Writing for the stage, page and screen
25 June 2019
By Penny Griffith
Helen Vivienne Fletcher opens the door to her apartment in central Wellington. Bindi, her assistance dog, plays hostess too and offers her selection of tennis balls and soft cuddly toys bundled up in her mouth.
Bindi’s toys and evidence of Helen’s writing fill all the rooms … books, picture books, computer, camera, her Storytime Fairy costume.
Helen Vivienne Fletcher is 35 and has been writing for 25 years. She started her first novel in her mid-teens, around the time when various disabilities started happening: psoriasis and then psoriatic arthritis, coeliac disease, and a sleep disorder that causes her to have violent nightmares and sleep-walking episodes.
“All these disabilities seemed to come in little bits throughout my teenage years, and so the mental health side of things started to come up quite badly, and I was pretty depressed as a teenager,” she recalls.
“I don’t know if I would’ve taken up writing as a career if my health hadn’t deteriorated in that way. I had always written but I had other more prevalent passions.
“Then everything went pear-shaped. I was finally diagnosed with Lupus when I was 19 and at drama school. So then I started writing more because it was something that I could do solo, and if I felt too sick to do anything then I wouldn’t be letting anyone down. I could write more when I was well and less when I wasn’t.
“I still enjoy acting occasionally but it’s something that makes me very self-conscious and I get into a negative head space. Writing does the opposite: it brings me up again.”
Spoken word performances
Helen’s disability impacts on the themes of her poetry and writing, and she talk a lot about disability in the spoken word performances. “I don’t write about happy, healthy characters!”
“In my book, Underwater, the main character has post-traumatic stress disorder … I have anxiety and trauma. And in Broken Silence, she has a bit of an eating disorder and is in an abusive relationship. That probably stems from my work in mental health.
“In We All Fall, due to be published soon, one of the characters falls from a trapeze and lands up with chronic pain … like me. The other main character is legally blind. At the time when I was writing it, I was suffering from migraines that caused me to lose my sight for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes.”
"When I write, I forget about my disability"
And how has her writing impact on her disability? “Often when I write, I forget about my disability. When I went through a chronic pain programme at the hospital, they talked a lot about distraction. It makes me feel more positive and less like a person with a disease.
“I can’t write for too long though; I get pain in my hands and thumb, so I put a timer on for 15 minutes at a time. I must try to use the dictation facility on my computer more. I write about 1 to 2 hours, three days a week, then I fit in the publishing work – I self-publish my books. I also do some performance and slam poetry in pubs and cafes. There’s a great poetry community in Wellington!”
A blog called Little Miss Autoimmune
Helen writes a blog called Little Miss Autoimmune and gets involved in the resulting online correspondence. She also teaches Writing for Children at the Community Education Centre at Wellington High School on a Saturday morning, and runs a small business providing writing and storytelling classes for 8 to 12-year-olds.
“And I’m a Storytime Fairy on Friday mornings at the lovely Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie. I really enjoy that.”
Bindi stirs from her bed and stuffs fluffy toys into her mouth again. “She brings me my stick,” Helen says. “She’s been trained to help me with the Lupus stuff so if I start shaking or begin to faint, she supports me. If I do fall, she braces her body while I get up. She even predicts sometimes when my blood pressure is getting too low.”
What does Helen like writing best?
“Writing novels is where my heart is. I have three projects on the go right now, all at different stages; a novella in the last stages of formatting and final tweaking, a novel whose main character is the Grim Reaper. The third is a magic-based box set.
“I like having several projects on the go simultaneously, all at different stages. I wouldn’t want to have three final drafts all at the same time. It’d be too easy to procrastinate!”
The future seems exciting for Helen. Her latest novel, We All Fall, is set in a circus and features LGBT and disabled characters, and she looks forward to writing further about these themes. “I also want to write more fantasy and supernatural/paranormal stories – and any other new ideas, whatever the genre or medium. And more work for the stage and for the screen. And …”
Read the Arts Access Advocates website profile Helen Vivienne Fletcher:gritty, high-stake stories.