a past that haunts her, and a patient who is stalking her. In the background there is an English psychiatric service (a would-be publisher once tried to persuade me to change this to a more cosy general hospital setting – evidently not understanding how central psychiatry is to the theme of the book.)  All of my books, now I come to think of it, include characters who may or may not be mad, or who are called mad by people less sane than themselves, or whose own madness is masked by their professional roles, looking after other mad people.  

I know why I write, but I’ve often wondered about why other writers chose their path. Do they feel incomplete if they are not writing? Do they do it for fame, to see their name on something? To help others? To share their story or the stories of others? This was my chance to find out…

Q: What is the driving factor for you in writing about these topics?

CR: Whoa! That’s the most intimate question you could ever ask an author! (How could you ask me this? I’m playing for time now – I don’t want to answer the question!)  I know… I’ll give you a sideways answer. A long time ago, when I first started writing a book (I think I was about seven) my mother (a profoundly rational woman who doesn’t actually believe in ‘childhood’, let alone ‘imagination’) told me very sensibly that writers needed to write about what they knew, and that since I knew almost nothing, I needed to live some more and know some more before I started to write books. This advice was most unwelcome – I felt at the time that I had already lived for a very long time and knew more or less everything.  But she has never been a woman to be argued with, so I gave up on that book. Looking back, I am sure the advice was sound. I’ve lived a lot more now. And I try to follow that advice.

Q: What made you choose writing as a career path?

CR: That, on the other hand, is a lovely question!  It is predicated, enticingly, on the idea that I am a real author, and that writing books is my career, and that I chose it. How grand I must be! (Sorry, I’m just going off into a little fantasy where I’m a kind of hybrid between Charlotte Bronte and George Orwell: having difficulty with the visual image…) But – more prosaically – why do I write? I’d like to say “because I have to” (as in “Ah! Mine is a high and lonely destiny…”) but there have been whole decades of my long life when I haven’t written, so that can’t be right. I know the reason why my family likes me to write: when I’m writing my mental health is better and I’m easier to live with!  

When we read, we can often pick up on the themes in the novels. Some authors, in interviews, are specific about the themes they hope their readers find in their work. But why do writers choose these themes?

Q: You discuss the concept of loneliness in your novels. Why does this figure so predominately? 

CR: I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW! (If I say it louder, will it be more plausible?) LOOK, I AM A STRANGER TO LONELINESS! I like solitude. (In fact, in the years when I couldn’t have time on my own, like when I was raising my children, I hungered for such time. OK?) Solitude is beautiful! That said, mine has always been a very noisy sort of solitude, populated by all manner of voices in my head. A propos of which (let’s subtly deflect…) something I like about the modern world is that these days lots of perfectly sensible people go round chatting on mobile phones through invisible microphones, so it’s perfectly acceptable now to be walking along with a distant expression and apparently talking to oneself: when I was younger, this was taken as a definitive sign of madness and got me into a lot of trouble. Have I managed to change the subject now?  Perhaps we could talk about technology instead?

Q: Do you think we, as a society, are becoming more lonely as we gain new technologies? 

CR: Gosh! Surely not! No! From the moment we first developed new technology – by which I mean writing: from scratches on bark, all the way to books and poems and newspapers and letters – didn’t humans fall in love with the potential of this new technology to extend our social world? To be with other people, beyond the tiny scope of our personal cave, the distance our legs can walk? And then more and more! A postal service for ordinary people… libraries… telephones… faxes… email… texting… social media… don’t they all make us, moment by moment, more connected to each other? OK – there are lots of troubles that creep through the door beside this (yes, like cyber-bullying, and the compulsion to waste one’s life curating a facsimilelife for Facebook, rather than really living). But hey! I’m not the right person to talk about the modern world. All I can say is that for me, the new technologies – particularly email – have brought me a richness of human contact in recent years that I wouldn’t have dreamt of a couple of decades back. And some of the people who are dearest to me now (and among them there are certainly some whom I will never meet in the world) there are people I would never have known if it weren’t for new technology. I’m blessed by it.

Our reality is shaped by the way we view our environment. It can sometimes be difficult to understand someone else’s view, but it is important to respect how they shape their reality.

Q: Why is it so important to value the view of others? 

CR: Because other people are terrifying! A mind not grasped: you might as well be encountering a shark! What are they? What are they doing here? CAN THEY SEE ME? But if I can get inside their head, they will be part of me, they will stop being ‘other’: I will be safer then...  So I’ve always been fascinated by what other people are thinking, by their motivations, by the assumptions that they’re working with. And what I’ve found, over decades, is that everyone has a version of the world and their place in it that makes sense, where they’re doing the right thing (whatever that means), where they’re justified either by being completely ‘normal’ or by being ‘the hero’ or by being the victim who had no choice… Searching for that thread of personal narrative, that sweet-point where everything makes sense: it’s the most fascinating thing I can do – in the world, certainly, but even with imaginary people, making up stories. I guess it’s ‘empathy’ I’m talking about, and the truth is, I think, that other people do this better than me, more instinctively, without even realising that they’re doing it. I find it quite difficult, so I problematise it, do it more consciously, set myself challenges like working in psychiatry or writing books in which every point of view is recorded.

I’ve written a lot in these digital pages about how exercise has really benefitted my mental health. Until my friend recommended these at home fitness programs, I had never viewed exercise as something that could benefit my mental health, and I always saw it was a way to simply improve your appearance for the benefit of others. And I’m not the only one who has felt like this. But once you get started, it’s incredible the changes that take place.

Q: You mentioned our relationship to our bodies and exercise in our earlier conversation. Talk a little bit about what this means to you and its importance.

CR: It’s a recent thing for me. I’ve always been an outdoor person, and I’ve always been active, and though Ive never formally exercised, my body always seemed wonderfully compliant.  But this year I felt this changing. Hard to put my finger on it, but I was less energetic, a bit stiffer, I noticed I was getting more cautious about climbing ladders or shifting logs or jumping a stream… Less certain that my body would co-operate. And I’ve never done mirrors, but I started noticing myself in shop windows and thinking “who is that hunched up woman?” My body started to feel – in some way that I really didn’t like – a bit of a stranger to me, as if I were simply hiding inside it, as if it were a rusting machine, no longer effortlessly me. I did try to push these nasty thoughts aside – What the hell, I’m growing older aren’t I?  Like everyone else? Can’t be helped can it?  Comes to us all? – but still, it troubled me. I wanted to do something to ‘bring my old body back’ – but I’ve never had much discipline, and there’s no way I’m ever going to join a gym or a keep-fit class (What? Shorts? Leotard? Sweating? Jiggling about? Wobbling? In public? Me???)  

Now on the face of it, this isn’t a set of troubles that one takes to one’s book publicist.  But I message my publicist, (FaceBook CHenry Roi), most days, and I ramble on about whatever’s on my mind, (he’s exceptionally good-natured and patient…) and I’d seen his photo and he’s a muscular guy who looks like he works out, so I thought he might be a good person to advise me. Wise move, Carly! It turned out (the world often repays my odd conversational gambits with kindness) that amongst other things Henry has been training people in personal fitness for years. So this shy British woman suddenly had an Online Personal Trainer in Mississippi and was embarking on a new journey. 

I’m just at the beginning still – just two months in – but even in these few weeks, step by step, day by day, nudged along by this extraordinary trainer, it’s been transformative.  Some of the gains are easy to state. From not running a step (for years) I’m now happily running a mile and a half every day, which makes me feel, every day, like Superwoman. (OK.Maybe you run marathons, but these things are relative. I’m still Superwoman.) And I’m more flexible and can balance better. And without even noticing how (because this wasn’t one of my targets or something I was even thinking about) 15lb of flab have just melted away (I’ve always been a very cold person – I think the running has changed my metabolism and I’m warmer now, which must have been secretly burning up the fat. I’ve also – this is seriously bizarre! – stopped liking chocolate). But it’s the less obvious things that really matter to me: I’m feeling different. Tall again! (Hey - I was always tall! What year was it that I stopped feeling that?) Bouncy again (I find this delightful, though I have to admit that my kids look a bit alarmed...) Clearer in my head. I’m sleeping more. (Hmm. Not sure if I like this: I’ve always viewed sleep as a thing to be avoided unless absolutely desperate, but I tell myself it’s good for me…) And the whole experience of doing a fitness programme has also been a huge source of amusement in my life – such a lot of fun! I’m even being a tiny bit more sociable – OK, not very much more sociable, but I do now yell encouraging words out of the car window when I pass red-faced runners on the road, particularly if they’re not thin or not young. And there are a couple of people I sometimes meet when I’m exercising, who I now stop and speak to. And having a personal trainer – even a few thousand miles away – is pretty sociable really. Best of all though – the thing I wanted at the start – I’m feeling ‘back in my body’ again: joined up again, one creature, not a ghost in a rusty machine. I’m really loving that.  

It’s a common stereotype that writers have pets—usually cats. These animals, though, are much more than simply pets, and they play a huge role in our lives.

Q: You had mentioned pets and animals. Do you have any pets? What kind? What role do pets/animals play in your life? In the lives of others?

CR: I’ve always had animals! I had guinea pigs continuously since I was three, cats since I was a student, hens for the last twelve years (mostly pensioned-off from battery farms), and a few other things in between.  Rabbits, snails, rats, hamsters, fish, other people’s cast-off pets…  I dream of moving to somewhere with lots of land, and if I ever did that I’d get a couple of pigs – they’re as smart as dogs, friendly if you treat them right, and they’re good at clearing land and digging it up. 

Obviously, for a lot of people, particularly lonely people, pets serve as substitute humans: the next best thing.  We’re all hard wired for sociability (even those of us who are shy or don’t do sociable very well) and when we haven’t got a tribe – either because of failings in the world or failings in ourselves – then animals can fill some of those gaps : substitute babies, children, friends, confidantes, gangs.  That’s fine, and a lot of animals will play along with that, and I’ve done a certain amount of that substitution, at different times in my life.  They are our close cousins after all – we share 90% of our DNA with cats, maybe 70% with fishes even. But I think the real reason why we ought to be living with animals is because they’re different from us, more than because they’re the same. We shouldn’t be living in a human ghetto, it’s not right, but that’s what the world is turning into.  That plays into the mindset where the world is all about us – and that’s dangerous, even for us, never mind the other living things.  That’s how we ended up poisoning the bees!

Having a pet – or at least, if you do it respectfully - is about reaching out to a creature that’s really quite different from you, negotiating, reaching an accommodation. Try and get inside the mind of a guinea pig: they are terrified almost all the time, they have no defenses except the ability to run away and hide.  What do they actually see through those big round black eyes? Threats, threats everywhere – the possibility of food but mostly just threats.  A few safe spaces – with a lot of work you can persuade a guinea pig that your arms are a safe space, but they’d still rather be in the dark, out of sight, really.  If they have to be in your arms, they’d like to be under your jacket more than out in the open.  Hens on the other hand: they’re related to dinosaurs.  When I go into the hen run they stride up to me bold as brass and start trying to peck the patterns off my shoes and trousers. I don’t think it’s because they’re particularly friendly creatures, actually, though it feels like that, which is gratifying. Really I think they’re striding up to check (they’re not very smart, hens…) whether today, unlike yesterday and the day before, they’re actually going to be able to get the whole of me into their beak to swallow me.  They don’t have any teeth, they just swallow – and they like living things best: beetles, worms, a small mouse or frog would be welcome…  Don’t imagine they’re vegetarians!  

I’m a vegetarian though!  Can’t really think of a good reason for eating animals that wouldn’t also work as a reason for eating some humans, and I’m not even going to start that train of thought…

I hope you enjoyed learning about Carly as much as I did. No matter where we are in the world, writing connects us. And don’t forget to check out Asylum.

I've Been Working On Something...

I've Been Working On Something...