Authors Christie Watson and Nathan Filer appear in conversation here at Southbank Centre in September, when they discuss mental health and patient care. This will be the first time the two have appeared together anywhere other than a bookshelf, but that’s not to say they don’t have a lot in common.
Christie Watson left school at 16 and went into nursing via a year volunteering at the charity, Scope. Having trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital she went on to be a registered paediatric nurse for 20 years, spending her later years in the NHS as a resuscitation officer. Nathan Filer trained as a psychiatric nurse, gaining a degree in Mental Health Nursing in 2002, before moving on from nursing in 2007 to work in mental health research at the University of Bristol.
Having initially combined her writing with her career as a nurse, Watson now writes full-time. Winning the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary enabled her to take an MA in Creative Writing, and after graduating in 2009 she published her first novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, two years later. Filer initially combined nursing with performance poetry, with which he appeared on stage at spoken word events and festivals across the country. In 2009 he decided to study a Creative Writing MA to make the novel he’d been nurturing in his spare time more of a priority. That novel was to become his debut, The Shock of The Fall.
Watson’s debut novel Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, is set in Nigeria and tells the story of 12-year-old Blessing, her brother Ezikiel and their mother. The book follows them as they are forced to move from the comforts of Lagos to their grandparents’ compound in the Delta, after their father leaves for another woman. Described as “absorbing and passionate” by Jane Housham, in The Guardian, the novel won the Costa First Novel Award in 2011.
Not to be outdone, two years later Filer also won the Costa First Novel Award for his own debut. The Shock of the Fall takes place across three timelines and tells the story of Matthew Homes, a 19-year-old from Bristol, who is dealing with the death of his older brother a decade earlier, and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The novel also won the Costa Book of the Year title as well as the Betty Trask Prize and the Writers' Guild of Great Britain award for Best First Novel.
In 2018 Watson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters for her contribution to nursing and the arts by the University of East Anglia. She is also patron of the Royal College of Nursing Foundation. Filer too has been acknowledged with honours; he holds an honorary Master of Letters from the University of the West of England and an honorary Doctor of Liberal Arts from Abertay University. Both degrees were conferred in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature and his commitment to mental health care.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story, published in 2018, draws on Watson’s 20 years of experience as a nurse. A bestseller, it was broadcast as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in May last year. An account of a profession defined by acts of care, compassion and kindness, the book crosses the hospital, from A&E to mortuary, from birth to death.
Published earlier this year, The Heartland, Filer’s first non-fiction book, invites us to reconsider one of the most misunderstood conditions: schizophrenia. Drawing on conversations with with world-leading experts and some extraordinary people who share their own stories about living with this strange and misunderstood condition, Filer examines the cultural associations and misconceptions which cloud our understanding of this complex diagnosis.
These two award-winning writers join each other on our Purcell Room stage on Monday 9 September, to discuss new ways of thinking about mental health, each other, and about ourselves in a special one-off event. Filer and Watson combine their experience of working in the National Health Service to challenge the myths and misconceptions around patient care and give fresh insights into what it means to be human.