HLN meets…Lucy Nichol
The Newcastle-based author tells us why she wrote a book about the infamous ’27 club’, how she’s working to break the stigma surrounding addiction, why being a music fan is about so much more than music and how looking behind the headlines can tell us a totally different story.
Tell us about The Twenty Seven Club?
The Twenty Seven Club is my first novel. It’s the story of 26-year old Emma who, in 1994, learns of the death of Kurt Cobain (aged 27). The news headlines trigger Emma’s deep-rooted anxieties and the book follows her on her journey of self-discovery – delving behind the headlines into the lives of her favourite musicians, as well as her own life – to uncover what is really causing her to feel the way she does. It’s packed with nostalgia, humour and friendship, lots of music, a whippet called Trev and a Geordie love interest!
And can you tell us, particularly, about the significance of the title?
‘The Twenty Seven Club’ was a phrase that came to prominence in 1994, after the death of Kurt Cobain when he was 27. The reason the media coined the ‘club’ idea was due to the fact that so many other musicians died at the same age: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones. After the death of Kurt Cobain, the music world also lost Hole’s Kristin Pfaff at 27, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers (who disappeared in 1995, aged 27) and, of course, Amy Winehouse, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 27. So there has been a lot of discussion as to why 27 is an age that so many musicians have lost or taken their own life.
Why do you think this infamous ‘club’ inspired you to write a novel?
I think the reason I found it all so interesting, aside from it being something that troubled me as a teenager, was that, having now worked in mental health for so long, it feels almost an injustice to talk of music and age as the core drivers behind someone’s death – there’s always so much more going on and everyone is so unique. So I wanted to explore this narrative, going beyond the headlines and demonstrating, through the character of Emma, that if we look a little more closely, we can discover more about ourselves and about others. Nobody is just a number or a club member or a diagnosis. Everybody has their own unique story.
Does the musical element of the novel link to your own love of music?
Yes! I grew up listening to some really great bands and I think, more than anything, writing the book was almost a bit of a mid-life crisis! (Or a mid-life ‘liberation from being a grown up’, at least). Nostalgia became really important to me and I started listening relentlessly to Senseless Things (who feature in the book in a fictional cameo), Nirvana, Hole, Babes in Toyland, Sonic Youth and Mega City Four, etc. I even ended up in Spotify’s 0.01% of top Senseless Things fans, which I thought was hilarious – total fangirling!
But just before I published the book, the lead singer from Senseless Things, Mark Keds, sadly passed away, at the age of 50. I was really sad to hear that news and I think it probably affected me more than any other celebrity death – even though I’d never met him or anything. I think it’s because the band were, for a long time, almost a musical representation of my young teenage years and it was his music, his words and his voice that played a huge part in that. Their songs were kind of ‘pop-py’ and they just bring the essence of that early ‘90s life back to the fore. I ended up joining the Facebook fan group and it reminded me how, when you’re a kid, fandom and your chosen tribe creates such a strong sense of identity and of community. We miss that as we get older. We should never be embarrassed about being a ‘fan’ – it’s a lovely community to be part of, however old you are.
From your work in the field, have you found that there’s often a link between music and mental health?
That’s a really interesting question, because there’s been a lot of debate about creativity and mental health, and whether people who have experienced mental health problems are more likely to become artists. Or, conversely, whether people involved in the arts or more likely to develop mental health problems.
But again, I think it goes much deeper than that. What drives somebody to become a musician? A love of music, a compulsion to express themselves, or a way to feel less isolated by becoming part of something bigger? Who knows. It’s surely going to be different for everyone and I think all our life experiences impact on our talents and interests, not just our mental health problems. Additionally, it can work the other way around – the entertainment industry isn’t a particularly healthy industry for those prone to mental health problems, so the job can actually trigger or compound someone’s vulnerability.
What about the famous (or infamous) rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?
That idea about “rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyles and how drink and drug use is a chosen way of life is interesting because, in many of the cases that make the headlines, it really isn’t. Addiction is an incredibly complex illness and, just as we can look at the many reasons why some people might move into the music business, we can also find a whole host of different reasons why somebody might drink or use drugs. Yes, some people simply do it for a laugh. But for those struggling with addiction, their drivers are less recreational and more grounded in the need to find relief from trauma, pain or a lack of self-esteem.
The novel is set in Hull, but the story will actually be ‘relocated’ to Newcastle for the stage play version coming to Live Theatre next year. How did that all come about?
We applied to Live Theatre’s bursary scheme, which supports writers and theatre makers in taking something from concept to stage. All bursary winners will be able to see their work performed on the stage, which is incredibly exciting.
When I was writing the application, I thought it would be a good move to transfer the story to Newcastle so that Live’s audiences found it more relatable. It’s a joint project with my husband, Chris Connel, who is an actor and who has worked at Live on many different projects, (such as Pitmen Painters, Cooking with Elvis and Wet House). We actually met in Hull, when I worked at Hull Truck Theatre, and we now live in Newcastle together, so we both have a really good understanding of the two cities and their similarities – which meant transporting it was relatively straightforward!
How involved are you in creating the stage play?
Chris is writing the script and directing the play, but I’ve been involved in looking at which parts of the story we need to emphasise, which characters are key to telling the story, (you can’t have as many characters on stage as you can in your imagination when reading, unless you have a huge budget), and how to structure the play.
We had an early read-through at Live with a brilliant cast – Rachel Teate, Dean Bone and Trevor Fox – and it was wonderful just being in a room with a bunch of creative and talented people, chucking ideas around. I can’t wait to get going on the next phase of it!
You’re passionate about challenging mental health and, particularly, addiction stigma in every aspect of your work. Why is this so important to you?
I’ve experienced mental health stigma myself, and I’ve known many people who have experienced problems with addiction – which is why I’ve done a lot of work with charities such as the Road to Recovery Trust and Recovery Connections, both based here in the North East. And I think it’s because I’ve worked in media and PR for so long that I find the stigma aspect so interesting. For example, how a media representation or a sensationalist news headline can have a detrimental impact on readers who are experiencing problems themselves, and how positive portrayals can help people to feel less alone or less ashamed.
I’ve been incredibly privileged to work with Time to Change, Mind, Student Minds, Action on Postpartum Psychosis, St Andrews Healthcare and many more, including the recovery charities mentioned above. Part of my work with Mind was being part of their media advisory team, (something I’ve also done on behalf of the recovery charities) – working with TV programmes such as Coronation Street, EastEnders, Holby City and Hollyoaks to ensure that there are accurate portrayals of mental health and addiction problems. It’s a really interesting and incredibly impactful area of work.
You’ve experienced anxiety yourself. How do you find your work – particularly writing – helps?
I find writing helps me to reflect on some of my experiences in a different way – it kind of helps me to make sense of them. I don’t tend to write much while in the middle of an anxiety attack, it’s usually impossible to do much in that instance! But I have once written in the middle of the night while feeling incredibly anxious and I found that it helped me to rationalise my thoughts and calm me down – almost in the same way CBT does. I like to include humour in what I write and I think that also helps me to look at things differently and be more forgiving of myself for the ways in which I’ve felt because self-stigma is also a big part of the stigma problem.
What do you most hope readers (and, next year, viewers too) of The Twenty Seven Club will take away from the story?
I hope they feel connected to Emma and can relate to some of the struggles she has gone through – it comes down to that idea of not feeling alone in the angst we have all experienced growing up. It was certainly therapeutic for me to write about it and reflect in that way. I also hope that it can provoke readers to think about how we are all human first, and that we owe it to ourselves to appreciate and acknowledge the tough times we’ve been through and give ourselves a break sometimes.
Primarily, though, I hope it will prompt people to always look beyond the headlines – particularly where sensationalist mental health headlines are concerned – to question, search for the truth and to see the humanity.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing the follow-up to The Twenty Seven Club. I’ve got another book that’s already been drafted too, that I will probably come back to at some point soon. I’m exploring more non-fiction, too – so I guess, in a nutshell, lots and lots of writing!
And stay up to date with Lucy’s future projects by visiting her website.