There is something quite intimidating about the thought of interviewing Jo Brand. One of the doyennes of entertainment, she has been an acerbic and forthright presence in the male-dominated realm of comedy since the mid-Eighties. Her autobiography is due later this year, while her third novel The More You Ignore Me, will be published in May (Headline, h/b, £12.99).
It is the romantic, comedic and—at times—distressing story of Alice, a young girl living in rural 1980s Herefordshire with her father Keith and mother Gina, who suffers from a psychotic condition. It is a topic close to Brand's heart as she famously worked as a mental health nurse for 10 years before turning to stand-up: "I do think it's quite important to get that kind of stuff out there," she says, in that familiar yet slightly unnerving dry tone. "No one's saying that being mentally ill is a fantastic way to be, but it certainly is not the way that most people imagine. . . [You should only write] if you've got the knowledge within you to put those misconceptions right."
The harassed young doctor attempting to deal with Gina's illness reflects Brand's ambivalence towards mental healthcare: "[The drugs] are a large part of what happens. As a society we frown on behaviour that we can't control. To a large extent, though I have huge admiration for psychiatry and psychiatrists in some ways, it is very much about controlling people."
Gina dominates the novel, as much with her depersonalised, medicated presence as by the escapades that shock the neighbours and torment her family. Brand adds: "I don't really think that people realise . . . that the family suffers an enormous amount as well."
Keith increasingly relies on local GP Marie Henty, while shy, miserable Alice, after a fateful viewing of "Top of the Pops", falls for The Smiths' frontman Morrissey. He invades her world both as the pop idol unreal beyond the voice on a tape, the poster on a wall, and as an imagined confidant. Even the novel's title mirrors one of his songs. "If you're the sort of person who can almost become addicted to another, that happens most easily when you're a teenager," Brand explains. "Also when you're a teenager, things change so quickly, hormones exploding all over the place . . . to be able to latch onto someone who's a bit of an icon is quite reassuring. . . [And] Morrissey engendered a particular sort of real obsessive love from his fans. He still does really."
Brand has admitted in the past that she finds the prospect of writing novels difficult, so can she see herself writing more? "The three novels that I have written have all been achieved in very different ways, so I can't really see how I would do the next one. [With] the first one I was very organised and I did it in about six months. The second one I was so busy that I just didn't do anything and then panicked because of the deadline and wrote the whole bloody thing in six weeks. And this one took two years because again I had so much on that I could seldom find time to sit down and do the work." She adds: "Once I sit down and start writing I really enjoy doing it."
She is already planning the autobiography, but hasn't started writing yet. Prospective word counts make her apprehensive: "It's like having to do 15 essays all the time. The sheer volume of it, particularly when you start, is very daunting— I'm not the sort of person who's good at compartmentalising their life.
"Once I'm halfway through and the end is in sight I feel a lot less depressed."