Content warning: This interview discusses writing mental health in fiction and contains some references to suicide, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Happiness is an ambiguous feeling. It is thoroughly subjective, for starters. Your definition of happiness is different from mine. In fact, the meaning of happiness keeps changing with time. And that makes the pursuit of happiness that much tricky. In the book Something Like Happy (SLH), ninety-two-year-old Archie tells Nick while waiting for an ambulance, “You’ll know when the call hits you, lad…But also don’t forget things can change. What you need at one point in your life might not be the same some other time. Look at me. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have thought of leaving the mountains. Now I’m really happy to be close to our Maisie and the family. You just have to listen to your heart, lad.” The novel is peppered with unpretentious gems of wisdom like this one.
A romance novel, SLH takes a light-hearted look at how people navigate and articulate their mental health, including their grief. For the most part, this navigation and articulation is a work-in-progress; the legacy of loss and the accompanying sadness largely looming. But human beings are resilient. They manage to make it through one day after another. They learn to let their loss change them. So, when Jade, who has experienced this loss, meets Nick, who is so close to giving up, who saves whom? Something Like Happy is the story that answers this.
I (virtually) sat down with Sasha Greene, the author of Something Like Happy, to ruminate over the nuances of writing mental illness into fiction, drawing on lived experiences and letting our emotions have a life of their own.
We start with the basics. Why write a book whose messaging revolves so strongly around mental health? More importantly, how does a writer decide to dive into this rather sensitive and precarious theme?
Sasha: Initially, I fell into it by accident. This was at the start of my writing career. I started thinking of a character — a soldier who had PTSD. This was at a time when soldiers were coming back from Afghanistan and other countries. I soon realised how complex this issue was. At this point, I kept researching more and more about mental health. Then, I made two trips to Nigeria for work. I took some anti-malarial medication for the same and had a bad reaction to it. After my first trip, I was depressed. After returning from the second trip, I was having suicidal thoughts.
What really helped me was knowing what my next steps should be — starting with visiting my GP — since I had done all this research for years.
Even after you seek help and if things improve, some vestiges of your experiences can remain, life is always sort of this process of knocking down and building up.
Most people with lived experience that I know have wondered — at some point — about how the conversation around mental health can be normalised, made more comfortable. Was the book written with the conscious goal of eliminating or attacking the stigma associated with mental illness or emotional suffering?
Sasha: If society could just educate more people about mental health in the same way as we do physical health, it would make a world of difference. There are people who may not necessarily talk to their family about it. But reading fiction on the theme might just provide them with that segue. The message is simple: it is okay to talk about it.
Similarly, I think there are people who might read a fiction book but not a non-fiction book about the topic. Telling stories always helps.
Telling stories always helps.
The very first chapter of the book – where the key characters meet for the first time, is a rather sensitive opening. Was it a conscious choice to create a sense of light-hearted anguish to set the tone for the rest of the book?
Sasha: Writing a book is an iterative process. In one of the earlier iterations, Nick would have acted upon his thoughts and Jade talked him down to save him. But the final draft only shows him thinking about it. I think it comes back to the message. I wanted to show that if you catch someone at the right point, if you intervene and ask the right questions, you have a chance to help them before it gets worse. That way, Jade also manages to catch his interest, because to his mind, he has got nothing left to lose.
I was very cautious and aware of the fact that I was dealing with a very heavy topic. Jade grieving for her sister, Nick dealing with his mental health issues. I wanted to keep it light-hearted to a certain extent, otherwise, the book would have just been too heavy.
The story is indeed clear on that. Recovery isn’t linear. And SLH doesn’t make the mistake of pretending otherwise.
It also doesn’t pretend that the constant pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal. Which brings us to the title of the book. Why call it ‘Something Like Happy’?
Sasha: It is very interesting that society tells us to chase happiness. It seems a very elusive goal. I don’t think it is good to be happy all the time. I don’t think people have absorbed these ideas yet — that it is okay to have a bad day — and to cry when you do. There’s no need for constant outer positivity, this performative happiness. We don’t have to be happy; just ‘something like happy’ is enough.
It is oddly reassuring to hear those words out loud, even though I’ve been staring at the title of the book for over a week. Time for a deep dive. How does an author determine how a character would cope? Grief, for example, is complex as it is. The accompanying trauma, shame, isolation, guilt, blame, rumination, anger, stigma only compound the grief for the suicide-bereaved families. Imagine getting all these complicated layers on paper. Etching characters with all these emotions. Who were they before they experienced loss? How will this experience change them? How will they carry on with their lives?
Sasha: When you write romance, each character goes on their own journey in that they are not the same person at the end of the book as they were in the beginning. For Nick, it was coming to terms with his mental health and talking to people about it more openly. For Jade, I think, it is more about coming to terms with the fact that she is not responsible for what happened to her sister.
When I write romance, of course, I bring them together in the end, but I think a lot about what is going to keep them apart during the book.
For Jade to have gone through this experience was pertinent to this plot. First of all, she possibly wouldn’t have noticed the signs when she first met Nick if she hadn’t been through this before with Ruby. She would have probably just walked on.
Secondly, the déjà vu was also what made her reluctant to be involved with him. The hesitation is what kept them apart. Otherwise, she might have been more ready to help him with everything that he was going through.
In the same vein, the book sets itself apart by looking at survival through a day-to-day lens. It is very refreshing to see a plot that deals with sensitive issues, while a) being infused with responsible humour and b) without medicalising the life being lived. There is another idea that the book really nails: how there’s not one thing/person that ‘rescues’ you, but a multiplicity of factors.
Sasha: You know how we go through life, picking up different interests and habits from different people? A grandparent got you into gardening, a parent hated maths, someone was the party-planner in your friends’ group. Healing is the same way. You need different people to help you in different ways. You need the qualified professionals to help their way, family and friends as a support system, to accept you as who you are. And your own self.
As for the humour, I would love to say that I purposely put humour at certain points, but I think it is more organic. I didn’t go through this scientifically to put humour at certain places for maximum effect. People have a sense of humour. When things are bad, this sense of humour helps you get by. It was also things I picked up along the way as a reader. I would suggest to anyone who wants to write – read a lot of whatever it is that you want to write.
People have a sense of humour. When things are bad, this sense of humour helps you get by.
It reminds me of something that Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss said about dark humour in his stand-up special Jigsaw: people make dark jokes in an attempt to “bring a level of humanity — laughter — back to a moment that seems to lack it. Tragedy.”
Sasha: I read a book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger as a part of my research. The book talks about how people who came back from war, into a very close-knit community, or ‘tribe’, felt less disoriented than people who didn’t have that kind of support. These people served in the army in some capacity and coming back into their tribe helped them hold on to the ‘importance’ of the work they did. For the latter, the mundaneness of everyday life made them more susceptible to PTSD episodes. And yet, it’s important not to generalise. Mental health as a theme is so interesting because each person’s journey is so different.
But having a support system, a ‘tribe’ can be so helpful. Even so, it doesn’t manifest so simply. People change. But when you have changed and your family or partner haven’t, or they don’t accept that change, you can sense the strain. In my experience, it is why sometimes relationships break down.
Overall, the book is pieced together from a lot of conversations I had with different people. I talk to strangers on trains and buses and it is fascinating. And there’s my personal experience, too. I was bullied at school when I was younger, and even though it has less and less bearing on my life the older I get, the aftertaste lingers. So I chat with people, have conversations, and let myself be fascinated by the sheer uniqueness of every story.
Places, environment and the familiarity of these impact so much of our mental health. So I am tempted to ask if the Scottish setting of Glasgow and Fort William had an impact on the story, plot, characters, themes? Jerry Pinto, author of Em and the Big Hoom (a psychological fiction detailing his mother’s manic depression) talked about how living in Mumbai informs his art. He once said in an interview, ‘We live and love on a fissure…it is a source of unending inspiration, of magnificent material.’
Sasha: Glasgow harbours extremes within the city. I wanted the book to be set in the city and for it to seem like a slice of the city – hence the characters were working at local places, the dad was a taxi driver. With Glasgow, I think of the city as that friend who is extremely pretty, but they don’t know that they are.
With Glasgow, I think of the city as that friend who is extremely pretty, but they don’t know that they are.
My last question sounds like an inquiry, a cry for help and a protective missive all in one: As a writer, how do you hold on to yourself in the process? Do you let the characters get under your skin? How do YOU take care of your mental health?
I try to treat it as a job. I work 4 days a week at my day job. Monday is my writing day, so I treat it like any other work; so I sit down and I write. I try not to let it take over my life too much at other times but sometimes it’s hard!
I do understand that these stories can be too realistic for someone looking for escapism. For others, it is able to help them open the door for conversations, which is great.
In the end, I am in this to write stories that I feel haven’t quite been told before. Stories that can talk about these themes in a way they haven’t been spoken of yet.
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, suicidal ideation or similar symptoms, please reach out to iCall helpline at 022-25521111 (available 8 am – 10 pm, Monday to Saturday in India), The Samaritans. (116 123 Or email firstname.lastname@example.org) in the UK.