The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Hazel McHaffie

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Hazel McHaffie

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Summary: Sue absolutely refused to be separated from Inside of Me until she found out what happened to anorexic India and her mother. She had quite a few questions for author Hazel McHaffie when she popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 20 April 2016
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue absolutely refused to be separated from Inside of Me until she found out what happened to anorexic India and her mother. She had quite a few questions for author Hazel McHaffie when she popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Hazel McHaffie: For this book? Lots of young people, and parents of adolescents, and professionals who’re doing their best to educate people to eat healthily, and a whole range of people who have issues with their own body image for any reason - that includes most of us! And I especially recognize my regular kind of readers, people who love a gripping read but also like to be challenged to think about serious issues and ask ‘What would I do in these circumstances?’ ‘How can I be more understanding and empathetic of others grappling with these really difficult issues?’

  • BB: What inspired you to write Inside of Me?

H McH: I read some alarming statistics: eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; and the mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for young females in the 15-24 age range. Shocking, isn’t it? And those facts rather haunted me. I kept trying to get inside the head of a young person so obsessed with their weight and body image that they would put their health and life in such jeopardy. And can you imagine what that would do to parents powerless to stop their beloved children maiming and even killing themselves in this way? Once my mind was in that groove, I became more aware of news about cyber bullying and peer pressure and size zero models … and the story just took off. But as I got into it I realised that I identified with a lot of the issues myself - I have all sorts of hang ups and obsessions - and that made me want to broaden the scope of the book to include body image and identity and control.

  • BB: I was stunned by India's voice, to the point where I heard my teenage granddaughter speaking as I read. How did you capture the voice so perfectly?

H McH: Thank you for that kind compliment. Initially I listened to the teenagers I know best and tried to really hear their speech patterns and inflexions and vocabulary. Then, once I’d written the full draft, I read each voice aloud to myself to check for inconsistencies and anomalies. When I’d refined the speech as well as I could on my own, I invited my eldest teenage granddaughter, Abbi, here. I read each teen voice aloud to her and she pounced on anything ‘we wouldn’t say’. We had a great time and a lot of laughs, but at the same time some beautiful moments discussing the serious issues teenagers face. Special and precious hours. Two of the grandchildren have read the book now, and they have a queue of school friends waiting to borrow it, which is hopefully an indication of its appeal to this age group, and not just the ‘Abbi’s-Grandma’ factor!

  • BB: It wasn't until I read Inside of Me that I really understood the difficulty of treating anorexia. Have you had professional experience of this? You conveyed Tonya Grayson's frustration at not being able to help her daughter particularly well. Is this a common experience?

H McH: I’m glad to hear you learned something new from the book. No, I haven’t had professional or personal experience of anorexia, but I did a lot of research and read over forty books on the subject to try to get a thorough grasp of the illness and its ramifications on the whole family. Tonya’s emotions are quite typical and authentic, but reactions do vary greatly according to temperament and support and the underlying relationships of all concerned. Some families disintegrate under the strain; others grow closer in their united efforts to overcome the situation. To be sure it rang true and was scientifically and medically accurate, I also asked specialists to read the final draft, which they generously did. Their endorsement meant a lot to me. So much of what we writers do is in isolation; going out into the real world and passing muster is enormously confirming.

  • BB: I had to smile when India argued that obesity is the main problem the country faces - and a glance around any crowd is likely to show more people who are overweight than underweight. Do you think that the media's emphasis on obesity could encourage some people into unhealthy ways of losing weight?

H McH: It could, of course, and you read of terribly unhealthy diets people try and the bizarre lengths they will go to, in a desperate effort to lose weight. But eating disorders like anorexia are not just about food and weight and dieting. They are more about control and coping. Sometimes in response to uncomfortable or painful emotions, sometimes when feelings or situations seem over-whelming. I think that comes across with India who’s struggling to deal with the things that are out of control in her family. Even at a young age she bargains with God: she won’t eat chocolate or that extra roast potato …, she’ll give her treats away …, she won’t confide in anyone …, if he’ll send her beloved Daddy back. Controlling her food intake, her weight, her compulsive habits, her exercise, are ways of coping, holding on to things she can do something about. Her remark about obesity is more teenage lashing out at her mother than about her reason for being thin.

  • BB: How do you feel about airbrushed pictures of celebrities who would be almost invisible when viewed sideways? Do you think the day will ever come when 'models' in, say, the size 10 to 16 range regularly appear in magazines?

H McH: A few famous people have made a conscious decision to flaunt their curves and normal shape and size, and allowed themselves to be presented au naturel. I commend them for that, when they know a little bit of flattering airbrushing could give them extra appeal. But of course there’s far more emphasis on the slender and beautiful and inspirational, and most people, naturally enough, want to look as good as they can. My own feeling is that these distorted images feed the vanity of the celebrities and pander to the illusions of the masses, but present unhealthy role models for ordinary people, especially vulnerable young people. But in a way we all have to take some kind of responsibility. We all feed into this distortion when we buy the magazines portraying these celebrities unnaturally; when we comment favourably on slimness and looks rather than personality; when we condone negative reactions to larger size. Do I think normal size models will become a regular feature? Maybe in ordinary clothing adverts, but I doubt they will appear much on the catwalks of the big fashion houses or the glossy magazine spreads any time soon. As Penelope Atkinson-Baker says in the novel: Nobody wants to see real life people in magazines and photo-shoots. We can all see them in the mirror, on the bus, in our streets - for free. Fashion magazines are about fantasy. Dreams. Ideals.

  • BB: We've enjoyed your fictional looks at questions of medical ethics. What encouraged you to go down the fictional rather than the non-fictional route?

H McH: In a former life I did a lot of lecturing both at home and abroad, talking about my academic research in the field of medical ethics. Questions and dilemmas around subjects like assisted dying, dementia, surrogate pregnancy, organ transplantation, designer babies, stopping/forgoing treatment, fascinate people, but the arguments can be rather dense and boring. I became increasingly aware of the impact of stories: an audience would prick up their ears and fully engage with an account that drew them in emotionally as well as intellectually. So I began to think, what we really need is a set of novels that are a gripping read but at the same time draw the reader into the lives and skins of the characters so they appreciate alternative points of view and also wonder what they would themselves do in these circumstances. Lots of novels have the big issues as part of their storyline but as far as I know mine are the only ones that include the range of arguments in some form - although I hasten to add they aren’t in your face or preachy-teachy at all. I just pop in a genial man of the cloth with holey socks and a sympathetic ear, or a desperately worried mum, or a frustrated campaigner, to lob a challenge into the melting point from behind a hedge.

  • BB: There's a major twist at the end of Inside of Me which left me gasping and which I've deliberately avoided mentioning for fear of spoiling readers' enjoyment of the book. How difficult was it to combine two such major ethical questions in one book without allowing one to wholly dominate the other?

H McH: Thank you for not letting the cat out of the bag! It’s been quite tricky for me as well as reviewers to do justice to the book without giving any hint of the other major story line. But it wasn’t difficult to marry the two topics actually; the characters had room to breathe and the story lines could grow and interweave quite naturally in parallel. And in fact I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of laying clues without betraying the secret. Quite a lot of people say they had to go back and read the book again to fully appreciate this other story was there, so I think that indicates the issues are successfully interwoven.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

H McH: That the book will encourage people to be much more sympathetic towards anyone struggling with mental health issues. I’d like to see it used positively in an effort to help prevent problems.

  • BB: I think we'll all second that, Hazel. What's next for Hazel McHaffie?

H McH: A period of time to do the usual marketing and promotion of this book and then on to the next one, I hope. For years now I’ve been amassing a pile of folders with ideas for other novels set in the world of medical ethics - currently about seventeen - popping in references, possible plot twists, newspaper cuttings. Several of the files are pretty thick now and probably ready for development into novels. There’ll be no shortage of material in my lifetime!

  • BB: That's excellent news, Hazel - there's going to be plenty for us to look forward to. Thank you for taking the time to chat to us.

You can read more about Hazel McHaffie here.

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