Claire Alexander is a freelance journalist and author from Scotland. Her first novel, Meredith, Alone, was published in June 2022.
The story follows Meredith Maggs, a middle-aged woman who hasn’t left her house in 1,214 days, due to a culmination of a lifetime of trauma.
She has plenty of company, with her rescue cat Fred and visits from her best friend Sadie, but whether Meredith likes it or not, she will have to face the outside world at some point.
Alexander told BLOT a lot of people presume the character was inspired by COVID, but this is in fact not the case: “I actually started writing the book about six months before the first lockdown.
“It was really surreal to find myself in the same situation as the character I was writing about, confined to the four-walls of my own home.
“It meant I was really able to focus on writing though.”
The writer says that the character partly came to her due to events in her own life that made her think about the distinction between the concept of loneliness, and actually being alone: “I think it’s important to make a distinction between the two.
“Earlier in my life I went through experiences where I’ve been extremely lonely.”
“I’ve always been surrounded by people, sharing a house or being in a relationship, but often felt lonely in their presence.
“What I really needed was more time to myself, to re-charge and just have a breather from other people.
“I think there’s a bit of a stigma attached to being alone which we need to fight, it not true that being physically alone equates to loneliness.”
When Alexander first submitted her manuscript, her publisher told her it was too dark, so she worked to add more levity to the story.
“In the first draft especially in the flashbacks, it was a lot darker, with a lot more abuse.
“Those aspects are exactly what my agents identified, they wanted a better balance between light and dark.
“When you’re dealing with a story covering trauma and mental illness, some quite difficult topics, you don’t want the reader to be in the depths of depression when they’re reading it.
“You hope that there will be some connection with the character, but you want to inject some lightness, I hope I managed to do that.”
When reading other fiction with characters that suffer from mental health difficulties, Alexander felt that they were often portrayed as one dimensional, as if completely defined by their mental illness. She wanted to avoid this trope as much as possible:
“It was important for me that she was a multi-layered character, that she wasn’t defined by her mental health issues and the recovery she goes through.
“It’s of course a part of her but she’s also funny, a great friend, she has hobbies, and most importantly she’s compassionate and wants to help other people.”
“The same goes for all of us in the real world. No matter what we’re going through, no matter what labels we might have, that’s not all we are.”
According to the Mental Health Foundation in the UK 15 million people live with some sort of mental illness, around 30% of the population. Alexander believes that stories about such experiences, fictional or otherwise, are vital for the conversation around the topic:
“I think its crucial because we all have to take care of our mental health in some way, but its still not treated as a priority.
“I don’t want to get too much into the politics around it, but with the lack of funding for the NHS and the long waiting lists people are really suffering.
“I think that fiction can really progress the conversation around it, which is absolutely critical.”
Alexander, who has herself suffered from mental health difficulties in the past, explained that she has always found that writing is a great coping mechanism:
“For as long as I can remember I’ve been happiest when I’ve had a pen and notepad in my hand, I’ve been writing since I was seven or eight years old.
“I used to write short stories, and I have a pile of half written manuscripts that have never seen the light of day.
“I’ve always found a huge comfort in writing, in creating another world to escape reality for a little while.
“Obviously when I’m up against a deadline, especially when I’m writing articles and sources aren’t getting back to me, it can be a bit stressful.
“Generally, it’s therapeutic, I’m very lucky that this is how I earn my living, I get so much back from it.”
After being signed to her publishing company, Alexander has been working on her second book. But it hasn’t been as smooth a process as she would have liked it to be: “Nightmare is the first word that springs to mind.
“I’ve learnt that for every author book two is just like opening the gates of hell, so I know I’m not alone in that.
“But even if sometimes I feel a bit of imposter syndrome I just keep working hard and eventually turn a corner, which is where the magic is.”
If you liked this post then read The power of bibliotherapy: how reading can make you happier and healthier or Five books that portray mental illness well next.
Arthur is a journalism student at The University of Sheffield. As well as being a founding member of BLOT, he has also written for Forge Press, Sheff Central and One2Football. His hobbies include climbing, going to gigs and of course, reading.
Favourite genres: Magical Realism and Historical Fiction.