The Big Idea: Gemma Amor
How much is a woman’s life worth? Not only to others, but to herself? How far would one go to save one’s own sanity?
It’s a question that frequently nips at my heels, for what I suppose must be obvious reasons for anyone who has or is about to read Full Immersion. I wanted to examine the notion in depth. We talk a lot about how hard it is to reach out for help in relation to mental health discourse, and I have had first hand experience of this: of just how difficult it can be to communicate your needs when you are broken.
Also, how hard it is to communicate to yourself that you need help. To identify your own needs. It’s all well and good to say ‘Why didn’t you ask for help? Why didn’t you just reach out?’ But this displays a gross misunderstanding of the very nature of depression, trauma, and other conditions that completely shut down your sense of self and your definition of worth. Particularly when it comes to motherhood, perhaps especially if it’s your first time.
So the big idea behind my novel was one of survival, plain and simple. I should state: I never made a conscious decision to write a novel about post-natal depression. It just fell out of me. I wrote it when I was unemployed, having been made redundant from two jobs in a row, and I was extremely unwell, mentally speaking. Luckily, my son had started school. I developed a routine that rather saved my life: I would drop him off each day and then wander to my favourite cafe, where I would write non-stop until lunchtime. I didn’t know what I was writing, or why.
At this stage in my author career, I had not learned how to finish a novel, only short stories. I had tried, many times. I had a collection of half-written novels spanning back fifteen years. I’d simply never had the time to complete anything before. Now, I did. I wrote and wrote like a woman possessed, and what I wrote was my pain, and my experience, and my thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears…it certainly wasn’t a structured or particularly conscious writing exercise. It was therapy, I suppose. Sit down, order coffee, let the fingers fly until there are words on the page, and then more, and then more, and more still. Eventually, I had a lot of words.
For context, I was suffering with a delayed and profoundly painful type of postnatal depression, or trauma, or quite possibly both. I’d been through a hellish pregnancy, carried an unusually large baby to fourteen days over my due date, and endured a protracted and painful induction that didn’t end in the best of ways. My baby was taken from me moments after birth and whisked off for special care- this brutal (if necessary) separation quite literally broke my brain, and I suffered for years in silence afterwards before I fully understood what was happening to me. So the early genesis of Full Immersion was a simple, straightforward series of diary-entries, an outpouring of experience, incoherent in the large part- just a collection of things I struggled with.
But then, I started thinking about it with a wider lens. The idea of self worth. The idea of a collection of stories, and what those represented. I started to think: what if one could display them in an almost curated fashion? What would that look like, a display of your own hurt? I decided that for me, personally, it would look like a Gallery, like a collection of exhibits.
As I started to improve, healthwise, I began to see what I had written (which was never intended to go beyond my personal files, certainly something I had never written with the intention of being published one day) as something more than a brain-dump of trauma. I started to see that I could do more with it, even if it was initially for my eyes only. So I went back, and I reworked those feelings into a more coherent structure. I introduced the concept of the Gallery that features so heavily in the book. And in that Gallery, there resided a series of objects. Those objects were unique and personal to me. Around them, I wove the sum of my experiences. The novel evolved, but it still wasn’t right. It felt too abstract, too roughly conceptual.
What happened next sealed the book’s fate. I was approached by Angry Robot and asked if I had anything that was novel-length that I could submit. My mind went to the Gallery, to the novel provisionally titled ‘Collection.’ I wondered if I could coax more out of it still. I wondered if I could maybe even present it in a way that other people might find accessible, readable, perhaps even enjoyable.
I started to think beyond the Gallery. In what way could such a place exist in the real world? I realised that in theory, it could be programmed. Video games do this sort of thing all the time. I’m not a huge gamer, but I do love puzzles and games that involve wandering through beautiful, immersive, empty, intriguing environments. Think Myst, Cyan Worlds. I realised I could work with that here.
Concurrently- in part why I was recovering so well- I was also in therapy. I became fascinated by the power of simply sitting in a room with another person and talking, sharing in an unrestrained fashion, without judgement, without repercussions. In many ways this helped me to begin to extrapolate some sense out of the question of self worth. Talking in a safe manner allows you to explore thoughts and feelings you didn’t know you had, not until you hear them said out loud. This idea of actualisation was incredibly empowering and I wanted that to become a central premise in the novel.
As the various iterations of the book began to evolve into something much more fleshy, something living and breathing, I realised that I finally felt, as I tweaked and edited and tweaked some more, as if this novel was becoming exactly what it was supposed to be, much like the person writing it was. Something weird, and illogical, something deeply personal, something that had a growing sense of purpose and conviction and a highly developed sense of truth, that was yet still fictional in many ways- although I would say the balance of truth to fiction in this one is about 70% to 30%.
Anyone who knows me will recognise the real bits, which terrifies me, and is partly why I am so very nervous about this one making its way out into the world. It exposes me, but maybe that is what art and creation should be about, sometimes. And nothing will ever compare to the bare, naked reality of giving birth, so in that respect, I am prepared to be exposed. I had everything stripped away in those moments in a delivery suite, and I think that’s okay. It has prepared me, in many ways, for this new act of giving birth: releasing a book child into the world.
Anyway. How much is a woman’s life worth? That is the big idea behind Full Immersion, which probably has a few other big ideas jostling for attention in there, but the kernel that started it all was the idea of worth. Of value. And how that translated to a life that could be lived and enjoyed and celebrated and appreciated.