Book Interview: Hollingshead talks

By Jesse Keith

Certain stories stick with us. There are tales we hear in our minds, time and time again. Maybe it’s a favorite movie or book, or maybe it’s a story from a friend, but this story has imprinted itself on your brain.

About twenty years ago Canadian author Greg Hollingshead read the mental case study of James Tilley Matthews, written by Matthews’ doctor John Haslam, in the Faber Book of Madness. Matthews’ story intrigued Hollingshead, so much the author crafted the details of that story into his latest novel, Bedlam.

“I was very interested by the quality of the writing in Haslam’s book, a kind of loving attention to the condition of Matthews,” explains Hollingshead. “I was very interested in Matthews’ condition, his delusions. I was also interested in the fact that there was a kind of mocking tone in Haslam’s book that suggested Haslam was in conflict of some type about the patient.”

James Tilley Matthews was an inmate at the Bethlem Hospital in London, a home for the insane, during the French revolution and Napoleonic wars. Although he had definite mental problems, Matthews was held for unknown political reasons. Bedlam is the story of Matthews’ condition, his wife’s attempts to get him released, and Haslam’s conflict over what to do with this political prisoner. From his interest in the case study and other documentation surrounding Matthews, Hollingshead has dramatized the story to create a novel.

“For the most part I didn’t have to bend the truth,” Hollingshead explains. “The story was good enough. It was amazing how much of it I could use. I didn’t have to distort facts much at all, including the reason why Matthews was institutionalized.”

Reconstructing 18th century London is a difficult task, considering it’s not a place you can go and experience, but it’s something Hollingshead has spent a lifetime preparing for.

“I’m an academic,” shrugs Hollingshead. “The 18th century is my scholarly field. I spent five years in the British library reading 18th century British prose, and then taught it for 20 years. I’ve spent time with the writing from that period, so it wasn’t too hard. When you’ve got that much reading stored somewhere in your brain, you can draw on it, if you just give it time.”

Hollingshead, who will be presenting Bedlam as part of Wordfest this week, is retiring from the University of Alberta this year after nearly three decades of teaching. He hopes to use his newly freed time for writing and to continue his post as director to the Banff Writing Centre. As for the grandiose travel lifestyle lead by novelists, Hollingshead is content to stay in Alberta to write.

“I don’t have any particular plans. It’d be nice to travel more, but I don’t have any great schemes to go anywhere. One of the problems with retiring is you give up a lot of money.”

It’s a blessing, then, Hollingshead has stories to take up his time.

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