Early riser

By Sarah Lang
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #55
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Novelist and computational biologist Danyl McLauchlan talks to Sarah Lang about the ordeal of insomnia and anxiety.

In mid 2017, Danyl McLauchlan began waking in the night, sometimes remaining awake until the next day dawned. The more anxious he felt about his insomnia, the harder it was to sleep, a vicious circle. “The way that made me feel was devastating,” he says.

One night at 3am, he went for a walk around Wadestown and was sure he could hear a choir. He peered into a school and church, but no one was there. He then followed the music through unlit tracks in the green belt before returning home. In the morning, he realised it was probably an auditory hallucination. Danyl tells this story in his essay “Arise and Pass Away,” published in the anthology Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety (Victoria University Press, $30), edited by journalist Naomi Arnold.

Danyl works as a computational biologist at Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences. He’s friendly and honest, if sometimes brisk in his answers. But he’s happy to discuss something that others might conceal fearing some remaining stigma about mental illness. “Why doesn’t it bother me putting this stuff out there? I’m not sure. I’d made the decision that my books would make fun of myself, and maybe it just developed from there.”

Danyl saw his doctor the morning after that nocturnal walk. “He said the auditory hallucination was tied to sleep deprivation. I’m like ‘Uh, obviously! Why can’t I sleep?’ I demanded. ‘Why is this happening? I don’t drink. I don’t take drugs. I’ve cut out caffeine. I drink peppermint tea. And now this. I can’t be wandering around my neighbourhood in the middle of the night, hallucinating. It’s completely inappropriate’.”

He’d had spells of depression in the past, but this time he was diagnosed with insomnia-induced anxiety. He took sleeping pills for a short time, but when he stopped them, the insomnia returned. He didn’t want to go back on SSRI antidepressants (also used for anxiety) as they made him gain weight and feel sedated. But he started taking nortriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant with a side effect of sedation. That helped a little.

But what really helped was meditation, once he realised it was a scientifically-based clinical treatment “not pointless new-age bullshit.” Danyl practises Buddhist-derived Samartha meditation, concentrating on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. Initially, he felt bored and his attention kept wandering. “The saying ‘the mind doesn’t want to be still’ is absolutely true. But it got easier, and meditating every day seemed to make me psychologically and emotionally fitter.”

In his essay, he writes that he is “a cacophony of neural algorithms” rather than a person in the eyes of Buddhists and neuroscientists. “It’s interesting to realise how little free will you have,” he tells me. He also writes that he’s a “sometimes sleepless, sometimes anxious, sometimes medicated, sometimes depressed, often bewildered middle-aged man.” “That’s an accurate description of me at 44,” he says with a grin.

Danyl is funny and self-deprecating both in person and in his writing. His novels Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley (2013) and Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley (2016) send up both the student/hippy setting and occult literature. “I’d call them Kiwi comic noir. I joked to my publisher that Unspeakable Secrets was ‘a classic Kiwi comic mystery erotic horror adventure novel’ and unfortunately he put that on the back cover.”

Danyl had read books in which the central characters seemed like the male authors’ fantasy version of themselves.  He took the opposite approach in his novels, with their hapless protagonist called Danyl McLauchlan. “The character is the ‘Danyl not taken’ – the person I might have become. I was once living in Aro Valley, working casual jobs. Then I travelled and worked overseas, and got my life into order.” He likes taking the piss out of himself. “I have total freedom to mock the character.” Not to mention gently mocking the setting. “Some friends living in Aro were trying to write books and zombie movies, but I noticed their actual lives seemed far more interesting, comic and story-worthy. One guy was dating this woman who was in a cult.”

In Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, Danyl is lured into a Byzantine cult led by Campbell Walker. The real Campbell Walker is a former Aro St Video staffer who wore berets and made low-budget films. “He kindly agreed not to take legal action against me,” Danyl jokes. In Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, Danyl returns from a psychiatric institution to find his vanished girlfriend and uncover an occult conspiracy.

Danyl has lived in Wadestown for eight years. “Colleagues say ‘I thought you lived in Aro!’ I’m a fraud in that respect.” His current work-in-progress won’t be a third Aro novel, and he’s not divulging details. “I’m writing a number of things, which I know is a mistake, as I’m very easily distracted.”

Yet he’s very disciplined. Danyl gets up at 4.30am to write for two hours or so before his hour-long walk to work. He goes to bed around 8 or 8.30pm, about the same time as his six-year-old daughter. “My wife Maggie gets outraged about this every single night.” He can’t sleep in, he says, because of his strong biological clock.

Speaking of biology, what is a computational biologist? “Biology researchers need someone around to help with the computer science and IT.” There’s no typical day. “I might be helping out in the lab, building a server, analysing data from an algorithm. I’m not smart enough to do high-level research but I’ve landed in a good place. I’ve always wanted to do lots of different things. I did always want to write.”

A year ago, the Green Party supporter closed down his nine-year-old satirical political blog The Dim-Post. “When I wrote controversial things, I expected negative comments on my blog, but once I wrote about doing this walk and the same commenters said how much they hated me.” It was no longer fun nor worth it. Instead he now writes essays, articles and book reviews for online magazines.

He’s got some flak for mixed reviews of certain books. “I was advised not to review New Zealand writers because if you’re critical you make enemies. They’ll be standing next to you at book launches and sitting on judging and grant panels. The writer and publisher will carry that grudge ‘til the end of time, but it’s deeply unsatisfying if you can’t be honest.”

He’s certainly been honest in his essay for Headlands. He got the commission after he and his friend Ashleigh Young – a VUP editor working on the book – were talking at a party. “Usually writers talk about lack of money, but we started talking about auditory hallucinations.”

The insomnia and anxiety still flare up. “This winter I got a virus, and I find it’s impossible to meditate when you’re sick and coughing. My sleep fell apart almost immediately. What helped was returning to meditation – for me, it’s extremely important.” 


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