Article published on September 6, 2018.
Sweet William is a complex and exciting chase thriller, but it’s more than that, it’s a novel that takes the mental health issues of its central character very seriously. Raymond Orrey is not a foil for other characters or a McGuffin, he’s a rounded person. I wanted to explore the issues behind the novel with author Iain Maitland. It’s the tale of a father so desperate to be with his son that he breaks out of a secure mental health unit to go looking for him. Refusing to conform to stereotype, it’s a nail-biting read.
Paul Burke: Can I start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself.
Iain Maitland: I’m a full-time writer living by the sea in Suffolk. If I lean forward in my seat now, I can look out of the window and see the boats going by. I’m married to Tracey and have three children, Michael, Sophie and Adam, and a mixed-breed dog called Dolly who was rescued from the streets of Zante hours before being put down. I’d like to write her biography but I suspect my agent Clare (Hulton) will tell me not to and to focus on commercial fiction instead.
PB: You have written non-fiction before now, what made you turn to fiction?
IM: I’ve been a writer for 30 or so years, mostly writing about business and finance and property. I got tired of writing about currency exchange rates and forward contracts and all of that and wanted to have a go at something creative for a change. I’ve always loved manhunt-type books and films and TV – The Fugitive etc. – and thought I’d write a chase story with a modern twist.
PB: Sweet William presents a realistic picture of a man with serious mental health issues. What made you want to tell Raymond Orrey’s story? Was there a purpose to the novel beyond creating a thriller?
IM: Manhunt-type books and films and TV tend to have a squeaky-clean hero; the innocent man accused. I wanted to have a fully-rounded lead character who was flawed and damaged and, as you say, realistic. Orrey loves his son and would do anything to get him and go and live happily ever after in the south of France. It’s his serious mental health issues – the anger, the paranoia and more – that are the biggest obstacles to getting away. The book is an out-and-out thriller but I wanted to make it richer and more layered than a straightforward chase.
PB: With that in mind, why did you decide to write Raymond’s story as a thriller? Are you a fan of the genre? Is it true that your love of The Fugitive may have influenced the storyline?
IM: The thing with Sweet William and, indeed my next book, Mr Todd’s Reckoning, is that they don’t really fit easily into a specific genre so it, they, are both put into the crime and thriller section. I have never really read crime and thriller books although I have started looking at some, Barbara Nadel and Quentin Bates as examples, to get a feel for how they are put together. My next book, as yet untitled, is the first of a series of cold case detective novels. When I wrote Sweet William, I had one book – David Morrell’s 1975 man-on-the-run thriller, Testament – in mind. David created the Rambo character. It didn’t influence the storyline of Sweet William but I was mindful of the structure, pace and tension in that book.
PB: Thrillers are a genre known for macho sensibilities, although things have changed dramatically more recently, there’s a lot of toxic masculinity and stereotyping. How does that sit with telling Raymond’s story in this way?
IM: From the outside, the physical and aggressive way that Orrey responds to setbacks is macho but having the book set inside his head allows readers to see that he has a wide range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. He sees himself as a loving and caring father who adores his son and only wants to be with him. Everything he does is for what he perceives to be the greater good – for them to be together and to be happy forever.
PB: Raymond struggles to communicate and he has a particular way of understanding events around him. Is this a central part of the problem in Raymond’s life? The very ordinary things that seem straightforward to most people, become very complicated for Raymond. The incident where Orrey is picked up by the lorry driver for instance.
IM: Orrey has severe mental health issues and one way that he handles these is to plan and prepare, to go over all the options, to weigh things up – he sees this as being sensible and wise but it doesn’t always work well when he has, at heart, such an emotional, see-saw nature. The book was read, pre-publication, by a former nurse who worked at a high-security institution and the character was consistent with what she saw on the wards every day.
PB: The novel works on the edge of understanding, Raymond’s and ours. You have created an atmosphere of half glimpsed events, distorted perspectives. When we see William for example there is more than one way to see his bruises and the relationship with the adults around him is unclear. Was it your intention to let us see the world as opaque? To see a confused image of events, perhaps like Raymond?
IM: The bottom line is that I wanted to write the book from inside the head of a madman. He’s troubled, mixed-up, confused, contrary at times and I wanted that madness to drive the book on whilst, at the same time, trying to show that inside of all of that, he did love and want to be loved and, despite all the horror and the awfulness of what happens, some readers did feel some sympathy for him (although they felt guilty about that!).
PB: When Raymond meets a woman on the seafront it’s like two lost souls (two damaged individuals?) being drawn together, and that can be a very bad thing, does this reflect life?
IM: I’ve written, novel-wise, Sweet William, Mr Todd’s Reckoning and am halfway through my first Gayther & Carrie cold case novel and, although I don’t really read novels, I am an avid reader of newspapers and online news and, one way or the other, I see the sorts of things I am writing about all the time in real-life.
When Orrey meets the woman on the bench on the seafront, it’s a potential turning point. There is something here for him. A chance, maybe, to form a relationship of some kind. For a moment, that’s what he wants, perhaps so badly that he tells her everything, about the reason why he was in the secure mental unit, William, and that he’s on the run.
PB: Raymond appears to break the fourth wall, he addresses us directly or does he? Is he talking to the voice in his head?
IM: Orrey is talking out loud really, but it feels as though he is addressing the reader and is admonishing them for not keeping up and getting angry if they don’t seem to understand what he is trying to do. I wanted to try to draw the readers into the madness inside his head. One minute he sounds lucid and sensible. Next, he’s in a fury.
PB: Raymond can’t process information, he makes decisions that are impulsive, it has tragic consequences. Does Raymond lack the ability to connect his actions to the pain of others, which makes him a danger to himself and others, or is he disguising his motivation and feelings? How unreliable a narrator is he?
IM: He would see himself as a reliable narrator, 100 per cent. But everything he sees is, as you say, half-glimpsed and distorted. He has no empathy for others, the foster parents, those he kills – he sees it all from his own viewpoint.
PB: You use locations in the novel that you are very familiar with, places you love. What was it like subverting them for a darker purpose?
IM: The book begins close to Sherwood Forest and then on to Aldeburgh and beyond. I like to write with the location in my head. So I have run through Sherwood Forest – as Orrey does at the beginning – with my children when they were young. I have crouched in a ditch in Edwinstowe with cars driving by (purely for research purposes). I have walked along the prom at Aldeburgh at night with a funfair in the distance. I guess they have been subverted for darker purposes. At a book signing or talk, I always joke that I have been banned from Aldeburgh because of what Orrey said about it and did there. And there is a little bit of truth in that.
PB: Is there something of the dilemma of every father separated from a child in this tale?
IM: I think so, yes. Before I started the book I came across a message on Instagram written by a father to his young daughter. I am not sure whether she would have read it or not but it went something like this, ‘Bubba, Dadda loves you. When you are 18 I will come and get you from your fake family and fake daddy’. Reading other messages, you could see he had been banned by a court from seeing his daughter and that a new father – ‘fake daddy’ – had taken his place. I think most people could identify with his anguish. What made the message chilling, for me anyway, were the final words. ‘Just you see if I don’t.’ I had the feeling that I wouldn’t want to be ‘fake daddy’ when this fellow came knocking on the door.
PB: Mental health issues are close to your heart. You had a very personal problem in the family and your son was anorexic. Would you tell us a little bit about that please?
IM: Yes, we were the happiest family in the world, Tracey, me, Michael, Sophie and Adam – or so we thought. Michael then went to university and suffered from anxiety and depression and, finally, anorexia. We didn’t really see much of this as he hid it from us and we thought we were all happy anyway. It was only when he was rushed to hospital with his body shutting down and his consequent five-month stay in The Priory that we realised how troubled he was. We know now, of course, that depression can affect anyone, anywhere, any time.
It was a long journey for him but today he is working full-time as a tattooist, he has a lovely girlfriend, Georgia, and a great group of friends. He worked with me on a memoir, Dear Michael, Love Dad and we then wrote one together, Out Of The Madhouse. We are also both ambassadors for the teen mental health charity, the truly wonderful, life-changing Stem 4 at stem4.org.uk. We are very proud to be their ambassadors.
PB: What does being an Ambassador for Mental Health entail?
IM: We go into local schools and colleges in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, wherever we are invited really, to talk about Michael’s story. There may be one quiet student sitting at the back taking it all in and we can maybe change the direction of their life a little. We talk at Stem 4 conferences, whether for students or parents. It’s good to talk to parents so they realise they are not alone. We write about mental health in blogs and newspapers such as the East Anglian Daily Times. We go on radio and TV when mental health, especially for men, is in the news. We just talk about mental health as much we can to normalise it, to show everyone it’s part of life, to get it out in the open.
PB: Are we getting any better at the way we perceive mental health in society?
IM: Yes, for sure. There has been a rapid improvement over the past two or three years. The more that people speak out the better. Prince Harry going public about his own issues was a big plus. Celebrities talking about mental health is good too, especially those who are admired by teenagers. We need to remove any sense of stigma attached to mental ill-health.
PB: Is there something that you think would make a big difference, an improvement, in the way mental health is treated in society? I know it’s a vast and complex topic.
IM: There is a greater understanding and acceptance of mental ill-health in schools which is probably where it all needs to start. We go into schools, as often as not, after a tragedy has occurred and the school is reacting to what has happened. Schools and colleges need to be pro-active. Many are, more – all really – need to be.
PB: And finally, on a lighter note, who are you reading at the moment? Is there an author you would recommend to other readers?
IM: I have, because I am writing my first cold case detective novel, just read Barbara Nadel’s latest book, Incorruptible (Inspector Ikmen Mystery 20). That was a great read and I’d recommend Barbara’s books to everyone. I am halfway through Frozen Out, a cracker of a book set in Iceland, written by Quentin Bates. After that, my next book is His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet which is one of my favourite books of all time and it’s about due a re-read.
Our thanks to both Iain and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
Sweet William by Iain Maitland
Saraband 9781910192917 hbk Nov 2017