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Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist and is working at The School of Life. Together with Susan Elderkin, she has written a book named The Novel Cure: An A-Z of literary remedies which uses written works as a therapy. That is quite interesting for book lovers! She is also a painter and lives in Sussex.
I had the pleasure of talking to her during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. During the entire interview session, she was so warm and welcoming that it made me feel such at ease to be frankly chatting with her while her persona inspired me at the sub-conscious level.
Sakshi Raina: Bibliotherapy is basically therapy with words. Could you shed some light how it actually works?
Ella Berthoud: Yes, therapy with words and therapy with novels. So the way it works is when we have a client, we get to know the client through a questionnaire. We ask them all about their reading loves and dislikes, what they read as children, what they read as teenagers, what they read now, where they read, when they read, how they read and with whom they read? If they read with a friend or a partner and then we ask all about their life as well. What is going on in their life? Are they single, married or divorced? Are they going through any big problems? Is everything happy or there are issues like a career change or whatever and then we tailor the perfect books to that person. So if that person loves reading Jane Austen, then we would give them a book which we know they will like because it is has the same kind of prose, the same kind of style and that will go with their present life. Or if they laugh at chicklets or sci-fi, we would give them a similar kind of book and etc. but of course we would like to challenge people with reading so if they have read only crime, we say come on, you know try reading something else. So it is partly about the love of reading and giving people something new to discover but it is more about when people are having issues with their life and we feel that we could really help them with a novel and by reading the novel, they take on the psyche of the characters in the novel and that can really effect in our chemical change through reading the novel and perhaps become a different person and perhaps find a new way to look at the world and change their way of thinking and it will help them get over those kind of problems. Of course, we are not medical doctors. So if someone has a generic problem like severe depression, suicidal thoughts, then we send them to a medical practitioner as well. They can still see us and we can help them but obviously we are not qualified for real serious issues.
Sakshi Raina: Can this work for someone who doesn't like reading? If not, how do you work with such clients?
Ella Berthoud: Not really. If we meet people who are not keen on reading, we find ways to help them discover the love of reading. So we would start with things that are shorter, like short poetry, short stories, podcast and we would encourage them to read with a friend or have a friend read to them. Bibliotherapy is not really for people who are not willing to read because the whole key is in the book. It is like saying does massage works without putting your hands on a person.
Sakshi Raina: How was the idea of the School of life initiated?
Ella Berthoud: Me and my friend Susan who I read books with, we were in Cambridge University together and we studied English literature, we were in adjacent rooms and we used to give each other books in order to cure each other life problems when we were students. There were issues then like broken heart, career, stress, worries about whether we would be able to do the work that we were supposed to do, insomnia and we tried to cure each other with novels without really thinking about it. We were just having fun and over the years when I became an artist and she became a novelist, we carried out doing this for several years until we began to think that this is something that we could bring to the public and people will really appreciate it. So we spoke to Alain de Botton who started the school of life. We knew him from Cambridge so we suggested to him that we did bibliotherapy at school of life and it was a yes and that is how it all began.
Sakshi Raina: You must have received a lot of positive feedback. How do you handle criticism or people with whom you were not successful?
Ella Berthoud: Yeah, sometimes there are people who we accidentally give them a book that they don't like and then when they tell us that they did not like the book then we suggest an another book. Almost, we get a positive feedback because the whole process that we follow makes sure that we really get to know the person. We have the questionnaire, then we have an hour to get to know them. Normally we get about 90% of the books right but then there are some one or two books that they might not like and then we give them different suggestions and also normally, most people that comes to us that predisposed to like the books. They have come as they love reading and are very open to our suggestions but yes sometimes we misread them ourselves. We go like "Oh! They are going to love this new book" and then we find out that they can't stand the book. So, sometimes we get wrong but not often.
Sakshi Raina: Most of your posts in the School Of Life and Book Of Life are motivational and categorized in the self-help genre. Do you call yourself as a self-help writer and a speaker?
Ella Berthoud: Noo! We have never seen ourselves as that although when we were writing The Novel Cure, I did suddenly have a revelation that we were writing a self help book. I will accept that The Novel Cure is a self help book because if you're in a problem and you're finding a cure and also the way we write the cure is in a motivational style.
Sakshi Raina: What kind of books do you like to read?
Ella Berthoud: I always read fiction. The Novel Cure is all fiction. It is called The Novel Cure because every book in it is a novel that we write about and so we also sometimes deal with short stories and poems. I do enjoy some motivational books an philosophical books but my real love is fiction to be honest..and we are about to do our next book which is a follow up to The Novel Cure. It is based on the same idea but for kids. So it is The Novel Cure for kids.
Sakshi Raina: Ah! That seems interesting. When would it be launched?
Ella Berthoud: Not until 2016. We are still writing it now, trying to end it in December and then try to get it publish the year later. So, the book is a very similar idea but for kids ailment like bullying, acne, parents divorcing, teenage issues. It is meant to be for ages 3-18.
Sakshi Raina: Being a painter yourself, how would you interpret your paintings?
Ella Berthoud: That is an interesting question. It is abstract painting based on landscape and to be honest, I have never thought about whether they are positive or negative to the viewer. I'm normally a very positive person and I think they are very joyful paintings with a lot of color and they express a love of nature, love of emotions.
Sakshi Raina: I feel that emotional and physical pain are generally connected. In regard of your book The Novel Cure, to what extend would you agree?
Ella Berthoud: Yes very much so. We sometimes take this turn in the book The Novel Cure that if you're in physical pain, you can cure it with what you read and therefore we're implying that it is a mental state that can be cured. So if for instance, our cure for stubbed toe is the beginning of the book by James Joyce: A portrait of the artist as a young man. The idea is to learn that by heart and when you stubbed your toe, shout the first part for the book because it is very loud and funny and poetic and it is better than swearing. The idea is to release the pain by the speech. It is very common that your physical pain generally begins in the mind.
I hope you enjoyed reading this interview with Ella Berthoud as much I had while working on this project. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
More interviews would be up soon! Stay tuned!
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