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The pursuit of sadness: We chat to Vincent Deary

Vincent Deary is a therapist who admits to being screwed up and says 'suffering is normal'. So why did his alternative self-help book spark a bidding war? Nick Duerden meets him.

Shortly after he turned 40, the age at which we traditionally start to twitch about the lives we have not yet lived and fret that the ones we are living might no longer fully satisfy, Vincent Deary did something quietly remarkable: he started again. He quit his job as a psychotherapist for the NHS and finally got around to writing the book he had for years been ruminating over. Its subject was how to live - largely, he concedes, because he needed the advice himself. "This was at a time when a lot of my friends were also talking about packing up, leaving and doing something else," he says. "Though most never did."

Deary, who knows much about the human proclivity for habit and our innate reluctance to change unless change is foisted rudely upon us, proved the exception. He sold up and moved back up to his native Scotland, where he would be closer to his then 16-year-old daughter, Vicky (he and her mother had divorced years earlier), and at last be able to write at leisure. By 45, he had written How We Are, whose central thesis is that major change will likely befall us all at some point in our lives; we should prepare ourselves for it. "There are many ways our world can end," he writes. "It may start as a distant rumour, a noise outside your small world, or an unexpected intrusion within it. Sooner or later your current world will change, the present season will end."

This happened to Deary himself in mid-life, but change can occur at any time. It's rarely welcome. "New beginnings can often be terrible," he says. "Which is why so many of us are so reluctant to start them." When we do, we are prone to rush through them towards a place of facility and ease, "but rushing won't do it".

His own change may have been a protracted one - he waited five years before submitting his manuscript to a publisher - but ultimately a lot of good came from it. In an ideal world, he suggests, we shouldn't wait for change to arrive - via domestic upheaval, illness - but rather pre-empt it.

"We can all afford to run slightly less on automatic," he says. "We can learn to be less reactive, and more responsive. There really is space in our lives for that kind of reflection, I think. But it is hard. Real change is very cognitively demanding, and requires hard labour. I've worked with a lot of people who go through these changes, and all required long-term support, dedication and perseverance. It isn't something you can get from a book alone."

This may not be the sort of statement likely to thrill Penguin's marketing department, given that How We Are is part of a trilogy - How We Break and How We Mend will follow - but then, this is very much a Vincent Deary thing to say. He is not attempting to pass himself off here as expert lecturing patient but rather as one of us - just as messy, just as fallible. He talks a lot about his own anxieties, his own habit of catastrophising - if he smells something a little off in the kitchen, he all-out panics and has to call in overalled men to investigate - but he has worked hard not to let his anxieties hold him back. We should all, he writes, strive similarly.

How We Are came out in hardback last year. It is now published in paperback. If it has changed his life (he received a huge advance from Penguin, following a furious bidding war, so it certainly changed his fortunes), then it has done a similar thing with readers. No mere self-help tome - not even "posh self-help", as has been suggested in some quarters - it is instead a lovely philosophical ramble about how we come to be the people we are. It is neither dry nor academic, or particularly didactic. Rather, it holds up a mirror to us all and says, simply: "Look. See?" Its cultural references are deliberately scattershot, and he quotes everyone from Slavoj Žizek and Rimbaud to the casts of Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When he wants to show change in motion, his canvas is winningly domestic: he talks about his friend Maureen and her new bathroom (she has issues with the shower); Morag getting used to her new house, her new cat; and how his own routines shift when daughter Vicky comes to live with him.

"I wanted the book to cover philosophy, psychology, but also film, anecdote and memoir," he says. "I didn't want it to be prescriptive self-help at all, no Top 10 hits on how to be happy. That never works. The book is essentially me figuring out how to work through my own screwed-upness, really. It's entirely likely that I'm more screwed up than you, you know. Perhaps I should put that in the introduction to volume two?"

Deary, now in his early 50s, is a softly spoken, genial man whose smile is so broad his goatee sometimes struggles to contain it. He appears to accessorise the left side of his body only: half a dozen bangles on his left wrist, a jewel-encrusted ring on the middle finger of his left hand, a stud in his left ear. He is twice divorced but, he stresses, both times amicably.

The youngest of four children, he was born into a working-class family who elevated themselves above their station, he believes, via a love of the creative arts. White-collar bound, he followed his older siblings into university, where initially he studied medicine. "But - how do I put this? - I was very, very socially unskilled at 18," he says. "I didn't know how to be around people. I suppose I am, by nature, a very shy, introverted, and overly self-critical person."

He developed an interest instead in psychology and philosophy, his general social awkwardness rendering him ideal therapist material. All therapists, he suggests, should have gone through great struggle themselves. "I would never want to see a therapist who has never experienced low mood or anxiety. And if they said they hadn't, I wouldn't believe them. Suffering is normal."

As is our instinct to coast through our daily existence without much thought. In his book's opening chapter, he talks about parks, how urban planners and landscape architects create desire lines within cities' green spaces to instruct us on how to walk from one end to another. "The park knows how to walk," he writes. We don't have to make any decision for ourselves because the park has already made it for us. We follow many other desire lines in life, rarely deviating, and learning how to behave - to be - from already established routines. Modern Mafiosi, for example, only learn how to comport themselves appropriately from repeated viewings of The Godfather. Likewise, teenagers learn how to be teenagers by observing the behaviour of other teenagers. Nobody is born emo.

In many ways, then, Deary is a good advert for all he writes. He may still be muddling his way through by observing the way others muddle through, but he has still managed to effect his own change by writing his book and getting it published. Readers have been contacting him in gratitude ever since. I suggest that this must have done wonders for his self-confidence.

"Well, I'm still writing How We Break, in which I focus on how I myself have been broken in life, so that's not been particularly easy - or fun," he says. "And just being published in itself has prompted all sorts of anxieties. Of course, these anxieties are something of a luxury - I have written a book; poor me, right? - but it is still something I have to deal with. And all of us have something to deal with, don't we?"

How We Are by Vincent Deary, Penguin, £9.99, is out now

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