Superficially speaking, there is nothing about the writer Emma Forrest that would make the words “mania” or “self-mutilation” spring to mind.
Here she sits, a small, soft-spoken woman with a mass of corkscrew curls worthy of her name, picking sultanas from her salad in a Notting Hill lunch spot and telling me calmly about the many years she spent cutting, binging, purging, hallucinating and obsessing about (when not actually attempting) suicide.
“I wrote the book to stay afloat,” she says of her just-published memoir Your Voice in My Head, which comes out in Canada this week. “I said okay I’ll write this and I’ll publish this and by the time it gets published I’ll be out of it and I’ll be all right.”
And she is. More or less.
Does this sound too much like any one of a recent avalanche of youthful misery-memoirs? It would, except for Forrest’s inarguable cachet both as a much praised writer and simultaneously, a Hollywood gossip-site It Girl. The British-born, Los Angeles-based novelist and screenwriter who was named one of Variety’s 2009 “top-10 screenwriters to watch” is very much in the public eye these days as she promotes her new book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a subject Forrest is entirely comfortable with. “One psychologically dangerous terrain for relapses is talking about it,” she says, smiling, “and now I have to talk about it for a year.”
Forrest, who was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 (considered the most severe form of manic depression) – “the same diagnosis as Carrie Fisher!” she points out brightly – has accepted the fact she may always need to take mood-stabilizing drugs. But it wasn’t the meds that saved her life. It was a Manhattan talk therapist “Dr. R” whose optimism and insight allowed her to heal – and eventually embark on a screenwriting career in Hollywood and a love affair with a major movie star that would break her heart all over again.
Sounds crazy, right? Welcome to the wonderland of Emma Forrest – a place where things just get curiouser and curiouser.
Forrest, 33, has already managed to compile an impressive body of work when not self-destructing. After dropping out of her West London high school, she become a music critic for the Sunday Times at the tender age of 15. She’s also the author of three critically acclaimed novels – Namedropper, Thin Skin and Cherries in the Snow. At 22, she moved to New York, and later to Los Angeles, where she currently resides. Since then, she’s established a solid career as a screenwriter, selling several as-yet-unproduced scripts to the likes of Scott Rudin and Brad Pitt, and doing gun-for-hire rewrites on big studio productions.
But none of this, to Forrest’s annoyance, is what she’s best known for. If you Google her, you will find dozens of photos of Colin Farrell. That’s because she had a year-long affair with the actor, which was pored over and pilloried by the British press. Still, do not assume the famous actor in the book (whom Forrest calls “GH,” short for “gypsy husband”) is the man you may have seen her with in the tabs.
“He’s on my public record, and so any lovers that I write about from here on in – I could write about my 16-year-old African female lover, not that I’ve had one – people will say, ‘That’s obviously Colin Farrell.’ ”
But there are some clear parallels in this case. For starters, the rather glaring fact that the man in her book is an A-list movie star! At this, Forrest sighs. Then she leans in.
“The truth is I have had, for whatever reason, several movie-star boyfriends,” she sits back. “It’s just that Colin’s the only one I got caught with.”
I’m flabbergasted. Several movie-star boyfriends? When does this woman find the time?
She goes on to relate that a little while back she got a call from Farrell and told him he ought to read the book before it went to press since the media would (wrongly) assume the GH character was him. “And he was, like, ‘Who cares? They’re hacks. I’m not going to worry and you don’t need to worry and I don’t need to read it.’ ”
At this point I consider pointing out certain other parallels between “GH” and Farrell – such as the fact that after he broke up with her he ended up having a baby with his next girlfriend, or the fact that her book actually chronicles being “caught” with GH, their story splashed across the Internet for all the world to see (as far as I could dig up with exhaustive Googling, there is no other online evidence of Forrest dating any other movie stars in the press). But instead I decide to drop it. Forrest is clearly not in the mood to argue over whether or not GH is Colin Farrell or Will Ferrell – as far as she’s concerned it’s perfectly reasonable to assume he could be either.
Call me a stickler, but deliberate obfuscation of the facts is a dangerous game to play when promoting a memoir of “obsession, heartbreak and slow, stubborn healing” (as Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert described it in her cover blurb). It’s simply unreasonable to accept public adulation for laying yourself bare one moment, then behave as though your privacy is being invaded the next. Emotional honesty is the memoirist’s stock and trade, but it’s also a sacred contract with the reader – lest we all forget the example of James Frey.
Having said that, Forrest is a marvellous writer with a bewitching voice – so in terms of the reading experience, her real-life caginess hardly matters. The book, which begins when she is in her early 20s, having just moved to New York on contract for The Guardian, contains none of the usual Shocking Childhood Revelations typical of the “misery-memoir” genre (a term Forrest loathes). Her childhood was safe, her family loving and stable, if eccentric, but by age 12 she was lying awake fantasizing about suicide.
It was the move to New York and the separation from her family that, as she tells her therapist in the book, brought everything to the surface “but in a good way, like medieval leeches.”
She began to write the memoir (which has already been optioned for a film) upon finding out – abruptly, shockingly – that Dr. R had died of lung cancer at the age of 53. None of his patients had known he was even sick. His death coincided with her breakup with the movie star, sending her into a depressive relapse. “But even through that I never cut myself. I’ve been clean for five years,” she said. “Instead I wrote the book because I needed to preserve his voice.”
Forrest admits her mania and predilection for self-harm never seemed to impinge on her ability to write. At times, it may have increased her productivity. Perhaps this is why the book seems to echo the writings of those confessional female poets past – Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, specifically – who drew on their own tortured psyches for inspiration before expiring young, and by their own hand.
Is she worried that, in describing her own battle with manic depression, she may be romanticizing mental illness for a new generation? “I did worry about that,” she says, wiping a bit of latte foam from her pretty mouth. “But I hope they will read it through and get to the end and see it’s much more romantic that I’m alive.”