She went on to write a regular column at The Independent for many years, about politics, society, culture, books, travel and the arts. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize for her campaign to raise standards in nursing, which she pursued in her column, on radio and television.
Christina also conducted many high-profile interviews, with the likes of Diana Athill, Boy George, Daniel Radcliffe, Camille Paglia and Shane MacGowan. She was also the first journalist to interview the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he lost the General Election in 2010.
These days Christina writes for The Sunday Times and The Guardian, and is a regular commentator on radio and TV news programmes, including the Sky News Press Preview.
This is an unusual book, in its form and content – part memoir, part collection of interviews and part reflection on how to survive the worst that life can throw at human beings – including illness, injury, redundancy, divorce and bereavement.
I invited Christina onto the show to talk about her unusual journey as a writer, and to give us an insight into what it’s like to work in a high-pressure media environment. And also because reading her book, it struck me that many of the stories and lessons are particularly relevant to those of us on the creative path – where there is little security, the highs can be spectacular and the lows are brutal.
In spite of some of the sombre subjects we touched on, this was a fun interview where Christina and I both made some interesting discoveries. When you listen to it, I’m sure you’ll be as touched as I have by Christina’s sincerity and passion, and also by her infectious sense of the joy of life.
Not only that, you’ll learn something about the redeeming power of crisps and fizzy wine!
Christina Patterson interview transcript
MARK: Christina, when did you start writing?
CHRISTINA: Well, to be honest, I think I’ve been writing almost as long as I have been alive, or at least as long as I’ve been able to read and write, but not creatively for all that time. Indeed, not creatively for all that much of that time. As a child, I wrote stories all the time and was in imaginary worlds for great chunks of my childhood.
But then, when I studied literature, first of all, with ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels at school and then with my degree in English, I think my daring, my courage to write imaginatively was knocked out of me, because I was cowed by that sense of, ‘Who am I to write anything? I’ve read Shakespeare, I’ve read Keats, I’ve read Tolstoy. I’ve got nothing whatsoever to contribute or add on that front.’ And so, it took me a very, very, very long time to even think of having the courage to write creatively, really, even though actually, all I ever wanted to do was write.
MARK: And when did you pluck up that courage?
CHRISTINA: I wanted to become a journalist, but even that I gave up on really quickly. When I was at university, I went to see a careers advisor. I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to go into journalism,’ and she said, ‘It’s very competitive.’ And I thought, ‘Ooh, I’d better not try, then,’ so I didn’t. And I instead… after doing an MA in the novel, and it was the one at the University of East Anglia, where there was another whole class doing the creative writing MA. And I, of course, was not allowing myself to do creative writing, I was reading other people’s work. I ended up working in publishing and then, I ended up working in arts admin.
So I ended up becoming a handmaid to other writers which was very interesting in all kinds of ways, but also, of course, somewhat frustrating because over the years, I began to think, ‘Well, I’m only here to serve other writers.’ And some of them were not absolutely brilliant. I was very, very lucky, in my years at the Southbank Centre, to work with and meet some of the most incredible writers of the 20th century, but I also met some pretty mediocre writers. And when I was working at the Poetry Society, not all the poets who I came across were potential Nobel Prize winners. And I suppose I felt more and more frustrated that I had not allowed myself to write creatively.
What I had done was, I started reviewing other people’s work in my mid-20s. And for many years, I reviewed fiction and non-fiction and poetry on top of full-time jobs, worked incredibly hard, building up a journalistic portfolio and eventually becoming a full-time journalist at the age of 39. But I still didn’t allow myself to do the creative stuff for the fun of it and that was really only quite recently that I did.
MARK: So I think there’s maybe a bit of a lesson here, isn’t there? When you looked at the great and the so-called good of literature, you put them, like I guess many of us do when we’re young, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, they’re like colossi, bestriding the globe.
And yet, what it sounds like, what was the turning point for you was when you saw some of these people up close and you thought, ‘Well, actually, they’ve got two arms and two legs and some of them are talented and some of them maybe are not. Are they so different to me?’
CHRISTINA: Yes, I think that was part of it. And also, I suppose in my late 30s, I realized that there was a very particular story that I really wanted to tell. Now, in fact, I still haven’t written the version, the main version of that story and I hope to. I’ve touched on it in my current book, The Art of Not Falling Apart, and in fact, I’ve cannibalized little bits of a version of that. I’ve done several versions of that over the years. But yes, it was partly that feeling of, the years are running out and I am allowing myself to be cowed here. I am allowing myself to be cowed into not doing the thing I want to do more than anything else, which is clearly crazy. So I think in the end, you just have to have some courage and take a risk.
MARK: And I have to ask you: what is this story that is partly told in this book and that you’ve trailed there?
CHRISTINA: Well, see, it’s a story of a number of intertwined things, but a very central strand was my adolescence as a born-again Christian. When I was 14, I went to Youth Club in order to meet boys. And the Youth Club, unfortunately, was attached to a Baptist church and I became a raving born-again fundamentalist until my mid-20s and that had quite a big and lasting impact on my life. So I started a version of that and I still want to write. It will have to be a different version at some point. But the book I’ve written has elements of my childhood and past woven through it, but not very much, actually, because I’d say it’s at least as focused on other people, probably more focused on other people as it is on me and my own experiences.
But I think very often, it’s that sense that we do have a story to tell that is the breakthrough, really, in terms of allowing ourselves to step over from the critical or reporting mode of our work into the actual personal and creative mode. Which is not to say that the rest of journalism isn’t creative. For me, I have loved being a journalist. It feels like my vocation. I don’t massively distinguish between writing journalism and writing books in some ways, because I think writing is writing and the only question is whether you’re any good and how well you do it.
But of course, there is a difference in writing something long and writing something short and also a difference in writing something that you are burning to say, rather than writing for someone who is telling you, essentially, what to write about.
MARK: And so, you haven’t told the story of being a born-again Christian, but do you think it’s changed the kind of writer that you are?
Do you think you would have been a different writer if you hadn’t gone on that journey?
CHRISTINA: That’s a very interesting question, Mark. And I have never even considered that, so what an interesting question! I think apart from anything else, it gave me an intense knowledge of the Bible, which probably did have an impact on my writing. And I think anybody who wants to write actually should read the Bible because it’s such a central work of literature. And certainly, the King James version has had such a profound effect on English poetry. You can’t really imagine English poetry without it.
And I’ve literally never thought of this before, but I do use rhetorical repetition quite a lot in my prose, to the point where the copy editor of my book once or twice said, ‘Are you sure you want to repeat this?’ And my answer each time was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ It’s a kind of hallmark of my prose, it’s a hallmark of my column and I do use it in my writing. I like those echoes, I like the way that rolls along…rolls on the tongue. So I think the Bible did have a big impact on my writing and I never ever thought of that until this particular moment.
MARK: I’m reminded even the arch-atheist Philip Larkin read the King James Bible from cover to cover, because he said it was absolutely beautiful and the exact reason that you’ve said, it’s such an influence on the language.
CHRISTINA: Well, you don’t get better than Larkin, really, do you? And funnily enough, a few lines from one of his poems is the epigraph to my book.
MARK: Well, of course, if you want to know which Larkin poem is quoted in Christina’s book, you need to read it … all the way to the end!
CHRISTINA: There are several Larkin poems, actually, including at the very end So there’s a hook!
MARK: In your journalism, and this comes across very strongly, I can really feel this burning desire to say something. You really do believe in what you’re saying. And I get the sense you’re out to change the world in some way, or at least, to get people to think differently, which is maybe the start of that.
Would it be going too far to suggest that your column was a kind of pulpit, or am I stretching the analogy a bit too far?
CHRISTINA: No, absolutely not. Again, you’ve completely hit the nail on the head! It was a pulpit. And to go back to your previous question, and again, I’ve never thought of that, which is why it’s such an interesting question. I think an element to that evangelical zeal has remained with me, even though I haven’t believed in any kind of a god for a very long time. And I don’t even know exactly what my evangelical zeal is about, except that it’s definitely there. And I am someone who, I believe in passion. Obviously, I believe in the intellect, as well.
Too much passion and you end up with just opinions with no justification or rationale. And too much intellect and you end up with writing that is dull, actually. And I think any writer should aim to make people think and move them. For me, I have two aims as a writer. One is to make people feel things and the other is to make people use their brains. And that was absolutely what I tried to do in all my years as a columnist. I had a column twice a week for many years. You are walking up to the steps on a little stone pulpit in a country church and thundering forth.
The difference, in my case…although this might also apply to some vicars, if one wants to stretch the analogy…is that I usually didn’t know what I was going to end up. And I would get emails from people saying, ‘What I really like about your column is, I never know where it’s going to lead.’ And I would say, ‘Well, I don’t, either, actually!’ Because I think writing ought to be a process of discovery. And if you know where you’re going from the start, it’s probably going to lack a certain energy that it would otherwise have.
MARK: So Mimi Khalvati, who I know is a good friend of yours, Christina – she was on last season, talking about this same idea in relation to poetry. We ended up calling the interview ‘Poetry as Discovery’…
CHRISTINA: Ah, interesting!
MARK: That not knowing, that’s what makes the writing fun. But I must admit, I hadn’t thought journalism could work that way, too. Could you elaborate on that?
For starters, how much freedom did you have to write what you wanted? And then, where did you go from there?
CHRISTINA: Yes. I was very lucky as a columnist. Everything you write as a journalist, you have to get cleared with an editor. So you can’t just literally fill up a page with absolutely anything. But certainly for a time, when I had the lead slot in The Independent once a week during the week and I had a full page on a Saturday in the news pages, I had a pretty free rein. Now, that did have to be related to the news. So the weekday column had to be about a very big item in the news that day and ideally, the main item in the news that day.
And that led to a certain amount of stress, because I’d be waking almost in a cold sweat, listening to the Today program, working out what the main item was, trying to think of a fresh angle or fresh argument on that, then having to pitch some thoughts about what that argument might be to the comment editor, but then, go into conference and get that idea cleared by the editor at the paper. Sometimes, they would say, ‘No, we’re not having that,’ and then, you’d be back to square one at 11am and you would still have to write 1,150 words by 3pm. So nobody could say it was a low-stress enterprise.
But once I had agreed the subject with the editor and agreed a rough slant on it…and again, to go back to poetry, I’m a big fan of Emily Dickinson and her idea of tell the truth, but tell it slant. What I always – or very often – tried to do was to take a surprising angle on something and sometimes, almost a kind of a Martian view, to take a step back and take first principles in relation to it. So you’re trying not to just say the same stuff that everyone else says, you’re trying to think about it a bit differently. And from that point of view, in terms of the thinking, I was free to think about a subject in any way I liked and free to structure and write the thing in a way I liked.
Now, obviously, an editor has to then say, ‘Yes, this is good.’ And I was very lucky, I had very little changed in anything I wrote in anything I wrote in my years at The Independent. And I think that was quite an unusual privilege. I think I had a freer rein than many journalists do have. I’ve written for other papers since leaving The Independent. And I don’t have a column on another paper, but there are greater constraints and closer editorial scrutiny, I would say. But I had a fair degree of freedom and that’s what I absolutely loved about it, was that essentially, I could write in my own voice about what interested me. And that’s one of the reasons I was so heartbroken when I lost my column.
MARK: You had a pretty big microphone at The Independent.
What was it like, having all those people reading every week and paying attention to your voice?
CHRISTINA: Well, it was great, obviously! It was very, very stressful. I would be trying to keep up with the news pretty much all the time. I would go to bed thinking about the news, thinking about the midnight news, having watched News Night, I’d spend hours a day reading the papers. As I say, on the column days, I would wake up in a bit of a cold sweat. So it was very stressful. And you don’t always have particularly interesting things to say about something that’s popped up that morning and that is not a nice feeling. And you do know that whatever you write is going to have your name and a photo of you next to it.
And sometimes, I’d get emails from people saying things like, ‘If you’d done your research, Ms. Patterson.’ And I’d feel like saying, ‘Research? Are you crazy?! I’m not Seneca, or I’m not sitting in a library. I’m a journalist, you don’t have time to do research!’ Maybe you do on other papers, and I certainly did research my interviews and if I’m doing book reviews – which I still do – you’d have to, obviously, read the book. But if you’re writing a column, you really don’t have much time to do research. So that is very high-stress and often, the stress is extremely unpleasant.
But the good side of that is, you do have a readership. And I would get masses of emails from people who said how much they valued what I did and sometimes, from blokes in Starbucks saying, ‘Your column made me cry.’
CHRISTINA: I know! And that would mean a huge amount to me, actually. And I’ve had similar responses to the book. And I’ve had emails from blokes saying, ‘It’s the first time in my life I’ve stayed up all night to read your book,’ and that means the world to me.
And interestingly, you mentioned Mimi Khalvati who, as you say, is a very dear friend. She’s also in the book, I’ve interviewed her in the book.
And she, many years ago, gave me a piece of advice that I think is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had about writing. She said, ‘The reader will feel what you feel when you’re writing it,’ and I have always found that to be true. If I feel profoundly moved when I’m writing something, I have learned enough about my craft to know that the person reading it is going to be moved as well. Or if I’m laughing when I’m writing it, I know that the person reading it is very likely to be laughing.
And if I’m finding it a bit of a bore – to be honest, horrifyingly – the person reading it is probably also not finding it the most delighting thing they’ve ever read, because when you have learned your craft, part of that craft is about unblocking the path between what’s in your head and heart and the reader. And your skill is in getting the right words in the right order, in order to have that direct line. And it’s interesting, because you asked me whether my experience of evangelic Christianity changed my writing and I’ve tried to answer that question.
But certainly, I was very ill some years ago. I had breast cancer for the second time. And after I went back to work after a very big operation – I had three months off, because it was a very big operation – I noticed that I suddenly needed to use more words to fill the column gap than I had before, and more words than the other columnists, sometimes as much as 100 more words than the other columnists, as many as 100 more words. And it’s a very strange issue and I can’t really explain it. I can only guess that during that time when I thought I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it, something happened that clarified something either in my head or my heart and I became less patient with polysyllables.
I wanted to write the shortest words and I do generally try to write short words. And I often find that when I’m given a word length by a paper, I have to write slightly more than other people would write, because I have learned that for me, anyway, the shorter words are more powerful. If the prose is plainer, it will have more of an effect on the reader than if it’s full of flourishes. And it’s all about deceptive simplicity, really, because it’s actually, in my experience, harder to write with short, plain words than with the long ones, particularly if you’ve read a lot, because you’ve got the long ones swilling around in your head all the time.
But it is about that deceptive simplicity. And increasingly, the artists and writers I really admire are the ones who achieve something like that. If you think of Matisse’s cutouts, for example, he produced those when he was in a wheelchair, having had cancer and he couldn’t stand up to paint anymore. And when I saw the Matisse exhibition at the Tate, I just cried. I just found those pictures so incredibly powerful and moving. And that was because he had a lifetime of work behind him of developing his craft, which he had reduced to its essence. So I’m very interested in how you simplify, really.
MARK: That’s a beautiful example. I saw that show and one of the images that really stayed with me was a photo of him, an old man in a wheelchair, with scissors and colored paper. And it looked just like my kids, who must have been about three or four.
CHRISTINA: Exactly, exactly.
MARK: And I thought, to have that simplicity or that child-like quality and yet, he could do all the fancy stuff, but that’s not what he wanted.
I love that phrase of yours, ‘deceptive simplicity.’ You could apply that to Larkin’s poetry, certainly.
CHRISTINA: Absolutely. But I think you have to be quite a sophisticated reader to appreciate the deception and the simplicity. And I think unsophisticated readers sometimes don’t understand the complexity of the whole thing. I’d better not name any names. But I did hear that someone very senior I knew at The Independent said to someone else that he thought my writing was like a primary school teacher’s. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment! And this person had a financial background, he was a business journalist. Obviously, I wasn’t there, I couldn’t say anything. But I thought, ‘You don’t understand it, actually. You literally don’t understand anything about writing.’
MARK: Because it’s so tempting to…maybe particularly when the pressure’s on…to reach for the long, highfaluting words that can make you sound clever. And maybe that’s why Johnson said when he was talking about editing, he said, ‘Whenever you come to a particularly fine passage in your own writing, strike it out.’
CHRISTINA: I know, I know. ‘Murder your darlings.’ Nightmare, nightmare. But yes. Yes.
MARK: I want to come back to this. You talked about having the direct line from you to the readers and that comes through in the diction, the deceptive simplicity.
Can you maybe think of one or two issues where you really felt that you’d made that connection with your audience as a columnist?
CHRISTINA: Certainly. In relation to writing about the NHS and nursing, I had some very bad experiences of nursing, unfortunately. And when I had my mastectomy and reconstruction, it was in a very good hospital and I had had very bad experiences before then. But I thought that the nursing would be good and unfortunately, it was absolutely terrible and I emerged from hospital almost more traumatized by the nursing than the operation. And I made a vow when I was on my hospital bed that when I came out, I would try to do something about it.
And of course, when I did finally go back to work, the last thing I wanted to do was just do bloody campaigning. But I thought, ‘I did make that promise and I have to do it.’ So over the course of about the next year, I spoke to the editor, I talked to lots of people, to nurses, doctors, politicians and of course, patients, to find out what exactly was happening in nursing, why so many people were having terrible experiences. Because when I had written about my own experiences, initially in columns, I’d got incredible responses.
And I also made a radio program, it was called Forethought on Radio Four. And it was a 15-minute program that was meant to be a mix of storytelling and thinking and I gave that at the RSA, the Royal Society of Arts. And it was recorded live and it was very, very nerve-wracking. I’d never spoken publicly about my mastectomy before, it was relatively recent and I was kind of mortified, as well. But the program went out. And also mortifyingly, it was very heavily previewed on Radio Four, so people kept telling me they would hear my voice for a bit. It was previewed for weeks before it came out and then, it did come out.
And then, I had an incredible response: emails from readers and letters from readers all around the country, saying that they had had similar experiences. And in fact, that program, I gather, is still quite widely used as a teaching tool in the NHS.
CHRISTINA: So the columns I wrote about that and that program. And also, I made a little film for the one show the day the Francis Report came out, a five-minute film about the state of contemporary nursing, which produced a very powerful response. And then, out of that, I did this investigation that resulted in over six days in The Independent, every day for six days. And that had an absolutely extraordinary response and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, which is the main political journalism prize in the country.
Ironically enough, I was shortlisted for the prize and very shortly after, I was fired from The Independent, which was very embarrassing all round. So I had to contact the organizers and say, ‘I think I’d have to change my biog note not to something like, ‘Christina Patterson is now freelance,’ because I didn’t have a job. And I imagine The Independent were a bit embarrassed about it, because they didn’t even mention it in the paper until I made a fuss. And then, they did put a little announcement in, which they didn’t want to do. So I think that that’s probably the thing I’ve done in my journalism which has had the biggest impact.
MARK: Is that an example of what you were saying about if you feel something, they will feel it?
CHRISTINA: Yes, exactly.
MARK: And I know that kind of personal story is really at the heart of the book. But before we get on to that, because I think it’s relevant, as well as your column, you also conducted interviews with some seriously high-powered people. And how was that?
CHRISTINA: Hard work, Mark! It was very, very hard work. I started off at The Independent as Deputy Literary Editor. And I had, in fact, been running an organization called The Poetry Society, which I loved. It was a dream job. And I was the boss, what’s not to like? And I had lovely colleagues and I organized things like poetry-reading routes, where we’d sit around drinking margaritas and reading poetry. And it was fabulous, it really was a dream job.
And then, I was approached… I’d kind of given up on getting a job in journalism. I was still reviewing, but I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to get an actual job in journalism.’ And then, I was approached by the literary editor at The Independent. He said his deputy was leaving and did I want to apply for the job? And I was sort of agonized, because I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a lovely job. Why would I give this up to open chippie bags and make cups of tea?’ But I also thought, ‘If I want to work with a national paper, then this is it. This is my chance.’ So I did apply for the job and I did get it and I gave up the lovely job at The Poetry Society. And part of my job was interviewing writers.
So for many years, I interviewed writers. And that was fascinating, people like Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, all kinds of poets. And so, yes, it was fascinating and very, very hard work, because I’m the kind of person, I’m not going to… and you can’t do it, anyway. You can’t just read their Wikipedia entry and then, rock up and ask a few random questions. I would plow through their entire oeuvre. I interviewed Doris Lessing. I don’t know how many books Doris Lessing has written, but it’s certainly not two!
So it was very, very hard work. And certainly, when people say to me, ‘Oh, I want to be a journalist,’ which now is a whole different proposition, because there are such radical changes in the industry, I do say, ‘Well, be prepared to work very, very hard.’ Because for many, many, many years, I worked nearly all the time. I worked evenings, I worked weekends. I rarely had a day off, even at a weekend, because I was always reading for my next interview or catching up with the papers or making a deadline. So it was fascinating. And I was very, very privileged to meet those people.
And it kind of culminated for me when I’d left the books desk and worked on the comment desk for a bit and then, I became a full-time writer. And my job was essentially writing columns and doing interviews. And shortly after he left office, lost the election, Gordon Brown agreed to do one interview for a national paper. And he’d agreed to do it for The Independent, because he knew the editor a bit and I was picked to do that interview. And I went up to Kirkcaldy, his then-constituency, and spent a day with him. And that was the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done, he is such a fascinating man.
And I wrote that up and it was on the front page on the paper and it was mentioned on the 10 o’clock news. And in fact, somebody wrote to me and said, ‘This is what journalism is for.’ And I say in my book, I didn’t know if it’s what journalism was for, but I did feel it was what I was for. I remember when I was writing that interview, actually thinking – and this sounds like a dramatic thing to say – but thinking, ‘This is what I’m here for. This is why I’m alive,’ which is one of the reasons it was so absolutely devastating to lose my job.
MARK: That interview – the Gordon Brown one – it’s online, isn’t it?
CHRISTINA: It is, yes. Yes.
MARK: We’ll link to that. It’s a really fascinating portrait, so we’ll put that in the show notes.
CHRISTINA: Thank you.
MARK: You went from that to a book based on interviews. How did this come about?
CHRISTINA: Well, it wasn’t a seamless path, Mark! The book starts with the scene in which – oh the scene! – the moment in my life in which I have this horrendous conversation.
MARK: It will be a scene when they do the movie!
CHRISTINA: And I end up shouting at the editor of The Independent after being told that he wants to ‘freshen the pages up’. And I walk out of the office for the last time after 10 years and nobody even looked up. And that was that. That was my career at The Independent down the plughole. At the time I felt it was my career as a journalist down the plughole and that’s not entirely true. But I did decide that journalism was not going to be the centre of my life, because I knew I wasn’t going to ever have a job in journalism as good as the one I had.
I was in a very, very privileged position at that point, of basically writing columns for a living and hardly anyone gets that now. And freelance journalism is not paid particularly well anymore. In fact, rates have been slashed in the last 20 years. And I wasn’t a freelancer…I mean, the freelance journalism I did before, I did on top of a full-time job. So anyone who wants to be a freelance journalist, prepare for penury, basically, or be very, very, very determined and very hardworking and write stuff every day, which I can’t be bothered to do now. I can’t be bothered to do the pitch thing.
So yes. So there I was, sort of cast out into the wilderness, thinking, ‘I’m 49, I’ve done nothing all my life except work.’ I mean, that’s not entirely true, but I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a family, I’d had, in some ways, rather a tough time. My sister had died, my father had died, I’d had breast cancer and then had breast cancer again. And what had kept me going through all that time was my work and my career and even though like many writers and journalists, I have a tendency to feel like a failure all the time. Which, by the way, I also think is a pre-requisite for doing a half-decent job in your field.
MARK: I completely agree. I have this conversation several times a week with clients and I say, ‘Look, you do realize this is normal for a creative high achiever?’
CHRISTINA: Exactly. And I think the problem, actually, is that if you don’t think that you’re probably not good enough, is the truth of it. But it’s a very uncomfortable feeling. And when I lost my job and my career, I thought, ‘Oh, wow. I really am a failure now. I’m not making it up anymore. I really, really am a failure.’ And so, I didn’t know how to earn a living, but I also just didn’t know what to do. And I decided that I would use my journalistic skills to essentially ask the question, ‘What the hell do you do when your life falls apart?’
It was a question I’d had reason to ask quite a few times in my life. But weirdly, it wasn’t cancer or even bereavement that made me feel most desperate in my life, awful though those things were. It was that sense of, I’ve now lost my very identity and my vocation and the core of who I am. And so, I had an agent and we talked about this idea together. And I decided to talk to lots of people in lots of different situations about how they had coped when life had gone wrong and to weave those interviews together with my own story, following on from my dramatic departure from The Independent, over a period of two years.
Now, I would love to say, ‘Oh, yes. And then, there was this very happy ending, because I wrote the book in two weeks and it was all very easy.’ And of course, it wasn’t. I was running around, trying to cobble together a living by doing lots of different things and lurching from one 200-quid piece of journalism to another. I mean, I was also doing some quite good journalism. I wrote for the Sunday Times magazine. I started writing for the Sunday Times magazine which is, of course, much better paid than that, but the work I was doing involved an awful lot of interviews and you get paid by the word.
So I did big pieces on things like the Prevent strategy or intergenerational unemployment or teenage pregnancy. And they were all fascinating to research, but they took months and you certainly don’t get paid for your time. So I was very, very, very busy, just trying to earn a living. And if you want to get a book published, it’s not an easy thing. And if you write something on spec, you take a huge risk and I didn’t have time to write something on spec, because I had to pay my bills. And if you’re freelance and you’re trying to pay your bills – particularly if you’re unexpectedly freelance and trying to pay your bills – you’re not going to carve out six hours a day to write for fun. For a start, you probably are in too much of an anxious state about where the next piece of work is coming from.
So it took me a long time – about 18 months – before I really allowed myself to sit down and think about how I was going to actually structure this book and put it together. And there was a lot to’ing and fro’ing with my agent before we got to the point where he thought the proposal was ready to send out. And I didn’t get an instant offer. I’m very happy with how things ended up. I love my publisher, I love my editor, and the publication’s gone pretty well. But I would say it all took much, much longer than I thought it would.
And actually, the writing of the book was, weirdly, the easiest part of it. It’s all been kind of the hoops you have to leap through and, to mix my metaphors madly, the ducks you have to line up, which are the difficult things. And for me, doing the interviews and transcribing them and then, actually writing the thing was relatively easy.
MARK: But I mean, the thing that strikes me… because it’s quite an unusual structure to the book – which I think is beautifully done.
CHRISTINA: Thank you.
MARK: Your story interwoven with all these other stories, going in and out and some of them reappear later on. But people share the most extraordinary things with you.
CHRISTINA: Yes, they really do.
MARK: What was the process like, of going and talking to these people and having these conversations?
CHRISTINA: It was amazing. Many of them were known to me already. Quite a few of them are good friends, because I didn’t want to treat this as a kind of abstract intellectual project. People can talk theoretically about how they got through this, that and the other, but you only really know how they’ve got through it when you know them quite well.
So as I said, Mimi Khalvati is one of the people who I’ve known for years and admire hugely and has been huge things in her personal life. She has a son with schizophrenia and a daughter with an incurable autoimmune disease. And so, I talked to her.
I talked to two friends of my parents who I actually saw on Sunday – I went around for tea – and they have lost not one son, but two sons. They lost a son when he was a toddler and another son when he was in his late 20s.
I talked to my friend Rob. He’s called Winston in the book. He’s an ex-boyfriend, actually. I met him at a rice and peas stall at The Elephant in Castle 20 years ago. And we only went out for a while, but we’ve been very good friends for all that time. And he told me about breaking vertebrae in his spine not once, not twice, but three times. And one of those included falling off a roof when he was in a squat and smashing through a glass ceiling, he’s black, not in the way that they tell black people to, but a literal glass ceiling… and landing on a purple coffin in which he kept his drum kit. And he broke his spine then and was told he wouldn’t be able to walk again and amazingly did. And I’ve known him for 20 years. I took him down the road to the pub and he told me this and I was kind of open-mouthed and I thought, ‘I never knew this about you before.’
So I had some really extraordinary moments when I learned things from people I’ve known for a long time that I didn’t know before. And then, also, people opened up to me in an amazing way: Frieda Hughes, who I’ve known for probably about 15 years. She is, of course, the daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. She very, very kindly agreed to talk to me about her experience of grief. And she certainly knows a thing or two about grief, as the daughter of one of the most famous suicides of the 20th century. And obviously, Sylvia Plath killed herself when Frieda was only two and then, her father died, Ted Hughes, when she was in her 30s.
We worked out that our fathers died both of cancer when they were the same age and we were the same age. And she had developed ME and she knows a lot about illness, really, really crippling ME. And then, her brother committed suicide. And she talked about all of this incredibly openly. And she even told me about that she remembered being in the car when she and her brother, Nicholas were picked up from a flat in Primrose Hill where Sylvia Plath killed herself. She remembers being in the back of the car and she remembers Ted Hughes and his sister in the front of the car. But she was so traumatized, she didn’t actually recognize… I mean, it’s an astonishing story. She basically thought she was adopted. She was so traumatized that for years, she thought she was adopted and she didn’t think Ted Hughes was her real father. And I had gooseflesh when she told me that.
So there are some, for me, quite amazing revelations in the book and just moments of unbelievable courage and humor. Most of the people, as I say, in the book are people I know and many of them are very good friends. And I didn’t pick them as my friends because they’re brave, resilient, extraordinary people. I picked them as my friends because I really like them and they make me laugh. So I hope there are some laughs in the book as well.
And they opened up to me, a) because they’re my friends and b) because even though journalism isn’t very highly valued in the marketplace nowadays as a skill, I think obviously, if you interview lots of people, you do acquire some skills. And the main skill you need to be a good interviewer is empathy and the ability to build rapport and put people at their ease. And if you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t get people to open up and I do know how to make people open up.
MARK: Well, having read the book, I can absolutely confirm that it’s a really extraordinary read. But it’s not just harrowing, I do want to say that. There’s an incredible depth of compassion, I think, in your writing and also a lot of the stories that you draw out of people and that you relate from yourself, a lot of the core is people helping each other and being there for each other.
CHRISTINA: Well, that’s right. And thank you for your very kind words about the book. Yes, I do say towards the end that my parents taught me that the most important thing in life was to be kind. And I do believe them. I think the most important thing in life is to be kind. And I think those of us who put work whether it’s artistic and creative work or work that might be deemed less creative absolutely at the heart of our lives do need to remember that of course, achievement matters and our own achievements matter. We all want to make our mark in the world and feel that we’ve used our brains to actually do something and get something done.
I think the book in a way, it’s a central message of the book, actually. I do think that the most important thing is your character, the most important thing is your heart and the most important thing is how you behave to other people. And then, that’s how I was brought up and I still absolutely believe that.
And I think without compassion, the world is dead, really. We’re going through, in my view, really horrendous times in the West. I think Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States is the worst thing that has happened in my lifetime. And I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t find anything funny about it. I think the fact that last year after the Charlottesville marches literally equate neo-Nazis and white supremacists with people who are protesting against racism is a real nadir in my lifetime. I think there are many reasons at the moment to wake up in the morning and feel profoundly depressed about the world and I’m afraid. I think Brexit is in a not dissimilar category. I believe it’s a mistake. I don’t blame people who voted for Brexit. I think that our politicians lied to us and I think it’s a very, very serious thing to lie to people.
And there are plenty of reasons to feel depressed, actually. But I think the reasons to be cheerful are that human beings can be profoundly lovely and kind and produce beautiful things and beautiful art and work very well together and love each other. And these are, for me, the things that make life worth living.
MARK: And also, there are some wonderful moments of joy and celebration in the book. And in fact, one of my favorite passages is kind of a hymn to crisps and fizzy wine.
CHRISTINA: Yes, I’m a very big fan of crisps! I had a boyfriend once who called me ‘Crispina.’ And it’s funny, because now because crisps and particularly, Kettle Chips even though I’m not an ambassador for Kettle Chips and I ought to be…
MARK: You ought to be!
CHRISTINA: I really ought to be. They are very widely mentioned in the book. And now, wherever I go, people, if they’ve read the book, they offer me Kettle Chips. And I’m afraid literally every morning the… not every morning, probably, but every evening, the pleasure is fresh. I was at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last night doing an event and even then, I was chomping down a bag before I went on stage. I’m not saying that they’re a good thing and in fact, they’re apparently not particularly good for you. Who knew?
MARK: Really? You’re kidding me!
CHRISTINA: I don’t know how much harm they can do. And I think we all have things in life that give us pleasure. I have particular joys in my life every day.
My darling mother, who was Swedish, brought me up to think that every time you have a cup of coffee, you should have a little cake. And I absolutely believe that, because I’m never really entirely happy with a cup of coffee, where there isn’t a little sweet thing with it. And for me, every day, the pleasure of coffee and cake, the pleasure of a lovely glass of Sauvignon or Prosecco or Vionnet and some crisps, these things are fresh joys every day and as are flowers, as is music, as is friendship. And I think we underestimate the importance of joy in our life, actually.
And I think I quote, I think it’s Matisse in the book, who says something like, ‘There is always beauty for those who are prepared to see it.’ I think I’ve misquoted it. No, ‘There are always flowers for those who can see them.’ And I think that’s right. I don’t mean that in a kind of power of positive thinking, ‘Oh, just be cheerful and it’s all fine,’ way. But I do think there is an element of choice in how we spend our days, which of course, is how we spend our lives. And if we don’t see the joy or relish the pleasures, then we are depriving ourselves of a huge dimension of joy. So I think one of the other central messages of the book is indeed about joy.
MARK: I love the fact that you called it The Art of Not Falling Apart, because there are so many books these days that are so eager to brandish their scientific credentials and say, ‘This is all based on research and I interviewed all the top scientists and this is what the data tells us.’
Why did you go for The Art of Not Falling Apart?
CHRISTINA: Yes, the whole ‘smart thinking’ which I always want to call ‘smartass thinking’ category of books which annoyingly sells extremely well. And they get snapped up by the business world and then those people end up on motivational speaking tours, being paid vast amounts of money to spell out the absolutely bleeding obvious in some type of PowerPoint TED Talk-type thing.
MARK: But with data to back it up!
CHRISTINA: Exactly. I think very little in life comes down to bullet points and PowerPoint presentations. And certainly, the central question of human existence which is, we are born, we suffer, we die, if anyone can get that down to a series of bullet points, well, well done them! The whole of art and literature is essentially grappling with that issue and half failing, but as Beckett said, failing slightly better in some cases than others. And it is an art. Life is an art. If only someone could tell you how to live your life. Every day, I’m still thinking, ‘Which expert can I ask today about how to live my life?’
And unfortunately, I say in the book, I’ve got a whole secret shelf of self-help books in my study behind the filing cabinet, which essentially, I used to read as kind of fantasy fiction because at some level, I absolutely know that they’re a complete waste of time. But at another level, I like sitting down with a nice glass of wine and being taken into this world of exclamation marks and perky affirmations, to think that there is a possibility of a really simple world where everything is spelled out for you and you just do the following steps and everything will be fine.
And I also say in the book that at many points in my life, if there’d been a book called something like, I Feel So Awful, I Don’t Know What To Do, then I would have absolutely snapped it up! And I think in a way, this book is I Feel So Awful, I Don’t Know What To Do. But I want it to be, a) not quite as negative as that in the title because obviously, we’ve got to get people to buy it! But also, I did feel it was important to emphasize that it’s an art. I know there are a lot of books now with the word ‘art’ in the title and you know, it’s The Fine Art of Not Giving a – I don’t know if I’m allowed to use the word, but the word that begins with ‘F.’ The Fine Art of…
MARK: You can. As long as it’s artistically justified…
CHRISTINA: The Art of Not Giving A Fuck, which, what the…? Who the fuck knows what that’s about? But it’s basically because people find the word ‘fuck’ funny. And it kind of is funny, but it also isn’t saying very much, really. And I very much doubt that it’s Tolstoy or Keats. I think wisdom, knowledge, expertise, but most of all, wisdom, how can that be anything other than art? It’s a multi-layered process that we add to the layers of, every day. And that’s why the structure of the book is, in some ways, quite unconventional.
I hope it’s quite easy to read, but it’s not a straightforward structure, in that it’s a three-part structure. I introduce people in the first part and then, mostly return to them in the second part. And I weave together those stories and my story and different themes, because I wanted the reader to feel at the end of it was that they had had an experience and an artistic experience of a kind where the layers build up and where such knowledge as they feel they’ve acquired by the end is a cumulative thing.
Because in my experience, that’s how we learn and how we feel things, by actually being moved and feeling that you’ve been taken on a journey. I don’t mean that in the kind of Californian ‘journey’ way, but on an artistic journey.
MARK: We absolutely do. I mean, the structure of the book, again, is quite mesmerizing. I mean that literally. I used to be professional hypnotist and I can assure you, it literally is.
CHRISTINA: That’s a very interesting thing to say. Goodness, what do you mean by that?
MARK: Well, I used to be a hypnotherapist, that was my original training.
CHRISTINA: Yes. Yes, I know. Yes.
MARK: And so, storytelling and particularly, embedding stories inside stories inside stories is quite… if you notice, a lot of film and TV and quite often children’s TV uses the technique. So it takes you very deep in the world and worlds of the book.
CHRISTINA: How interesting. I had no idea that that was a technique in hypnosis or hypnotherapy. That’s fascinating.
MARK: So this book will take you deeper than other books!
CHRISTINA: No, it won’t take you deeper than the other books! But I hope it will take people on some kind of satisfying journey.
MARK: So final question about the book. Obviously, we’re both artists, we’re writers and most people listening to this will be artists or creatives of some kind. And it’s a book I really think anyone can relate to.
Are there any of the lessons or stories in the book that you think are particularly resonant and relevant to those of us on the creative path?
CHRISTINA: I’ve already mentioned Mimi Khalvati and one of the things she talks about is difficulty, really. For me, poetry is kind of the king of the art forms. But I haven’t even tried, because I didn’t think I would be any good. And obviously, that’s not a particularly helpful attitude to have, but poetry – good poetry – is really, really, really difficult. In fact, good art of any kind is really, really, really difficult. And I suppose the lesson I think one would get from her… I mean, she’s talking more about her life than her poetry, but I think the lessons apply to both… is that it’s never easy.
And there’s an artist called Paul Brantford, who I interview in the book and who talks about going to look at paintings at the National Gallery hundreds of times. He will literally go back and look at the same painting and look at the layers and look at the brush strokes. And he talks about it as a journey he will never get to the end of. I think art is a journey you will never get to the end of and I think you have to expect it to be difficult and you have to enjoy that difficulty. And I mean, sometimes, when I’m writing… I had to write a couple of things last week and I found both of them agonizing.
And I was thinking, ‘Why do I think I like writing when this is so unbelievably unpleasant?’ But I think that’s the deal. It’s the kind of weird, complicated, love/hate relationship, where you love having written and there are points in the writing where you love it, but there are points where you absolutely hate it. And you need to hate it to get into the point where you have what Mikhail, Mishkin… I can never pronounce his name! Mihaly, Mihaly, I think his name is, something like that. He talks about…
CHRISTINA: Well done, yes. He talks about the whole concept of flow. In my experience, it’s very, very difficult to get to that point, because you’ve got so many bloody hurdles to leap over first. But I think if you want the creative life, you will not have an easy life. Don’t expect it to be easy. Expect it to be really hard, expect there to be lots of rejection, expect to have to work extremely hard, expect to go to bed most nights feeling dissatisfied with yourself and what you’ve done and feel like a failure. Which doesn’t sound like a particularly cheery lot, but you don’t do it if you don’t really, really want to do it. And that’s what it’s like.
And if you don’t feel those things, my guess would be that you’re probably quite mediocre. But who knows, you might be very, very lucky and a sunny personality and go to bed thinking, ‘I did really great today. I produced really good stuff,’ in which case, I’ve never come across anyone like you. But who knows?
MARK: I think most of us listening to this are familiar with the challenge you’re describing, Christina. And we’re up for it, anyway. It’s like that… probably apocryphal story about Shackleton advertising for, ‘Men wanted for polar expedition. Low pay, terrible conditions, chances of death high.’ And then apparently he was inundated because everyone wanted to go!
CHRISTINA: Yes. I mean, the theory of it. You only imagine yourself at the top of Everest, but you don’t imagine slipping and slithering down some dark, wet crag, but that’s also the reality. But of course, you don’t get the joys without the struggles and you don’t get the light without the darkness. And that’s where the whole concept of chiaroscuro comes from. And bring it on!
MARK: Right. Well, that sounds like the perfect time for us to segue into the Creative Challenge with the joys and struggles. So Christina, this is the point in the interview where I ask my guest to set the listener a challenge that’s related to the themes that we’ve just been talking about and something that they can either do, or at least get started within seven days of listening to the interview.
So what challenge would you like to set the listener?
CHRISTINA: Well, as a journalist and writer, it’s going to have to be a journalistic or at least writing challenge. And I am going to ask you to take one issue that interests you at the moment… it could be in the news, it could be in your life, it could be absolutely anything. In my case, for example, if I were told to do this, I would probably – if I were being really honest – have to write about property porn, because that’s my current obsession, even though I know it sounds like a very banal subject. So if I were doing it, that’s what I would choose. But it could be anything that’s taking up a lot of your headspace or just that’s interesting you.
And write 1,200 words about it. You can structure that in any way you like. You could go up to 1,210 words, you could go down to 1,190 words, but no you can’t go over or above that, because that’s what you have to do as a journalist. You have to be very, very precise. And from that subject, you should construct something that you think will be interesting for somebody else to read, that might make them smile or might make them moved or might make them think.
MARK: Brilliant, thank you. And if you publish that online, then do send us a link in the comments at 21centurycreative.fm/christina. That will take you to the show notes for this episode and you’re very welcome to share your piece of journalism with us in the comments.
CHRISTINA: And I’ll happily have a look at them. I can’t guarantee to give detailed feedback on them all, because I’m trying to earn a living. But I’ll more than happily have a look at them.
CHRISTINA: I do.
MARK: Where should people go to connect with you and find out more about you and your writing?
CHRISTINA: My website is christinapatterson.co.uk. And that’s ‘Patterson’ with two T’s. And the book is currently a trade paperback, but it…the commercial paperback at £8.99 is coming out in January and will be even less on Amazon. And there’s also an audiobook version out now.
MARK: Excellent. And you’re quite active on Twitter as well, aren’t you?
CHRISTINA: Yes, I like Twitter. I like Twitter when people are nice and when it’s funny. I don’t like it when people are horrible, which they often are.
MARK: Well, of course, all the 21st Century Creatives are nice! So I think you’re ‘Queen Christina’ on Twitter?
CHRISTINA: I’m ‘Queen Christina’ with an underscore at the end, yes. ‘Queen Christina_.’
MARK: Right, Queen Christina_ on Twitter. And of course, I’ll link to that from the show notes. Christina, thank you so much. As ever, it’s been an absolute pleasure listening to you. And I know that people listening to this out there all over the world, with their joys and struggles, I’m sure all have got a lot of wisdom and some smiles from this, as well.
CHRISTINA: Thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.