Article published on June 3, 2015.
Jade Craddock is an insatiable reader who is keen to enquire further when she finds a book that she particularly likes. Here’s what happened with David Owen’s debut Panther . . . ‘this was a really thought-provoking and interesting experience for me. I was impressed by David’s vision, integrity and honesty and the book struck me as very original and brave. It left me with a real desire to find out more and David kindly indulged my curiosity.’
JC: To kick off, I was wondering how the story behind Panther came into being. Did it begin with the panther, Derrick or something else?
DO: It began with the panther. There’s been a rumour for years and years that a wild panther lives in and around the south east London suburb where I grew up. There have been numerous reported sightings and attacks, although of course nothing remotely concrete. When I was young, the police responded to a call from a neighbour who claimed to have spotted it in the allotments behind my house. They sent out a helicopter to sweep the area with a searchlight. That’s something that I’ve always remembered. I’ve always wanted to write about it.
JC: So once you had the panther, how did you get from that to this story of mental health?
DO: It was a number of things. Depression has been a significant part of my life since my early teens, first when a member of my family suffered with it severely, and later when I was diagnosed myself. I felt like having seen it from both sides gave me a unique perspective. I struggled, and ultimately failed to understand depression when my family member was suffering, and then became intimately familiar with it. So I wanted to use these experiences to write something about how depression is viewed, and to an extent, suffered by the people around the person who is ill. Depression and other mental health issues are on the rise, particularly in young people, and yet vast numbers of people don’t understand anything about it. This means stigma persists, which is only going to make the problem worse. I wanted to use my experiences on both sides to try and help people understand.
As for the panther, it’s common for depression to be represented by an animal – usually a black dog. My local legend gave me the panther. And it seemed the perfect legend to embody depression: it can hide easily in dark places; it seemingly disappears during daylight, lurking just below the surface of every day life; it’s powerful and mysterious; many people don’t believe it exists at all. It was the ideal thing to bring the different strands of the story together.
JC: Sorry to hear about the depression, it’s something that affects nearly every family and I’m sure the book will really speak to a lot of people. With your own family and personal history in mind, was writing this book cathartic in any way, did it help you or others understand your own experience? Or did you find it difficult to confront these issues?
DO: It was cathartic to an extent. When my family member was going through the worst of their depression, I treated them very poorly, because I didn’t understand that they were ill. I’d shout at them, say things that were deliberately hurtful, accuse them of faking it. Instead of trying to make things better, I made them worse. I still feel guilty about that, and this book was a way to confront it. That’s why Derrick is a much better person than I was back then. Although sometimes badly misguided, he is actively trying to make things better for everyone.
JC: You said before that the panther seemed the perfect legend to embody depression and I completely agree. As soon as you’d made the association, it seemed absolutely right. Unlike other images (the black dog etc), I also liked the fact that the panther was less benign, that there’s an implicit danger and threat to it. There’s perhaps a darkness and hostility that isn’t as apparent with the black dog. Was this also in your mind when using the panther? Were you conscious of showing a different side to depression?
DO: A dog feels appropriate for older people, perhaps, who have grown more accustomed to living with depression as part of their daily lives. It is more benign, but that can be just as hurtful. Having the black dog hanging around your door, as Nick Drake wrote, can wear you down. But yes, something a little more hostile and mysterious definitely fitted this story better, and fits the first few years of depression well, when it does feel like you’re under attack, you don’t know what’s happening to you, and you’re scared you’ll never feel normal again.
JC: I thought it was interesting you made your protagonist not the victim of depression himself but a family member, this obviously stems from some of these family experiences you mention but did you ever consider making the sufferer the central character? What do you think is gained from having the removed perspective of Derrick?
DO: Really I just thought it was a unique perspective to take. There are already books out there where the sufferer is the central character, but as far as I’m aware fewer that focus on the people around them. I think having the removed perspective provides an opportunity to really explore the things people don’t understand about depression and mental illnesses, how they can seem utterly alien and illogical when it’s not happening inside your head, compared to physical problems like cancer or a broken leg. My hope is that telling the story in this way will encourage people to be more understanding and sympathetic, to be able to recognise the signs of mental illness, and to learn more about it means. That’s the only way mental health care is going to improve.
JC: Absolutely, reading Panther really brought home to me the fact that we need more books like yours which confront the myriad realities of mental health and I wondered what role do you think books can have in mental health both for those with it and those without? And do you think there’s enough being done to address mental health in literature?
DO: I think books can be hugely valuable when it comes to mental health. One of the worst things about depression is how it can make you feel absolutely alone. So a book that shows you that other people are experiencing something similar can be hugely comforting. And I think reading a book, more than any other kind of media, is a really personal experience. Books can be a lifeline. Books in general are good for mental health, whether they tackle the subject or not!
I think literature is doing plenty to address mental health. There are books about depression, anorexia, OCD, and any number of mental illnesses, particularly in the YA space. I also think books are doing a better job of addressing the issue. Speaking generally, there isn’t the same problem you see in TV and film where mental health issues are often simplified or used as cheap character traits – often for murderous villains. That’s helping nobody.
JC: I’m a huge advocate of YA and think it’s very much at the forefront when it comes to addressing the big issues of our lives, including mental health, so a few related questions on this. Firstly what attracted you to writing YA? Why do you think YA is so bold and brave?
DO: My answer to those two questions is the same: there’s less bullshit in YA. Young people see through the sort of conceited, preoccupied nonsense that seems to afflict us as we grow up. I think this is why YA is so good at tackling big issues in a straightforward and honest way.
YA has to be bold and brave, otherwise it would be doing a disservice to its primary readers. You never need to be braver than when you’re growing up. Being a teenager can really suck! YA has a duty to reflect that.
JC: I was thinking the other day about how YA has changed since I was a teen and wondered what you thought of YA when you were growing up and how far it’s come since?
DO: I couldn’t profess to be an expert on ‘proto’ YA. There were authors – like Marcus Sedgwick, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson – who were writing for this audience long before YA was a definition. Although they were less common, there were books that tackled things that were important and difficult in the lives of teenagers. Judy Blume was and is a remarkably honest writer, and Melvin Burgess never pulled any punches. Those authors were pioneering (and there’s undoubtedly loads I’ve missed), and it opened the doors for more authors to write honestly for this audience. And now YA is deservedly huge!
JC: You’ve touched on some of the freedoms and advantages of writing YA, but were there any restrictions or disadvantages?
DO: I really don’t think there are restrictions when writing YA. I personally decided to keep profanity to something of a minimum (though it’s still in there, because people swear!), but there are other brilliant YA books packed with it. There are YA books with unflinching violence, or explorations of sexuality, all manner of ‘difficult’ topics. Teenagers want the truth, and if you try and hold anything back, or present a neutered version of reality because you think they can’t take it, they’re not going to bother with your book.
JC: Do you think YA gets the attention it deserves?
DO: YA seems to slowly be getting more recognition. It’s too popular to be ignored. But I think a lot of people are still too ready to write it off because it’s for young people, as if that makes it easier to write and less worthwhile to read. Which is total nonsense, and is incredibly disrespectful to anyone, not just young people, who read these books. They see YA as a genre, but it isn’t. YA books can be romance or sci-fi or action or fantasy or drama or historical… they can be everything that ‘adult’ books can be, and they deserve the recognition for that.
JC: Turning to characterisation, Derrick is an interesting protagonist; flawed, vulnerable, yet determined and strong. There’s a lot happening in his life, most of it quite unsettling and uneasy for him and he deals with that in his own way. How do you view Derrick as a protagonist and his relationship with the panther?
DO: I think Derrick is fundamentally good. The problem he has is that he, like so many people, struggles to understand mental illness, in this case depression. He cares about his sister, and he wants to help, but he doesn’t know how to do that, and he’s frustrated by how it’s affected his own life. This leads him to doing some incredibly misguided things. But it’s all in the name of trying to make things better – they’re the only ways he knows how.
That’s why I think Derrick is good. When I was his age and a family member close to me was struggling with depression, I went to nowhere near the same lengths to help. I may have even made things worse for them. I suppose Derrick, in his intentions at least, is more like who I wish I’d been.
The panther is a physical thing he can see and, to some extent, understand, unlike his sister’s depression. It presents him with a tangible enemy that he believes can be conquered. Although it’s still dangerous and mysterious, the panther is so much more real than his sister’s depression. So Derrick comes to rely on it desperately as a means of defeating the problem that is tearing his family apart.
JC: Derrick tries to be the one to make things better as you say, but it seems that no one’s really helping to make things better for him. What role do you think Derrick’s family and friends have in what happens to him and the decisions he makes? And do you think things would have been different for him had he himself had more support?
DO: It’s really all about communication. No one in his family and none of his friends talk about what is happening, which is a big part of why he struggles to understand. Charlotte won’t talk about what’s happening to her, Dad has never told him about his history with the illness, Hadley roundly dismisses it. There’s not really anyone for Derrick to go to in order to get the help he needs. So he tries to take care of it all himself.
The thing is, this isn’t anyone’s fault. The problem with mental illness is that we don’t talk about it, out of shame or embarrassment or fear. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to talk about, and in this case someone like Derrick’s mother is too busy dealing with the situation to also deal with Derrick. The result is that stigma and misunderstanding continue to be prevalent. If we were better at talking about mental health issues, as a country, as people, as families, it would so much easier to find and provide the support required.
JC: You mention Charlotte there and I was fascinated by her and the fact that you keep her pretty much on the peripheries as a character. It was a really original and interesting position to take and I wondered what inspired you to depict Charlotte in this way?
DO: The idea was to show how isolated and distant her illness has made her. It’s only one experience of depression, of course, but for many it can be an incredibly alienating illness. It can make you feel detached from reality, and people not understanding what you’re going through only makes that worse. It can be an incredibly lonely illness.
From a storytelling perspective, it works to mean Derrick doesn’t know what is happening, and offers what I hope is a unique perspective. Plenty has been written about depression, but perhaps less about the people around the sufferer. Charlotte doesn’t always feature directly in the story, but she is central to absolutely everything, and that shows the power depression and mental illness can wield against anyone in its proximity.
JC: And so to my final question(s), how has this whole experience of having your debut novel been and are there any more books in the pipeline?
DO: It’s been great! It’s been a new experience to work so closely with editors, but the book is so much stronger for it. It’s strange having people actually read something I’ve written, especially something so personal, but so far no one has slated it, so that’s a good feeling. I just hope it doesn’t sink without trace!
I’m working on a couple of books, one for a slightly younger audience, and another YA. Both are quite different to Panther. But nothing is certain yet, so I won’t say too much for fear of jinxing it.
Jade Craddock, Redditch
Panther by David Owen was published by Constable & Robinson in May, 2015
More about David and his work at http://www.davidowenbooks.com/