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Can fumes make your writing more lowbrow?

28 January 2008

Joan Brady, the distinguished author of Theory of War, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1993, has made the astonishing claim that the fumes from a factory next door to her home made her writing more downmarket.

Brady is an interesting writer. An American who started out as a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet, she married a writer and moved to the UK in 1979. Her Whitbread win in 1993 was with a novel about a little white boy who was sold into slavery when only four years old, and was based on her grandfather's life. As the first woman and still the only American to win this coveted award, Brady was assured of a secure place as a literary novelist.

But then the local council in Totnes in Devon gave permission for a shoe factory to be installed in a one-time theatre next door to her house. Brady started suffering numbness in her hands and legs, which she claimed were caused by solvents used by the shoe manufacturer, Conker. Doctors later confirmed that she had suffered neuropathy, or nerve damage, which was likely to have been caused by chemicals. She fought the council and the shoe factory through two and a half years and no less than 15 court appearances, and finally received an out-of-court settlement of £115,000 last week.

Whilst all this was going on and unable to concentrate on the literary novel she had been writing, Brady started working on a thriller with a friend. And there's no doubt that Bleedout, her eighth novel, is quite different from her earlier books.

But can the quality and type of writing a writer produces be affected by chemicals? Could the fumes have made her 'go lowbrow' and write a violent thriller, putting her literary writing on one side? It seems a unusual claim but the evidence certainly suggests that the battle with the council may have contributed to her state of mind. Her website says: 'Their relentless pursuit of me through the courts took on an almost messianic quality and focused my attention as never before on issues of justice and injustice.'

In an interview with Matt Craig for Shots Ezine, the author said:

'My reactions seemed way out of proportion, although I've found out since that they're pretty standard in people who are cornered, especially people unjustly accused of crimes. All I thought about was blood and destruction. I kept watching Terminator. I wanted to kill people. I was too agitated to complete the literary novel I was working on, so a friend suggested I try a thriller instead. Bleedout was the result.'

Brady is now working on the second thriller of a two-book contract and Bleedout has been well-received. The Daily Mirror said: 'Buy it... brilliant... move over John Grisham' and it looks as if the author might be set for commercial success. At least her battles have given her a good story to tell and an absolutely unique way to publicise her book. It seems only fair that she should get lots of attention from the media and that Bleedout should hit the bestseller lists.

Joan Brady's site

Interview with Matt Craig