Friday, 19 December 2014

Twenty years ago, I published my first book. My 34th is due out next spring. Here I reflect on the grit and the glamour of the writer's life - and on how much things have changed in since 1994.
Twenty years ago this week my first book was published - Unlawful Carnal Knowledge: The True Story of the Irish X Case was subsequently banned in Ireland, which made it an overnight success north of the border.

As a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, I was working full-time but took the week off to promote my book and enjoy a series of low-key celebratory events with my agent, my editor, and a few close friends who presented me with champagne and flowers. I signed some copies at a bookstore in Belfast (after a bomb scare), and my editor in Dublin took me for a splendid lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel.

In 1994, there was no mention of ebooks or interactive electronic editions, and neither Amazon nor Audible existed. I wasn't expected to hire a publicist, choose which voice-over actor I'd like to recite my work, or spend hours each week updating my social networking pages. I wrote a piece for the Sunday Times and appeared on Irish telly and the BBC, but nobody expected me to take part in interactive Skype chats with book clubs around the world, or attend public speaking engagements where I'd be cross-examined on my subject matter.

Life seemed simpler then.

In the two decades since my first book was released, I have had almost every publishing experience one can imagine. There have been gruelling and not-so-glamorous international book tours with horribly early starts, glittering launch parties in New York, London, Hollywood and Suffolk, and hours trapped in airless radio studios doing down-the-line interviews. I've been filmed for the NBC's Today show, TV stations in Paris, Gibraltar and Rome, sat in on Pebble Mill and The View, and had a Hollywood movie star unexpectedly pick up the bill for the Manhattan launch party of my first novel, The Sense of Paper.

Movie rights have been repeatedly optioned on Tomorrow To Be Brave, my book about the only woman in the French Foreign Legion, and I was with actors Caroline Quentin and Kevin Whately at the premiere of the TV mini-series that was adapted from my book Footprints in the Snow. I've appeared on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour to talk about the first Gulf War. I've given talks on the same subject to Government officials and sat gratefully in the green room of countless TV studios while my clients such as Goldie Hawn, Barbara Sinatra, Deana Martin, Haatchi & Little B, and Uggie the dog went "out front" to promote our work.

I've been deafened by hysterical fans who'd queued all night for the signature (or pawprint) of a star whose memoir I'd just penned, and I have criss-crossed the world First Class to stay in the sort of homes and hotel suites that most can only dream of. I also lived for 18 months in a crummy pension on the outskirts of Paris, resided in a smelly B&B in Humberside, and made my home for while in a Travelodge in the Home Counties.

To keep me on my toes, a television crew from the Swedish equivalent of Newsnight recently flew in from Stockholm to film me speaking about the history of post-traumatic stress disorder because of my book Shell Shock, and later this year I'll be giving a talk to more than 100 National Trust volunteers to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

From my clients, agents, and publishers over the years I've been presented with a variety of gifts including a shopping trolley full of sex toys, a Cartier watch, a Harrods pillow, a straw hat, a designer handbag, hampers, a solid gold bookmark, and enough flowers to fill an abandoned Borders store. Publishers have presented me with several framed book jackets as well as beautiful leather-bound copies of my titles, and I have a gratifying number of framed bestseller lists mounted under glass.

In this my anniversary month, my 33rd book has been published - The Beat of My Own Drum, the ghosted memoir of the American musician Sheila E, whose childhood sexual abuse almost ruined her life until she found healing through music. I represent myself these days, and the editor who worked on the book with me was recently made redundant, so there were no cards or flowers from her. If it weren't for my long-suffering husband there would have been no celebrations, and only a few of my friends even appreciated the milestone.

Meanwhile I sit in my garret in Suffolk, completing my 34th book - Born Survivors - a Holocaust memoir that was discovered, researched, written and agented entirely solo. The research for this project has taken me to San Francisco, Nashville, Auschwitz, Prague, and Bratislava, and the book will be launched at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria next May, followed by a three-country book tour and months of publicity.

To keep my American publishers happy, I recently had to complete a 10-page questionnaire that asked me to provide a comprehensive resumé and reviews, several hi-resolution author photographs, and the name and address of my publicist. I was instructed to give a full list of my titles, including all editions, dates of publication and numbers of copies sold (by my reckoning over a million all told).

They wanted the names of any academic organisations I belonged to, my media contacts, lists of any honours and awards, and articles I had written. They asked for an explanation of how I came to write this book, a snappy précis (including my assessment of its relevance), plus the flap copy, my opinion of its likely market, potential readers, lists of any known competitors, and an assessment of how it might "benefit" my audience.

I am to name people to whom advanced bound galleys should be sent (I suggested Stephen Spielberg), which awards I'd like to be nominated for, and the name of the speakers' bureau that represents me. They want to ensure that I have a Facebook and Twitter presence, they need my Skype and FaceTime details, and asked what I've posted lately on Pinterest, Voxer, Tumblr, Google and any number of other sites, some of which I have never heard of.

They automatically assume I have a website but would like to know whether I also have fan pages, engage in live chats, message boards, blogs or provide email newsletters. Tellingly, they didn't ask for the numbers of the phalanx of assistants I'd need to employ if I were to keep on top of all this, as they seem to be suggesting.

Twenty years is a long time in this business. For 17 of them it has been my sole source of income, and of that I am very proud. Many of the changes that have happened have crept up on me while I just kept writing and trying to do what I do best. It is only on such landmark occasions that I can pause to reflect on the evolution of the industry and wonder where it might take me from here.

With many of my ebook sales outstripping hardbacks for the first time, and the digital age firmly in charge of both how I work and promote myself, I have had to evolve too. The good news is that there is still a hunger for words in whatever shape and format they take. Here's to the next 20 years of writers like me still wanting to write, and readers still wanting to read what we have written - when we're not on Voxer, that is!

Born Survivors by Wendy Holden will be published by Little, Brown May 2015. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Shell Shock Revisited


by Wendy Holden

SIXTEEN YEARS ago I wrote a book about the history of shell shock - or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it is now more popularly known.
     The book, which accompanied a Channel 4 documentary series, was published 18 months after I had returned from Iraq - where I reported on the First Gulf War for the Daily Telegraph - and long before I realised I was suffering from a form of shell shock myself.
     The effects of my experiences in the desert have never left me. I am still plagued by nightmares of mass graves, bloody torture chambers, and rotting corpses. I often ‘sleep-run’ to escape imaginary attackers, trying to throw myself from windows or hurl myself down stairs.
     I have broken several bones and snapped my husband’s ribs twice as he tried to contain my nighttime thrashings. We now have mountaineering ropes fixed at the top of the stairs, which are clipped to metal shackles each night before we go to bed.
     When I wrote Shell Shock: The Psychological Trauma of War (recently reissued on Kindle to mark the anniversary of the First World War), I had little understanding of the effects of war on the mind.
     For months, though, I listened to the moving testimonies of WWI survivors and immersed myself in the records of the amateur psychiatrists who tried to fathom what ‘molecular commotion’ was caused in the brain by the shock of exploding shells – hence the misnomer ‘shell shock’.
     Even though the history of war-related illness goes back centuries, the flood of cases in WWI caught the medical establishment completely off guard.
    The medical enthusiasts who flocked to the fashionable ‘new science’ because of the massive numbers of mental breakdowns didn’t yet know that they weren’t caused by something physical but by human minds torn between self-preservation and duty.
     Idealistic young men wholly unsuited to homicide had marched joyously to battle with very little training or preparation. The conflict was expected to be short and sharp. “It’ll all be over by Christmas!” was a popular cry.
     But war on the western front was different from any fought before. The nerve- shattering properties of the new killing machines brought mental resistance to saturation levels. Under a never-ending bombardment of bullets and shrapnel, men were unable to sleep or even think. The trenches offered shelter but also imprisoned and immobilized, creating a powerful urge to escape.
      Men drowned in the shell holes or were sucked into the wet mud. Mules and horses were maimed and lay suffering. Human corpses littered no man’s land to be eaten by rats. The sense of helplessness was exacerbated by the terror of mutilation that pushed men to the brink of mental illness for the first time in their lives.
     There was no glorious battles to be fought with honour; just a pitiless life under siege. The prospect of being blown to pieces was a fear that flesh could not support.
     No one was immune to the horrors and none could tell who would crack. Few knew what to do with the grimacing, twitching cases who either ran from the lines or lay crying in their trenches, tormented and ashamed.
     Terms like ‘knocked silly’ or ‘got the wind up’ abounded and some 300 ‘malingerers’ were shot for cowardice, while hundreds more were dispatched to ‘loony bins’ for a brutal regime of cold baths and padded cells.
      With a serious manpower crisis and a war to be won, much of the early treatment was nothing short of brutal. There was no shortage of guinea pigs so hapless soldiers were prodded and poked, filmed and mistreated. Radical therapies were tested, including high dosage electric shock treatment that sometimes killed patients. This kind of experimentation would previously only have been possible on animals.
     Officers were generally treated differently than the rank and file and were prescribed rest, silence, occupational therapy, even a milk diet - but that didn’t make their own personal hell any easier.
     Few were able to express the horrors of the battlefield quite so well as the soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both treated for shell shock. Sassoon wrote poignantly: “By night each man was back in his doomed sector of horror-stricken front line where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the living faces of the dead.”
     The doctors enlisted into the Royal Army Military Corps to care for those whose minds gave way had little medical history to go on and no clear guidelines. Symptoms were confusingly diverse and might include paralysis, blindness, speech loss or impairment, hallucinations, amnesia, chronic depression, schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts.
      The top military brass continually refused to accept shellshock as genuine and feared mass panic in the ranks. Crucially, shell shock wasn’t admissible as a plea in a court martial for cowardice or desertion for which the ultimate penalty was death. From the military viewpoint men were either ‘mad or bad’ and the doctors were frequently reminded that the ‘A’ in RAMC stood for Army.
     But what to do with the thousands of gibbering wrecks sent back from the front, especially when ‘cured’ they would only be sent back for more. Psychiatry was on the fringes of acknowledged medical practice and the theories of some psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung were considered shocking, but something had to be done. And so the science of military psychology was born, designed to remove men’s moral objection to war.
     It was only thanks to the compassion of psychiatrists like Charles Myers and W.H. Rivers that a more sympathetic approach was eventually adopted. Rivers developed the ‘talking cure’ and believed ‘anxiety neurosis’ came about when men were torn between the desire to run away and the obligation to fight.
    The sight of a corpse – especially of someone familiar - was the most common trigger for mental breakdown as the image continually haunted a man’s dreams. Worn down with the mental struggle, a soldier’s body found a clever way out by exhibiting signs of serious illness to provide him with an escape route.
    The fledgling study of the relationship between war and madness came to represent a revolution in military attitudes to the fragility of men. It was later responsible for the setting up of modern systems of diagnosis and the treatment of mental illness.
      The death penalty for cowardice was abolished and terms like ‘war neurosis,’ battle exhaustion’ or ‘combat stress’ came into parlance. Those affected were given compassionate treatment instead of being forced from the army without a pension. Still, it wasn’t until 2006 that the executed ‘cowards’ of the trenches were pardoned.
    The First World War undoubtedly became a touchstone of horror by which all later conflicts would be compared. It was also a watershed in the acceptance of invisible injury. Most of the symptoms witnessed then have been seen in veterans of every war since.
    With screening and preparation coupled with the birth of forward psychiatry, soldiers, journalists and civilians are better cared for than ever when they are sent to the front line to witness things that may scar them mentally forever.
     As conflicts continue around the world, there is still much that the military and the rest of humanity needs to learn and understand about how the most extreme of human experiences can deliver a severe trauma to the moral and mental state in what will always be a battle for the mind.

·               Shell Shock: The Psychological Trauma of War by Wendy Holden is now available on Kindle, price £4.99