Speaking up for Tourette's
Author Brian Conaghan went back to the old adage 'write about what you know' in making his protagonist a Tourette's sufferer, but, finds Emily Hourican, he wasn't prepared for the impact his new book would have
'When Mr Dog Bites' is the story of Dylan Mint, a working-class teenager with Tourette's. His best friend Amir is autistic. His father is far away and out of touch, his mother seems to have a new male friend, his clothes are generic and cheap rather than cool and branded, the school disco is approaching and the girl he likes, who suffers from Oppositional Defiance Disorder, includes Dylan in her general ferocious contempt for the world. And then, just when life is perfectly complicated enough, Dylan discovers that he's going to die in March. It's August. So he makes a list; Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It, including "have real sexual intercourse with a girl" and "make Amir a happy chappy again instead of a miserable c***".
From there, Dylan sets off on a hilarious and very touching journey, negotiating bullies, the social minefield of school, his changing relationship with his mother and his own developing adolescence. The book is funny, fascinating and perfectly realised. It may also be one of the biggest books of 2014; comparisons with The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time are already coming thick and fast, and the book merits them, in that it delivers the same kind of sensitive, convincing insight into the interior world of someone beyond the mainstream.
Author Brian Conaghan, a gently spoken Scot, insists he had no idea the book, his second published, would provoke such a reaction. "I was not at all prepared," he tells me. "I was the nearly-man for 10 years before this. I've had 217 rejections to date. And even this, a lot of publishers turned it down, then my agent took it on and we worked on it, sent it out again, and then ... "
And then. A heady two days in London meeting different publishers, including Faber & Faber and Macmillan, culminating in Bloomsbury, who really pulled out the big guns. "They brought a whole team out, the sales team, the art department, and all of them had written their lists of Three Things To Do Before I Cack It. Three hours after the meeting, I flew home, with good news. I'd been so many times before, to meet agents, to meet publishers, but never like this."
Mr Dog is published in an adult and young-adult version simultaneously -- evidence of the faith the publishers have in its appeal -- and Brian has given up the day job (teaching) to focus on writing. "I worked so hard to be a writer, that when the opportunity came, I had to go with it," he says. "Not to would have been like grudging fate. And there is something nice about having your destiny in your own hands -- luckily I'm fairly disciplined."
And indeed he is. Since signing the contract, he has finished two more novels.
Dylan's Tourette's is described as a kind of irresistible impulse that builds and builds inside him, an eruption slowly gathering that eventually has to out, in the form of tics, swearing and, at its worst, a growling, howling beast -- Mr Dog.
It is clearly a far more complex and perplexing problem than the more comedic media misconception -- someone who likes to say rude words. Brian himself was diagnosed several years ago, although with a far milder form than Dylan has.
"I always knew I had something. I went to a doctor in the mid-1990s for a football injury and he flagged it up. Then, over an 18-month period, I was tested and finally diagnosed with mild Tourette's. Mine isn't vocal tics, like swearing -- although I have done; there have been a couple of really bad ones that just came out. One was in the cinema, the IFI. I just slumped down in my seat, hiding." He's laughing, but there is something like gentle embarrassment there too.
"Mainly, it's physical tics, and it is OCD related. I do a few vocal tics" -- there is a soft between-the-teeth whistle that escapes him every once in a while -- "and sometimes the tics can be pretty noticeable. When I'm under stress, tired, if I have too much to drink, if I'm not eating properly. But it can also be when I'm just sitting, watching television, and I can feel it coming. You have to get them out, then that's you done. Over the years I've been very used to concealing it and have become pretty adept at it. I knew I had something that I wanted to keep away from the public domain. And it's pretty easy to do. For example, I'll say I'm just going to the toilet, and I'll let everything out there. Or if I've got physical tics, I can control it, by tensing up, but the more you tense up, the worse it is."
He has a series of coping mechanisms to quell the physical effects. "My nails are in a pretty bad state, I would bite them 'til they bleed, and I hit myself." He also tucks his ears into his head, something that Dylan Mint does too.
Was getting a diagnosis helpful? "It was confirmation...", he says hesitantly. "It's not something you want, but it was confirmation of what I knew. I told my wife and family members, but I didn't need to tell anyone else." Until now. "Suddenly I'm writing a book about a guy with Tourette's. I didn't realise it was going to be a book people would want to speak about and interview me about, because you can't think about those things when you're writing. And then it's all out in the public domain, you've got to come clean. And that's tough."
Initially, Brian just told his brother and sister. Later, he decided to tell his parents. "My dad, a typical working-class man, was sitting reading the paper, the telly blaring, and I said 'I've got something to tell you ... ' I told him, he looked at me and said, 'I could have told you that years ago,' and went back to his paper."
It's clearly the kind of understated reaction that pleases him and I suspect chimes with his own response to the diagnosis. "It's fine," he insists, "It has never hindered me at all, and it's not something I define myself by."
And yet, he's not claiming that it's nothing, either. "Even the mild end of the spectrum can be quite tough at times," he says. "I've had many interviews for jobs ... ", he shrugs. "You can get worked up about it, and they're quite stressful anyway. I find my whole body tenses. I sit with my toes curled up inside my shoes. Maybe when you leave, I'll go to the toilet and get a few tics out." He is clearly determined to make light of his condition if possible.
Dylan, the character in the book, didn't have Tourette's at first -- "I wrote the first two chapters and he didn't have it. I went back and read it and thought, 'there's nothing here, nothing to draw you in, nothing interesting.' So I thought, I'll go back to the old adage -- 'write what you know' -- and see how it goes."
The funny thing is that, as the book progresses, Dylan's condition, despite creating plenty of slightly black humour on the page, very quickly fades into the background. The story becomes about a teenager with a variety of teenage problems, rather than a teenager with Tourette's. The world he lives in -- surrounded by other kids with a rainbow of different needs, all lumped together into one "special" school, as was the norm before integration became widely adopted -- also ceases to seem odd, instead it becomes simply the backdrop for growing relationships, particularly the very endearing friendship between Dylan and Amir.
"That friendship is based on two lads with learning difficulties at a school I taught at. These two lads were best friends, but I never saw them speak to each other. They just stood beside each other, followed each other. It was a really beautiful relationship. A lot of people laughed at it. That's sick. I thought it was a beautiful relationship to witness. I always had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to do something about that."
The balance of humour and pathos throughout is very good. Each time the bleakness threatens to become overwhelming, along comes a moment of pure comedy. "Great moments of tragedy need to be underpinned by humour," says Brian. "We come from countries that really play that, we work at it." He means Ireland and Scotland. "Not to say that we treat tragedy with contempt, but there is always a place for humour. My family -- we'll always extract humour from the worst of things."
The Irish connection is strong. Not only is Brian married to an Irish woman, Orla, a scientist he met in Italy when both were working there, and lives in Dublin, he also comes from a west Scottish town, just outside Glasgow, with a strong Irish identity. "I'm one of the Disapora. My family were mainly from Donegal. I come from a town predominately made up of emigrants from Donegal and Tipperary, and emigrant nostalgia was very much part of the community. Our cultural identity was always leaning towards Ireland. We were grasping onto that identity, I grew up singing Irish songs, ballads, and did a lot of reading around Irish politics."
And then he moved over here. "I was a bit shocked actually. I came here at the height of the Celtic Tiger, without a job and was offered a mortgage. My wife had a job, but still, only one wage coming in and we were offered a huge mortgage." At Brian's insistence, they turned it down. "That might be the Calvinist coming out in me," he jokes. As a Scottish Catholic, it's more likely to be the common sense. The sense of shock didn't stop there.
"I'd always regarded Dublin as a sort of sister city to Glasgow, but what was going on in this city was anathema to Glasgow. Looking at the have and have-nots, there was a real disparity. There still is. I realised that when you told people where you lived, they defined you by it. That surprised me, and I didn't want any part of it. It was totally alien to me. Where we are in the west of Scotland, a mile from the Glasgow boundary, people are proud of where they live. They are not trying to inch themselves into a better neighbourhood. They don't define themselves by how much money they've got or what job they do."
With Mr Dog, Brian has offered a fascinating insider's perspective on Tourette's; clearly, he is just as capable of giving a fascinating outsider's perspective.
When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan is published by Bloomsbury on January 16, £12.99