Mental: Short Stories by Orla Shanaghy. Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the author included. No affiliate links used. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Mental is a thought-provoking look at how people experience mental ill-health. Across five stories Orla Shanaghy explores the impact of mental illness not only on the person who is ill, but also on the people around them.
The collection is short enough to finish in one sitting. But you’ll want to take your time; to sit with the characters and ponder whether you would have reacted differently in their situations.
To mark the launch of this debut collection, Orla Shanaghy took some time to answer my questions.
The stories in Mental centre on the theme of mental ill-health. Did you set out with this theme in mind or did it come after you’d written some of the stories?
I didn’t set out with any theme in mind. I first started writing these stories about six years ago and I had no plans for publication. I just wrote what came to me.
Strange as it may sound, it was only when I was beginning to think I might publish, and I was revising the first draft of the book, that I noticed the common theme of mental health running through all the stories. It was a bit like “So that’s what this book is about!”
What kind of reader did you have in mind as you were writing this collection?
I didn’t have a clear idea of a reader as I was writing the first drafts of the stories. When it came to the revising – and, in many cases, re-writing – stage, I did start to think about who I was aiming the work at.
I think that like a lot of writers, I was hoping that the book would have broad appeal. The theme of mental health is such a big and important one that affects so many people, be it themselves directly or someone in their life. The five stories in ‘Mental’ deliberately feature protagonists of different ages, backgrounds and genders. One story, ‘Grace’, has an eight-year-old schoolboy, while another, ‘Ask Jessica’, features a forty-something mother, for example. All the characters deal with mental health challenges in different ways.
A piece of advice sometimes given to new writers is “Write the book you’d like to read”. I was probably being quite selfish as I wrote; I was writing first and foremost for myself!
Judging from the feedback I’ve got so far, the book is fulfilling my hope of having a broad appeal.
Writing is a solitary process. Do you have a routine so that you don’t get completely lost in the world(s) you’re creating?
Honestly, I find that the challenge for me is not being able to sustain my concentration on the world I’m creating in my writing! I’m easily distracted and I work from home, which poses a double challenge. There’s always something to distract you in that situation, be it something around the house or an issue that’s occupying your thoughts. So I find it a big effort to shut all that out and concentrate on writing. Some days I meet that challenge more successfully than others.
I’m lucky in that I work three mornings a week and my children are all at school age, so I have two mornings a week free to write, and evenings if needs be – though I find that working evenings gets harder as I get older. I used to sit down at my desk as soon as my children left for school. Now, I’m more aware of the need for self care. I go for a walk, get a coffee in a local shop, walk home, then sit down to write. It’s a good routine. I have to make myself do it as I can be quite physically lazy! Then I write, or do writing-related work, till 1 or 2 PM, depending on what I have on that day.
My afternoons and evenings are mostly taken up with picking up the children, getting them to various activities and making sure they eat! So I don’t think about writing at all in the afternoons and evenings. It’s good for my mental health to have that balance.
Self-publishing generates a lot of discussion. Can you tell us a bit about how you found the process and why you felt it was the right choice for you?
I’ve been interested for several years in the new wave of digital self-publishing. Long before I decided to do it myself, I attended seminars and talks about it. I was building up that awareness and knowledge for a long time. I also read ‘Self-Printed’ by Catherine Ryan Howard, which I used as my self-publishing bible.
With that knowledge and those resources behind me, once I got down to the nuts and bolts of self-publishing my book, I found the process manageable. Catherine’s book lays it all out step by step, which made it a lot easier for me. My book is straightforward in that there is just text, no pictures, which made the layout and formatting relatively simple.
The main single challenge I encountered was an issue with page numbering. I wanted a blank page between each story in the book. When I did this, it threw out the page numbering. That issue took a few hours to fix.
I’d like to point out, for people who may be reading this and considering self-publishing, that it is possible to do the whole process for free. I used the free, open source software OpenOffice as my word processor. Amazon (for the ebook) and CreateSpace (for the print version) provide all the tools you need for formatting and uploading free of charge.
I did decide, though, to invest money in a professional editor and cover designer. I think it’s very important for self-published authors to make their books as professional and of as high quality as they possibly can. Even though self-publishing has come a long way, there is still a certain perception that the books are somehow of lesser quality than traditionally published books. I feel that SP authors have a responsibility to represent ourselves and our work to the best of our ability.
The feedback I’ve been getting on ‘Mental’ is that it looks and feels professional. I’m delighted about that.
I love hearing what people are passionate about reading, even if they can’t narrow it down to a favourite. Which book do you wish you could thrust into the arms of strangers and demand they read it immediately?
‘Mara and Dann’ by Doris Lessing. It’s one of her lesser-known works. Great books leave a permanent impression on the reader. For me, ‘Mara and Dann’ changed the way I think in small but lasting ways.
The book is set in a dystopian future in which global warming is forcing whole populations to move north. The two main characters face impossible challenges as they migrate through this arid landscape and struggle to survive.
I’m not normally drawn to sci-fi or fantasy, but I think genre becomes irrelevant when the writing is this powerful. The book made me think hard about how humans behave when faced with life-changing problems on a global scale. It still does.