Sandstone Press

On the Blog: Animal Lovers

We're always interested in the stories behind the books we publish - it's fascinating to hear how authors' experiences affect the writing process, and which bits of their lives make the cut when they put pen to paper. Rob Palk shared how suffering a brain haemorrhage influenced his writing, and the associated challenges he faced while working on Animal Lovers

One morning when I was thirty, I was standing at the toilet, a few minutes after a shower, when the worst headache I have ever had crashed across my brain. A wash of painful blackness came over my eyes as I managed to lower myself to the ground. Various fluids jostled to leave my body. I shivered and groaned on the bathroom floor. I was alone in the flat and had just suffered a brain haemorrhage.

At the time I didn’t know this. I thought it was possibly a hangover, which makes my hangovers sound unusually virulent but then for the last year or so I’d had a golf ball-sized blood clot on my brain, elbowing the other functions, taking up space. This had made my hangovers a bit more troublesome than was normal, but I’d put this down to turning thirty.

I managed to crawl across the floor, sweating and vomit-mouthed, passing the acrid cat litter tray, the shards of kicked-out litter. I had to stop and pant, fast little sick-preventing breaths. I somehow got into bed. I somehow managed to call my job and say I was ill. Then I lay, soaking the sheets, struggling to live. The next day I went to hospital where they told me I had flu.

I did not have flu. What I had was an arterio-vascular malformation, knotted up veins in my head. In the least sexy way possible, I had been born wrong, born bad. The bleed had squashed my visual cortex, making me permanently partially sighted. I was at serious, immediate risk of another haemorrhage that would finish the job of the first. Fortunately I sought a second opinion. Fortunately I was saved from immediate danger. But I was due a couple of years of fatigue, my brain still vibrating from the blow, the physical shock causing spiritual symptoms – anomie, fearfulness, panic. At the time of writing I am still at risk, with further treatments ahead.

In my novel, Animal Lovers, I gave the narrator, Stuart, the same illness as myself. In part this was because I didn’t want to lose some good material. If I was going to have these experiences I ought to get some use out of them. It also occurred to me that a really unpleasant illness would create some sympathy for the character and, as I knew he was going to behave very badly, I thought he needed all the sympathy he could get. But as to how or whether my illness impacted on the book, this is harder to determine. It certainly made it harder to write. When your brain is weighted down, struggling, beautiful sentences do not trip lightly onto the page. It becomes more like putting a tent up, or assembling an especially hostile piece of furniture. Against this there’s the likelihood that without death popping up early and uninvited, reminding me he was there, I might not have forced myself to write so much, might have always thought there was more time. Writing a book can serve to fix a moment: Stuart will always be trapped in 2014 unless I choose to call him up in future novels. His story won’t go where my story goes, the place where all stories end.

One thing I did know was that the book would have to be fiction. I wanted the freedom of interpretation that fiction brings, the luxury of unreliability. As my brain healed and shook off its slowness I wanted the freedom to play. You could make a case that Animal Lovers saved my life, but this seems a lot of weight to carry for a comedy about badgers and death.

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