M Jonathan Lee is a Yorkshire-based author and mental health awareness campaigner. He began writing seriously in 2006, shortly after the suicide of his brother, Simon, and his own struggle with anxiety and depression. It took nearly five years for Jonathan to write his first novel, The Radio – a black-comedy which deals with suicide which was shortlisted for the Novel Prize 2012 (for unpublished authors) and subsequently published in 2013.
Jonathan campaigns tirelessly to remove the stigma associated with mental health problems. He has worked at local churches, has written for the Huffington Post as well as Mind and Rethink charities and his newest project is focused on educating people in his hometown of Barnsley about mental health services available to them, through work with his local council and GPs.
With the launch of his fifth novel, Drift Stumble Fall, we're delighted to sit down with Jonathan to talk about his career, his own experiences of mental illness and how it has impacted his family.
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Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I know you must be incredibly busy, especially with the new book launching. Congratulations on that by-the-way. Before we start, let’s get the most important question our of the way. How are you?
I’m really really well, thank you. I’ve had a good run for well over eighteen months now, and feeling extremely positive.
You’d be had your own struggles with depression and anxiety in the past. Can you tell us about that and how, you think, they’ve shaped the kind of writer you are today?
Yeah, I have. In honesty, I suspect that I’ve suffered from some kind of mental health issue from when my brother first tried to take his own life when I was seventeen. At that time, it was a dark secret that we as a family never talked about. It was ‘an accident’. Therefore, I think bottling it up and feeling isolated was the only thing I knew.
I have suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, and it is only since 2004 when I lost my brother that I have really began to deal with things. I feel that my writing shows a humanity that can only come from opening up and being truly honest with yourself and those around you.
You recently wrote a blog for us (linked here if you haven't read it) in which you detailed your brother Simon’s own struggles with his mental health which culminated, sadly, in him taking his own life. We’re so sorry for your loss.
Much of positives of your life following that seems to have stemmed from such a horrible experience. If he was still with us today, what do you think he’d be doing now.
Great question. I don’t know. Simon was an enigma, he could be turning his hand to building some beautiful furniture or getting speeding tickets for driving way way too fast. We never knew what he’d do next.
How do you think he’d feel about your success? Pride? Sibling rivalry?
Absolute pride. Simon was extremely thoughtful, sensitive and caring. He would have been over the moon with how things are.
Your sister has bipolar. Mental ill health must be a regular topic of conversation in your family. Does it help to bring you closer, having shared experiences?
Latterly yes. As I said before, none of us were equipped to deal with the experiences we were encountering. At first, we kind of pretended as a family that nothing was happening. We have all opened up more recently and that has allowed us to be able to deal and better understand the issues that people with mental health problems face.
Your first novel, The Radio, tackled the topic of suicide. Not a particularly humorous topic, but you managed to find the black comedy in it. How difficult was it to balance that given the connection to your brother?
In hindsight, writing The Radio was my legacy. I had always said I’d write a book and this was it. Hand on heart I couldn’t have said whether I’d be alive much after I completed it. The whole process of writing it was so cathartic and yet through the darkness, there was always that element of humour. My family and friends have always got by with a witty comment and laughter. It would not have been true to me to leave that out.
Whilst your first novel wasn’t published until 2013, you’ve been writing since you were 9. What has writing given you in terms of self-care throughout your life, even at that young age?
I co-wrote magazines as a kid that we sold at school. At our height we were selling a few hundred copies a time. Writing has always allowed me to free those circular thoughts that seem to revolve like a carousel around my head.
With your own depression, do you find it helps or hinders the creative process? Do you have to let depressive episodes or anxiety pass before you write, or do they form an intrinsic part of your work?
I would say it neither helps nor hinders. It is a part of my life that I live with and can mostly understand and therefore I use writing to help reduce the symptoms when necessary. I force myself to write whatever my mood. The quality of the writing is a different matter however!
Your third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear, ended up being the basis (albeit loosely) for a documentary called Hidden. Can you tell us about that and how it came about?
Yeah sure. A Tiny Feeling of Fear was almost autobiographical in terms of telling the world how my life actually is. The book was picked up by the director, Simon Gamble who it resonated with due to his own experiences. We spoke and he was keen to turn it into a film. I was one hundred per cent behind the project as I knew it would get to a bigger audience this way and let more people know that they are not alone.
The music in the documentary is from a band called Hallelujah the Hills. I hope that isn’t a surprise to you. You’ve been working on something with the band. How’s that going and how did you first connect with them?
I heard them play online somewhere, I forget. We got talking and Ryan (Walsh, lead singer) invited me over to write about the recording of their fifth album. I was in upstate New York and Boston for a few weeks in late 2016. The book has been held back as Ryan has been writing and has had a book of his own published. I want to finish it, but need some time to get back over to the States. That band are the best.
Did we spot you in the video for their single We Have The Perimeter Surrounded? In fact, we know we did cause you’ve got a title credit and everything. A writer and now an actor / rock-star. Is there anything you can’t do? ;-)
Yep. I can’t sing. I can’t play any musical instrument. I certainly can’t act.
In the past, your writing has been compared to Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons. How does that feel?
It’s a great honour. I’ve read everything by Nick Hornby and to be put in that bracket is very special.
When you’re feeling low (for any reason), which of these would you always turn to make you feel better:
◦ A song...
Caught in My Shadow by The Wonder Stuff
◦ An album....
More Scared of You Than You Are of Me by The Smith Street Band
◦ A TV Show
I’m Alan Partridge. The best comedy of all time.
◦ A place
Driving somewhere deep in the Yorkshire countryside
◦ A book
Tough one, I don’t tend to go back to books more than once but Life of Pi is my all-time favourite.
What's your guilty pleasure (can be anything - movie, song, TV show, etc)?
Ha, whenever I’m asked that it’s always the same answer. I absolutely love Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship.
Question from Richie (@RichieAndrew78), he’d like to know what your top five non-fiction book recommendations are.
My favourites are:
- Anything written by Jon Krakauer (but loved Into the Wild and Into Thin Air)
- Columbine by Dave Cullen
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
- And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi
- The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
We run a series of men-only groups called ‘The SpeakEasy’. It’s far from a new idea of people coming together to chat, but one that really works. Can you tell us a little about your Broken Branches project and how that came about?
Broken Branches was my fourth novel, and around that time I began a forum to try and make a change in our local area. This has gone from strength to strength and we hope to launch a new mental health website soon to signpost people to appropriate help.
Your 5th and latest novel, Drift Stumble Fall, deals with a topic I think most of us can relate to. The essence of someone else’s life always looking better than our own, at least on the surface. In these days of social media where we’re confronted with other people’s lives on a constant basis, is that where the idea came from?
Yes and No. Initially, the idea came from hearing people bemoaning their luck and wishing they had what other people had. It was all that they saw on the surface. They had no idea what peoples lives were like when they pulled back the curtains, yet they were yearning for something unknown.
I liked the journal / diary format. Why did you choose to write the novel that way?
Thank you. I didn’t see it as a diary. It was more so the reader could see the progression of the emotion and feeling in such a short period of time. The day of the week chapter dividers were a constant reminder to the reader that so much can happen in a day. In an hour. In a heartbeat your life can be completely turned upside down.
Richard, the character in Drift Stumble Fall, seems to have it all, although he doesn’t necessarily realise that for most of the book. How much of your experiences are of that character?
There are very definite parallels. There are times when we all want to escape. We all want some ‘peace and quiet’. I have doubted myself so many times, and have honestly believed that my children would be better off without me. Richard’s character is an exaggeration of how we all feel at some stage.
Personally, I clicked with him the minute I met him within those pages; he’s overly self-critical, only looking at the negatives, rather than the incredible things he has in life. Have you been stalking me?
Yes I have.
The weather is also a sort of character in the book. The title itself also helps to illustrate Richard’s journey, or does it?
You can read into the weather whatever you like. Obviously, the snow forces some of the events which I find fascinating. Would Richard have reacted differently if the snow hadn’t come in? The manuscript was always called ‘How Was I Supposed To Know How It Would Be?’ right up until the eleventh hour. My agents suggested the change, and Drift Stumble Fall seemed to perfectly sum up Richard’s attempt at coping with life.
Richard doesn’t seem to have an obvious mental illness (unless we missed something). Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. He is obviously suffering desperately from a number of perspectives to even consider throwing away his life. I didn’t think giving a name, or diagnosis to the way he acts would be particularly helpful.
What techniques (software, etc.) do you use to plan / scope out your projects?
Very little. I write and save all my notes on a ReMarkable and use Word for the manuscript. That aside, every story is scoped out in my mind for many many months. When I sit down to write I know how the story will end and I know my protagonist. There is little else in the way of preparation.
For someone wanting to channel their own mental health experiences into a short story, or even a book, what you would recommend they do first?
Find a good place where they are happy and relaxed to write. Don’t procrastinate. Sit down and start. Don’t worry about whether each sentence sounds good just get it down. Don’t be stuck on a sentence for more than thirty seconds, highlight the text to review later and move on. The flow to the words is vital.
What’s next for you?
I’m putting the finishing touches to my next novel 5ive Truths which I am very, very excited about. It has a twist to match the one in A Tiny Feeling of Fear. I’ve also been asked to write a screenplay which should be something a little different. It’s always good to test yourself.
A huge thank you for taking the time to be part of our Big Interview. Before we go, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because….
We need to work together to remove the stigma. We are all likely to be affected at some time, and we mustn’t be afraid to speak about how we feel. We cannot continue to live in a society where so many people choose to take their own lives. Get it out, say it.
A huge thank you to Jonathan for his openness and honesty, not least for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview for us. Another massive thank you goes to Charlotte Cooper from Midas PR for arranging it for us.
You can keep up-to-date with Jonathan via his website over at www.mjonathanlee.com. Alternatively, you can follow him on social media including Twitter, where he's @MJonathanLee or via his Facebook page over at JonathanLeeAuthor.
Drift Stumble Fall is available on Amazon (linked) and all good books shops (and probably some not-so-good ones)