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Threads of Humor in the Darkest Places: Gail Honeyman on Her Debut Book About Mental Illness

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, now being adapted for a feature film, artfully balances dark humor and cathartic pathos.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Publisher: Pamela Dorman
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publication date: 2017-05

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Holding back tears while finishing Gail Honeyman's astounding debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine -- and in a restaurant no less -- I knew I had to talk with the author.

Eleanor Oliphant is, as the title states, completely fine -- she's gainfully employed and has all the creature comforts she could want. What she isn't, however, is happy. Socially awkward in the extreme, she isolates herself from her coworkers and everyone around her, saving nearly all human contact for intermittent phone conversations with her casually cruel mother, who's been in jail for nearly all of Eleanor's life.

But when Eleanor develops a short-lived crush on musician Johnnie Lomond, utterly convinced that they will inevitably fall in love, she thinks she's found a new lease on life. And when she and her coworker Raymond find themselves taking an injured old man to the hospital, she finds herself drawn into a strange new world of friendship and emotional intimacy that she never expected. As Honeyman says, “I wanted to highlight the importance of kindness. I don't mean anything dramatic; just everyday acts or a few thoughtful, carefully chosen words. I wanted to show that these small gestures can be completely transformative for the right person at the right time."

While it's clear from the start that Eleanor is struggling with a mental illness, the extent to which she's insulated herself from any potential connection slowly begins to take its toll on her. After beginning therapy, Eleanor reveals to her therapist -- and to the reader -- that she hasn't been fine all along: her mother is actually dead, having died in the fire she started to murder Eleanor and her younger sister. Unlike her sister, Eleanor survived, but it's not until she begins to come out of her shell and accept the truth of her past that she has the opportunity to really live.

The book has generated some buzz (a movie adaptation has already been optioned), but I wanted to ask Honeyman some rather idiosyncratic questions about her writing process, her approach to portraying mental illness, and what inspired her to create this indelible heroine.

While Eleanor and Raymond get quite close over the course of the novel, their connection doesn't become romantic. I liked that you made it clear that while Raymond coming into Eleanor's life was an important aspect of her journey of self-repair, he was never any kind of romantic goal or object, because it reinforces that the end of the novel is really a beginning -- it's Eleanor finally turning that corner and owning her illness and working with it.

How did you conceive of this extraordinary friendship?

I'm really glad to hear that you liked that aspect of the book.

In terms of the relationship between Eleanor and Raymond, I wanted to highlight the importance of platonic friendships between men and women. In my experience, these sorts of friendships are fairly common in real life, but they don't often feature in fiction.

With that particular ending to the book, I wanted to show that Eleanor saves herself, through her own actions and by her own agency—albeit with the care and support of others, particularly Raymond. No one swoops in to rescue Eleanor; she engineers her own positive outcome.

I also think that where we leave her at the end of the book is as far as Eleanor could realistically have come in the narrative, emotionally speaking, given where she started. She's still not ready for a romantic relationship, but she's now in a place where she might be able to contemplate one in the not-too-distant future, and she has a better understanding of what a healthy, happy relationship might look like. This, for her character, is huge progress.

Eleanor is slowly revealed to be an unreliable narrator in very subtle ways; the twist that her conversations with her abusive mother have actually been imagined, since her mother died in the fire she set to kill Eleanor and her sister is very well foreshadowed. For example, Eleanor not knowing what prison her mother is in makes sense when you learn that her mother isn't actually alive. What was your process of constructing the novel to make the narrative have maximum impact?

I wrote the novel in chronological order, chapter by chapter, and the structure remained more or less the same through various drafts. I know some writers are meticulous planners, but I'm not one of them.

Was that twist always part of your original conception, or did it come up as you developed the story?

At the start, I knew what would be revealed at the very end about Eleanor's mother, but I had no idea how I would get the narrative to that point when I began writing. That said, I always kept the ending in mind when I was writing Eleanor's scenes with her mother.

What were some parts of the story that didn't make it past earlier drafts?

Johnnie the musician featured more prominently in earlier drafts -- that's probably the biggest thing that changed from the first to the final version. It took a lot of whittling down to get to just a few Tweets from him, which, it turned out, were enough to reveal his character (and to highlight the extent to which Eleanor's view him of was misinformed).

Your writing of Eleanor grappling with her mental illness was really sensitively done. There's quite a bit of suspense in the story, where I think the reader is meant to become at least a little worried that Eleanor will advance into full-on stalker mode with Johnnie and go Fatal Attraction. While Eleanor's illness manifested in questionable behavior, you didn't make Eleanor being mentally ill the big reveal -- it wasn't all “in her head." Her mother's abuse was real, even if her so-called conversations with her mother were an unhealthy coping mechanism and not any kind of hallucination. What kind of considerations were you making as you prepared to address this really important and difficult topic of mental illness? Did you do any kind of special research?

Thank you. I'm really glad to hear that you felt [this] aspect of the novel worked. As you say, [mental illness] is a very sensitive and [important topic]. My primary consideration was to ensure that the reader would feel empathy for Eleanor. First person narration helps with this, I think. It can quickly establish a closeness between reader and narrator, and means that readers are fully aware of Eleanor's intentions and motivations in any given interaction or situation. This isn't the case for the other characters Eleanor encounters, and so her behaviour is sometimes difficult for them to understand.

I also tried hard to ensure that the humour in the book was never inappropriate. I think humour is important, even when dealing with very serious, difficult topics and experiences--although obviously it has to be handled very sensitively and carefully. As humans, we tend to find threads of humour in even the darkest places and situations -- it's a sign that we're still alive, that we're surviving, however painful and difficult things might be.

Finally, I thought it was important that Eleanor never seemed self-pitying, regardless of how traumatic her experiences had been. When characters display self-pity it can sometimes be very distancing for readers, I think, and so I wanted to leave enough space in the narrative for readers to feel those sorts of feelings on Eleanor's behalf.

There are a lot of smaller details about physical appearances in the novel -- Eleanor dislikes her looks and seeks to remake herself more attractive, even while she judges other women on their appearances. With the picture painted of her mother in the tabloids as a Black Widow type of sexy murderess, Eleanor's ambivalence towards beauty culture becomes understandable. Were you using these characteristics as a comment, perhaps, on beauty culture and standards for women's appearances? The part with the bikini wax feels almost like a parody of the lengths women nowadays are expected to go to be attractive.

Initially, I was thinking about inner and outer beauty, and the value and significance we attribute (or are encouraged to attribute) to both. Eleanor's attempts at outward self-improvement are done with full knowledge that they're what's expected by society. She knowingly “plays the game", aware of how superficial it can often be. It's when she turns her attention inward, however, that's when she makes real progress.

Although she's nearly 30-years old when we meet her, Eleanor is emotionally much younger because of what's happened to her. In terms of the male characters, Eleanor's crush on the musician is a stereotypically teenage one, a fantasy relationship based on his looks.

Raymond, on the other hand, is not a handsome man -- he doesn't turn heads, but he's kind, thoughtful, supportive and affectionate. For many people, these qualities are more important in a potential partner than good looks alone, and part of Eleanor's emotional journey is that she comes to understand and appreciate this.

Now that the book is being adapted into a feature film, what's your relationship with the project? How you feel about the nature of adaptions -- in that things might be changed or cut from how you originally had them?

In terms of the film, it's very early days in the process, and I'm incredibly excited to see what happens next.

What's your Eleanor Oliphant dream cast? I kept picturing Domnhall Gleeson as Raymond, but that's probably way off!

I don't really think about the book, or books in general, in those sorts of terms, although I know a lot of people do. For me, although I can visualise my characters in great detail -- what brand of shampoo they use, their gait, their fingernails -- this doesn't really involve picturing the whole person in the form of a particular actor, if you know what I mean. I actually find it quite difficult to think about characters from novels in that way.I'd make a terrible casting director! For me, it's not really about physical resemblance. Acting is so much more than impersonation, after all. The skill of a gifted actor, their ability to interpret and develop a character and truly bring her or him to life, is one that I admire enormously.

Were there any songs that you listened to while you were writing the novel? What other kind of media were you taking in while the story was coming together? Did you find yourself inspired by things you were listening to or reading or watching?

I don't listen to music when I write. If I do, I usually end up giving it my whole attention, which means unfortunately I don't get much work done! In terms of reading, I often went back to Jane Eyre when I was thinking about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I love 19th century fiction and, in particular, fiction written by and about women. The things that make Jane stand out as a remarkable individual (her independence of spirit, her inability or reluctance to conform to expectations, her fierce intelligence and emotional honesty) were not considered pleasing, attractive or desirable female qualities according to the standards of the day, and she isn't, to use a contemporary term, a people pleaser.

Of course, while I still had the same sympathy and affection for the character of Jane -- who in no way deserves the treatment she receives -- as I did when I first read the novel as a teenager, in later readings my understanding of the reactions of some of the adults she encounters in her early childhood was a bit more nuanced.

What are you reading, watching, and/or listening to right now (especially as you work on your next book, which you mentioned in another interview)?

I read widely -- mainly fiction -- and always have. Reading anything that's well-written, regardless of genre or period, is incredibly helpful when you're writing, I think, in all sorts of ways. At the moment, I'm just about to start Helen Dunmore's latest novel Birdcage Walk. I've always greatly enjoyed her work and was very saddened to hear of her untimely passing earlier this year.

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