A cartoon film about a mouse inspired him to write and now Guy Mankowski is putting aside his work as a psychologist to devote himself to full-time writing. He tells Steve Pratt about his debut novel The Intimates.

THE timing was serendipitous. Guy Mankowski handed in his notice with the intention of becoming a full-time writer. Then the day before he was due to be unemployed, his first novel was commissioned.

“I’d handed in my notice to give myself a couple of months to write a novel, something I’d always wanted to do,” he explains.

“But I didn’t know what the novel was going to be and then the commission came literally the day before the job was to end. So it seemed serendipity. I was surprised to get a commission, yes, but relieved.”

We are sitting having a beer in the spring sunshine in Newcastle, where he lives and is taking a doctorate in clinical psychology. That could be about to change with the publication of his debut novel, The Intimates – one of the recommended titles in New Writing North’s Read Regional 2011 promotion. “I’m now hoping to be a full-time writer but I have to work out the details,” he says.

A trainee clinical psychologist, he worked at The Royal Hospital in London as a psychologist and at a psychotherapy clinic in Newcastle.

Writing, he says, is what he’s always wanted to do – ever since seeing the cartoon film, Fievel Goes West, as a child. A strange influence for a writer, but former Ampleforth College student Mankowski explains: “It was about a mouse who stows away on a boat to America. I saw that when I was 11 and thought, ‘I want to be a writer, I want to write about someone’s adventure’.

“So I used to write these stories in my dad’s study.”

The Intimates, about a group of friends celebrating together as dark secrets and ugly truths are revealed, was developed from a novella he wrote when he was 21. “I wrote it when I was on holiday in Florence and very quickly the concept and the characters were all there.

“But I left it for six or seven years and I’d had a couple of short stories published by Legend Press, my current publishers, and developed quite a good rapport with them. I gave them this little pokey idea I’d rather forgotten about and they commissioned it.”

The title changed from The Fountains after his editor’s concern that “it sounded a bit like a Barbara Cartland novel”. The characters in the book are called The Intimates and there’s a book-within-a-book called The Intimates, so that seemed an obvious title.

He found it odd returning to something he’d started writing when he was younger. “The novella was written by a 21-year-old who was quite naive. The 28-year-old who went back to it was much more cynical and weary. So there’s this competition between the two voices throughout the book which is interesting, unusual actually,” he says.

“My publisher says it got darker when I went back to it. The novella was in thrall of adulthood and all the things you can do when you’re an adult. You know, chase women, go to glamorous parties and what I thought being an adult would be like. The Intimates is much more about how that plays out, so the focus is much broader.

“Everything that was there when I was 21 has managed to fight its way through. The characters are fleshed out. One character is a surgeon and in his spare time is a transvestite.

I only teased what that meant in the novella and that gets really played out in the novel.

“It was conceived in Florence but the whole thing was written in Newcastle, unemployed, over eight weeks. Because the location was so unglamorous, I was more inclined to make the writing glamorous. It was trying to create the sort of world I wanted to live in.

“The further you are from the kind of world you want to live in, the more inclined you are to create it. There’s a lot of reaching for something I think will be better.”

THE Intimates isn’t autobiographical, although he’d argue there are facets of himself in every character, while some are members of his family “transposed and exaggerated”.

His work as a psychologist has been of use.

“My focus isn’t on telling a thrilling edge-ofthe- seat narrative, it’s on people and what makes people tick,” he says.

“Because I’m so interested in that, that took me to psychology and the more I’ve learnt about people the more interested I’ve got and that drives the writing.

“The characters are people I’ve met briefly but have imagined what their lives would be like – the kind of people I wanted to meet and what they’d be like if they met one another.

My previous work borrowed liberally from psychology but The Intimates is pure fiction, pretty much.”

Now he plans to write full-time, fulfilling a long-held but much put-off ambition. “I felt if I could make a living as something else and be established I’d have the room to go back and be a writer but what I didn’t bargain on is how overwhelming the urge to write would become. You can’t suppress that, it takes over.”

He has a number of public appearances – book signings and festivals – coming up. “I like the festival stuff. For the first time in my life I get to meet people who are passionate about the thing I’m passionate about, that I always thought I was a bit of a geek for caring about. But there’s actually a world of people who are potentially more interested than me.”

He enjoys meeting the public – despite feeling that in signings “you are pimping yourself to strangers a lot of the time” – and finds people in the North-East “really receptive”, adding: “I don’t know if it’s because I’m relatively young and they think we can offer this guy some support, or if they’re open-minded to new literature. I think it’s a bit of both.”

He’s already sketching out the plot for his second novel, which he promises will be “very different because it’s a lot more about my work as a psychologist”.

And, of course, he would love The Intimates to be filmed although the interest he’s had from small film-makers is about turning it into a play, something he understands “because most of it is conversation”.

Guy Mankowski will be signing copies of The Intimates (Legend Press, £7.99) on Saturday at Waterstone’s, Gateshead.