A short while ago I was asked by Roast Books to review their new publication, Dogsbodies and Scumsters by Alan McCormick. I tend not to do “normal” book reviews, but if I like a book I do like to have a chat with the author — we writers are such weird and interesting creatures! And I really did enjoy this book of short stories. Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong word. They are often surreal, sometimes downright creepy, but they are well-written and full of fascinating characters. Some of the stories are responses to the very imaginative drawings of Jonny Voss, and that I found to be quite refreshing as well.

illus by Jonny Voss

Alan worked in a psychiatric hospital in the 1980’s and some of the stories are inspired by this. He was recently Writer-in-Residence for the stroke charity, InterAct Reading Service.  His short stories have won numerous prizes and have been widely published and performed. Here then is the latest of my blog’s great conversations:
Sue: Many of the stories in your collection were written as a result of your being Writer-in-Residence at InterAct Reading Service. I am fascinated by this newish role of “Writer-in-Residence” in various institutions and organizations. Could you tell us a bit about InterAct, how you came to be involved with them, and whether you think the idea of being a “Writer-in-Residence” is a good one, in general, both for the writer and the organization.

Alan: InterAct’s first Chief Executive, the theatre director Caroline Smith, had nursed her sick brother, a psychiatrist, throughout a terminal illness. Although an avid Radio 4 listener when he had been fit and well, he much preferred to be read to when he became ill. Seeing its benefits first hand, she began reading herself on a voluntary basis at her local hospice and then used her theatrical expertise and contacts to set up InterAct Reading Service. Established in 2000 and working in six hospitals, the charity is led now by the playwright Nijay Mahindru and employs a team of 200 actors and works in fourteen London hospitals as well as hospitals in Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Stoke on Trent, Hayward’s Heath and Oldham.

Nirjay explains InterAct’s therapeutic role and contribution better than I can: We take professional actors into hospitals and stroke clubs to read to stroke patients. There is now a growing body of evidence to support the view that stimulation via reading and conversational interaction stimulates the neural pathways of the brain. This helps improve mood and allay the depression suffered by 71% of stroke victims.”
In 2008 I won InterAct’s first story competition, judged by Ruth Rendell, and became their first Writer in Residence. Over the next year I visited various wards and stroke clubs and saw their actors at work.  InterAct are a fantastically inspiring and supportive organisation to be involved with, and being their Writer in Residence was a privilege.
I was asked to write five more stories over the year of my residency. With Nirjay’s backing and support I decided not to tailor my work, or in any way over-simplify the way I write or lighten my choice of subject matter – my work tends to the darkly comic and I can’t shy away from that. From my past experience of reading stories at live events I knew dialogue and  some unforced humour where appropriate worked better for listeners than dense plots or long passages of  descriptive-heavy writing.  My brief then to myself was merely to keep the stories reasonably short – attention span of stroke patients can be diminished – and to make the writing lively. I’m not sure if my work in practice is particularly therapeutic but the act of writing  stories to be read aloud, both for InterAct and for live events, has really helped me as a short story writer, in honing material and attempting to keep things accessible and alive.
I remain in contact with InterAct and with Nirjay in particular. I helped produce a shortlist for their subsequent bi-annual story competition in 2010 and I’m lucky to have of their two fantastic actresses read at my book launch on June 7. At  Faye Dayan from Roast Books’ instigation, half the proceeds of the book will be given to InterAct.

Sue: One of the reasons why I was particularly drawn to your work is because of the connection with stroke victims. I have written a play called “The Bistro Down the Road” which is in development and whose central character is a stroke victim. Can you tell me what drew you to this particular ailment for your work, and what you learned about it from your own interaction with stroke victims and your writing?

Alan: Good luck with your play.
         My mother suffered a number of strokes at the end of the last Millennium. I watched her struggle with their effects, and though she had other serious health problems, the strokes not only hastened her end but caused her to suffer greatly in the process. All her life she had been an avid reader of literature, and it was music and company that gave her comfort in her final months. In the eighties I had trained to be a nurse – not a career I was really cut out for – which involved some kind of wish or need to help people who are ill. There must be some link to these experiences in my desire to become a writer for a stroke charity but in all honesty I wasn’t overtly conscious of it when I submitted my story to their competition; my main aim was to further my writing and have the opportunity to work creatively with what appeared to be, and definitely turned out to be, an ethical and innovative organisation.

 Life though can be pitiless at the same time as revelatory in its coincidences and finalities. A few months after I became Writer in Residence, my father, who had happily re-married after my mother died, suffered a startling and serious stroke. When I saw him in Brighton hospital the day he was admitted a pretty actress from InterAct was coincidentally reading to patient at the next bed. My Dad was old and never regained full movement or most importantly to him, full and normal speech, despite his own efforts and those of highly-skilled Speech & Language therapists. He fought his condition with honesty, grace and great humour but in the end after eighteen months it got the better of him. Visiting wards and seeing people read to was a bittersweet yet inspiring and moving experience, and though my Dad didn’t seek being read to, what rallied him through his ill health, as through his life, was interaction with people: good company, jokes and conversation.
   In the end then I can vouch for the fundamental and beneficial effect of human contact – a visit from a friendly InterAct actor reaching out with a story or someone sitting next to a stroke patient and tal
king to them as a normal person – on people suffering from stokes. It can be very isolating and frustrating condition that ravages body and soul and it means a lot to me to have been involved, even in a small way, with an organisation that seeks to make a positive difference.
Thanks so much for this honest and generous insight into your work and life. And thanks to Faye Dayan of Roast Books for the opportunity to read it and “meet” you.