In the opening event at the Guardian Spiegeltent, First Book Award nominees Nathan Filer and Stewart Foster discussed their thematically-related novels, speaking of the power and responsibility of bringing the unique voices of their unreliable narrators to life.
Foster’s We Used To Be Kings is told from the viewpoint of Tom, whose dead brother Jack still speaks to him inside his head. Filer’s Costa Book Award-winning The Shock Of The Fall is written from the perspective of Matthew, a service user at the Hope Road Day Centre whose writing down of his memories is a pivotal part of his therapy.
Both books have been critically acclaimed not only for the unflinching power of their writing, but also for the empathy both authors employ in dealing with such a sensitive subject. Filer, with his background as a psychiatric nurse, is quick to make clear that his novel is “not a book about mental illness” but, with its cast of beautifully-drawn and sympathetic characters, a novel focusing on “a family coming to terms with loss”.
Foster echoes this, describing the comments on his work left on review sites by readers who suffer from similar afflictions as his protagonist. Though he feels at times he wants to respond, he refrains from doing so, reasoning that he has “maybe done enough by writing the book”.
The authors discuss writing itself as a form of therapy, and how they both felt at times inhabited by their character. Filer compares the process to “an acting exercise”, particularly during those moments of awareness when he realised he was – by sitting at his computer writing – doing exactly the same as his character.
Although both books delve into dark themes and topics, the authors are at pains to point out there are “no villains” in either. Neither are they specifically commentaries about the state of mental health care, although the topic undeniably surfaces, particularly in Filer’s setting of the under-resourced day care centre where his protagonist tells his tale.
At their hearts however, both books are defined by their brilliantly empathetic voices, which Foster and Filer bring to life with a skill and compassion which has justifiably already placed their debut novels as contemporary classics.