Why has Iain Maitland set a kidnapping story at Aldeburgh carnival?
- Credit: Su Anderson
Felixstowe author on his debut novel, following last year’s book about son’s battle with eating disorder
As someone who’s come to creative writing “pretty late in the day”, Iain Maitland isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet in his mid 50s. Dear Michael, Love Dad came out last year. (Publisher Hodder & Stoughton bought it within four hours of clapping eyes on the manuscript.) A touching series of letters to his son, suffering with depression and anorexia, it caught the public imagination – winning lots of column inches and earning an appearance on The One Show to talk about mental health. Now here’s a fictional thriller: about a chaotic 48 hours or so about a father dreaming of a new life in France who escapes from a (meant to be) secure psychiatric hospital, drives to Aldeburgh and kidnaps young son William, who has been fostered by his murdered wife’s family.
What he doesn’t realise is that the three-year-old has diabetes and needs insulin to stay alive. Hence a race against time through the rural roads of East Anglia.
Bit of a step-change from Iain’s first offering, isn’t it?
“My daughter Sophie read it early on and said it was disturbing’, so that’s good enough for me…” You can almost hear the chuckle, can’t you?
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Iain’s been a professional writer for three decades and has written more than 50 books – mainly about business. He has also penned articles for the national press. Now, though, he’s “veered off at a tangent to do some creative stuff”.
Home is Felixstowe. “My wife Tracey and I moved here in 1985 to open a baby goods shop, Kaleidoscope, in Hamilton Road. We’ve lived here ever since – it’s a nice place to be by the sea – and our three children, Michael, Sophie and Adam, were born down the road in Ipswich.”
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So, why a thriller after Dear Michael, Love Dad – a book with a very personal heart – and where did the idea come from?
I put much of Dear Michael, Love Dad together in 2015. I then had breakfast in London on November 18, 2015 – Tracey’s birthday – with an agent, Clare (Hulton), and she loved it and said she’d send it out to every publisher if need be, until none were left.
Next morning, she called me and said it had been accepted by Hannah (Black) at Hodder, which was thrilling as Hannah had worked with Miranda Hart immediately before me and Graham Norton straight after, so I knew I was in good hands.
The book got lots of publicity and was featured across the national media, and Michael and I wanted to do a follow-up telling his side of the story and bringing readers up-to-date. But writing such a personal story is draining – I wrote parts of Dear Michael through a mist of tears at the more tragic moments – and I wanted to do something different. A thriller seemed about as different as I could get from a memoir.
I’ve always loved man on the run-type stories. I wanted to write one in the first person and for the narrator to be a fully rounded person who was not perfect or nicey-nice.
I stumbled across a heart-breaking Instagram message – loving but raging – one day by a father to a child he was not allowed to see for whatever reason. Banned by a court, I think. It just struck me that a man who loved his son very much but who had huge anger management and other issues would be a strong lead character, snatching his son and going on the run.
Why is type 1 diabetes part of the plot?
The main character and narrator, Raymond Orrey, is a very strong and powerful voice, so to contrast that I wanted his son, William, to be sweet and cute; a blue-eyed, blond little boy. Readers will root for William through the book.
They’ll probably hate Orrey, although those who know something of mental health may see him differently, I think.
I wanted William to be vulnerable. I know one or two parents of children with type 1 diabetes and there seems to be a constant sense of worry there. Orrey loves his son very much but does not know about the type 1 diabetes. However much he loves him, going on the run puts William in danger.
Was it uncomfortable putting yourself in the head of an escaped, and dangerous, psychiatric patient?
No, I loved it and just ran riot. With Sweet William, I wanted to create a voice that was nothing like mine and I could just let rip. I should stress, for those who read Sweet William, that I am not Raymond Orrey!
And why Aldeburgh?
Let’s look at the author’s notes. He writes: “We’ve been going to Aldeburgh for the best part of 30 years. Michael pedalled his little red bicycle along the prom when he was about three years old. All these years on, we still visit regularly. We always go to the bookshop and have fish and chips upstairs at the Golden Galleon. A walk round the shops, up and down the beach, a coffee or an ice cream up by the boating lake, depending on the time of year; a perfect afternoon out.
“Those of you who know Aldeburgh will realise that I have moved the carnival from August to Halloween. I had the fairground scene of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train movie in my head when writing and I think a cold and misty October night works better than a warm summer’s evening for this story.”
And you should have another thriller coming out…
I’ve been a writer for 30 years, mostly on business, finance and property. I’ve come to creative writing pretty late in the day really – I’m now 56 – and I wanted to make each book I do completely different: a memoir, a thriller, a self-help book, a graphic novel with Michael and so on. Just to challenge myself across different genres to see if I could get everything I wanted to write published.
I’m also working on a stage play version of Dear Michael with a regional theatre down south but that’s probably a bit of a long shot to see the light of day. Fun though!
My agent Clare wants me to do four dark literary thrillers and then maybe go mainstream. So I am now writing the second of four thrillers, Mr Lamb’s Secret, and Clare’s reading it.
She says I write madness well, so that will be the theme of this and the next two books. I’m hoping Mr Lamb’s Secret will be out this time next year with the same publisher.
I’ve been very fortunate to have Sweet William published exactly as I wrote it. Saraband Books, who published the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, loved it and ran with it as it is.
We had interest and offers from the big houses but they all wanted me to soften the main character, which I didn’t want to do.
Haven’t you also got a follow-up to Dear Michael, Love Dad out soon? With, perhaps, a slightly non-PC title…
Yes, Out Of The Madhouse – Michael’s story from when he came out of the Priory (clinic in Chelmsford) in 2013 up to the current day – is out in January. It’s a mix of Michael’s diaries plus his drawings and my commentary, along with some thoughts and ideas for those suffering from depression and anxiety; and for their loved ones too.
There’s a lot of humour in there and some sad stuff too. I’m really proud of this one. I think it will help people and maybe stop them going down the route Michael did.
How is he, these days?
Michael’s coming on a treat. He now works as a tattooist at Inkspirations in Felixstowe and is doing really well. He gets out and about with friends a lot and we’re very proud of him. He’s unrecognisable, physically and mentally, from the darkest days of the Priory. We’re also ambassadors for the teen mental health charity Stem4 and go and talk in schools and colleges and workplaces.
Everyone in Dear Michael, Love Dad is good and well and happy. Tracey’s just started a new job as a specialist learning support assistant, going into schools such as Thomas Wolsey. Sophie’s working as a teacher at Fairfield in Felixstowe and has just moved out to live with her boyfriend, Glyn. Adam’s doing a degree in policing down at Chelmsford. And Bernard the dog is still with us.
Touch wood, but I don’t think we’ve ever been happier as a family than we are now.
Mental health – particularly that of teenagers and children – seems to have become a hot topic in the past 12 months. Any idea why difficulties are on the rise and what we can do?
I think there are huge pressures on children and teenagers these days – exams, jobs, fractured families, peer pressure, expectations of perfection etc etc; the list goes on and on – and these pressures just seem to be getting greater all the time.
We meet and talk to a lot of teenagers through Stem4 – most recently at Farlingaye (high school, Woodbridge) and the University of Suffolk – and they’re generally a really open and receptive generation. We’re certainly not experts, but developing a more open culture, talking about these issues, ‘normalising’ them and making mental health – good mental health – part of everyday life are important. Schools like Farlingaye are leading the way here.
More than a year after the launch of Dear Michael, Love Dad, how do you reflect on a period that must have been quite intense and involved wearing your heart on your sleeve in public?
Dear Michael, Love Dad really started off as a humorous book with me writing about our everyday life and things that happened. But to make it work as a mainstream book, one that would get a national profile, I needed to make it more bittersweet and Michael’s story really then came to the fore.
Michael was fine with that and was happy to promote the book with me. I’m really grateful for that because without Michael’s blessing none of this could have happened.
All the family have been good and very supportive and let me put the book out as I wanted it to be. I’m so grateful for that because, as you say, we put everything out there, warts and all. It’s been so well received, though, and a lot of warmth has come our way because of it.
I think the book’s publication coincided with the increased media coverage of mental health, especially amongst men and male teenagers. We had coverage in pretty much all of the national newspapers and were offered all the TV shows, including The One Show.
The bottom line is that everything we do in this field – Dear Michael, Out Of The Madhouse, Stem4, the TV and radio and talks – it changes lives because someone out there, a son, a mum or dad, a daughter, hears Michael’s story and it encourages them to open up and say something to someone.
I know we’ve changed lives for the better by what we do, as people email or come up and tell us. If, by doing a 10-minute radio interview, we can help move someone on to a different road than Michael’s long and soul-destroying 10-year journey… well, that’s incredibly humbling and rewarding.
* Sweet William is published by Saraband at £12.99. It’s being launched at Stillwater Books in Hamilton Road, Felixstowe, from 6pm to 8pm on Wednesday, November 15. Everyone welcome for literary chat and drinks