Featured Interview With Carly Rheilan
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
Greetings readers. I’m Carly Rheilan, author, wife, mother, psychiatric nurse, lover of power tools (from sewing machines through lawn mowers to electric saws), leader of a youth club, slayer of stinging nettles. But also (despite this attempt to make myself sound cool) a rather shy person, allergic to photographs, blessed with the fashion sense of your local bag-lady, and pretty much a stranger to social media.
I was born in Malta, but raised in the English countryside and now returned to it, after various travels. I live in a village in Hertfordshire, suspiciously similar to the place where I grew up – a place with a train and a pub and a handful of shops, and with a boundary of fields between us and the town. I live with a man , a grown up boy, a cat, three chickens, two guineapigs and a lot of politics. (Not to mention the warm after-glow of a girl who is married now, the ghost of a cat who has died but won’t go away, and the haunting whispers of children we have fostered and lost.)
In the more intelligible parts of my career, I have worked as a psychiatric nurse in the NHS, particularly at the juncture of psychiatry and the law: working to protect the rights of patients with mental illness or dementia, and of patients whose illnesses have led them to crime. I did a PhD about gender, crime and mental illness, which led to a few years as an academic lecturer – but in the end I just missed the NHS and had to go back.
This is as much of my life as I put on the internet, but I usually answer emails. If you have any questions, you can find my email address on my (otherwise pretty empty!) facebook page.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I first noticed books when my older brother was learning to read – the texts were pretty meagre, so I learnt them boringly by heart as he stumbled through them. But unlike the text, the pictures were rich and deep, and pouring myself into them I discovered all the back stories that the books missed out. (Oh, there are things I could tell you about Janet and John, that no-one else knows….) It was soon after that, I think, that I started to write stories myself.
Actually, I fear I’ve always been pretty solipsistic about books; I’ve always preferred to write my own stories, than risk the stories of others : I like to decide for myself how the story ends!
After the usual juvenilia, and many false starts, I wrote my first “grown up” novel at the turn of the century, and three more since. They’ve sat in the depths of computers through several years. I’m trying to publish them now, to give them some space.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
Jane Austen, George Eliot, William Saroyan, Oliver Sacks, Herman Hesse… These are not crime writers.
Yet it appears, to my surprise, that what I write is “crime”, and dark crime at that: “noir” people call it in reviews, or even “harrowing” (I don’t like that) and sometimes “grim” or “chilling”. Try as I will, this is always what comes out, though sometimes I get almost to the end of the draft without really seeing that, yet again, this ISN’T a book like the ones that inspired me. I find it rather inexplicable, since I’ve never really read Crime, with the exception of John Grisham whose writing I massively admire.
Hey ho. I guess we all write what we have to write.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
Asylum is a story about Cabdi, an accidental asylum seeker who has washed up in an English psychiatric hospital, and Mustaf, a trafficked child.
Cabdi begins as a limit-case of human displacement. He does not know where he is, he does not speak any English, he has absolutely no anchor in the world where he finds himself. He is a Somali Bantu, the only member of his family to survive the Somalian Civil War.
At the start of the book, on a piece of land adjacent to the hospital where he is held, he sees the evidence of a terrible crime – the hand of a half-dead child, the victim of abuse, reaching out of the ground where it is buried alive. But he turns away and does not intervene. He is powerless, friendless, traumatised by his own life’s experience. This is somebody else’s war.
And so it would have stayed were it not for meeting Mustaf, a child from his own tribal grouping, also a refugee. This encounter awakens the past in him, a world where his life had meaning. He persuades himself that this boy is a thread that will lead him back to others of his people. Yet Mustaf isn’t, as Cabdi wants to believe, a treasured son of some thriving Bantu family. In fact he is an orphan who has made his way through Africa, trying to survive and to protect his sister – only to be trafficked by paedophiles and sucked into a nightmare of abuse.
The story goes to dark places, and was a difficult book to write. Before writing it, I had become very engrossed in the (terrible) history of the Somalian civil war. In the late 1990s I had helped to look after four Somalian children. Fifteen years later – with time on my hands at last – I set out to find out about the events that brought so many of their people as refugees to Britain. The history filled me with horror and awe. At around the same time, in my professional life, I was tied up in the aftermath of the “Jimmy Savile” case: a British television celebrity who was also – as it emerged only after his death in 2011 – one of Britain’s most prolific and predatory paedophiles, who had used his position of trust to abuse vulnerable children in every possible setting, including hospitals. These two dark threads weave together in this story.
It would not have been possible to write this story – it took me two years to get a first draft together, and many times in that period I would have set it aside as too painful – except that the character of Cabdi insinuated itself into my consciousness like a spirit, and I couldn’t let him go.
Cabdi has come from one of the most “primitive” communities in Somalia – not the sophisticated Somalis who populated both sides in the Civil War, but one of the Bantu tribes, remnants of a slave-people, discredited and persecuted by the true Somali. His community is almost “stone-age” – a world without writing, without contact with the West, barely familiar with metal tools. Even there, he was not a successful man – the smallest of his brothers, a chatterer, a would-be healer who would rather be telling stories. He has lost one hand in the war, he has failed to bury his murdered family as his culture required, he has been duped of his passage to America, where the few remaining of his tribe have gone. He is not heroic, and his attempts to make sense of the British world where he finds himself are almost entirely misplaced. But “channeling” him as I wrote him, I found a strength and truthfulness and positivity in him that came from somewhere I had never been before. Perhaps his character is “self-indulgent” from an authorly perspective, I am not sure. But I know that in all of my writing life, I have never been happier than when writing him, no matter the dark places that I took him to. Not everyone who reads him likes him, but I hope a few of you do!
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