Camilla Gibb Q&A;

by FANNY BLAKE, Mail on Sunday

Q. What are the main themes of the novel?

A. It's about the struggle to find an identity when all of life's obstacles are thrown in your way. It's about the resilience of the human spirit. It's about the possibility of human connection and how healing that can be. It's about children having personalities that can't be stamped out of them by others.

Q. Why write the story from a child's point of view?

A. I'd been writing a number of stories from children's perspectives, which I loved because everything children come across is new. It leaves so much room for both tragedy and comedy as their innocence clashes with reality. So I started at the beginning of a girl's life, knowing it was about the struggle to articulate something and, like a child's life, I just let it unfold.

Q. What is the significance of title?

A. A child like Thelma doesn't have the words to describe their experience. Without words, she draws on the incredible resources of her vivid imagination and a wacky sense of humour to make sense of things, to make things bearable. But she'll never really be understood by others until she's able to use words and be heard.

Q. The subjects covered - sexual abuse, anorexia, personality disorder, self-mutilation - are a fairly grim litany of modern problems. Isn't it too much to inflict them all on one girl?

A. But it's balanced by the escape she's able to make through her imagination, through the creation of imaginary friends and through humour. Thelma has resources that are uniquely hers. Her sense of resilience is never stamped out of her. That's ultimately what it's all about - resilience and hope. People seem to have had enough of grisly memoirs, or confessional-type books, but Mouthing the Words can't be pigeon-holed in this way. I've never actually seen this as a story of sexual abuse, but rather the story of a girl's life within which, sadly, this is often a common experience.

Q. What causes Thelma's problems?

A. The abuse by her father is the most direct association that can be made. Beyond the abuse of her father is the complicity of her mother, who denies what's going on. A lot of the issues start around that family dynamic and spiral outwards from there.

Q. Why does Thelma's mother virtually collude in her husband's abuse?

A. I think it is such a common scenario where there's a silent third party in situations of abuse who would rather invest their energies in keeping together this notion of normality than face the truth and break up the family.

Q. What is the importance of Thelma's three imaginary friends?

A. They are reflections of different aspects of herself. The one in the middle, Ginniger, is most like her. Janawee is the baby that needs to be protected, and Heroin is the inner strength that she possesses. Of course, in her mind, Thelma sees them simply as imaginary characters and not as reflections of herself. By the end of the book she's still attributing her own actions to Heroin - until Heroin turns round and says, 'You don't understand. That was you.'

Q. Why is Heroin the only one to last into adulthood?

A. Her name is a play on the notion of a hero and the notion of a drug than can empower you and also kill you. Heroin is strong, but often wordless, galloping angrily through the forest on horseback, trampling everything she comes across. Thelma needs her to get her through those times when she doesn't believe she possesses any strength - someone outside herself who she can call on for help. In the end Heroin starts to diminish, which has to happen for Thelma to grow and become self-sufficient.

Q. Thelma develops various crushes on the adults in her life to the extent of wanting them to adopt her, even when she's adult. Why?

A. Because she is a child. She has never developed and matured in any kind of 'normal' way. She has never had a positive parental role model so she constantly seeks one out. It's tragic to see that happening at 18, but by then even she begins to be embarrassed and realises she's going to have to find another way of making connections.

Q. Various people try to help her, including Patrick, her first serious boyfriend. Why can't she accept their help?

A. Throughout her life there are hands reaching out to her, but despite wanting help she has no idea what to do with it when it's offered. Patrick, for instance, is a really loving character and gives her a great deal of freedom and respect as he tries to engage with her in a normal way, but she has no way of knowing how to respond in kind.

Q. What is the novel saying about the secret life of families?

A. That they are often hidden, inherently complex, that they shape our view of the world and our ability to relate to it and be in it.

Q. Everybody in the book has so many problems. With whom can the readers sympathise?

A. Thelma, because she is the child. We assume her innocence, we care about her and we want to get inside her head. That's a privileged insight only fiction can offer us.

Q. Ultimately, Thelma achieves a lot, but is she too damaged to ever have a happy ending?

A. No, not all. I wrote a first ending where it was clear she would be with Patrick. I wrote a second ending where it was clear she would be with Molly. Then I thought that was too tidy and it was too fast for her to have resolved the question of her sexual identity. She's still working on issues relating to her own identity, never mind relating to anyone else. I just wanted to leave it open. Politically it was important for her not to end up with Molly, because I didn't want to fuel any assumption that she was a lesbian because she had been sexually abused. I think by the end of the book we know that she's going to find enough like-minded people on the planet to keep her company and we know she's going to be okay.

Q. What is the book saying about love?

A. That there are challenges to giving and receiving it, but what is ultimately important is the nurturing power of love, the wish to

see someone else be well.

Q. First novels are always said to be bioraphical. Is yours?

A. The cultural context, split between England and Canada, reflects my own experience and, like most writers, I've pilfered a lot of the details from the lives of everyone I've ever known! Sexual abuse is not my background, but I can relate to the experience of having to disassociate oneself from the

environment through recourse to one's imagination. If you're a

daydreamer, any kind of bad experience or trauma can have that effect. I feel like this child named Thelma came into my life one summer and I just watched her encountering all those obstacles to see how she would respond. I wrote the book in eight weeks, apart from the ending, which I rewrote and rewrote. Really, I just went with it.

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