The saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind when Tom Rob Smith tells me where the idea for his latest novel, The Farm, came from. Years before Smith was first published, a writer gave the aspiring 20-something novelist a piece of advice: that you should write fiction based on your life. “At the time I was thinking I really liked thrillers,” Smith says. “Nothing had happened to me that I could imagine writing about.”
Luckily his first novel, Child 44, published when Smith was just 29, went on to sell millions of copies, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is being turned into a film this year starring Tom Hardy. The story, set in Stalin’s Russia, is about a policeman trying to find a serial killer who is slaughtering dozens of children – so not entirely related to Smith’s London upbringing with two happily married parents who sold antiques.
But then, about four years ago, something happened to Smith’s family that placed them directly into the pages of a real-life thriller. His parents had retired and moved to a picturesque farm in Sweden – his mother is Swedish – and Smith stayed in London. He received a call from his father, and was in no way prepared for what he was about to hear – that his mother had had a psychotic breakdown, had been committed to a Swedish mental institute, and had somehow talked her way out of there. His father didn’t know where she was.
While Smith was attempting to process this and arranging to fly out to Sweden, his phone rang again: this time, it was his mother. She said: “everything your dad has told you is a lie, I’m coming to meet you,” Smith recalls. We are sat in his apartment in Bermondsey, and he points at the dining table – set in front of a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Shard and St Pauls – and says they sat there and had a conversation that lasted hours, mindful of the fact that Smith’s father was making his way to the UK.
Those who have read The Farm already will find it hard to separate Smith’s account of what happened four years ago from the opening of the book. In the book, main character Daniel receives a call from his father, Chris, informing him of his mother Tilde’s admission to a mental hospital, followed by a call from Tilde who implores him not to talk to his father until she has flown to the UK and told him the full story. Tilde believes she has uncovered a terrible crime in their rural neighbourhood, and that the perpetrators are out to get her.
The crime, elaborated over the next few hundred pages, is narrated by Tilde, and is a many-layered story involving a tyrannical neighbour, Håkan Greggson, and his adopted daughter, Mia, the only black person in the close-knit community of mostly retired farmers. Tilde’s account of what happened over the few months she and Chris lived on the farm is clear, detailed and methodological, with times and dates and names. She doesn’t stumble over what happens, or flit between threads – which is exactly, Smith says, the way his own mother delivered her tale of what happened on the farm.
“I hardly said a word that night; she was just this masterful, energised storyteller,” he says. “She was utterly convincing, and she was talking to me like we’re talking now, but for hours upon hours, and so I wanted to capture that feeling that she was this great storyteller.
“If you had told me before I experienced it, to imagine someone who is under psychosis writing or speaking, I would have thought it was much more jerkier, fragmented, unreal, full of streams of consciousness. It just wasn’t the case; it flat out wasn’t the case. She was lucid, very forceful, full of energy. There was no absurdity in any of it; there was no surrealism in any of it, and I never would have presumed it would have been like that. Fundamentally, she was telling a thriller story. It was strange, I was this thriller writer sat there listening to my mum tell me this great thriller story.”
Who to believe?
From the moment Tilde speaks in the book, the rest is fiction, borne of a plot that formed in Smith’s mind after reading a Swedish fairytale. The farm itself is based on his parents’ home in Sweden, as well as childhood summer holidays the family took to the country, when they would stay with relatives. But Smith created a world of characters, none of whom existed in his own mother’s story. “When you pick up the book and read it, I wanted in the reader’s mind not necessarily the question ‘who do you believe?’ but wondering what’s real and what’s not in the sense of the book and the real event.”
And was Smith’s mother, at that very dining table, four years ago, asking him to believe her? Yes, Smith replies. And did he believe her? He pauses, and says, half-regretfully, half-firmly: No. He did not.
He took her to a London hospital, where his mother spent three weeks receiving psychiatric care. “That was hard,” he says. “What the big, emotional – whether you would say it’s a question or a problem at the centre of this book – was I felt very guilty afterwards. My mum has given me everything, she’s been a great mother, and she’d never really asked me for anything…but had come up to me and said ‘I really need something from you’. This was the first time in our lives she had done that, and she said ‘I need you to believe me’. And I just couldn’t do anything. I didn’t believe her. And it felt like a real betrayal, and I felt quite like I’m addressing that in this book – yes, I didn’t believe you, but at the same time I haven’t dismissed it all.”
We talk about how traditionally, in literature and in history, “hysterical” women are committed to mental institutes by their husbands: it is rarely the other way round. Smith says this is something he thought a lot about, mainly to do with the idea of credibility, which is something his mother was very focused on projecting to him. “A lot of the associations [of psychosis] are typically about things that are considered masculine,” he says. “Like, you can’t be emotional – that means you’ve lost control, and therefore you’re fraught with the possible implications of insanity.
“If someone is hysterical, there are strong connotations of hysteria being a female thing. If you’re saying to a guy you’re hysterical, you’re basically undermining his masculinity. If you say a woman is hysterical you’re falling into this category of needing to move to more masculine levels, and actually I think all of these need to be unpicked because there is a real dishonesty about them. Certainly when you move into the realm of insanity then I think, is it possible not to look at these things?”
Victorian tales of husbands locking up their wives and throwing away the key are based on the frightening notion that men actually had the power to do that right up until the 20th century, but Smith says it’s a different world now: “In order to have someone institutionalised you have to go through a really rigorous procedure, it’s not something a husband or a wife can just turn up and do,” he says. “But within society at large, in a more general fashion, I still think those residual elements that remain about people’s emotions and depression and sanity, those notions of strength are more bound up.”
Smith's experience thankfully had the opposite effect of shattering their relationship – Smith says he and his parents are now much closer. His mother is better, and she is supportive of Smith taking what happened to her and turning it into a novel. His parents sold the farm and are now living back in London, where his mother gives talks on mental health.
“I think it would have been impossible to write if it didn’t have a positive message in the end,” he says. “That was key, saying, listen: this is something lots of us are going to go through, there are ways out of this. It’s not something we need to hide anymore. That was one of the emotional drives for the whole book, and I think I wouldn’t have had that if it had had a [sad] outcome.”
His mother’s recovery was a “source of celebration”, he says, adding that that the stigma around mental illness is ridiculous, and is one of the reasons he and his family were happy to share his mother’s story. “Lots of the reasons people suffer from this are loneliness and isolation, these are real triggers for mental health problems,” he says. “And then they get compounded by having to keep it a secret and not talk about it. So that has to change, and I think it will change very soon, so that people can just share their stories with other people.”
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith is published on 13 February by Simon & Schuster. Tom Rob Smith will be in conversation with Guardian journalist and author Jon O’Connell at Dulwich Books on Thursday 6th March at 7pm.