The Stranger on the Bridge
The Stranger on the Bridge is a book that could, in other circumstances, have never existed. It tells the incredible true story of Jonny Benjamin, a mental health campaigner who launched a successful social media campaign to find the stranger who talked him down from a suicide attempt at Waterloo Bridge. It was called #findmike. Jonny didn't just find the stranger - he found a man who would become a close friend. (He wasn't called Mike by the way - his real name was Neil.) Jonny has gone on to co-write a deeply personal memoir about his experiences, and now talks and campaigns about mental health issues at a wide range of organisations and events. He even managed to persuade Prince William to write the foreword. I had the privilege of seeing a talk by Jonny in north London and spoke with his co-author Britt Pflüger about what led to the publication of The Stranger on the Bridge.
Tell us about The Stranger on the Bridge, Britt. What kind of story is it? Loosely based on the Channel 4 documentary with the same title, The Stranger on the Bridge is a mental health memoir telling the story of Jonny Benjamin who, in January 2008, attempted to take his own life by jumping off Waterloo Bridge, only to be saved by a kind stranger. Six years later, together with mental health charity Rethink, Jonny started a campaign to find the stranger. #findmike soon trended on Twitter around the globe and garnered over 300 million followers. Eventually Jonny was reunited with Neil Laybourn, the real ‘Mike’ (who will never let Jonny forget that he got his name wrong), in an incredibly moving meeting which was filmed for the documentary. Much has been made of that day on the bridge and the consequent search for the stranger, but incorporating excerpts from Jonny’s diaries and poems he has written throughout his life, our book tells Jonny’s story starting from early signs of mental health issues as a child and developing the Truman Delusion as a teenager, as well as his diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder leading up to that fateful day on the bridge. Does the book continue beyond the bridge incident? We also follow Jonny’s journey since that day – the good, the bad, and the ugly - his close friendship with Neil and their extraordinary work as mental health campaigners which earned Jonny an MBE in 2017, and a relapse in the spring of the same year from which he recovered just in time to run the London Marathon with Neil in aid of the young royals’ charity Heads Together. How did you get the idea of working with Jonny? People have often commented that ‘fate’ brought Jonny and I together. Whether you believe in fate or not, the way we met was certainly unusual! I happened to see Jonny being interviewed on This Morning in 2014 and was immediately struck by not only his poignant story, but also by his incredible warmth and compassion, and his determination to help others with mental health struggles. His story struck a chord with me on several levels: like him, I’ve been living with both mental and physical health conditions (severe depression and Crohn’s disease), but maybe more importantly, someone very close to me has the same diagnosis as Jonny, ie schizoaffective disorder.
At that time, I felt incredibly isolated and helpless trying to support this person with little or no support from either family or mental health services. A few months after following Jonny on Twitter, I was desperate enough to ask him for advice, with no realistic expectations of an answer – I could tell how busy he was with his campaign work, he already had about 20,000 followers and didn’t know me from Adam. To my utter surprise he not only replied very quickly but continued to give me much-needed support and advice. I remember one particular time when things were tough and I was sitting in my friends’ house in Devon (ironically the very spot where we would later write large parts of The Stranger on the Bridge) and Jonny messaged me out of the blue to find out how we were doing. I’ll never forget that act of kindness. Considering that I have worked in publishing my entire adult life, it seems odd that it took me another eighteen months to come up with the idea for a book, but this is what living with mental illness AND supporting someone with an even more serious mental health condition can do to you: you develop tunnel vision and just getting through each day takes up most of your energy. And yet, once again, my timing was fortuitous: despite having turned down various offers from agents, publishers, film companies and ghostwriters, Jonny agreed to meet me and listen to my proposal. And the rest is history! How long was it between the moment you realised the book needed to be written and it ended up as a physical, tangible object? I kidded myself that we would write the book very quickly – after all, the story was all there, wasn’t it, just waiting to be written? – but from conception to publication it took a little over two years, partly because of our conflicting schedules (I have never known anyone who works as hard as Jonny does, travelling around the country, and the world even, to give talks and support charities), and partly because both of us occasionally needed to take time out for health reasons.
In some ways that was no bad thing though because it gave us more time to get to know each other. It goes without saying, but writing someone else’s story involves an enormous degree of mutual trust. Not only has Jonny confided in me, but I have shared secrets with him I had never shared before. It’s an organic process, and one of the most rewarding outcomes has been our close friendship. We are also very lucky to have an incredibly supportive team behind us, especially our publisher at Bluebird, Carole Tonkinson, who was firm enough to chivvy us along when we needed it but gave us space and time to recover when we were simply not well enough. We really couldn’t be in better hands. What would your advice be to aspiring authors looking to follow in your own and Jonny’s footsteps? First and foremost, you need to get on. It sounds obvious, but I cannot imagine having written The Stranger on the Bridge if Jonny and I hadn’t clicked. Neither of us could have known this at the beginning of our journey, but we have very similar emotional responses to certain situations, and this has helped enormously. To the writer I would say, ‘Listen carefully. Absorb as much as you can, especially your “subject’s” voice.’ Voice can be notoriously difficult, especially if it is drastically different from your own. I found writing in Jonny’s surprisingly easy, and I remember telling friends how lucky it was that ours were so similar. When the book came out I was over the moon to be told by people close to him that reading it felt as though they were listening to Jonny sitting opposite them. That was a huge compliment, but friends of mine have since pointed out that our voices are in fact very different. I’m still quite puzzled by this, but it is a fascinating part of the process. I sometimes wonder whether it was a simple process of osmosis, but I suspect empathy and the ability to get into someone else’s head also played a big part. What is your own literary background and did it help you in the process? When I came up with the idea for the book, I’d been working in publishing for about twenty-five years, mostly as a literary scout (representing foreign publishers in the UK) but also has a literary consultant. In addition, I’d worked as senior editor for Laissez Faire Magazine, covering literature and art. My experience meant that I knew how to write a proposal and pitch it to suitable publishers. As a result we received three offers from leading publishers, and Bluebird/Pan Macmillan won. We sold them world rights to two books, and I’m still technically acting as our agent, although we recently signed up with The Artists Partnership who now represent the film & TV rights to The Stranger on the Bridge. That’s an area I don’t know much about, but it’s been a learning curve!
What is your favourite thing about having worked on this project? Definitely the feedback we’ve had from people who have struggled, or are still struggling with mental health issues, but also from friends and family of those affected. It’s been incredibly touching to hear that they can relate to the book, and take comfort from it. Despite some of the sadness, we’ve always wanted it to be a positive story, and hopefully we’ve achieved that. I’d also like to think that we’ve dispelled some of the myths surrounding mental health in general, and schizophrenia in particular. Maybe the most wonderful thing to result from the process, however, is the close friendship that Jonny and I have developed. It’s great that the book is doing well (in fact it has just been shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards and entered the top ten bestsellers on Amazon), but you can’t beat friendship. I will be forever grateful for that. Are you happy with its reception? When we first started writing it we were both concerned that people would focus solely on THAT day on the bridge rather than Jonny’s recovery and the amazing work he has done to raise awareness, but overall the reception has been tremendous: people really seem to get what we are trying to say. I can’t speak for the entire publishing world, but our publisher, Carole Tonkinson and the entire team have been incredibly supportive from the start. They have allowed us to shape the book into what we wanted it to be, including some controversial chapters about mental health services in the UK – which makes it even more extraordinary that The Duke of Cambridge agreed to write the foreword.
Are you planning more projects together in the future? Yes, in fact we have just started work on Book 2! The Book of Hope, due for publication in May 2020, will be a collection of writings from people, some but not all in the public eye, who have experienced mental health problems and come out the other side. You could argue that The Stranger on the Bridge was my baby, and The Book of Hope Jonny’s, but we’re equally passionate about both. Jonny came up with the idea of short, positive pieces which will be easily accessible to people who may not be very well and struggle to engage with lengthy narratives. We want to show readers that whilst they may be having an incredibly hard time, recovery is possible. We’re also talking about further projects for the future, so watch this space! A former literary scout, Britt Pflüger is the director of literary consultancy Hardy & Knox. The Stranger on the Bridge, published by Bluebird in May 2018, is her first book. https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/jonny-benjamin/the-stranger-on-the-bridge