My Camera is My Notebook: An Interview with Harriet Mercer

by Jess Payn

Pain can feel like a place we inhabit, without the words to describe its features: a kind of prison, or ‘stranglehold’ that suppresses speech. ‘It is pretty much impossible to articulate its nature,’ Harriet Mercer writes, referencing Virginia Woolf (‘On Being Ill’, 1883), Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain, 1985) and Hilary Mantel (Giving Up the Ghost, 2003). But pain, she suggests, might also feel like a hostile creature living inside the body: a monster, impossible to placate, who makes its presence felt in tight squeezes and ‘serrated sensations’.

Her book, Gargoyles, is a memoir of the nightmarish side of sudden, life-threatening illness. Describing her convalescence at Charing Cross Hospital, Mercer follows ‘the thing that slips and slides through the fingers of your mind when you try to pin it down with words.’ She is there for six nauseous, mostly sleepless weeks after the near-fatal growth of a tumour on her kidney, afraid to close her eyes; when she does, she is met by a crumbling brick wall ‘birthing faces’. Gargoyles, with ‘telescopic necks’, ‘devil horns’, and ‘tongues entwined’. It’s through confronting them and her other trauma, in the book’s essays and diary fragments, that she shows the grotesque faces of pain. Straying to the dark, wounded places of her life, the book is a tale of loss, change and endurance, but joy, too. Mercer celebrates the kindness of family, friends and strangers, and the beauty of the surrounding green-hued world.

I spoke to Mercer over video-call in mid-May, the screen perched on the workbench at the back of the jewellery shop where she works — described in Gargoyles as ‘more like a gallery with all the pieces [. . .] given space to breathe.’ Jewellery designer Gerry hovered nearby in grey-green magnifying goggles, nudging her to show me the beautiful golden gargoyle necklace he’d made for the book’s publication. Our conversation ranged from the book’s hybrid form to the allure of green, and Mercer’s discomfort with the first person.

I wanted to start out by asking how the book took shape. You mention a spiral-bound hardback notebook at one point, a gift from a friend, titled 'HARRIET’S HOSPITAL THOUGHTS'. Was that where Gargoyles began?

Not really, because I didn’t make any notes whatsoever when I was in hospital. I wasn’t well enough to lift a newspaper, and the concentration required for writing would have been weightier still. Also, that was kind of the irony: that I was given a book of notes to make and I never made them. I’d imagine that it was probably four weeks after hospital when I remember sitting on a bed and starting to write down the thoughts, but I didn’t have any idea that it was going to become a book. At one of my consult appointments, my consultant, Matt Winkler, said to me, ‘Oh, you know that column in the Guardian every Saturday, ‘My experience’, you ought to write about yours.’ And I thought ooh, ok, and I started writing it, and very quickly it grew; there was no way I could contain it within that kind of short piece. I didn’t have the discipline, probably I didn’t have the skills, to do that.

The hybrid form that Gargoyles takes, combining the hospital narrative with more discursive essays on other types of trauma and grief, makes this a much broader kind of memoir. Did it always feel as though the book would roam more broadly?

No, I have my publisher largely to thank for that. The original book was in two parts: half of it was the hospital part, which is completely as it is now, and then the second part (a good 40,000 words) was a record of my walk in the Camino de Santiago. When Nathan Connelly, the director of Dead Ink, took the book on, he said yes, we want the book, but we don’t want the Camino (in a much kinder way, obviously). So I had to axe all that. He then said, well my idea is perhaps to have some essays that reflect the themes you touch on in the hospital section — how do you feel about that? I said ooh, OK. Originally, he’d envisaged the book to be quite short, at most 60,000 words, but then as the essays proceeded, it became a much longer book than both of us envisaged, which was nice. When I sent the draft to him, I fully expected that half of the essays would be lost as well (because of how ruthless he’d been with the Camino), but in fact I probably only had to change about four or five sentences. So I really do have him to thank for that — I have him to thank for his genius suggestion, I think, of doing one chapter memoir, one essay. That was nothing to do with me, and I think it was totally brilliant because it breaks up the hospital thing, so it’s not so intense. I really like the book’s fragmentary approach.

Yes, especially with the photographs at the end of each chapter. They’re very atmospheric.

I’m glad you like those.

What was the process for pairing those photos with the chapters? Some of them have an obvious thematic link but others are more evocative. Water rippled by raindrops, or a bird in flight.

Those photographs are certainly not the best photographs I’ve ever taken, but what made me include them was a desire to try and emphasise the tiny insignificance of us, like with the lady bird, or with the dew drop on the grass. However, I took the picture in the tube station (the white underground and the busker) specifically for the book. With most of the pictures, I just felt that they lent themselves in some way to a particular chapter. I’m a very visual person and I don’t, like many writers, have a wonderful notebook in which I make all my notes. I’ve got so many unused or half-used notebooks because I just don’t seem to be able to keep them up. But I do photograph everything every day. My camera is my notebook.

That’s a lovely idea. Making notes for writing with a camera. I feel like colour is important to you too, particularly the colour green. There are such strange, vivid flashes of it: you recall telling a date that 'colour. Especially green. Certain smells . . . oil paint, wet woodland, [and] rivers' are what you find erotic. And wanting to 'drink litres of green', like a kind of nectar. I wanted to ask you more about this affinity. It’s a kind of magic colour, like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I’ve just read Rebecca Tamàs’ Strangers and I thought, oh this is my green that she’s writing about, and she’s written about it so beautifully.

Green is my safe place, I think. I always feel at ease when I’m in green. People have discovered this during the pandemic. I’m very fortunate that I live in a green part of London: every day at some point I’ll either be there, in the green, or seeking it out — a park, a tree, just something.

Gerry: She wears a lot of green as well.

I think he’s trying to ask me to show you his beautiful green tourmaline ring that he made; it’s quite a dark green but in certain lights it’s like the northern lights. He made me this gargoyle, too. I’m not really a materialistic person but I’m moved when I see Gerry make beautiful pieces, commissions with sentiment behind them. . .

You write at one point that you’re 'grateful [your] illness happened': that it was 'the richest of life lessons'. I wondered if you could expand on that a bit: what were those lessons? How do you feel you are different in the aftermath?

I think it certainly made me not take things for granted anymore. I’m worried it might sound too obvious, but, for example, freedom of movement, just moving around. . . that’s something I could not do. I guess it made me empathise with people who have illness or disability on a much more permanent basis. I’m well aware that my time in hospital seemed like a long time to me but, for many people, six weeks is not a long time. It was just, well, a tiny day trip to illness, really.

When I left hospital, for a good year or two I couldn’t understand the concept of road rage or people getting irritated about small things. Now, of course, I’m much more like everybody else and I get irritated by small things — maybe not to the extent of everybody else but I still find myself reminding myself ‘Oh for goodness’ sake, Harriet!’

I think your compassion and warmth comes out very strongly in the book, especially through all the people who surround you in hospital and come to visit you. It’s a kind of song to kindness and care, and how important those are, even as it’s also about pain and fear.

I also wanted to ask about the gargoyles of the book’s title. They occupy a kind of hinterland between hallucination and metaphor: they are at once figments of your imagination and a figurative referent for the malevolence of pain, or the destructiveness of fear. There’s a crossover between your father’s demons (depression, alcoholism) and your gargoyles. I wondered if you were thinking about the gargoyles’ metaphorical potential while you were writing? They’re quite Gothic; there’s something out of place about gargoyles in modern life. Was it ever funny that they appeared to you, as such a strange, quite literal kind of monster?

In the first chapter, I say something like ‘I spend the night awake dodging gargoyles’. I knew then that it was quite an obscure and Gothic theme. In the first draft, the gargoyles were just as they were in the hospital section. It was when I started writing the essays that it clicked — why was I hallucinating about gargoyles anyway? There must have been a reason for it. It clicked that the gargoyles were actually the metaphor for all the things that had happened, and that had happened to others as well. So they helped me, actually. Those gargoyles helped me write the essays. I feel, though, that something I should have done in the book was to include the way that gargoyles ward off bad things. I didn’t really address that, and sometimes I think that I should have done.

I tracked down that essay you mention by Hilary Mantel entitled 'Meeting the Devil' because I was intrigued that there was also this devilish edge to her time in hospital. What was it like for you encountering that essay? She has a similar experience of hallucinations: she meets a circus strongman on her bed.

I’m a huge fan of Hilary Mantel so first I felt pleased to see that someone else, she of all people, had felt similarly — I wasn’t pleased that she’d had that experience, of course, but I was pleased that we had seen it in a similar way. When I first read it, I was comforted by her observations (‘time snaps and sings like an elastic band’) and awed by her imagination — by how, say, she grew a collection of stories in one night: the word ‘planted’ became a story called ‘Chlorophyll’.

In Gargoyles, you don’t ever tell anyone about the visions. That brick wall that they emerge out from is like its own wall between you and others. When did you start opening up about them?

I think after I left hospital. I didn’t want the medics to know about the gargoyles because (a) they might think that I was silly worrying about such things, but (b) I didn’t want to have any more drugs that might trigger their seethingness. . . Thinking about it, I probably didn’t start telling people about it for a while. I can’t say exactly when I started being able to. . . I’m a bit distracted thinking about the idea of the wall. It’s just that the wall seems relevant now in so many ways, now that you’ve mentioned it. If I were to close my eyes now, I can still picture it. It was a very odd hallucination.

You’ve written creatively before — was that fiction or non-fiction?

My writing really started after my miscarriage and my marriage not happening — that really knocked me, far more than the illness probably did — or rather, it all came together cumulatively. I was in a terrible state and I just knew I had to pull myself together and have some kind of goal, so I was fortunate enough to be able to do a life-writing course at Faber & Faber. It was a course with people from all sorts of walks of life on it — 14 of us, and we still meet now. It just gave me a little bit of confidence to start writing, although in class, I was terrible at it. I didn’t produce anything good in class. It was just in the assignments that I started finding my footsteps. I started tentatively writing about it. Andrew Motion was a guest on that course and he spoke about a life-writing course that he was beginning at Royal Holloway. Once more, I was very fortunate; I had the wherewithal to go and do that MA. I just needed to have that focus to keep me on track.

For the first time in my life, I was completely devastated. And it sounds very self-pitying now. But I did the MA course, despite being very worried about doing it, because it was about 200 years since my undergraduate degree. I was just wondering whether I had the brainpower to do it. But I did. And because I did reasonably well in it, that gave me the confidence then to continue and take this project further. And also the whole thing made me feel better and I was able to start working again afterwards and it really just saved me. It wasn’t so much the course that saved me; it was all the reading I did. Reading all those memoirs that I read and that I chose to read. I think Jeanette Winterson talking about deep-diving for words and for experiences, that really gave me the oomph to write, and made me feel better generally.

Are you writing anything now? Do you think you will keep writing?

I’m really hoping that this book will be a launch for a longer writing career. I’ve got several things in my mind that I’m exploring right now, but not anything categoric that I can tell you about. Whether it will be fiction or non-fiction, I’m not 100 percent sure. I have got ideas for more essays and short stories bubbling around. I’ve always wanted to write; I have a very vivid imagination but I’m not great at coming up with amazing ideas. People say that ideas wake them up in the night and they have to write them down; I’m not one of those people. Once I have the idea, that’s fine and I’m away with it.

Being a memoirist is a kind of exercise in self-consciousness. Was it was difficult to inhabit that ‘I’ space of autobiography?

The ‘I’ is so not me. I’m the least ‘I’ person. I shirk from ‘I’. I find it constantly astonishing that I’ve done this, that I’ve written this book where I put out everything about me, with all the intimate details. And yet you really would not invite me to one of your parties; I’m in the corner, I’m quite shy. That’s why it’s odd that I’ve written this book. On the one hand, I’m very proud of this book, but then, when people buy it, read it, and come into the shop where I work and say lovely things, I suddenly realise that they know all these things about me. When I’ve written in the past, for example at Royal Holloway, I would do anything I could to avoid the word ‘I’. To me, my opinion isn’t what matters. The feedback on that course was that I had to put more of myself into it. You’ve got to reflect more, they said. I found the reflection so difficult at first because I didn’t believe that anyone would want to know what my reflections were. I was just writing it as it was. I thought it was probably indulgent to write a memoir. I mean it probably is. So I found the ‘I’ business very difficult, in short.

Which writers or memoirists would you say had a significant impact on you as a writer?

Jeanette Winterson, Hilary Mantel, Andrea Ashworth’s Once in a House on Fire. And one that I’m forever boring everyone with, the memoir that I find the most inspiring, is Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. I think that is just a feat of structure, and if I could ever write like her, or structure a book like her, I would be incredibly happy.

I love the epigraph you chose for the book, a line from Alice Oswald’s poem ‘A Rushed Account of the Dew (Falling Awake)’: ‘I who can blink / to break the spell of daylight / and what a sliding screen between worlds / is a blink.’

That is completely what I’m about. That is everything that I think. Going back to that question of how I changed after my illness: it’s literally about that moment. Enjoying every single moment. When you’re doing the breaststroke and your head dips under the water . . . that moment that she describes so exquisitely, incredibly beautifully in between each blink. When you blink your eyes, the thoughts that can come in, whether they’re good or bad, are a kaleidoscope. And it just happens in a split second. So much can happen in a split second.

Gargoyles is published by Dead Ink.