My thanks to Literature Works magazine for the following interview with ELLA BERTHOUD and SUSAN ELDERKIN who founded Bibliotherapy, an innovative, enchanting and obviously cathartic service. So what books would you recommend for the glum, the jaded, the heartbroken, or for those who wish to celebrate their joie de vivre?
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost – or keeping on the straight and narrow. Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher, while keeping up her intravenous diet of literature through constant reading and listening to audiobooks. She lives in Sussex with her husband and three girls. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and reviews fiction for The Financial Times. She now lives with her husband and son in Connecticut, where she regularly kayaks with a novel in hand.
In 2008 they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to patients all over the world. Though they are now divided by an ocean, they still regularly send each other fictional cures to ensure they don’t come a cropper, or fail to live life to the full. The Novel Cure is their first book together, but they are already busy plotting the next.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Ella and Susan to hear about the process of writing The Novel Cure.
The Novel Cure suggests literary remedies for a host of maladies, ranging from the humorous (baldness) to the more serious (depression). What inspired this book and how seriously should readers take it?
SE: The book was inspired by our mutual and absolutely serious recognition that reading the right book at the right time can be a really powerful thing, and we wanted to harness that power. A novel can keep you company, offer you an escape from yourself, give you access to the interior experience of others, which may chime with your own and help you not to feel so isolated. Are there any pills that offer so much? So yes we are completely serious about the underlying concept. We do have a lot of fun in our book with light-hearted ailments such as stubbed toe and being unable to find a decent cup of coffee – and we like to take a playful tone when ticking off people for their bad reading habits and so on. But even when we’re being tongue-in-cheek about the ailment – such as man flu – we still believe in the cure. Every novel that we write about in this book will have an affect on you, and is one that’s worth reading. Probably the majority of our ailments are serious, though, and certainly many are no laughing matter at all – such as depression, as you point out, and death of a loved one. We are completely serious when it comes to those. Reading allows you to experience what it’s like to be someone else – something that is actually very difficult to come by in normal life – and that can be a life-saver when you’re going through something intense and horrible, which even those close to you can’t really understand. When we were deciding what to prescribe for depression, we were aware that people who are really intensely depressed do not want to be jollied along, or teased out of their blueness by something light and breezy – they are beyond that. What they need is to be kept company in this dark place by an author who understands what it’s like.
EB We also felt that many people might enjoy a new way of looking at books – and a new way of addressing their problems. The classic non-fiction self-help book often takes itself very seriously, and it’s not everyone’s style to spend their lives chanting mantras to boost their self-esteem. Literature, at its best, offers a longer lasting, more intellectually satisfying and, frankly, more enjoyable way of opening yourself up to new ways of seeing the world, yourself, and others. Inhabiting the psyche of a character in a novel is a really powerful thing. But we also believe firmly in the importance of laughter as a cure for almost everything. We want our readers to have plenty to chuckle about when reading our book so that the act of reading it is a cure in itself.
The sheer volume of book recommendations included is impressive; how did you go about compiling this list? Was it difficult?
SE: We did not sleep for five years. Actually, that’s not true. We’ve both been avid readers since our teens and we’re in our forties now. You can accrue a fair number of books in that time. What was harder was working out what to leave out. We both have favourite reads which got axed during the editing stage – some Zadie Smiths, some Cormac McCarthys, a David Foster Wallace. There are books we’ve loved which didn’t even get on the long list – the wonderful Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. (Hey, Ella, how did we manage to leave out Microserfs?!) Ultimately we needed a balance of classic and contemporary, obscure and familiar, and from a range of cultures. We’ve enough left over to do another edition probably.
EB: Yes! Douglas Coupland, what an omission! Actually, probably the most fun we had was at the beginning when we put our first list of ailments and cures together – a few wonderful evenings in Somerset aided by several bottles of wine – when we made a huge list of all the books we’d ever read, and started thinking about what they would cure. Our years as bibliotherapists at The School of Life certainly helped a lot – we have worked with several hundred clients now, and each one has provided us with an opportunity to trial a novel cure. Their feedback over the years has been invaluable. Then, as Suse says, the most painful part of the process was cutting out the books that we didn’t have room for. During the 14 months we spent actually writing the book, we called in a number of literary friends to test our cures too. If they didn’t work for others, they had to go.
You’re both Bibliotherapists for The School of Life – what benefits does this therapy offer? How is it different from simply suggesting self-help books?
SE: For some of our clients it is a reading-list service – people come to us who love reading but are, rightly, highly selective, and want ideas for books they may not otherwise find by themselves. We try to go against the grain a little in terms of what we suggest: if a novel is being read by all the book clubs, we probably won’t bother to recommend it – or I don’t, anyway (Ella you might do differently!) But for some it is more obviously a therapy – people come to us at a difficult time in their lives, or when they’re at a cross-roads. We often get people who are thinking about a change in career, and want fiction that opens doors, and encourages them to think outside the box. We also often get people who have been bereaved. Self-help books have their place, but literature is the place to feast on the really great minds.
EB: Yes I too avoid suggesting the obvious books to clients, as mostly they will read those books anyway without our intervention. We give tailor made eight-book prescriptions to our clients, and of course each prescription is different. So, for instance, for someone who is bereaved we may prescribe a couple of books which explore the feelings of a character in a similar position, and a couple of books which are pure escapism, in the genre they already like to read, be it literary fiction, historical fiction or sci-fi. Then we might give them a couple of books that open up some new, positive doors to help them move forward. We ask a lot of questions before prescribing so that we get a firm sense of what they will love. Reading time is hard to come by these days, and it’s really important to be selective and carefully about what you read. Often the clients come back to us and tell us how they have got on with their reading, and we suggest a new batch, and so it goes on. Sometimes these relationships can go on for many years. It’s really satisfying to watch someone be nurtured and stimulated by their reading life.
Is there a particular book which has helped you through a difficult period? Would you share it with us?
SE: When my father died I felt very numb and unable to feel – I think I had emotion overload and couldn’t cope, so everything just sort of shut down. But I didn’t understand this at the time, until I read – actually I was re-reading it, for The Novel Cure – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I love that book, and we had decided to use it as the cure for Monday morning feeling, which it’s great for. I had remembered Septimus, the young man who is suffering from shell shock after his experiences in the first world war, as the character who slowly goes mad. But I hadn’t realised until I re-read it that he experiences his shell-shock as a numbness. It helped me to understand that this is a way of the body protecting itself until such time as it can process what has happened. Septimus unfortunately didn’t have the benefit of reading about Septimus, as I did, and it doesn’t go well for him in the end; just as it didn’t go well for Virginia Woolf, who didn’t have the benefit of reading Virginia Woolf. I was luckier; for me it marked the beginning of being able to feel again.
EB: When I was studying Fine Art at the University of East London, my second degree, I went through a period of depression. I spent one summer mostly in a flat in Tufnell Park, hardly able to leave the house. Luckily, I still felt like reading, and I read a lot of Thomas Mann. His novel The Holy Sinner, which describes a man being so disgusted with himself that he chains himself to a rock in the middle of a lake, chimed strongly with the way I felt. Gregory, the man on the rock, is redeemed because some papal emissaries come to his lake-bound home expecting to find the next Pope. This didn’t happen to me (thankfully!) – but the way that he re-invented himself and re-discovered his love of both his own nature and humanity in general served as a catalyst to my return to my usual optimistic nature. I did an art project about The Holy Sinner which led me into my second year in a really positive way.