Good Me Bad Me is well, GOOD. I know, I know. GOOD doesn’t seem enough to cover it, to be honest, not even GOOD does.
Ali Land’s writing is subtle, weaving the threads of Milly’s character and her deceptions so seamlessly I found myself going back and forth and just relishing her words. Milly is hands down one of the most unique, compelling and deceptive characters you’ll meet this year. She’s going to leave you uncomfortable and compelled to continue reading.
What I didn’t know until I finished reading the book was that Ali Land was a Child and Mental Health Nurse for 10 years — and once you read Milly, you’ll see how her experience as a nurse could have influenced her writing.
In this interview Ali Land talks about her work experience as a Child and Mental Health Nurse, writing Milly and the responsibility that comes with a character like her.
- What book are you reading right now and what made you pick it up?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. A shocking yet tender story about a couple who own a carnival, and through the woman ingesting drugs/pesticides/radiation during her pregnancies, create a family of deformed and almost other-worldly children to entice in the crowds. It’s a book about children who are different and children who some might find difficult to love, and that’s why I picked it up. It’s extraordinarily imagined and I particularly enjoy how Dunn uses the sibling relationships to explore the wider notion of love and kinship, and challenges the reader to reflect on their own perceptions of ‘normal.’ At points, sad and savage, yet touching and unforgettable.
- Did you always want to write? What about Good Me Bad Me made you decide to take that last step into writing?
Creativity isn’t commonplace in my family, there are no writers or artists, the emphasis being less on dreams, more on securing careers that are tangible and traditional. I became very skilled in suppressing my creativity and learning to exist with a palette of images and voices hidden in my mind, but as time went on, I started to experience a deep sense of restlessness and an unavoidable urgency to explore my creativity.
Reading had always given me a huge amount of comfort, and I wondered if writing would do the same so I signed up to an evening course in creative writing, and almost as soon as I put pen to paper, I felt a palpable sense of relief, as if somehow I’d arrived home.
I didn’t choose to write Good Me Bad Me, it literally tore out of me in a matter of months. It was a book I ‘needed’ to write in order to process my experiences as a mental health nurse, and to find a way to evoke compassion and provoke discussion around children who are irrevocably damaged by their pasts.
- Good Me Bad Me is your debut novel – was writing, publishing everything you thought it would be?
To be honest I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t know any writers or anything about the publishing industry. I sent off the first three chapters of Good Me Bad Me fully expecting to be rejected, ideally with some feedback so I could have another go at some point. Because everything happened so fast – I signed with my agent Juliet Mushens two days after submitting to her, Penguin pre-empted overnight on the book and I think we had nine foreign rights sold in the first week – I barely had time to draw breath, I strapped in and went with it!
In regards to the editing process I had no idea how intense it would be. My book was bought as a partial at 55k words, so once all the initial excitement had died down I was then asked to double the length of the book, seriously daunting. I grew it to 100k words and following that it took a further four full drafts for the book to be finished. Although I had the support of my UK and US editors there was no escaping the gruelling, lonely hours and days I spent at my desk. Happily, I can now say it was worth every minute. My publishing journey so far has been nothing short of incredible. My team at Penguin have supported me through each stage and celebrated even the smallest of victories like the first endorsement the book received.
- You’ve worked as a Child and Mental Health Nurse for 10 years before taking up writing – what brought you to that career first?
A happy accident I suppose. At seventeen, after the confines of boarding school, all I really wanted to do was take off and experience the world. But I also had a sense of responsibility, the opportunity to go to university isn’t something that’s offered to everybody so I felt I should at least give it a go.
In the summer of my first year I worked at a homeless centre where I was exposed to a combination of societal issues and mental health problems. I was mentored through this process by an incredible man and Buddhist called Ian. He ignited in me a desire to search for the ‘Why,’ to seek to understand why individuals act the way they do, and what can we do to help them.
It was because of this experience I remained at university and specialised in mental health. Working with children felt very natural for me, being able to use stories and play and the therapeutic conversations I was able to have with the adolescents will never leave me, in fact, one conversation in particular I had with a teenage girl about her fears of turning into her mother formed the basis of Good Me Bad Me.
- Your experience as a nurse obviously inspired Good Me Bad Me and Milly, but was there anything you found yourself cautious about while writing in the book?
The idea of using the realities of damaged young people and turning it into entertainment is something I feel very strongly about. I had a film offer very early on in the writing process but I turned it down as I wanted to be sure any adaptation that was made would be sensitive and handled with care. I strived really hard to write a book thrilling enough so readers feel compelled to read on, but moving enough so people would want to discuss it afterwards. Would want to think about children like Milly. It’s a really fine balance and when people contact me about the book and tell me I’ve achieved that, that for me is the biggest gift I could ever ask for.
- I found myself empathising with Milly and being afraid of her in the next breath – and I thought it was such a delicate balance to have achieved in your writing. But I wondered – what was the most difficult part about writing her?
I could say everything. Bringing Milly to life was a privilege but it definitely came at a cost. I barely slept during the writing of my first draft. Creating a voice for Milly was an intensely emotional, and at times, isolating process. Once I’d opened the tap, her voice surrounded me, walked with, shopped with me, and even showered with me! It required me to delve into the darkest parts of my imagination and I spent a lot of time sitting quietly channelling what I was hearing, and tuning into Milly’s thoughts, desires and feelings. My main priority was facilitating an authentic experience, one that would allow readers to inhabit the mind and body of a child who has a complex and disturbing past, and to illustrate that simply desiring to be good isn’t enough. I’m hopeful that the psychological insights the book provides will encourage empathy and provoke discussion around how best to care for children like Milly.
This is one of those books I want to go around giving people copies and saying: Read this. Stop everything and read this. The beauty of Milly, as Ali points out, is that she wants to be good. And that’s what will give you the shivers — she’ll draw you in, make you empathise with her, but that’s not Milly at all.