INTERVIEW: Charlie Roy on writing about mental health, knowing your characters and getting a debut novel over the finish line

The Broken Pane is a stunning debut novel. Dealing with themes of women’s mental health, motherhood, abandonment and trauma it is a dark and harrowing read at times but, as protagonist Tam’s journey progresses, some hope starts to shine through. 

It’s one of a few recently released books centred around the topic of mental health in women so we caught up with author Charlie Roy to discuss the importance of this representation in literature, among other things. 

‘I was very clear that this was never going to be a book just about watching this trauma unfold, nor could it just be about the healing. I felt they needed to go hand in hand.’

‘I’m very interested in mental health and I’ve struggled with depression myself over the years,’ said Charlie, ‘I think there was an element of trying to understand it by writing about it.’ While in recent years there’s been a definite increase in the amount of books published that centre on the theme of mental health, when Charlie first started work on The Broken Pane eight years ago there wasn’t much out there. 

‘I think that the landscape has changed enormously in the last few years and I’m really pleased to see that. That said, I still don’t think there’s enough writing [about it], not for men’s mental health either. But I think it’s something that’s really helpful to explore in the written form.

‘There have been a number of books coming out like Catherine Simpson’s memoir about her sister dying by suicide [When I had a Little Sister] and Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes….But there is still a lot of room to explore various aspects of it [mental health]. I don’t think it’s saturated, I think there’s still a need. And I’m hoping that there will be more stories along these lines.’

Charlie says she felt that the stories she had read in the past rarely had the balance she was looking for and kept this in mind when beginning work on her own novel.  ‘I’d read a few stories of people who had difficult upbringings and you get to the part where the difficulties end but then you’re left wondering how did they heal? How did they move on? That second half just felt like it was never being told. Or sometimes you’d have the story of the second half, the moving on, and the first half being referred to but without you actually really getting a sense of the reality of the trauma. I wanted to do both parts of that story justice. 

‘I was very clear that this was never going to be a book just about watching this trauma unfold, nor could it just be about the healing. I felt they needed to go hand in hand.’

‘I think if I’d started writing the novel in my twenties I’d have felt quite overwhelmed’

Like most writers, Charlie started writing stories at a young age, passing notes and wee short stories to her friends at school. But it wasn’t until university that she got more into poetry initially writing ‘short, funny poems about people we knew’ for her friends and enjoying the process but not really taking it seriously. 

It wasn’t until starting a teaching job and speaking with poet Jenny Lindsay, who invited Charlie along to a poetry night in Edinburgh, that she really got into writing and performing poetry. While pregnant with her eldest child, however, things changed again and Charlie found she couldn’t go to the poetry events anymore and the time was right to start work on a novel. 

‘I felt ready for it,’ she said. ‘I think If I’d started writing the novel in my twenties I would have felt quite overwhelmed. But by the time I started it, I’d done a degree, had a dissertation under my belt, and I’d also done a second qualification in teaching. With all this I felt like I had the tools to start on it.’

Admitting that publication was far from her mind when she began work on the book, and it was really more about not being able to just sit and watch TV of an evening, Charlie says it took about six months to finish the first draft. 

‘Then I shelved it for about five years.’

“broken door” by MikeWebkist is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Thankfully, Charlie started work on it once again but the second draft was a massive undertaking. 

‘The second draft was a proper second draft. I think some writers are very efficient in their writing, and do not need to make such big changes but this was a major overhaul. I’d initially told the story from a couple of different points of view before realising that it needed to be just Tam’s voice.’

The last obstacle to getting the book finished was the lockdowns of last year. But, Charlie says,  ‘In a funny way, I think having the lockdown, and all that time focused on my little bubble, helped the very final stage of the book. Once the kids went back to school in August 2020 I got furiously back to work and it all started to come together and infuse into those last couple of chapters that hadn’t been there before. 

‘I think even though it is quite a bleak story in the first half, the end is quite uplifting in a way. I think that even though I’d tried to do that before, I hadn’t actually been able to find it until after being in lockdown.’ 

The novel found its home with Edinburgh-based indie publisher Leamington Books who have had a string of amazing novels coming out this year. 

‘I’ve been really lucky with Leamington,’ said Charlie. ‘I think Peter [Burnett, managing editor] is really just a wholly enthusiastic person all round anyway. I think he really values good writing and good stories. He’s definitely looking for new stories. I think in the less traditional publishing houses there’s an enthusiasm for new things that have not been done before and a willingness to take a bit of a risk on new stories. 

‘And through that, talking about women’s health, or working class stories, and so on, these stories are coming from independent publishers who are willing to look into new corners.’

‘With characters like that you’re not just creating them, they come to you, and there are things about them that are inevitable.

One of the major strengths of The Broken Pane is the characters. While Tam is the protagonist and it’s her journey we follow, everyone from her father Mick, to her mother Ange and her Nana are well-rounded and real. 

In talking about the inspiration behind the characters, Charlie admits that, essentially, she’s grown up with Tam alongside her. She explains…‘Tam has been with me for a long time. Originally, when I was in my twenties, and years before the first draft even happened, I was going to write YA fantasy – I had a very “devoted to dragons phase” that tied in with the metal phase of my life. [Interlude here to catch up on Slipknot gigs from 20 years ago and how amazing HIM were…] So I had this idea for a whole three part dystopia and this lead character was pretty much the proto-Tam.’

This developed into further thinking about how such a character would cope with parents who fell apart, or if something happened to their mother and they were left with a father who was a broken person. Motherhood is a recurring theme throughout the book, from the paternal grandmother, to the maternal grandmother, to the mother, to the sister having to mother the brother. Charlie says it was this element of motherhood, placed in parallel with societal influences such as the taboo around single motherhood in the 1940s to the husband’s control of the home, even down to a woman not being allowed to open a bank account without her husband’s permission, in the 1970s, that started to inform Tam’s character. 

 Michelle O’Connell Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘This could sound a bit pretentious,’ Charlie said, ‘But it does feel as if I know Tam. I’m not sure if she’s a friend, maybe more like a cousin or a sibling – it’s a more complicated relationship than just friends. In some ways it felt like she was telling me her story. 

‘With characters like that you’re not just creating them, they come to you, and there are things about them that are inevitable. For instance the way Tam cleans things, it just felt completely right for her character. The detail and the vividness of how she remembers cleaning and tidying the house becomes such a key part of her. But I didn’t consciously sit down and decide to make that part of her character. It was like a two-way dialogue.’

‘What I hope I’ve achieved is creating real characters who behave like real humans.’

The other characters of the novel are just as nuanced and complex as Tam. It’s testament to Charlie’s skill as a writer that no matter the behaviour or actions of any of them – as all have made questionable decisions or done horrible things – they remain multi-faceted and even sympathetic to an extent.

Ange, Tam’s mother, who is absent for most of the novel, is just as much a product of her environment and circumstances as Tam. Charlie says, ‘To me, with Ange…She was a 17-year-old girl when she got pregnant by accident and she could not have an abortion – it wasn’t legal at the time. Her choices were to give up the child, basically be hidden away, or to get married. And Mick has “done the right thing.” 

‘At that point Ange is abandoned by her own mum and she can’t cope. It was a high school romance gone wrong and these, everything from then on, are the consequences of that. Ange is running away from it all. She’s stilted in her own development, she’s not dealt with things. In many ways I have a great deal of sympathy for her. I don’t think she was morally right but she had to face some difficult things and literally ran away.’

The third woman of the novel, Mick’s mother and Tam’s Nana, had an equally traumatic story and, again, the events of the novel are the consequences of all the things that happened to her, and what made her make the choices that she did.

Charlie said, ’She really wanted to be a good mum to Mick but part of her problem was never being able to say “my own child is not fit to be a parent.” She’s never able to admit that and it’s a tragedy. That was her boy, her baby, she was doing her best as a single mum when it was a very challenging time to be a single mum. She managed to find George who was great but came along too late for Mick in a way…It’s all consequences of how difficult it is to raise a child alone. 

‘Nana wants to help her grandchildren, and she loves them, but she just can’t admit that Mick is not fit to be a parent. So every time he gets that little bit better there’s just that little glimmer of hope that he’s going to be all right this time.’

Charlie added, ‘What I hope I’ve achieved is creating real characters who behave like real humans. I mean, even Mick, for all that he’s awful, he does try. I hope he’s not a kind of cartoon character. I hope that he comes across as a very real person.’ 

Don’t miss our review of The Broken Pane and thank you so much to Charlie for taking the time to speak with us. 

Follow Charlie on Twitter @dayinspace and buy the book direct from the publisher (or wherever you buy books, but there’s a link).

Author Pic: Ryan McGoverne @ryanmcgovernephoto