Lauren Brown’s book, Hands: An Anxious Mind Unpicked is published by Harper North on 20 January 2022.
Lauren kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Hands: An Anxious Mind Unpicked.
So my memoir hands started as an attempt to get to the bottom of my anxiety and the way it has come to manifest itself – through skin picking, or dermatillomania – but what emerged in the process were milestones and moments and objects from my life and childhood that were unexpectedly joyous, complicated, beautiful and which speak to themes of belonging, forgiveness, love, personhood and the north east of England. It’s a meander through beaches, theme parks, school gyms and more, as I try and piece together the person I’ve become today. I hope it will chime with anyone who has struggled with mental health issues but also anyone preoccupied with the question of who they are and why. And it’ll hopefully make you laugh!
2. What inspired the book?
I’d actually recently gone through redundancy as a result of COVID and had decided to give freelancing, or self-employment, a go, and as I was looking about trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I could make money I noticed a competition for a magazine which asked for something like 400 words relating to a particular memory deeply embedded in a particular place and time. One morning I sat down, not knowing what I was going to write but wanting to have a go, and I started writing about caravan parks in the early noughties as my family and I often had these kinds of holidays when I was little. It kind of just spiralled from there and one idea led to another led to another led to another until all of a sudden lights were illuminating all over the place and I was noticing connections I hadn’t before. So, after submitting that very short piece, I just kept writing, and once I had something like 15,000 words I sent it to the team at Harper North, who were open to submissions. With it being non-fiction, I didn’t have to have written the whole thing, just enough for them to get a sense of the work and my style, and a proposal outlining my vision for the book. So it kind of happened in a bit of a whirlwind, but I think I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration over the years from the likes of Jia Tolentino, Kerry Hudson and Maggie O’Farrell, who’ve all written wonderfully and autobiographically about their lives in a way that has stayed with me.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
The closest I’ve ever got to having any kind of plan was the proposal I just mentioned, and even in the writing of the book I ended up deviating (somewhat!) from that. I’m lucky in that this book and what it entailed kind of arrived in my brain fully formed and once I actually sat down to write it it flowed pretty easily and felt ‘right’. On the flip side, I’ve been experimenting with fiction lately and it’s been nowhere near as plain sailing! I’ve not hit on the right thing yet, and I think you know when you have, so that can be frustrating. So in terms of planning, I think a vague idea of direction can be helpful just to give you the necessary steam to keep going – so having a sense of certain things and ideas and scenes that you might want to bring in – but ultimately if the nugget of an idea (however focussed or contained – it may just be one image or one encounter or one place) is there, I think it will take you to where you want to be. Honestly, I’m still kind of dazed and bewildered that I’ve even written this book because so much of it came unexpectedly in the act of writing it. Sometimes I’d take my headphones out and re-enter the real world and be completely surprised by some of the stuff that had come out. It’s so crucial, I think, to find this ‘third place’ to go to, where you push your ego aside and let your subconscious rise to the surface and play. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you get out of your own way, that’s what I’ve learned through writing Hands.
4. Was there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?
Maybe COVID and the fact that my publication date was pushed back by several months have something to do with it, but I’ve found it to be a long process! And patience is so important. There was a big gap between when I submitted my manuscript and when I got edits back from the publisher, and I kind of just had to be OK with that. It’s hard when it’s your passion project and you want to be working on it all the time, but ultimately you’re just one author among many whose books are being worked on and you have to wait your turn. So really it’s lots of big exciting moments (that first phone call, signing the deal etc) interspersed with longer periods of just waiting.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I am a real glutton for punishment when it comes to writing, and (like I assume a lot of people are) I’m very hard on myself when I’m not doing it! But I’ve come to accept that I write in really sporadic bursts sometimes separated by days or weeks, and that when an idea comes to me I’ll likely sit down and write a whole lot in one go. So I have other commitments and write for various publications, which keeps me busy and the money coming in, but if I want to really relax I’ll either binge watch some reality TV or read (which is really a part of the writing process, anyway!).
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, which book would it be?
People will probably think I’m boring for this, but I’d have to go with Middlemarch by George Elliot. I absolutely love the book, and have a really special copy of it on my shelf. It’s got raw edges and a soft cover and ugh! It’s gorgeous. I’d choose Middlemarch because there’s so much there – romance, friendship, duty, religion, desire etc etc – and I think I could read it over and over again and discover something new every time. It’s also so absorbing, you can really feel the landscape and the time in which it’s set and the characterisation is exceptional. I’d happily linger in that world.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve de what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
One thing I would say is that there’s no ‘right’ way of being published and getting your work out there. The ‘traditional’ way is to find an agent and then a publisher, but I went directly to a publisher and only later, off the back of that deal and the book, got an agent to represent me. There are obvious benefits to having an agent there in your corner from the very start, so I would ultimately recommend doing it that way around if you can, but I guess I just want people to know that it’s not impossible no matter what background you’re from and that there are ways ‘in’!
About the Book
Lauren Brown is anxious. And when she feels worried, she picks at her skin. Secretly, quietly, but increasingly compulsively, her skin-picking begins to affect her day-to-day life until she realizes she must unravel the reasons behind it.
This sparkling memoir follows the thread of Lauren’s anxiety – tangled and frayed – back to its source. Written with rare wit and insight, it is an attempt to redirect the anxiety that’s pooled in her fingertips for as long as she can remember, released in odd bursts in caravan parks, on European holidays, at GP surgeries and on the wind-stung north-east coast. It is a moving and joyful exploration of obsession, forgiveness, stigma and healing, and a true love-song to the north.
Thoughtful, unsparing and at times darkly comic, Hands is the masterful debut of a luminous new talent.