David Owen is an author whose latest book 'Panther' tackles the difficult subject of depression in a no-nonsense yet humorous way. He's previously worked as a video games journalist and has given us a heart-warming and touching interview which you really need to read! Which is lucky, cause it's just down there!
As always, we start with a simple question. As someone with depression, how are you meatball?
I have the horrible feeling that a joke or reference is currently whistling over my head. Meatball was actually my nickname at school on account of being the fat kid, so this brings back memories!
You studied creative writing at university (I hope that’s not news to you). Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do or was it a passion that manifested itself later in life?
It’s something I’ve always been interested in doing. I used to love writing stories when I was really young, and I kept doing it throughout childhood in one form or another. I went through a lengthy phase of writing videogame scenarios, almost all of which were rip offs of Silent Hill. As to when I decided to take it more seriously, I really couldn’t say.
I’d be interested to know how you plan a story before you sit down to write it. Is there any software you use or any techniques you have to set out the narrative, the character arcs, etc.
My writing method is painfully scattershot. Obviously the idea starts in my head, and it usually stays there for at least a year before I take it seriously. If a story keeps coming back to you, and you keep adding to it, over a long period of time, it’s probably worth pursuing.
From there I don’t even know what happens. Usually once the idea is properly cooked the protagonist just sort of arrives. And from them you find the rest of the cast as you work out what the themes of the story will be, how best you can explore that, etc.
Then I’ll do a loose story outline, refine it a little, and barrel head first into a first draft. First drafts are always god awful, but you’ll learn so much along the way. Get a first draft down and it’s all iteration and refinement, no blank page to intimidate you.
Panther is kinda your fifth book, can you tell us a little about the story itself (without spoilers)?
Derrick is a teenager who feels like he’s lost control of his life – he’s being bullied, he’s gained a lot of weight, he’s lost his only friend, and he’s hopelessly in love with the girl next door (or round the corner, in this case). He believes it’s all because of his sister’s depression and her recent suicide attempt, and he becomes determined to do something about it.
He hears a rumour that there’s a panther on the loose around where he lives in SE London, and he convinces himself that if he can capture it and expose it to the world, it’ll solve all his problems at home. So it becomes a bit of a race against time, Derrick hatching increasingly desperate plans to catch the panther before depression overwhelms his family.
Is the panther in the book, symbolic of the ‘black dog’ (or cat in this case) associated with mental illness?
Yeah, it’s not really the most subtle metaphor, is it? The panther is very much a black dog, inspired by the very real rumours of a wild panther around where I live in SE London. A dog always seemed too friendly and familiar to represent my experiences of depression. The panther, something frightening and strange, worked much better for me.
Question Carl Angelo Dela Cruz (@jellolol)
What inspired you to write Panther, because as i read the synopsis, it has a dark element in your book that makes me become curious about it and how is this dark side/element related to you as part of growing up?
A lot of the book is based on real experiences, as I’ve experienced depression in several different ways. Growing up my sister suffered with depression very badly, and I really struggled to understand what she was going through. I simply didn’t know what depression was. And my family wasn’t very good at talking and communicating, so rather than trying to understand and help I made things worse for her. I certainly didn’t offer any support.
Then when I was older I was diagnosed with depression, which gave me more of an idea of what she went through. I feel so guilty for how I behaved back then, and Panther is kind of an apology for that. It’s about how not talking and communicating and empathising within a family or friend group can make suffering from a mental illness so much worse.
There is a lot of darkness in the book, and I think that’s important, because you have to be honest about the experience of these things.
As someone who struggles with their weight and their mental health, there were times I loved reading the book, but there were also times I hated reading it. It was a little too honest in places, but, saying that, I wouldn’t have changed that at all. Anything that can illicit such strong emotions, good or bad, is a winner in my ‘book’. What other reactions have people told you they’ve had when reading it? Do you get messages from people relating their stories?
A lot of people have told me that they found the book a really difficult read because so much of it hit close to home, and yeah, I don’t really sugarcoat anything along the way.
Some people react positively to that as, although the book can be uncomfortably honest at times, they can recognise themselves in it and they’re glad to see someone exploring that. Others have found it (particularly the ending) just too heavy.
As someone for whom depression has affected them and those around them. How have your family reacted to Panther?
They see truth in it, even if their experiences have been different, which is great. There is no universal experience of depression or other mental illness, and what happens in Panther is just one truth among many. People seem to get that, which means I didn’t mess it up too badly!
One of the key themes, I think, isn’t so much about how depression affects the person living with it, but also those around him. How have those around you helped you through times when you’ve been unwell?
Because of how badly my sister suffered with depression, I was incredibly frightened to tell anyone when I came to suspect I was suffering with it too, and indeed when I was diagnosed. I kept it hidden for a few years.
When I did finally tell my family and friends, they were incredibly supportive. And, most importantly, they didn’t make it a big deal. They let me know that they understood and would be there for me if I needed them. My friends who didn’t know much about depression asked questions to make sure they understood as best they could. My girlfriend is incredibly supportive when I’m feeling down. Knowing I have that support network, should I need it, means the world.
While your book is aimed at YA (Young Adults) it certainly doesn’t shy away from some quite strong and difficult and, in places, shocking imagery. Do you think it’s important to address these kind of topics and do you find yourself having to rein yourself in or, alternatively, push yourself to go further.
I think it’s very important to address these kinds of issues in books for younger people. Young people have mental health too, and their lives are so full of things that can have a negative impact on their wellbeing, more so than ever before. We’d be doing them a disservice by ignoring that. There is still a huge number of people who’ll undermine what teenagers are going through by writing it off as the pains of puberty. That’s bullshit, and it’s dangerous.
I didn’t feel the need to rein myself in, as I think young people can take a lot more darkness than people think. And if a book is upsetting them, or they’re not getting it, or whatever, they’re intelligent enough to stop reading and protect themselves from it.
As well as tackling some quite dark topics, there is a lot of humour in the book, something we try to do here on our site. How do you make sure the balance between light and dark is right.
I don’t know! Some people no doubt feel I didn’t get it right and that Panther is too dark. There is a lot of humour in there, because depression isn’t all doom and gloom. You have bright moments, you still try and find things to enjoy because you don’t want to be miserable, and so many of the people I know who experience depression are able to laugh about it sometimes. It can be a pretty ridiculous illness.
I didn’t cry when a girlfriend accused me of faking depression and dumped me, but I cried when I dropped a fish finger sandwich on the floor. It can be ridiculously irrational, and I wanted to acknowledge that to bring some lightness to the book.
The characters in the book all have their own set of flaws in some ways. Whether that’s Derrick and his eating or, obviously, Charlotte’s suicide attempt. Did you draw on any people you know to make these characters more rounded?
Derrick is semi-autobiographical: I was the fat kid at school and I had/have a pretty unhealthy relationship with food. So a lot of that stuff is personal experience, though I must claim innocence when it comes to some of the more extreme stuff he does!
I’ve known and continue to know lots of people with depression, so undoubtedly that informs the characters and events of the books. That’s unavoidable.
One thing that struck me when I first got the book was the cover. It’s a striking colour and the panther is clear (to me at least). But it wasn’t until some time later that I noticed that within that image, there is also another one. Did you have a hand in that and is it there to somehow parable the different sides of depression?
I can take no credit whatsoever for the cover, which is the design of the quite brilliant Jonathan Gray.
To me it just shows how tied together Derrick and the panther become over the course of the story, and the way the boy in the image is looking up at the panther hopefully really resonates with the story, I think.
Mental illness is a difficult topic to talk about, let alone write about. Everyone can have such different experiences of the same condition. How do you approach writing about it and did you solely rely on your own experiences or did you talk to anyone else about theirs?
I mainly focused on my own experiences, because I was concerned that taking others into account might ‘dilute’ what I was trying to do – you can’t have a catch-all story of mental illness. So I took what I knew, my own experiences, as well as those of friends and family, and used that as the basis for the book. I don’t think anybody expects one story to tell the complete truth about depression, because as you say, that’s impossible. If you’re honest in your portrayal of one experience, people who have experienced it differently can still find truth in there, and people who haven’t experienced it at all can still have their eyes opened.
Why do you think your first book about beard-stealing dwarves from another dimensions didn’t take off?
Mainly because it was a little bit shit.
Our last guest was video games journalist Johnny Chiodini. You’ve also worked as a games journalist in the past. Do you use games as a coping mechanism, and if so, which ones.
For a long time I didn’t, because I found it hard to concentrate on them. And I think I always felt conscious of falling into the depressed-guy-playing-video-games cliché.
Then I played a game called FTL: Faster Than Light. It’s all about guiding a crew through incredibly hostile space to a final objective. It can be brutally difficult and cruel, and I found that playing it, trying so hard to keep my little digital crew alive, reminded me that I wanted to stay alive too. So now FTL is my go-to game when I’m not feeling well (I wrote more about this here).
Question from Adam Pembrey (@AdamPembrey). Do you feel comfortable with people, in your day to day life, asking about your mental health?
Good question. Yes and no. I’d like to say I’m always happy to talk about it, but that isn’t true. I think it depends on where I am and what’s going on. If there’s a lot of people around it can just feel a bit awkward. And sometimes, especially out and about, I’m putting a lot of effort into being/appearing okay, so someone asking can really make that more difficult.
That said, I’d never be annoyed or angry at someone for asking. I’m very open about my mental health, especially on social media, so I open myself up for that. Plus they’d only be asking with good intentions. We need to talk about these things more, and you wouldn’t think twice about asking after the health of someone with a cold. I’m working on being as open as possible to help fight off stigma. I have a way to go, though.
How does writing help you stay well? (If at all)
I find it hard to rationalise how it helps me stay well. I often find that when I’m feeling depressed or anxious, sitting down to write for a few hours makes me feel incalculably better. Perhaps it just helps to point all my thoughts in one direction, or to feel in control of the fictional world and characters I’m spewing onto the page. Whatever the reason, writing really does feel like self-therapy sometimes.
When you’re feeling low, which of these would you always turn to make you feel better (and why)…
Die Hard With A Vengeance. The second best Die Hard, but I can watch it over and over for some reason.
‘No Limit’ by 2 Unlimited. I defy you to listen to that and not pump your fist like a madman.
‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd. Sad music can somehow make you feel better.
The US Office. I can hardly put into words how I feel for this show. I watched it when I was unemployed and severely depressed, and it really just became everything to me. It’s hugely funny, but also a little bit melancholic, understated, full of likeable characters... I don’t know. I’m never not watching it.
In bed with the cat curled up on my stomach.
I have a massive Peanuts collection from childhood, and that never fails to cheer me up. Every strip is so simple, funny, and true.
As part of our ‘chain letter’ feature where one guests asks a question of the next, our last guest, Johnny Chiodini, wanted to know….
"When you’re writing, creatively or otherwise, how do you stop the anxiety over it being good or not from creeping in? Sometimes I hit on an idea but can’t see it through because I’m too worried about making sure it’s up to scratch!"
I think every writer feels that anxiety! Easier said than done, but the best thing you can do is just push ahead. Writing is hard. And not everything you do will work out. But you can’t know until you try (and this is coming from somebody who’s written a lot of crap).
Of course, having an editor certainly helps. The book I proposed for my follow-up to Panther was a terrible idea, but I needed my agent to tell me that!
Who was your role model as a child?
Wolf from Gladiators. Surely the reason is obvious?
What's your guilty pleasure?
In terms of media I don’t have any guilty pleasures. If I like it, I like it, and I’ll like it unabashedly! I told my friends recently that I really like Taylor Swift, and it was impossible to convince them I was being serious.
Otherwise, it’s food. I can still put away a ludicrous amount of junk food in one sitting. It’s only partly a guilty pleasure, because after a short while it’s not at all enjoyable anymore!
You haven’t been shy about writing about topic others might find hard to admit to in public. Yet, your love of Status Quo is undiminished. Discuss.
Man, Status Quo are the most unappreciated band in the world. They’re the most successful British singles band of all time (more successful than The friggin’ Beatles), they invented headbanging, they were on Coronation Street, they opened Live Aid and have played at the Proms, and they wrote some incredibly hard rocking songs, some of which are absolute classics. It might be cool to dump on them, but it just isn’t right.
Most embarrassing song in your library?
I am not embarrassed by any song in my library. My music collection is unparalleled in its quality.
For those wanting to use writing as an outlet for their mental illness, what advice would you give to them?
If you think it’ll help, do it! Every experience is worth sharing, and you can do that in so many ways, be it fiction or blogging or poetry or something else. Write something that you would want to read, that you feel would have helped you when you needed it most.
That said, don’t force yourself. Although writing is an outlet for me, it might not be for everyone. Look after yourself, first and foremost.
What’s next for you with regard to writing. Any plans or ideas for your next book that you can tell us about?
Lots of plans and a couple of exciting things coming up, but nothing I can reveal right now, I’m afraid!
Finally, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because...
Men are suffering and dying. They can’t get the help they need, and that has to stop.