Sense of connection

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
June 2023

Lincolnshire based Philippa East talks to Yusef Sayed about her third novel, I’ll Never Tell and how her work as a clinical psychologist and her writing allow her to explore human relationships in distinctive ways.

Published earlier this year, I’ll Never Tell is Philippa East’s latest psychological suspense thriller. The story focuses on the disappearance of young musical prodigy Chrissie Goodlight following a dazzling performance in a prestigious Young Musician competition at the Royal Albert Hall. As her mother and stepfather begin their frantic search, Chrissie’s absence brings troubling family histories to the fore and exposes lies and deceptions in the Goodlights’ seemingly perfect lives.

The book follows two previous works of fiction by Philippa that also explore human relationships and questions of identity, trust and aspects of mental health. These are themes that have also concerned Philippa in a clinical setting, having trained as a psychologist and worked in the NHS for more than ten years before becoming a professional writer.

Based in Lincolnshire since 2013, Philippa continues to work in private practice, providing sessions at Sleaford’s ‘Nu U’ Centre two days a week. As a result, her fast-moving stories, full of shocks and twists, reflect some of the insights gained from her interaction with those with complex but nevertheless common anxieties, fears and hopes.

All of Philippa’s novels to date consider the impact of disappearance in differing ways. Her debut Little White Lies – longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association ‘New Blood Dagger’ Award 2020 – concerns the return of Abigail White following her abduction several years prior. Safe and Sound, inspired by the true story of Joyce Vincent, focuses on the story of a charismatic young woman whose body has lain undiscovered for ten months – someone inexplicably not missed by friends and family. I’ll Never Tell continues the theme.

“When I was doing an author event, somebody said ‘All your books are about disconnection aren’t they?’ And I sat back and went, ‘You’re right’,” says Philippa.

“In Little White Lies, the image is that Abigail is reunited with her family but they are completely disconnected. The woman [in Safe and Sound], Sarah Jones, is so disconnected that no one notices that she’s missing. I’ll Never Tell is probably in some ways a more classic missing persons story, driven by a different kind of disconnection, which is about lack of honesty and lack of authenticity – not being in sync with the people in your life that you should understand and be on the same page with.”

As the Goodlights try to make sense of their daughter’s absence, the action moves from the concert stage in London, to the affluent surroundings of the family home in Oxford and finally the rugged landscape of the Highlands. There is a personal link here, Philippa having grown up in Scotland before going on to study Philosophy and Psychology at Oxford University before working in the NHS in London.

When her spouse Elliot Wood was offered a job in the county, the pair relocated.

“I came to Lincolnshire in 2013 because my spouse Elliot was working for the RAF,” Philippa explains.

“We had been living in London before, both of us working in the NHS. And then as part of their RAF contract, Elliot was posted to Cranwell. I think I had been to Lincoln once but I had no idea what I would find it to be like. But I really felt at home from the get-go.

“I guess because I’m from Scotland originally, I’m much more of a country person than a city person. I just really liked being in nature, in the countryside, in a place that is much more interpersonally connected. That sense of community and feeling that people are known to you because of living in the same town.”

It’s a sentiment that finds its darker counterpoint in Philippa’s fiction, where people’s true selves are somewhat elusive and there is much that is hidden from loved ones. Her latest novel continues with the multiple character perspectives of her first book but also takes a more complex approach to time, giving past events an immediacy and eerie resonance with the Goodlights’ present crisis.

While she has always had a passion for reading, Philippa had no early ambition to be an author but once she tried writing short stories, she felt an affinity, and has reflected many of the preoccupations and questions from her work in private practice in her storytelling too, engaging readers far and wide.

Philippa says: “I feel like stories were in my DNA. I grew up in a household where reading and books were really valued. As soon as my sister and I could read, we would be going to the library every week.

We didn’t have a TV until I was about 11. My parents were slightly alternative and decided we weren’t having a TV, so we just read a lot.

“I think that reading even back then helped me make sense of the world. There’s nothing better than that feeling when you’re reading a book and the author describes something that the character’s going through and you think, ‘Oh my god, that is exactly what I feel’, and you’ve never heard anyone else talk about it before.

“Different creative people find their own medium for expressing themselves, making sense of the world, communicating, processing. For me it happens to be writing. It’s the water I feel most comfortable in – to the point where if I haven’t been able to get to my writing recently, I will have dreams about trying to get into a swimming a pool!”

As the title of her latest book suggests, there are often things that cannot be said. What stops us – and importantly, for writers, are there things that can be written but not revealed aloud? While most people see only good in being open and speaking plainly, and while there are more opportunities now for previously marginalised people to present their narratives, can telling have its negative side? Do we easily narrow our accounts of ourselves, mislead, lapse into clichés about our own lives and expectations based on common life stories and the latest advice? The overlap of psychology and narrative found in Philippa’s novels prompts such questions.

Asked about the impact of modern lifestyles and technologies on the stories we tell and consume today, Philippa accepts that there are prevalent misgivings but also sees an enormous amount to be positive about.

“I think it’s a common perspective, this question about whether social media, as a specific example, has made us more disconnected and less authentic. I’m not an expert on it [specifically], but it probably cuts both ways and just magnifies what’s already there. Absolutely, I think people can be less authentic on social media and of course people can have ‘friends’ that they have never met and don’t really know.

“On the other hand I think people share things that perhaps they might find easier to share there than with close friends and family. And there can be discussions about things that people can’t talk about in their immediate bubble. You can find the five people who have the same niche interest. It’s a different medium to face-to-face interactions but it’s how you use it.”

There is an openness and vulnerability in the way that Philippa speaks about the craft of writing too, regularly posting about her experiences and offering helpful advice to fellow writers online. She is currently in the editing stages of her fourth novel and recently posted a thread about her experiences.

“Again this is probably tied to my psychology background but I’m a huge believer in informing and educating about things,” says Philippa.

“As a reader or an aspiring writer, you’re only seeing the end product. Sharing the journey helps me stay motivated but also, when I was starting to pursue a journey towards publication, I wanted to know what to expect, what I should be doing, whether I was on track, what the experience typically looks like.

“It’s a way of giving people the information, first of all so you know what you’re signing up for. And so you don’t think that you’re doing it wrong, or I’m failing when my editor sends me a 15-page edit. If you don’t know that that’s perfectly normal, you’re going to think, ‘What’s wrong with my book, what’s wrong with me?’

“And that goes back to things like authenticity. One of the things I see in my clinical work is people being really hard on themselves for feeling a certain way, thinking a certain way, behaving a certain way because they don’t realise that loads of other people do that too. I think a big part of feeling more okay with ourselves is knowing that this is what it looks like for other people too.”

Philippa has also developed close bonds with a number of bookshops within Lincolnshire and is a regular presence in the book community both online and in person.

“When I came to Lincolnshire, I looked for local writing groups and connected with Lindum Scribes. We would meet, bring pieces and it was really good for keeping the momentum up.

“Then I connected with networks online more, so it didn’t need to be geographically specific. But since being published there have been people and places in Lincolnshire that have been incredibly supportive.

One is Nell Pattison, who is also a crime and thriller writer. There’s also Hannah Gold, the children’s author who wrote The Last Bear. It’s nice to feel that there are other people in the county who are in the same boat as me, who have also been on the publication journey.

“In terms of bookshops, Lindum Books have been fantastic, Waterstones have also been incredibly supportive and the Rabbit Hole in Brigg. It goes back to that sense of local community. It’s a good and fairly easy place to make those connections and put events on and connect with readers.”

Outside of her writing and clinical practice, Philippa performs music with Elliot. As The Miracle Cure, the two share their love of folk music and Americana with local audiences.

Philippa says: “Elliot is no longer a consultant psychiatrist but is now a full-time musician. We have a folk duo that we perform in together. I really enjoy doing it but I look at Elliot and the way that Elliot feels about music, and it’s obvious to me that that’s how I feel about writing.”

Asked what writing affords that her clinical practice doesn’t, Philippa reflects: “I think maybe what writing allows me to do that I don’t really get a chance to do explicitly in my clinical practice is it allows me to put myself centre stage and ask the questions and explore my thoughts on a particular topic.

“Of course in the therapy room I might be having these thoughts but it’s about the individual client and what it’s like for them – and me coming alongside them to go on the journey that they need to go on, whatever shape or form that takes.

“I suppose writing allows me to be in the opposite seat, I can be the patient and I can tell my story and try and put my framework on how I’m understanding the things that I’m curious about with people and the world. At the same time, I hope that my books still give other people something helpful, or shed light on something that’s helpful.”

I’ll Never Tell is published by HQ, price £8.99. Follow Philippa East on Twitter @philippa_east. On Tuesday 13th June, Philippa will be appearing at a free author event at Gainsborough Library.

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