'I feared my violent dad would kill us, then he took his own life on Christmas morning'
Author Carolyn Jess-Cooke, from Belfast, spent her childhood terrified of her father. Ahead of her talk at Belfast Book Festival next week, she tells Helen Carson how writing helped her cope with the trauma.
Successful author Carolyn Jess-Cooke has found solace in writing ever since her mum gave her a half-used diary when she was in primary school in east Belfast.
"I didn't really have anything else to write on," she says. "My mum gave it to me, it was one of those diaries with blocked off sections covering the week and I just started writing in it."
It was during a traumatic childhood that Carolyn discovered her gift for writing, and she will be in her hometown on Monday as part of Belfast Book Festival to talk about Writing On Depression along with broadcaster Liz Fraser.
Now a best-selling author - her first novel The Guardian Angel's Journal hit the Bookseller's Heatseekers chart upon publication in 2011, selling 40,000 copies in its first week of release in Italy - Carolyn's natural creativity shone through from a young age, when she won a painting competition at Connswater Shopping Centre.
And while the 'Paint Your Mum' poster contest may have portrayed a talented little girl with a nice life, at home, things were very different.
Carolyn (36) explains her father, Philip Jess, was "violently abusive" to her and her mother, Carol.
"He (Carolyn's dad) had been abused as a child and grew up during the Troubles at their absolute peak," she says.
She believes that her father grew up in a very different Belfast, which not only suffered the effect of frequent bombings, shootings, murders and riots, but a more insidious undercurrent which hardened people's attitudes to any form of violence.
"It was the kind of society in which a boy could go to school covered in bruises inflicted by his father and no one would bat an eyelid. As a result, my father was violently abusive towards me and my mother. It took years for her to summon the courage to leave him - I had my own fears he would kill us - and when she did he attempted suicide several times, one of which I witnessed. He succeeded on the morning of my 13th Christmas."
These terrifying childhood experiences manifested themselves in Carolyn's innocent stories, albeit in a subconscious way. "I didn't start writing to deal with the violent household I lived in, but I do remember it felt like a safe place. It was a place I could go to that wasn't frightening. A psychoanalyst would probably see the symbolism of what I was writing at that time as being linked to my experiences, but I feel it is a subconscious thing. I never saw anything I wrote as autobiographical, but when I look back on The Guardian Angel's Journey and my most recent book, The Boy Who Could See Demons, it actually is.
"My dad took his own life on Christmas morning - my mother had recently divorced him. He had struggled with mental health problems his whole life, and it has taken a long time for me to understand the reasons behind his violence and suicide.
"I also feel that this has driven me to turn to writing, and to explore ways to address mental health issues as the impact of these is devastatingly vast. In Northern Ireland in particular, historically there has been a serious shortfall in provision for people suffering from mental illness and stigmatisation. For example, when my father took his own life, the school suggested I receive counselling, but my family were appalled at the notion and I didn't actually speak to a counsellor until I was 35."
Carolyn feels psychiatric illness is still something of a taboo, adding: "I'm not so sure that the stigma surrounding mental health is fully removed, but I think we're beginning to find pathways to understanding the real impact of the Troubles on the people of Northern Ireland, and perhaps how to deal with it."
Up into her teens, Carolyn wrote prolifically, mostly works of fiction, then a short story collection and a poetry collection.
"I did start to win a few things. I went to Bloomfield Collegiate and I always won the poetry cup. The school certainly supported and encouraged my writing."
At this stage, though, Carolyn saw poetry rather than creative or fictional writing playing an important role in her future.
"I was seduced by poetry," she adds. "I loved its rhythm and musical qualities, and poetry became so important to me then in a way writing wasn't."
Academic success followed with a BA, MA and PhD at Queen's University by the age of 25, all in English. A lectureship in film studies at the University of Sunderland followed along with a successful stint as a film theorist which landed her a reference in Who's Who in Research: Film. Arriving in the north east of England to take up her post had a significant impact on Carolyn's life - and not an academic one this time.
"I met my husband Jared (now 34), who is from Gateshead the first day I arrived in the north of England - which was convenient," she jokes. The couple now live in Whitley Bay with their four children Melody (8), Phoenix (7), Summer (5) and Willow (2).
Again, family was to create a situation where Carolyn would write again.
"When I was pregnant with Melody, I suffered from a condition called pelvic girdle pain and was confined to a wheelchair as I was in so much pain. The only thing that soothed it was a hot bath and I had to lie in bed, but I was really bored so I started reading big fat novels. During this time I had an idea and I wanted it to be a poem, but it wanted to be a novel. I wrote The Guardian Angel's Journey in two months and one month later it was published in 10 different languages and sold in 23 territories around the world.
"I was really overwhelmed by its success, I didn't get what had hit me - it was mind-blowing. It was written without any expectations. I didn't have an agent at the time, but I had sent the first 50 pages to one and they called me and said 'oh my God, can I see the rest of this?' I had only written those 50 pages and was given two weeks to finish it.
"Knowing what I know now about the publishing industry, I didn't really appreciate what was happening."
Apart from her obvious success as an author, Carolyn believes writing at any level can be beneficial for mental health. "Writing gives people a voice, their voice, not anyone else's. I'm not sure I agree with the idea that someone who has suffered trauma should only write about what they may have suffered. That way they are still being a victim. They can write about anything, although so often what starts out as fiction is actually a reflection of reality."
Her best advice for those who would like to start writing is simple.
"Reading is an important component to writing so you have to do both," she says.
"Just go for whatever material you naturally turn to read. I feel reading targets the identity and subconscious like nothing else. It is important to get over that little voice in your head that says you can't write. Writing should feel unique and accessible, it should not be thought of as a secret activity - you need to have a bit of confidence in writing."
- Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Liz Fraser will be speaking about Writing and Depression at the Crescent Arts Centre on Monday, from 6.15pm, as part of Belfast Book Festival, June 8-14. For tickets book online at crescentarts.ticketsolve.com. Visit www.belfastbookfestival.com
Top tips for would-be writers
- Get yourself a nice notebook so you're not scribbling on a scrap of paper
- Writing should be about finding your voice, not someone else's
- Read books that appeal to you to inspire your writing
- The Boy Who Could See Demons, published in 2012, is being made into a Hollywood movie
- Published poetry books include Inroads in 2010 and most recently BOOM! last year