Author Annabel Pitcher hit the ground running with her debut novel My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.
Conceived while on an extended honeymoon travelling the globe, the best-selling and award-winning teen fiction, published in 2011, gave her the chance to do what she had always wanted - to pursue a full time career as a writer. Success came virtually overnight and quite unexpectedly. (The book, which is now being made into a film, was followed by Ketchup Clouds, another teen work, and her new novel, Silence is Goldfish, hits the booksellers’ shelves today.)
It should have been a happy time for Annabel, who gave up her job teaching English at Wakefield Girls High School on the strength of her first advance from the publishers.
On the surface she did appear to be enjoying her new life and sudden fame. I was one of the first journalists to interview Annabel about her book and recall thinking how fortunate she was to have had publishers fighting over her work while so many would-be writers suffer knock back after knock back. She appeared to have the perfect life: a lovely home in the Holme Valley, supportive husband, a wealth of family and friends and the freedom to pursue the writing that she loves so much.
And yet Annabel, an Oxford University graduate, has since admitted that her days were riddled with anxiety and depression to the point of breakdown. In a blog on her website www.annabelpitcher.com she offers up a searingly honest account of how she hid her true feelings. I realise now that I was one of the people she talks about when she writes: “It wasn’t easy, but I did it, smiling in interviews when asked how my life had changed since getting a book published even though I was on the verge of tears; pretending to people that I was fine.” What she now understands is that the desire to be perfect was ruining her happiness.
The Annabel of today, however, feels much more grounded. But it’s been a long struggle, using every weapon against depression that she could find - meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioural techniques and acceptance of herself, warts and all. And her experiences with mental health problems, which go back to her teenage years, are now something that she wants to talk about. “I honestly believe that it’s as mainstream and common as having a cold,” she says. “It’s imperative that we talk about mental illness, and about mental wellness, too.”
When interviewing her about her new book, Silence is Goldfish, she is candid about how and why she had a breakdown. “I’d had a major life change,” she says, “I did miss the teaching at first. I was used to being in a school with hundreds of people and having a routine and I went from that to sitting in an office on my own. That was a big part of the problem, I had too much free time and I was quite lonely. My husband would go out in the morning and not come home until six in the evening.” Things did start to improve when she began to be invited to give talks and attend literary festivals. And she firmly believes that getting a dog, her beloved cockerpoo, was a turning point.
Because of how she felt, her second book, Ketchup Clouds, proved to be much more problematic to write than My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, which tells the tale of a family emotionally torn apart in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.
To produce her new novel she faced other challenges, as she is now the mother of a two-year-old - a little boy who clearly lights up her life - and is expecting a second baby in four weeks. In order to spend as much time as she could with her son she developed a routine of sleeping for four or five hours in the evening after he’d gone to bed and then working through the night on her manuscript.
“My mum does come and help out,” she explains, “but I want to look after him myself as much as possible and do nice things with him during the day. There are not many jobs where you can be totally flexible and sit at your desk at 3am. When I had the deadline for the book I regularly worked through the night. It’s not sustainable but you can do it for a while.”
Annabel’s books have all been quite different in their subject matter. Ketchup Clouds, published in 2013 and winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, was written in the form of letters from a teenage girl to a convict on death row. The girl feels an overwhelming guilt over the death of a boy she knows (saying any more will spoil the read) and needs to confess and be absolved. Silence is Goldfish is about a girl whose quiet nature and perceived physical oddities make her a social outcast. What she reads on her father’s blog one day throws her into such emotional turmoil that she has no choice but to retreat into silence.
All of Annabel’s books have characters that are supremely human and vulnerable. She exposes their hearts and minds, and while many of the issues in the books - including terrorism, mental health problems and bullying - are serious, she has a lightness of touch and the books are infused with a gentle humour. The idea for her latest book came from what she describes as a ‘little seed’. “I was on a train when I heard some man going on about someone having ‘good banter’ and I thought about how everyone these days is having to perform. It’s all about who can shout the loudest and do the most outrageous things. But there are lots of people just quietly getting on with life and I wanted to write about someone like that and how difficult it can be for them. Initial ideas for a book are like a web, sometimes they break and sometimes they catch interesting things in them. Before I knew it I had a plot.”
Perhaps Annabel’s own struggles with her emotions have allowed her to become a more empathic author. Certainly, no experience is ever wasted on a writer. As she explains: “It might sound trite to say that I’m grateful, because it’s not a nice thing to have mental health problems, but there are benefits to knowing that you can feel a certain way and come through it. I now feel stronger and more positive.” And having a family has also been a positive force in her work: “I find I’m more creative since I had my son. I have got time to think - when we go to the park, for example, I can think while I’m pushing him along - and I’m not just sitting at my computer trying to force it. I’ve got so many ideas.”
However, Annabel is taking a year out to care for her family before beginning her fourth book. Not that she’ll stop writing. “I love writing and write pretty much every day, whether it’s something that will become a book or not,” she says. And next week she plans to attend Cheltenham Literary Festival - “If the baby doesn’t arrive early.”
* Silence is Goldfish is published by Indigo at £10.99 in hardback.