Suffolk writer Iain Maitland’s new book: a ‘Psycho meets The Silence of the Lambs novel’
- Credit: Archant
Author’s latest book is set on Felixstowe Road.
If you know Ipswich, reading a new thriller might bring a growing sense of familiarity… especially if you live near Warren Heath Sainsbury’s.
Author Iain Maitland’s story features a bungalow based on his late mother and stepfather’s abode in Sussex. But for his fictional story he transplanted it to Ipswich. He wanted a kind of anonymous, in-between spot. Felixstowe Road fitted the bill – neither at the heart of the county town nor in the seaside resort.
The setting helps feed the story’s simmering sense of claustrophobia. “We used to have friends … who lived opposite and, whenever we visited, the road always seemed noisy and it was hard to get your car in and out. So that sort of fitted in well,” explains Iain.
(No offence to anyone living in that road, of course!)
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Other things in the book that might chime with local readers include the Ipswich to Felixstowe railway line behind the bungalow, a park in Ipswich and the theatre in Felixstowe – all real enough but slightly re-imagined in Iain’s head, and some of them shifted geographically.
The author’s even in there. Or he was when he started dreaming up the story. He says “the father became a sort of skewed version of me and the son was a twisted version of Michael (Iain’s son). As it progressed… the characters became completely fictionalised…”
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Just as well, for it’s a gripping and frightening tale of delirium and a psychopath. (The publicity “hook” on the cover is eye-catching: “Norman Bates is alive and well. He’s living just next-door.”)
Dad Mr Todd is an angry and frustrated ex-tax inspector who’s lost his job. He’s stuck at home with his son, who has no work or friends and doesn’t connect with his father.
Worse, Adrian’s obsessive vegetable-chopping is driving his dad crazy. As the walls appear to be closing in, and the sweltering temperature rises ever higher, something has to give.
The novel, Mr Todd’s Reckoning, is tense and bleak. What gave you the idea for the tale?
Iain: “I’d written two memoirs – Dear Michael, Love Dad and Out Of The Madhouse – and a man-on-the-run thriller, Sweet William. I then decided I wanted to write an out-and-out Psycho meets The Silence of the Lambs novel.
“Michael, my eldest son, spent five months in the Priory (hospital) with depression and anorexia. When he came home, he would snip-snip-snip away, preparing his food in the kitchen. That drove me nuts.
“I wondered, if you put an angry father and a troubled son together in a confined space, day after day, what might happen. That was my starting point.”
Dear Michael, Love Dad (published in 2016) is the true story of Iain’s relationship with his son, the effects of depression, and the ways we strive to help our children.
It features letters Iain sent to Michael, little realising the university student was tumbling into severe depression and anorexia that very nearly killed him.
Out Of The Madhouse (published just over a year ago) was co-written with Michael and told the story of his treatment at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford.
Did you find writing the new novel affected your mood? Did you ever reach a point where you thought “I can’t go on with this… it’s too depressing”?
“No. Writing dark, literary thrillers is what I do. I’m fine with the content. Sitting alone at a desk all day, 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, is tough on mental health, though. My confidence in my writing ability wobbles spectacularly at times and I have to work hard not to spend too much time on my own, dwelling on negative stuff.
“I swim each morning and stop for lunch with my youngest son, Adam. I walk Dolly, our dog, regularly. And, at the end of each day, I usually go up the town with my wife Tracey. Writing in short bursts helps me to keep things in perspective.”
You talked about Michael’s snip-snip sessions in the kitchen, and how things were still touch-and-go for a while when he returned home in 2015. How much has his mental illness influenced your fiction?
“If it weren’t for Michael and his mental ill-health I doubt I’d have a writing career. It’s all come from that, and ‘fathers and sons’ is the theme that runs through all of my books.
“Michael’s fine and well now, by the way. I’m very proud of how he’s turned his life right round. I wish everyone in the depths of despair, as Michael once was, could meet him. There is always hope. There can be a happy outcome.”
There is a lot in the book about people unravelling, yet having to exist in a world that doesn’t quite understand and often doesn’t care. Does this issue exercise much of your thinking?
“No, not consciously anyway – I was just writing a thriller, that’s all. But you’re right – it is a thread that runs through all the books, one way or the other. Someone on the outside who’s suffering inside.
“So maybe my subconscious was working overtime. The world can be a harsh place and that’s an added burden for anyone with mental illness.”
How is the Stem4 work going? (Iain and Michael are ambassadors for the teenage mental health charity.)
“Mental health problems are around us all the time. The fact that people lose their lives to mental health issues, as Michael nearly did, fills me with horror.
“I think it’s a matter of normalising it as early and as soon as you can, and saying, ‘Look, you’re not alone and there are people who understand and who are there for you.’
“Michael and I are really proud to be ambassadors for Stem4. We go into schools and colleges to talk to students and parents – two in April, one in May and one in July. We are also guest speakers at the Ipswich Samaritans AGM at Portman Road in July. We’re always happy to talk at events.”
“Mr Todd’s Reckoning was optioned for a TV series at proofs stage, so I’ve been keeping an eye on its progress. Fingers crossed! I also have a detective novel, Gayther & Carrie, to finish for my publisher by the end of April. I’m in talks to do a TV script for Dear Michael, Love Dad and another dark literary thriller, and Gayther & Carrie 2. So there’s plenty to keep me busy!”
By the way: what do you hope readers take from Mr Todd’s Reckoning, and think?
“It’s a thriller, plain and simple. I hope they get drawn into it and feel the tension rising through to the end. My favourite review for Sweet William, on Amazon, was ‘I was so angry with the ending that I threw the book across the room’. That’s great – a reader who’s fully engaged.”
Mr Todd’s Reckoning is published by Contraband at £8.99 on Thursday, April 25. There’s a book-signing at Stillwater Books in Felixstowe from 6pm on that day.