Alastair Campbell is to publish his first fiction book with Random House in November— 18 months after his non-fiction title The Blair Years hit the shelves to great success. All in the Mind (6th November, hb, £17.99) is actually his second work of fiction, the first having been written in the late-1980s following his well-documented mental breakdown.
"I've always liked being creative, and thinking creatively," says the former New Labour spin-doctor. "I wrote a novel back in 1986, but Fiona [Millar, Campbell's wife] murdered it [accidentally, according to a subsequent press release], which may have been for the best, though actually I think it was quite good. It was different, but with some similar themes to this book. There was a person in it who cracked up. It was after my own breakdown, and I think it was therapeutic. It was a way of giving a creative expression to a pretty horrific time."
If the first novel skirted around the subject, the second tackles the issue of mental illness full-on. It centres on a psychiatrist, who is unravelling mentally, a man who, in Campbell's own words, "has no idea of the number of lives he's touched". A misunderstood man, if you like; someone who "can't see the good that he is doing". We meet his patients: a politician with a drink problem; a long-term depressive; a Kosovan rape victim; a married man with a sex addiction.
The book is dedicated to his two psychiatrists (one of whom he still sees), and Campbell wants the book to remove some of the stigma attached to mental health. He is also doing a BBC 2 television documentary about his own breakdown that will be aired shortly before the book's release. Yet, he says "this is a book by me, not about me".
"There are, and there aren't [comparisons]," he adds. "I don't have depression as bad as [one character] David. I've had a drink problem, but not as bad as the MP, and I've had a breakdown. These are things I can draw upon and I do draw upon them in all sorts of ways, phrases I've used, techniques that I've known about. But I've never been burnt, I've not been raped, I don't know what it is like to be a refugee. I don't want people to think I'm a sex addict."
This time around Campbell avoided an early culling of his creative product by scribbling away in secret, either ferreted away in his studio at the top floor of his north London home, or on the road (Campbell still seems incredibly busy: he is off to Scotland the day after this interview for a fundraising event, and still assists the Labour Party, including advising senior politicians and raising campaign funds).
"I am lucky in that I can write anywhere: planes, trains, hotels," he says. Even on his BlackBerry. "I finally got one of the most important scenes when I was driving up the M6 to a football match on the way to picking my son up. But as I got it, I thought, "I have to write this now". So I pulled in at the next service station, started writing it on my BlackBerry, and an hour and a half later my son phones up wondering where I am. I'd got completely side-tracked."
Once Campbell had completed a draft, he showed it to his wife, and his literary agent Ed Victor, who encouraged him to write a further draft. It then went out to friends and the Random House Group chief executive Gail Rebuck. The feedback encouraged Campbell to publish. The early readers, Stephen Fry and Anne Robinson, have now provided pull-out quotes for the book. Fry praises its "devastating penetration of the human mind" while Robinson says that he writes "about women with astonishing and deadly accuracy".
But not everyone will love it. Mention the novel in literary circles and eyebrows arch. One executive from a chain bookseller sniffed: "I started reading it for 10 minutes, and I'd like those 10 minutes back." Being Campbell he is unlikely to get a good press, whatever the merits of the book. He is "not bothered", he says. "If I judge the success or failure of anything I did by what the press say, I wouldn't get out of bed. The reason I sent it to those people [Fry, Victor and Robinson] is because they are people I respect. If Stephen Fry or Anne Robinson hadn't liked it, they'd have said so."
Raising that famous finger, he adds, "It would be interesting to get my enemies to review it, but more interesting if they judge it as a book. I think anyone who reads it fairly— as opposed to it's got Alastair Campbell's name on it therefore I'm going to say it's shit — will be hard pressed to say it's not an interesting, pretty well-crafted book. But I am not going to pretend I was put on this earth to be a great novelist.
"I can promise you one thing," he stresses for good measure, "I will not get in a spat with a reviewer."
Campbell says that he will judge the success on what his friends and family say about the book, and on how it goes down with readers, making reference to the reader-driven success of the Katie Price books. "It will only sell if it is good, regardless of what people say about it," he says.
The publishing process so far has certainly not put him off. He is on a third draft of his second, and has ideas for a third. "I really enjoyed doing it, much more than I thought I would. I've done a lot of things since I left government, but I'd say this is close to being the thing I've enjoyed the most."