The UK based author , Ali Land has landed in Cape Town for the Open Book Festival taking place at The Fugard Theatre. Pam Komani chats to her about her debut novel Good Me Bad Me. 

Ali, the twists and turns from this book often landed me, as a reader, in Mike’s study. One minute I was looking for answers from his computer. I wanted to lay my hands on those notes and the next minute, I was waking up from the deep sleep on his reclined chair…I wanted to get into Milly’s head and fix her or make poor Mike’s efforts worth his while. Four months of leaving in Milly’s head, let alone her mother’s, it must have been excruciating. How long did it take you to recover?

Bringing Milly to life was a privilege but it definitely came at a cost. I barely slept during the writing of my first draft which took five months and once I secured the book deal, a further nine months of editing. My main priority was facilitating an authentic experience, one that would allow readers to inhabit the mind and body of a child who has a complex and disturbing past. Achieving that required me to spend hours in creative solitude, travelling deep into the darkest parts of my imagination. The aftermath that followed was intensely emotional, akin to that of a break up as I left Milly behind or so I thought I had, but in reality over the past six months I’ve had to write a further two novels to flush Milly’s voice from my system and allow space in my mind for Jack, the main character in my next book to land. So you could say it’s been a lengthy recovery

On the other hand you have a Psychologist who is unable to fix his own backyard, innocently flirting with fire…Was he looking for sheer career invigoration? This seems to have led him to a path short of what he bargained for. Your  thoughts?

Mike’s an interesting character because on one hand (as a therapist) he wants to help, but on the other (as a human being) he wants success and to make a mark on his profession. Behind closed doors his family are struggling, his avoidance in dealing with this is obvious and although it’s supposed to be him and his family that are shiny and new for Milly, she serves the same purpose for him. A project, a distraction, something he could get right, or so he thought. No matter how much training or experience a person has, caring for someone else’s mind is a minefield and requires hundreds of micro decisions on a daily basis, it will never be an exact science. I created Mike as a device to protect Milly so when whatever happens in the book happens the blame could not be left solely at her door.

When Milly realises her worst fear, she starts believing she is not capable of being loved and therefore starts taking matters into her own hands…At what depth does she go, as she grows older?

Milly is only sixteen-years-old when the book ends and many readers ask me if there’ll be a sequel to Good Me Bad Me. I feel humbled when I’m asked because it means I’ve created a character who’s captivating and intriguing enough for readers to want to continue the journey with. Can I see her as a grown-up, do I know how deep she goes? Yes. Do I want to share that? No, I don’t think so. It’s important for me to develop as a writer, to challenge myself creatively to bring somebody completely different to life. I also strongly believe it’s the responsibility of the writer to know when a story should end, to respect and preserve that character. Milly’s an amalgamation of many young people I looked after as a children’s mental health nurse so if, in the future, I do write about her again I want to be sure it’s because her story truly demands it.

I was unable to put the book down for long without wondering what the “Newmonts” and their new shiny addition to the family were up to. Their simple yet complicated life. What motivated you to hand her over to a temporary dream home?

I wanted to explore every aspect of Milly’s life after her mother. I placed her in the ‘real’ world so readers could walk that walk with her. The Newmont’s look perfect on paper but is there such a thing as a perfect family? Or a normal family? What is normal within the sphere of domesticity, every family has its isms, its quirks and in the case of Milly’s foster family some quite serious dysfunctionality. Because I don’t plot I didn’t know what was going to happen at the end of the book, in many ways placing her in the family environment I did was an experiment and it’s fascinating when readers contact me to say they think Milly was justified in her actions at the end, possibly not something they would ever have thought they’d say prior to reading the book.

You wrote beautifully. Have you explored another genre so far, outside psychological thriller?

Even though Good Me Bad Me is thrilling to read I don’t think of it as a psychological thriller, more a character study and a literary drama. My second novel, set on a scarcely inhabited Scottish island, again is driven by my desire to delve deep into the human psyche, placing my characters in extraordinary circumstances and seeing how they respond. I’m at such an early stage in my literary career that I’m not sure what sort of writer I’ll end up being and how much control I have over that. Do writers choose the stories or do the stories choose them? As long as I’m learning and exploring as I write and creating  an immersive and emotive world on the page for readers to lose themselves in, then I’ll be happy!

About Ali Land:

After graduating from university with a degree in Mental Health, Ali Land spent a decade working as a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Nurse in hospitals and schools in the UK and Australia. Ali is now a full-time writer and lives in a creative warehouse community in North London.  

Follow Ali on Twitter @byAliLand.

Images: Penguin Random House SA and Laura Lewis photography