Going Beneath the Surface with Author & Mental Health Campaigner M. Jonathan Lee

Most of us at some point have looked at other people and thought, I wish I could have their life, their great job, their beautiful wife, their perfect kids. It often seems the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but in reality this is rarely the case. Behind the scenes the great job could be nightmarish, the wife a total bully and the kids little brats. But it doesn’t stop us fantasising about having a different life. Author M. Jonathan Lee’s new book, Drift Stumble Fall explores this notion of superficial seeming domestic bliss being far from reality.

Over his five novels Jonathan has drawn on experiences from his own life, such as the traumatic loss of his brother to suicide, to bring very real subject matters to his readers, not to mention wonderfully realised characters. He’s also tireless campaigner, working on removing the stigmas surrounding men’s mental health and last year was the subject of an inspirational documentary based around one of his novels. We spoke to Jonathan recently about the premise behind the new book, his writing process and his life changing mental health campaigning.

The MALESTROM: Tell us about the ideas behind the new book…

Jonathan Lee: There’s a couple of ideas behind it. I think everyone goes through a stage, whether they’ve got children or not, where they think it would be great to reboot and start over again. I think that’s a totally normal way to be. A couple of months after my brother took his own life I had twins, so my life just went chaotic at that stage really, and I think at the time, I remember driving home from work and going past houses which looked ever so warm and quiet and just thinking whoa, that’d be nice. I think this story came about just hearing so many people saying, “It’s alright for you, you’re doing what you want with your life, you’re an author now and you’ve got a nice house and wife and all that sort of stuff.” And I’m sort of feeling from the other side, that’s all on the surface, you’ve absolutely no idea what goes on behind.

People do it with celebrities all the time, in their own minds they’ll trade lives with someone, without having a clue what that life actually entails. So it kind of came about from a jumble of ideas and also the Facebook generation where by friends would say to me, “I’ve just got in contact with X from school,” and you know automatically that person’s saying their life is going just how they wanted it to be. So I think this cult of everything being fake on the surface is where it was driven from.

TM: Everyone can definitely associate with that feeling of wanting to escape from the normal lives we lead…

JL: Absolutely. I mean it’s the old grass is always greener and perhaps not taking stock and going, “do you know what, what I have and the things around me and the friends I have and the family, I’m fortunate to have these.” So I think that’s where it was driven from.

TM: How much of the main character Richard is your experience of the world?

JL: I think in everything that you write you have to give a little piece of you somewhere in there, because I don’t think you can define characters properly… well I certainly can’t, unless you’re giving some realism to it. I would say that there are certainly parts of that book going back to where my kids were a lot younger, where I’d be like, I think I’m going to have a bath tonight, even though I had a shower this morning, just to to escape for an hour (laughs). I never got to the stage where I was actually planning a departure though.

TM: You mentioned there about characterisation. You’re clearly a keep observer, getting those little mundane details of life just right. Do you form most of your characters from what you see around you?

JL: Yeah, I don’t know whether there’s any specific reasoning for it, but I’ve always been ultra observant and in some ways ultra sensitive to what’s going on around me. I scribble down on the back of train tickets if I overhear a conversation or somebody does something and I always exaggerate or add to that, and say when that person said that what if this was the background to that? I certainly write with a ‘what’s happening around me’ feeling. It’s strange because I often wonder about sci-fi writers who have to write about stuff in galaxies they’ve not even been to, there’s no way I could give realism to something like that.

TM: How did you first get into writing?

JL: I started writing when I was about nine. There were these books at the time where you’d start reading the first page and it would say at the end of that chapter, if you want to go left down the corridor and choose that path or go the other way onto another scenario. Me and a friend self-published magazines about it and sold them at school, I started when I was nine and effectively wrote journals or short stories continually up until I tried to share my writing skills with the world when I was nineteen.

TM: What’s your writing process? Do you need complete silence or do you listen to music?

JL: It’s funny actually, I’m sitting in front of my screen now, I’ve been writing all day. When I first started writing, when I wrote my first book The Radio, which took about four years, I wrote everything chronologically and went back and touched up sentences as I went along and I realised over the course of these five books that it was perhaps the worst way to write a book. So now my process is I basically put in my diary when I’m going to be writing, so three hours tomorrow for example, and whatever mood I’m in at that time I’ll write a part of the book which is based around the mood I’m in. Because If I’m in a foul mood for whatever reason, say you’ve just had an argument with your wife then you don’t feel like sitting down and writing a nice happy picnic scene (laughs), so I kind of write it all now completely out of order and piece it together at the end. Everything is done to the backdrop of my vinyl collection which I’ve got here and I just stick on the music as loud as possible.

TM: What are the go to records for different moods?

JL: At the moment I’ve been listening a lot to a band called At The Drive In and another called The National. It kind of really depends on my mood, I’ve been listening to a bit of Fleet Foxes this afternoon.

TM: Nice. We definitely approve of that. 

JL: Yeah, I just put it on as loud as possible. As soon as I’ve learned the lyrics to an album it’s sort of scrapped because it takes my mind away from the sentences I’m trying to put down.

TM: Has there been an author or authors who’ve influenced you?

JL: I’ve always admired the writing style of early Nick Hornby, I used to devour all of that. Similarly with Mark Haddon, they were the books that really inspired me to get going, because you can write in this having a conversation with you, chatty style. It’s almost as if the writer is just sitting, observing what’s happening in front of them. I think one of the reasons I began writing was because I was getting so disappointed with the books that I was reading, getting to the end and thinking this was just rubbish. There’s a guy called Joseph Connelly as well, who writes black comedy farce stuff which is really good.

TM: Would you say the best writing is formed out of personal experiences?

JL: I don’t know about the best writing, because all writers are different, some have a knack of doing certain things better than others. But from a personal perspective it’s fairly easy to take a situation that you’ve just experienced, whatever it may be and then you apply the what if this happened, or you think what if this was what that letter said that came through the door. You can let your mind drift with that fairly easily, but from a personal perspective there’s always going to be a touch of characters that have rationalisation of life to them, because I think all of my characters do that in one way or another.

TM: With the issues you’ve had to face in your life, has writing been a cathartic experience in helping to deal with things and heal?

JL: I’d probably go as far to say that in hindsight it saved my life. I always wanted to write a book, I went over to Seattle when I was 19 to write a book on the grunge scene that was kicking off over there. I went over there to interview Nirvana and Pearl Jam and quickly realised research was key as they were touring in Europe when I arrived in Seattle (laughs).

TM: Ha. Brilliant!

JL: Yeah. I ended up seeing the band James in Seattle, thinking this is so weird!

TM: The irony.

JL: Exactly. But I’d always told everybody I was going to write a book, and then after my brother died, I think personally I was sinking to a point where I hadn’t dealt with anything and I thought to myself I could end up going the same way here, so as a kind of legacy I’ll write this book just to show everyone I have actually stuck to all the things I said I’d do. And writing it was just unbelievable, that’s why I do so many talks about letting these feelings out, because it completely changed my life and turned things around.

TM: Do you think that’s been a real coping mechanism for the periods of anxiety and depression that you’ve gone through?

JL: It has been one of the key coping things. One of the things has just been the feeling of emptying words out of your mind and stopping them from spinning round constantly, even if you don’t use those words in a book, just getting them out, that has been a huge step for me and the knock on effect to that has been to actually verbalise those words to my loved ones around me, to let them know first hand these feelings as opposed to trying to hide everything.

TM: So your writing has helped you communicate better?

JL: Yeah. Absolutely. If you read my third book A Tiny Feeling of Fear I manage to configure the different sort of days that I suffered from worst to best, and now being able to communicate that to people around me, as in I’m having one of those days, that’s certainly turned everything around.

TM: Do you believe that we can turn our darkest moments into positive ones?

JL: From the kind of things that have happened as far as my sibling is concerned, you’ve got to make a choice at that stage and say we’ll remain as we always have as a family, and we’ll always call this the ‘accident’ that my brother had, when it was quite clearly not that. Or we as a family and then now publicly will talk about it in a way that is going to make other people feel less alone. My parents have been right behind me with all of that, and I think as a family we’ve improved, although obviously it’s been quite harrowing at times.

TM: Of course. Tell us about your work campaigning for mental health issues. How important is that to you?

JL: I mean that’s hugely important. That began because I had a voice as far as people reading my work and enjoying my books and it was a case of how can I expand this, so I decided I’d begin writing about it. I do a lot for Huffington Post and Mind and Time to Change. More latterly I decided to start doing talks around the area telling my story, showing the short film that we made called Hidden. The film is my experiences and also a message to people out there that if we continue talking we’ll eventually remove the stigma that surrounds us. We’ve gone on from doing these talks now and at the moment I’m in the process of trying to set up, for the North of England at first, a website to signpost people to things in their area.

TM: Do you think the stigma is dissipating a bit for blokes becoming able to talk about their mental health openly? 

JL: I do think there’s a good movement for change and people are going about it the right way in targeting man. The problem though then lies that in that we then just come to a standstill because I think people are opening up saying that they don’t feel right so to speak, then we just come to a complete standstill when we get to the GP who then puts you on a waiting list for anything from six months to two years to speak to a therapist or counsellor.

So all the good work that happens for somebody to actually wake up one morning and say, do you know what, I am going to go to the doctor, I am going to get some help, and that takes a huge amount of stress for them to actually make that decision, and then they get there and of course ten minutes later they’re deflated cause there’s nobody to see for six months, people aren’t going to survive through that period.

TM: Do you think it’s just we’re all facing increased pressures in our modern lives which is leaving us to be more susceptible to problems?

JL: I think there’s always been the male stereotype, you know nothing ever effects the man, they bring in the money and the wives are waiting for them. So it’s knocking that down. Of course we don’t have any real figures based on suicide seventy years ago. I wouldn’t have thought that modern life really puts any more pressure on people than it previously did.

TM: So it’s still about bringing more awareness around the subject and making sure more’s being done to tackle it…

JL: My feeling has always been that you could have a bunch of people who are all suffering from depression and every single one of those people will at some stage have thought that there’s only them in the whole world who feels that way, and they’re embarrassed to tell anyone else as their worried the person that they tell won’t understand, or in the words they use will re-confirm that this person really is mentally ill. So people don’t speak about it and from my point of view it’s a case of the more I talk about it that might pick up on one person who sees it differently for that time and with that film, the brother of a very good friend of mine telephoned me at three in the morning and said that he had been about to take his own life, but he had watched that film that evening.

TM: That’s amazing.  

JL: You know that it helps but it’s just getting that wider audience.

TM: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

JL: My tips would be expect rejection at all time. Don’t believe what your friends and family say, it’s been determined they’re going to say it’s good because they don’t want to upset you. But really just do it for pleasure, do it because you enjoy doing it and it’s what you choose to do rather than going to the pub or watching football or whatever you might usually do. If you get that joy and pleasure out of it then getting published obviously is an extra bonus, I completely fluked it, but it has taken ten years worth of work.

TM: That’s not a fluke. 

JL: It was a fluke initially because I came second in a national prize, but there was a lot of effort that went in and still does, I just love it.

TM: We always finish off by asking for a piece of wisdom, or a mantra that you’ve lived your life by. Does anything come to mind?

JL: My favourite phrase of all time is,

“the best form of revenge is to have a have a happy life.”

I really like that.

Drift Stumble Fall by M Jonathan Lee published by Hideaway Fall is out to buy now, priced £8.99/e-book, £2.99.

Get your hands on a copy of this fantastic book HERE.

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