Author Archives: Christopher Shevlin
Author Archives: Christopher Shevlin
On the 11th of May, I left London, where I’ve lived since 1998, and came to Berlin, where I know no one and have no job or place to live. I don’t know when I’ll return. This may strike you as mystifying and stupid, or life-affirming and exciting, depending on your temperament and mood. My own temperament and mood are highly unstable, so I veer between the two.
I made the decision very quickly, by my standards. In March, it was a pipedream – one of many things that I could do and would notionally like to do, but which I comfortingly won’t ever do. A bit like my dream of becoming a carpenter and building my own house.
But on the ninth of April I woke up thinking it was the only viable option, and two days later I gave my month’s notice to leave my London flat. This isn’t really the sort of thing I do, so it shocked me. For two nights I couldn’t sleep. My whole body was flooded with alternating waves of fear and excitement. For about a week after that I was stunned: I mostly just sat about, staring into space and being surprised that I’d done something so disastrously bold.
I had a need to explain myself to people. At first I just talked to friends and family. But then it felt like such a big decision that I found myself explaining it to strangers too. There was a man who knocked on my door collecting for charity, and I told him more or less my whole life story, and how it had come to this. If you smiled at me just fractionally too long when selling me a sandwich in Pret, I would begin to explain that I’d had a long illness and what with insane London rents and having saved the money my book earned me, it was now or never… Anyway, since I find I have a blog, it struck me that I may as well use it to get this need to explain out of my system.
I can see where the need to explain comes from: in November 2014 everything was finally going well. My book had a quietly spectacular year, I’d had perhaps my most profitable year of freelancing ever, I was in a comedy show that did pretty well at the Edinburgh Festival, and I was just about to move into my (long-overdue) first nice, grown-up flat in London. I felt like I’d finally prevailed against impossible odds and was no longer a total failure. But six months later I left it all behind to come to Germany.
The decision doesn’t really fit the script I had written for myself, and lots of people seemed a bit baffled by it. ‘Oh right,’ said one friend when I told him, ‘I’m assuming you’ve got mates out there.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t know anyone. That’s one of the things that makes it so stupid.’
The explanation’s quite long, so I’m going to put it in a separate post, to make it easier for you to avoid reading it. I might never get round to posting it at all. Perhaps it was just something I needed to write for myself. Or maybe, more plausibly, it was a successful strategy for avoiding writing the book that I’ve left London to finish.
I’ve had lots of good things happen to my book recently. Actually, they’ve been happening since Christmas, which is how long I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for. But today it was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and it has pleased my head clean off. They say the book “cleverly combines intrigue with comic, astute observation which made me laugh throughout.”
It was Viv Groskop who told me to enter, after she saw a tweet from them saying they’d like more comic novels. It was also Viv who put me in touch with Colin Midson, the book PR supremo who got me my Guardian review. Viv is basically a fairy godmother to everyone who knows her, and implausibly lovely. She’s also, as her funny book “I Laughed, I Cried” inadvertently reveals, superhuman. Let’s just say that if the Ukraine were friends with her, there’s no way it would be in its current position.
Anyway, my book started selling much better at Christmas. In fact, its Christmas present to me was to get into Amazon’s top ten bestsellers for humorous fiction. It’s been in and out ever since, and last month it sold its ten thousandth copy. With that milestone out of the way, I risked putting the price up, which seems to have increased sales slightly. Last week, for the first time, the book brought in a liveable weekly wage. That has finally made me stop feeling embarrassed about having self-published. (The nice reviews and messages have also had a huge effect. Should I admit that I re-read them when I’m feeling low?)
The result of all this is that I’ve been feeling confident enough to start a sequel to Perpetual Astonishment. I’ve got it planned out and have written three chapters.
I’m very grateful for all of this.
Sort of all right, thank you. Well, I’ll let you make your own mind up:
Lately I’ve been finding it a bit more difficult to maintain my habitual pessimism (about the book, at least). Sales started to increase in late April, after I changed my description and categories on Amazon. When it started to tail off in September, I put the Kindle price right down, and that helped a lot. But the most important thing is that I’ve had some really kind Amazon reviews and emails about it – all from generous people going out of their way to make me feel better. I’m very grateful to them.
Here are my press reviews:
“Not many books make me laugh out loud, but The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax is one of them” – Stylist magazine
“You can’t help being tickled” – The Guardian
“Shevlin was rightly picked up by the literary agency that represents the likes of David Nicholls” – Metro magazine
What I’m getting at is that you might like it. If you’d like to buy it, click one of these links:
I saw someone on the tube the other day with a penguin tattooed on her arm. It was quite well done, with shading and perspective. In fact, it could easily have been used as an illustration in a school textbook.
Seeing her made me surprised all over again at how popular tattoos are. They’re basically pen-and-ink drawings or little calligraphed mottoes that are embedded in your skin forever. What seems odd to me is that people aren’t generally all that keen on pen-and-ink drawings or little calligraphed mottoes in any other context. If you asked most people to choose a drawing by a competent but mediocre draughtsman and then display it on their living-room wall for the rest of their life, they’d refuse – especially if it was expensive and involved hours of pain. But if, instead of their living room, the drawing goes on their body, they’re really keen. I couldn’t imagine the penguin lady buying a print of the same drawing and putting it up on her wall.
There’s another kind of tattoo that I find much easier to understand. In a pub in Hackney the other day I saw a man in shorts with a huge lighthouse tattooed up each leg. He was in his twenties and the tattoos seemed to me to be a huge pre-emotive practical joke on his future self. He was basically saying, “You’d better continue to find this hilarious for the rest of your life or you’re fucked.” It was a way of making sure he doesn’t turn into the sort of person he dislikes: i.e. someone without huge lighthouses tattooed up both legs.
I think one reason I don’t blog more is that I’m not sure how much I ought to reveal, especially about my emotions. I’m of that peculiarly British type who feels everything extremely sharply, but believes he shouldn’t: completely ineffective stoics, you might call us. Anyway, I hope it’s all right to admit that there have been a couple of times recently that people have made me cry by sending me gratuitously kind messages about my book. I can’t express how grateful I am for them.
About a week ago, I did my first interview. It’s with Lee Strayer, who runs Atomic 27, a company that produces audiobooks, videos, ebooks and real books. Lee used to work in radio, and as well as running the company he’s now narrating audiobooks – the first of which is Prison Planet by Billie Sue Mosiman. Anyway, he’s starting a weekly podcast to promote the whole thing and he asked me to be in the first episode. Lee has one of those pleasing American voices that make you feel that everything’s going to be all right (except when he’s reading Prison Planet). Voices like that have always reminded me of the sound of biting into a crisp apple, which is odd, I know, but there it is.
I’m becoming increasingly like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (in that I rely on the kindness of strangers – I’m not living with my sister after being forced to flee Auriol, Mississippi for having sex with a student and destroying my family’s plantation). Lee is one of those strangers and he’s really remarkably kind. As well as the interview, he’s offered to help me with an audiobook version of Perpetual Astonishment. I liked him massively and have put him in my mental file of “People I’d like to do a huge favour for, if it ever becomes remotely possible”.
Lee lives in rural Indiana, which he tells me people in the US call “flyover country” or, more intriguingly, “Buttfuck, Egypt”. If anyone can explain this more satisfactorily than Wikipedia (i.e. even remotely satisfactorily) then please let me know. I’ve heard Americans in films say “Buttfuck” as an alternative to “the Boondocks” when they’re talking about little rustic places. That’s a bit weird when you come to think of it, but it’s the Egypt bit that’s really odd. Do they mean it’s so far away from anywhere that it might as well be in Egypt? If so, why? Surely there are more remote places than Egypt – Sudan, for example, or the Sandwich Islands. I was trying to think of the British equivalent and realised that we don’t really have one. We just have to say “somewhere in the countryside miles away from anywhere”. In this, as in much else, the Americans are both more inexplicable and much more efficient than us.
But I’ve strayed a bit from my original topic, which was the interview. Being interviewed shouldn’t be interesting, because you’re the one who’s meant to be talking, and you already know all the stuff you’re talking about. But it’s actually fascinating. It made me realise that I don’t really know my opinion on anything until I’ve heard myself say it. We talked about the strange way in which I wrote the book, about the ups and downs (and downs and downs and ups) since I self-published it, and about how writing it compares with my corporate work and live comedy. Afterwards we had a long conversation about this new world we find ourselves in, where Amazon and Audible make it possible for writers and narrators to make a living by reaching readers directly, and how that encourages people to work together.
Lee has diligently edited down the excruciatingly long pauses I leave between words, and the result is on Atomic 27’s website now.
I should have mentioned it earlier, I suppose, but my book is free on Kindle today and tomorrow (Sunday 23 and Monday 24 June). I advertised it on Bookbub, and they’ve done a very good description of it. That’s probably why nearly 10,000 people have downloaded it in the US now, taking it to number 10 in the free book chart. I suppose fewer people read Bookbub in the UK – 219 people have downloaded it here, which has made it number 223 in the free chart.
I have no idea whether this will have any effect on sales. I suspect it will take them a quite a while to recover in Britain, and I have no idea whether the free copies will lead to any sales in the US – I hope so, since I’d only sold a total of about five copies there beforehand.
It keeps you guessing, this lark.
I read in the paper that today is Towel Day – Douglas Adams’s birthday. He would have been 61. It’s called Towel Day because, as the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy teaches us, all a man (specifically an interstellar freebooter and stowaway) needs is a towel.
Douglas Adams has always meant a great deal to me. I was nine when I first read the Guide, and it changed my life.
It must have been in my first term at middle school. I had never really understood why nothing in Doncaster in the early 80s was the way it was on TV or in books. Everything confused me. I particularly didn’t understand school, which seemed to have been deliberately constructed to make me miserable. How else to explain swimming and maths? Then there was assembly and picking teams in PE. And the few friends I’d had in my first school seemed to have met new people and disappeared, leaving me alone.
Douglas Adams told me that I wasn’t alone. He said, with amused certainty, that the world – the Universe, in fact – is absurd and makes no sense at all. That was a deeply, deeply comforting thing for the nine-year-old me to hear. It might seem a bit of a bleak message, but it allowed me to feel that I might not be the problem. And it was conveyed in a tone of voice that instantly appealed to me.
I can’t for the moment find my copy of the Guide, but I can quote a bit from the opening pages from memory. Ford Prefect – the towel-carrying interstellar freebooter who takes boring dressing-gown-and-tea obsessive Arthur Dent under his wing – is convincing a man from the council’s planning department to lie in front of some bulldozers.
There was something about that interjected ‘as you say’ that I loved. It was a bit like putting food in my mouth and finding that it stimulated a taste bud that I’d never previously known I had. And then there was a flight of fancy about the council planner being a direct male descendent of Genghis Khan, and this meaning that in times of stress he had the sudden uneasy feeling that a crowd of bearded men with spears were all shouting at him.
Pretty much all of Douglas Adams’s books contained things that pleased me just as much, and they have all stayed with me. Even today, when I have flying dreams they happen in the Adams way – I have to distract myself as I’m falling, so that I forget to hit the ground. When I re-read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency a couple of years ago, I was amazed at how familiar it all was – how thoroughly it had soaked in.
I can only say that Douglas Adams helped me considerably to deal with the world around me. Or perhaps he helped me to not deal with the world around me, but in a new and rather more satisfying way.
Whatever the case, I – and several million other lonely nine-year-olds – am very grateful to Douglas Adams. And I’m sad he is gone.
Like many people, I tend to judge myself against those who have more than me. This practice – unfortunately but inevitably – means that I constantly feel like a failure, no matter how I am doing.When I decided to self-publish, I tried to avoid this trap by defining some milestones in advance. I decided it would be too difficult to define success, but that I could try to define stages of non-failure. At a point when no one had bought the book, I tried to imagine having sold various numbers of copies, and thought about whether I’d class each as success or failure.
The point at which I found it difficult to imagine being able to tell myself that the whole thing had been a failure came at 750 copies.
That was the magic number (or perhaps the not un-magic number would be more accurate), but there were some way-stations before that. I calculated that I wouldn’t sell fewer than 12 copies unless my mother and close friends turned against me. Thirty seemed the point at which sales purely out of politeness would stop. A hundred was an important marker because of the two zeros in it. Then I overheard a couple of authors at the London Library talking about a friend whose commercially published book had sold only 312 copies in a year, so overtaking that was important. Then there was my official break-even number of 476 (an underestimate), and then a long gap.
Finally, a week or so ago, I reached 750. I can report that, having set the number in advance, I feel less like a failure now. Of course I still slip sometimes. I know a few writers who have achieved out-and-out success, with award nominations, big advances from publishers and tens or hundreds of thousands of sales. But it is now a bit easier to let that go.
The one thing everyone agrees on, if you have a blog, is that you should be completely consistent with it. You shouldn’t, for example, suddenly stop posting for three months. Nevertheless, that is what I have done. I am a maverick, tearing up the rule book with laxity and inertia.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve done since my last post, in case you should find yourself wondering. I ran my Guardian masterclass (which went very well because the people in it were lovely), succumbed a little to the winter blues, dashed off romantically to Hanoi, where I fell ill, then returned to London, where I’ve been living quietly ever since. This last month I’ve been writing a short story, doing unnecessarily elaborate financial planning, working on my writing training techniques, seeing friends and doing all the other usual background activities that make up a life.
I’ve also been doing more improv, which is generally quite a good blues-retarder. I’ve done workshops run by the excellent Cariad Lloyd, who teaches David Shore’s techniques, as well as performing in shows with my group – Upstairs Downton – the next of which is on Saturday at 7.30pm, as part of London ImproFest. It’s at the Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town, in what is almost exactly midway between a small theatre and a room above a pub. Our show is basically an improvised spoof episode of a period TV drama like Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey, and people have been very nice about it. There’s even talk of touring Texas with it, which seems unlikely – but then most things do.