Writer’s Block With Arnold Thomas Fanning

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to playwright and author ARNOLD THOMAS FANNING about MENTAL HEALTH, WRITING RETREATS and EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE

Photograph by Ste Murray

Arnold Thomas Fanning is a playwright and author who has penned one of 2018’s most important books. Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, is a hypnotic work of non-fiction that reads like a novel – and a confession of sorts. The educative prose is a generous, excavational account of his years lost to a mental breakdown; an Odyssey of the mind as the author battled stormy seas and monsters of his own. Like Homer, Arnold leaves no stone of his quest unturned; informing us about the Irish mental health system’s often flawed bureaucracy, his brushes with the law, hitting rock bottom, and finally – recovery. The seeds for Mind On Fire were planted when Arnold published his essay “Rough Sleeper” in The Dublin Review Winter 2016-17 edition, and editor Brendan Barrington encouraged him to grow the material into a book. Naturally, his beautifully worded debut has received sizzling reviews from the off. Sara Baume has said, “Arnold Thomas Fanning has reckoned with the darkest matter of his heart and mind, and I challenge anyone not to be moved by that.”

Arnold was born in London and raised in Dublin, where he graduated from UCD. His many previous writing residencies include the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, The Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts, the Edward Albee Foundation Residency in Montauk, and he was a Work-Study Scholar in the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Vermont. Arnold has been an Associate Writer with the Focus Theatre, taken part in the Sources 2 Script Development Programme in Germany and Norway, received several grants from the Irish Arts Council, and was chosen for the BBC Writer’s Room. His plays include Shafted (2009), Griswold (2012) and McKenna’s Fort (2016).

Arnold Thomas Fanning lives in Dublin with his girlfriend Tessa. He is currently composing his next book and works at the Irish Writers’ Centre.

Mind On Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery (€17.99) is published by Penguin and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home 

I live in a two story house with a small garden just off the Navan Road, not too far from Smithfield, Stoneybatter and the Phoenix Park, and these tend to be the areas I gravitate to in my leisure time. As I’m on the bike a lot, I can also get into town easily enough. I live with my girlfriend Tessa, and it’s all still a bit new to us as we just moved in six months ago. A daily routine might be to get up early and make breakfast for us – always eggs in some form – followed by a walk in the park, after which I’ll do a few hours writing. Then I’ll go to my gym, which is 1 Escape, in Smithfield, to relax. I’ll swim, go to the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room in rotation, and lounge a while on a deckchair. I also like what I call the “Sploosh.” This is a bucket of ice-cold water mounted high up on a wall. You pull a chain and get covered in the freezing water before jumping into the steam room or jacuzzi to recover. It’s great! Afterwards I nearly always go to Urbanity, just off Smithfield Square for a coffee and cake – the people who work there are great. Then it’s off to work the later shift at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Other days I might go for a run in the park, sometimes with Tessa, or a longer walk.

On roots

I grew up in the suburbs, near Blackrock, Co Dublin. My main association is with the sea. I spent a lot of time walking around Seapoint, Monkstown and Dun Laoghaire, with my family, or just on my own, or going fishing with friends. I’d also go fishing at Dalkey Sound, the bit between the shore and Dalkey Island. So sea air and the sound of the sea are very evocative to me.

On creating

In the house where I live now I have, finally, a small devoted writing space. Where previously I would just write in my bedroom of wherever I lived, this house has a small office with a L-shaped desk that I can pull up a swivel chair to when I’m writing. Around this desk are photos of my girlfriend, a Collins Dictionary my late father gave me as a birthday present, a lot of books on memoir, creative writing, and psychology, as well as stationary supplies. There’s also filing cabinets, and of course a laptop, printer, and folders full of manuscripts of finished work or work in progress. I have a small stereo and a constantly changing pile of CDs, as I play music while I write to stay focused, mainly classical, ambient and jazz. I find the best music to write to is Keith Jarrett, Bach and Marconi Union, so they are on a lot! When I need to get out of the office for a change of scene or pace in my writing, I go to a library or a café. Cabra is my nearest library and has great workspaces, while Kaph on Drury street is where I’ll go also to write and have a coffee.

On bookshops

I like to go book-shopping in a variety of bookshops, and will go from one to the next on a typical day to see what’s new in. Books Upstairs is probably my favourite bookstore in Dublin – Maurice, Ruth and Co. run a great shop. There’s always something for the browser, it’s just a wonderful place for book-shopping. There’s also a great selection of journals on sale. It’s my habit to go there most weeks, buy the latest issue of one of the many great literary journals currently around, and go to the café upstairs and have a coffee while I read it. I also love the Gutter Bookshop, Bob is so enthusiastic about books, and their selection is clearly and enticingly curated. When out of Dublin I spend a lot of time in Cork, so Bookstór, Kinsale has become a regular haunt. They have a constantly updated display of new Irish writing, host events, and at the back have a lovely kids’ area where they encourage children to browse and read for as long as they wish.

On his “To Be Read” pile

I’d definitely recommend A Ladder to the Sky, the latest novel by John Boyne. I was lucky to get a proof copy of this and read it, consumed it rather, in a matter of days. It’s out in August and it is terrific; a gripping blend of Patricia Highsmith and Evelyn Waugh, and it’s very funny, and very dark. Shift by Mia Gallagher is on the “TBR” pile! I really loved Mia’s last book, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, so I’m eager to read her short stories. Also on the “TBR” pile is Break.up by Joanna Walsh, a writer I read everything by. I was bowled over by her recent collections of short stories Vertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End so I’m looking forward to diving into this intriguing novel. One I’m eagerly anticipating is The Other Irish Tradition: An Anthology Edited by Rob Doyle which is due out later this year. As a huge admirer of Rob’s own work, such as This is the Ritual and his essays for the Dublin Review, I’m keen to see what he does when he curates a collection.

On escapes

The sea. It can be anywhere, really, but I like to swim in the sea in summer and autumn or walk by the sea in winter and spring and it always soothes me. Currently, with water temperatures rising and the weather so fine, I am swimming more. Recently I was swimming with my sister and girlfriend in Garretstown Beach, Co Cork. Bosca Beatha, the mobile sauna, was there too, so I went from sauna to sea in a matter of moments on a glorious day and it was wonderful. Closer to home, I spend one day a week at my sister’s house in Monkstown, and we swim in the nearby swimming area at Seapoint, which is also lovely. Another favourite beach is Banna Strand in Co Kerry, which is spectacular, and I also love the coastline of the Inishowen Peninsula, Co Donegal. We have such a beautiful country. I could enthuse about so many great beaches in Ireland, in Co Clare and Co Galway, the list goes on…

On artists retreats 

I enjoyed my residency in the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts immensely. It’s a lovely retreat I’d definitely recommend, with each resident getting their own studio, and there’s excellent catering, accommodation and even a swimming pool. Currently however I find my writing life to be more productive when I’m in familiar surroundings, and I’m sticking to routine. The residency experience can be a bit intense, and I prefer the regularity that I find at home for my writing life. The quotidian has its virtues too – just writing at home, then going to meet a friend for coffee, or having a swim in the pool, or going book-shopping, things like that benefit my writing life, and they get put on hold while on retreat. Having said that, sometimes a change of scene is beneficial, and can get the creativity flowing when otherwise it would be stuck, so I wouldn’t mind another stint in Annaghmakerrig or another residency, and occasionally I do go to one. A couple of years ago for example I spent several weeks at an artist’s retreat called Sachaqa Centro de Arte in San Roque, near San Martin, in the Northern Highlands of Peru, which was an unforgettable experience. I was there to work on my play McKenna’s Fort, about Roger Casement, who made two trips to Peru, and I found being there, walking in his shoes as it were, to be really inspiring. Closer to home, last year I was really delighted to be awarded a bursary to the John Hewitt Society Summer School in Armagh, a great experience, and while there I wrote a chapter of my book in the hotel I stayed in as part of the bursary, the change of place really helping in the writing of a difficult chapter. 

On the Irish Writers’ Centre

I’m Reception Administrator, and my role is incredibly varied and interesting. I’m fortunate in that I enjoy my work and have really great colleagues. Working there has made me more self-confident, and meeting the writers who come into the Centre to facilitate, launch books or give seminars has been really inspiring.

On extraordinary people

As an assistant stage manager/deputy stage manager I’ve been lucky to get to work with some greats of theatre like Harold Pinter, Brian Friel and Jonathan Miller, and on residencies I’ve encountered the late Edward Albee and also Tom Murphy, who passed away recently. Both these playwrights deeply influenced my playwriting, and in their company I was basically and unfortunately tongue-tied, because I was so in awe of them! By far the most extraordinary meeting with a writer I have had however was the day I spent in the company of the novelist, poet and playwright Dermot Healy, who passed away in 2014. About twenty-one years ago, just after his beautiful autobiography The Bend for Home came out, I approached him with the idea to interview him and then write a profile of him for a literary journal. It was never published in the end, but I remember him being kind and generous with his time to the very novice writer I was then, showing me the fossils near his house on the coast of Sligo, and even making me and the friend I had travelled with dinner in his cottage.

On therapy 

I think attitudes to mental health are improving, but there are still issues to be addressed. I’m long out of the hospital system now. It’s been fourteen years since I was last hospitalised, and as I am doing well in my recovery I no longer am treated in the psychiatric system, but rather by my GP. My last psychiatrist was a kind, considerate and emphatic professional who listened to me and assisted greatly in improving my health and well-being. What I learned from that is the importance of treating each person suffering mental distress as the individual they are, listening to their needs and understanding their story of how they got to be in distress. This is an area that needs to be built on and emphasised. Also, I’m a firm believer in the benefits of therapy – I’ve been in psychotherapy for five years now with the same therapist – and would like to see that more available for all who need it, while also recognising the benefits of medication when correctly prescribed and used.

On Mind On Fire

The response to the book has been very touching. Many people have said they identify with the experiences recounted, or know someone who has been through something similar. Some have thanked me too for being so open about what I’ve been through, as this helps to destigmatize and demystify the issues surrounding mental illness and bi-polar disorder. The book, I hope, will contribute to continuing the ongoing openness of discourse on mental illness, and to destigmatizing people who suffer from mental distress. Above all, for those who do suffer mental distress, the book says you are not alone, you can recover, and most importantly, not only can you manage your life after a diagnosis of a serious mental illness, but actually you can thrive and flourish and be happy with it.

After I finished the book, I realised I felt I had left behind me a burden that up to that point I had not been aware I was carrying. But when I began the book I had no idea it would prove a cathartic experience. It was simply that as a writer, as one who writes stories, I felt compelled to write, and to write my story, and to write it well. But writing the book did turn out to be a turning point in how I feel, and I’m still grateful for a new sense of buoyancy and lightness in my being that finishing the book has produced. 

On what’s next

I’m writing a book which will contain a collection of short stories and a novella. I’m about half way through, so I hope to complete it by the spring and if all goes well see it published next year. I’m also looking forward to a holiday in West Cork later this summer with Tessa. There’ll be, I hope, lots of opportunities to swim in the sea and hike. I’m also looking to do more facilitation – I gave a course in creative writing in a community setting a couple of years ago and I’m hoping do more of this in the coming year, as I really enjoyed doing it. And I’m really looking forward to working through that “TBR” pile while on holiday this summer!

@SophieGrenham

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