In conversation with The Heartlands author, Nathan Filer

Mental health has perhaps never been so prevalent in the media. But that’s not necessarily as positive as it sounds.

The experiences gleaned from genre giants like Split, where James McAvoy’s portrayal of multiple personalities create the momentum for a horror plot, or the account of suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why are arguably sensationalist. Fans herald them as giving representation. But is that enough?

Discussion with Filer unveiled what separates The Heartland from the rest- its ability to see past mental illness as a shiny image with a willingness to look inside for real discussion. Representation is a buzzword for media corporations including anything that goes against the grain. What makes mental health inclusion significant is reliability and validity- being legitimate, accurate showings of an experience, and holding a kernel of relatability. We cannot expect all inclusions to show the experience of an entire demographic- but we should expect the inclusion to at least be based on them. 

Filer transcends idle voyeurism and writes The Heartland as an exercise in curious, attentive humanism. The book is an arms against the stigma debate- wherein Filer believes discriminatory ideas come from a collective projection of what he says ‘ I believe are often social problems’. People experiencing metal health difficulties are not the problem. How we discuss it, is. If we make the issue internal (i.e. with the person different from us) it is less vivid and we are not responsible. 

Filer believes strongly in the power of empathy, and gives the sense that fiction has a role in this, commenting  ‘I think that when we ask readers to spend time with our characters, even if they’re the kind of people that perhaps they wouldn’t spend time with in their day to day lives but they’ll spend 300 pages with in a book(…)  that encourages readers to spend some time walking in the shoes of those people.’ The stylistic choices in the book echo this statement. In sections dedicated to the real life stories of interviewees, Filer gives concrete realism to the hallucinatory experiences of people with what he terms ‘so-called schizophrenia’.

Turning to narrative techniques, Filer is far from rebuking these experiences, reporting that turning these reports from anecdote to a compartmentalised scene he inhabits the schizophrenic mind. A prominent example of this being in the beginning chapter, where first person sections are loaded with terror as a man writhes on a hospital bed away from nurses wielding syringes of spiked medication. Filer knows the medication is perfectly untampered of course- he himself is one of the nurses in the hospital. There is no conspiracy. But that doesn’t matter. What does is the giving of voice, and the realism to paranoia and fear. Through this, the book is an example of artful and nuanced authenticity. 

Too often an experience is filtered through something else. A psychologist or their complicated jargon, or a politician and evasive statistics. Filer instead acts as a facilitator, using himself as a platform. His voice is unmistakably, as he commented, ‘there on the page talking away’ in the essay sections- but he allows himself to act the supporting role in a way that shouldn’t feel so heroic, but truly is. A producer of any content willing to play second fiddle is a sparse. Filer mentioned his ‘enormous responsibility in trying to get that right and to do that as sensitively as possible.’ Filer holds the mantel with modesty and generosity while still weaving some stunning turns of phrase (there’s some really humorous footnotes, too). Filer noted a ‘great deal of fiction considers the frailty of the human psychology even if it doesn’t tap into diagnostics’ and as such, readers will find themselves growing as their understanding and empathy snowball in tandem. Mental health writing specifically just acts as an amplifier of the usual powers of any text.

Filer offered some gracious advice to the next generation of mental health workers. His advice was stunningly similar to that he gave for successful writers- to maintain honesty, curiosity, and a dogged dedication to learn. Filer’s ability to convey information on schizophrenia in The Heartland mirrors his acknowledgment that ‘education has been a really important thing in my life.’ The passion for learning- and the want to learn- is palpable, a huge part of the novel’s message and apparently Filer’s own ethos. Knowledge should be considered less a dictation, or a selfish acquiring- but a gathering that can then be deftly redistributed. An effort for communal gain. 

While reflecting on the concept of inspiration, Filer noted that  idea of thoughts are ‘ultimately filtered through ourselves and that spark of an idea comes from deep inside our subconscious somewhere’  yet indebts (as he terms it) the ‘magical and vague and marvellous concept of inspiration’ as undoubtedly coming from the world around us. Inspiration and art is as much a giving process as it is of taking. 

Filer examines a world of social and artistic collaborates with a sharp eye and tentative hand. The Heartland discusses the politics of patient-professional relationships. There is an undeniably power dynamic. Yet here, Filer offers the key to his readers, and allows those who have inspired his content to come safely out from behind locked doors. Filer knows Schizophrenia is not a beast. And he uses a strong emotional dexterity to remind us of this and reacquaint us with the real foe- ignorance. 

Featured Image by The Big Anxiety