Life’s a funny old game isn’t it? You never know who you’re going to meet, and in today’s virtual world, you never know who you’ll meet very briefly in the flesh, but who you’ll end up becoming friends with online. However, that’s how I met Chloë – we met very briefly as Alt-Fiction four years ago, then worked together on different Fox Spirit books, before chatting online and becoming friends.
Chloë has been very open about her struggles with her mental health and as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, she’s kindly agreed to discuss her issues, what methods have worked for her and how her creativity has saved her. She writes as C. A. Yates and is on twitter as @shloobee.
WARNING: Chloë discusses her issues with mental health which may be a trigger for some readers. Also, there may be a little swearing. You have been warned.
GCH: Which living person do you admire most and why?
CAY: Do they have to be alive? Almost all my heroes are dead. Let me have a think. Okay, I’m going to have to go with “someones”. I’m involved with a collective of creative dames, called The Speakeasy, who support each other through thick and thin. There’s musicians, artists, writers, crafties, all sorts. I admire every single one of them and I’d be lost without them. There’s always someone (quite often a dozen someones!) you can speak to and bounce ideas off, to encourage you, to talk over problems with, expel your fury, laugh with, and almost anything else you could need. There’s so much creativity, chutzpah, and common sense in the group, it can’t help but keep me going. I’m honoured to be a member because these women are balls out cool… and that makes me sound like I think I am likewise some cool shit. Maybe I do, maybe I am… *lights cigar and tips hat*
GCH: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CAY: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I mean aside from stuff like chopping up your granny for pies, whatever floats your boat, however it floats your boat, shouldn’t be apologized for. An it harm none, y’know? Guilt and shame are what society uses to pop us in our assigned boxes, to keep us on the supposed straight and narrow so we can “fit in”. Ugh. Fitting in. So vulgar.
GCH: If any of your stories could be made into a movie, which one would it be, who would direct and star?
CAY: Hm. ‘Tuna Surprise!’ from the Fox Pocket, Under the Waves, might be fun. Live action, everyone dressed up as fish. Either Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro would do a magnificent job, natch. Not sure about the stars. Anyone who could cope with the demands of Sub-Aquatic Operatic training? Kate Winslet might give it a decent bash. Of course, I already wrote part of a script for another Fox Pocket, The Evil Genius Guide, called PROFESSOR VENEDICTOS VON HOLINSHED VERSUS THE SORORAL LEAGUE OF BAZOOKA-BIKINI-WIELDING DEMONIC DIVAS FROM OUTER SPACE (it won’t let me write it in anything but capital letters, sorry). Ed Wood is dead though and who else could do it justice?
GCH: What music do you write to?
CAY: The Cure (aka The Greatest Band in the World Ever) is always my first port of call. My story in Fox Spirit’s anthology Respectable Horror is called ‘The Holy Hour’ and I listened to the song on repeat the entire time I wrote it. They make my brain swell in that good way that means it’s really ticking.
I can’t lie; I will listen to pretty much anything. To pare it down, any old Eighties playlist (I LOVE making playlists, every story has one) is likely to please me. Zoë Keating is a more modern favourite. She’s a cellist and her music is incredible. I really can’t recommend her enough. Epically talented. Sometimes I need absolute quiet, depending on what I’m tackling, sometimes I need something loud and thumping; I recently discovered Rage Against The Machine (yes, I know, I know). They seem very cross about a lot of things and the fury and the loud keeps my head in the game, as the kids say in Management Cliché school.
GCH: Any tips for how you edit your work?
CAY: Editing is my favourite part of writing. I’m a procrastinator and a perennial self-loather with first drafts, but once I have something down, it’s best to go at it like the Devil eating cherries. Yes, he likes cherries, ask Jack Nicholson. Keep at it for a while, take a break, and then go back (to the editing, not the cherries; too many cherries will give you the raging Trotskies, and I don’t mean you’ll get all revolutionary and such). Never get to the point where you feel like you want to bang your head through the screen or page (even though I do it all the time; what’s good for the goose sucks for the gander). Get up, Taylor Swift that shit off, and go back when you’re less frustrated. Just don’t stay away too long.
GCH: Writers are always asked where they get their inspiration. Where do you get yours?
CAY: Moonbeams and rainbows and coke bottle bottoms… there’s no real answer to this because ideas come from anywhere and everywhere! I read a lot, love art of most kinds, take frequent trips through the internet, keep notes about everything – news stories, the people I meet and see, places I visit – I love quote websites, surfing through image stashes online, etc. All these things can trigger an idea into being. I recently felt a tingle of inspiration while staring at an embankment on the M25. Story lives in the air we breathe, even when it’s thick with noxious fumes.
GCH: Tell us about your latest writing project.
CAY: My primary focus at the moment is on something called Feral Tales for Fox Spirit Books. I can’t tell you too much, but I guess you could say it’s concerned with what happens when you leave the path…
GCH: What’s your favourite drink? Wine or beer? Tea or coffee?
CAY: Water predominantly, although a mug of sweet, strong coffee always goes down well. That said, I’ve yet to say no to an ice cold Martini, two olives, no dirt.
GCH: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
CAY: When I was very small we lived right by a river. My mum would often find me behind the sofa, which was in front of the window, eating all the poor insects that had flown in and died (there were a lot). Necrophagia ain’t just for the ghouls, baby… or perhaps I was a ghoul baby?
GCH: You’ve been very open about your mental health issues. Would you mind giving a brief outline of how they affect your day-to-day activities?
CAY: It might sound like a cliché, but some days simply getting out of bed, feeling like it’s worth it, like I’m worth it, is the hardest part. Sometimes it lasts all day, sometimes there’s just a flash of it, but it happens every single morning. It’s a bloody ballache to be honest, like waking up and hitting a brick wall. That said, and I don’t want to sound glib, lately I’ve found coffee can help immeasurably. The ritual of making it – measuring out the grains, heating the water, pouring it into my special mug, sipping its inky delights – gives me a specific task to focus on first thing. It’s one thing I can definitely get done. Small things can change your mindset more than you might imagine.
Focussing can be hard work – I admire anyone who can do it. I munch up people’s advice about it like a starving man, but applying it successfully can seem like the Holy fucking Grail. This is of course pepped up by the wonder that is self-doubt which, on a bad day, can come at me like a petrolhead’s pimped out monster truck. I mean, we all have self-doubt, and with creative types I guess it’s especially endemic, but it can paralyse me, dousing me with a whole ‘can’t do right for doing wrong’ feeling that’s very frustrating and wholly unproductive. I can sit in front of my computer for long stretches seeing nothing but emptiness and pointlessness. Well, I say nothing but obviously I am EPIC at making myself feel terrible about myself and if reinforcing negativity were an Olympic Sport you wouldn’t have heard of that Redgrave fella. It’s very difficult to talk about all this without sounding like a liability, but if people want to think that about me, let them. Being more open about it has really helped my recovery and maybe it can help someone else too. That’d be a genuinely Good Thing.
GCH: You’ve recently been having some successes at dealing with your anxiety. How have you managed this?
CAY: Last autumn, stuck in bed with bronchitis and the broken rib of doom it caused, my mental health in total disarray, I felt pretty much like I was over, that I was going to be trapped in this awful cycle for the rest of my life with no way out. It was suffocating. I’ve felt bleak before but that was something else entirely. Anyway, during a half-hearted Internet perusal, I read about something called DBT – Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. It focuses a lot on mindfulness, calming yourself down, analysing what you are really feeling, and gives you the tools to help keep you balanced. When I say it’s changed my life, saved it even, I’m not overstating the case. I’m clearer and calmer than I’ve been in so long it feels almost like a miracle. It’s not, it takes hard work and constant vigilance, but it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’m still learning and probably always will be, and that gives me more hope than anything.
GCH: How has your writing helped you to cope?
CAY: Ironically enough, while I often find it difficult to focus, writing is a lifesaver. It’s a bit like me wishing on those Ruby Slippers; it’s been there all along, I just had to realise it. I can channel all my negative emotions and frustrations into my work, I can control it (if it sometimes feels like it’s the story dragging me along that’s okay because I brought it into being in the first place), and it’s a place of shelter from the cacophony of the world. I’d rather be there than most anywhere else. Except libraries. Libraries are the best.
GCH: Mental health is increasingly coming into the (I hate to use this phrase but it’s either this or the worse ‘popular consciousness’) ‘mainstream’ with books by Matt Haig and the ‘Heads Together’ charity set up by the royals. Has highlighting these issues helped you to cope better?
CAY: To be honest, I don’t feel like it has helped me cope better on a personal level, but anything that highlights the issue and tries to de-stigmatize mental illness is just fine by me. I often find that people are happy to pay lip service to the fact that mental illness is the same as physical illness, that we should take it every bit as seriously, but I can’t tell you how often that goes out the window when the latter does come up. I understand it, but it shows how much work still needs to be done. It sure as shit can kill you just as easily as cancer can and needs to be taken every bit as seriously. I don’t say any of that lightly.
GCH: Whilst treatment and the complexities of individual diagnoses, what would you say to others suffering from mental health problems?
CAY: To be clear, while I am pretty open about my mental health issues, I am in no way an expert and have no desire to set myself up as such. With that in mind, there are two things I personally rely on. First, remind yourself to breathe. Stop a moment, concentrate on your breathing. Give yourself time. Repeat. It might sound banal, but it’s the easiest form of self-soothing there is. Second, YOU MATTER. Don’t let anyone, not even that nasty little inner voice that’s so bloody convincing, tell you otherwise. You. Matter.
GHC: Tell us a secret.
CAY: Everybody’s pretending. None of us know what we’re doing, so keep on trucking.