Culture Street


In conversation with Nathan Filer

On June 21, 2013

By Sophia Whitfield

Nathan Filer has just turned the baby monitor off as his partner attends to their six month old baby daughter allowing him to chat undisturbed about his debut novel The Shock of the Fall.

It began as a 35,000 word short story, shortlisted in 2011 for the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize which gave Filer a small payment, but more importantly secured him representation. He was swiftly informed that his story was too short and went about doubling the word count turning his short story into a novel. Filer sent his new agent monthly updates until he realised he was on the right path and simply sat down to complete his first novel.

His story to publishing is one most aspiring author’s dream of. A week after he had finished the novel he found himself speaking to editors from 11 different publishing houses as they all vied to publish his novel. From penning the last word in his novel to its subsequent acceptance for publication was all a matter of a couple of weeks.

Speaking to Filer, he comes across as astute and quietly intelligent. He studied theatre for a year before switching to become a mental health nurse. Two disparate paths you would think, but Filer has managed to merge the two in his career. Filer says he found theatre a little “self indulgent”, but there is no doubt that drama has filtered into his life. Before penning his first novel he was known for his performance poetry.

“When the audience laughs it’s stand-up comedy, if not then it’s poetry.”

His poetry doesn’t always make references to his occupation as a mental health nurse, but his novel benefits from his experience both as a nurse and a researcher. Although he is at pains to point out that his book is about people not illnesses.

Filer’s story follows a year in the life of 19 year old Matthew, a young man who nine years previously suffered the loss of his brother Simon and has never recovered. Matthew writes his own story, over a one year period, as he struggles through mental illness.

With such a sensitive topic Filer says his story “had to be told with sensitivity.” His colleagues, he says, received the book “wonderfully”. Of course he had reservations, but nurses know that things could be better. The book, he is adamant, is reflective of every day practice as he experienced it in Bristol.

Filer claims schizophrenia and personality disorders are popularly misunderstood.

“There are ingrained misconceptions about schizophrenia. People think they know what it is, but actually they don’t.”

In keeping with Filer's ideology, Matthew is not labelled in the book allowing him to be seen as a person rather than an illness. He drops in a mention of schizophrenia more as an aside than a label for Matthew and it is not until right at the end of the story that this is revealed.

Filer has succeeded in writing a book that is defined by characters. He beautifully describes the complexities of a family in crisis. Nanny Noo, Matthew’s grandmother, is based on his own grandmother who he watched raise his cousins. He said Nanny Noo may not have been such a lovable character if he hadn’t offset her against Matthew’s aloof mother, still struggling to grapple with her own grief. Filer describes the life he gave to Matthew as "terrible" and says it was important for him to have someone on his side.

“I could offer Matthew Nanny Noo, one person for Matthew.”

The description Filer gives of one mundane day in a hospital is one that stays with the reader. Asked what he would do if he had the power to change this Filer admits sadly that nurses do have the power to change this.

“There is an element of dissatisfaction in the lack of resources and support. Apathy inevitably creeps in, which is a reflection of a system that requires too much time spent in an office and not enough with patients.”

Filer has not turned his back on the profession; he is still working as a casual nurse, but will begin tutoring creative writing at his former university in September.

With such a brilliant debut under his belt Filer has found himself to be considered an expert on mental health. He claims that there are better qualified people to discuss this. His book is ultimately about human behaviour.

So what’s next for Nathan Filer? He jokes that Harper Lee is his hero so maybe he will be a one novel author, but I don’t believe it for a second. His writing is similar in style to the more contemporary Chris Cleave where time is spent researching before finally penning his story. I imagine Filer will take all the time he needs before launching into his next novel and it will be well worth the wait.

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