Author Archives: Christopher Shevlin
Author Archives: Christopher Shevlin
Christopher Shevlin was interviewed by imaginary Guardian journalist, Libby Hesketh-Myers, about the life-or-death struggle behind the writing of Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed.
Libby: So, let’s get this out in the open right from the outset, this is a fake interview, isn’t it? I’m a character that you made up, and I’m asking you questions.
Chris: Yes, that’s right. Sorry. I started writing a straight blog post, but it was just too difficult. I think people have a higher tolerance of rambling and incoherence in interviews, so that seemed the way to go. And dialogue is always the easiest thing.
Libby: Is that a habit of yours – lying and taking the easy option?
Chris (looks slightly hurt): Um. Well making things up is definitely a habit of mine, but I don’t really lie. And I think I try to take the easy option, but then I have a way of turning it into the incredibly difficult option by overthinking it and getting obsessed with tiny points.
Libby: Did that happen with your latest book, Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed?
Chris: Holy trumpet, yes. I thought a sequel would be easy. I planned on taking six months out to write it.
Libby: How long did it actually take?
Chris: I can’t face telling you. Can we get back to it later on?
Libby: Of course. Do I sense a bit of Difficult Second Album Syndrome here?
Chris: Um, sort of.
Libby: Sort of?
Chris: Well, it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried to do in my life, but not so much because of the actual writing – that was reasonably straightforward and actually, in total, didn’t take a ridiculous amount of time.
Libby: So what was difficult?
Chris: Everything else. Circumstances. The unfortunate nature of reality. The unfortunate nature of me.
Libby: But the writing itself was relatively easy, you say?
Chris: Relatively. When I managed to actually sit down and write the book, it was quite straightforward and often really fun. I work in drafts, so I decide what I’m going to do in the current draft, write it, leave it for a bit, and then read it back and make notes on what I like and what I hate. Those notes turn into a series of questions or puzzles to solve: ‘If Jonathon does that, then it’s impossible for Lance to do this at the same time. How can I make both happen?’ Working out answers to those questions gives me a new plan – a list of things to do to the current draft to get rid of everything I hate about it. Then I follow that plan, leave it for a bit… And the whole thing repeats.
Libby: Is that your definition of success, getting rid of everything you hate in the book?
Chris: I suppose it is. All I’m trying to do with these books is write stuff that I like – the sort of books I’d like to read.
Libby: So how many drafts did you do?
Chris: Four in total. After three drafts I sent it to some test-readers – friends who’d volunteered to read it before it was quite finished. What I wanted to know from them, really, was whether I had to throw it away and get a proper job.
Libby: And what was their answer?
Chris (embarrassed): They seemed to be enthusiastic about it. But the actual process of sending it out to people, that’s exactly the sort of thing that took me an unnecessarily huge amount of time. I was extremely fearful of sending it out to those friends. It took me at least two weeks of dithering and putzing about before I sent it out.
Libby: Why was that, do you think?
Chris: Until the first person reads it, it’s in a quantum state where it’s simultaneously a work of genius and a crime against eyes and brains. It was only when I started talking to those first readers that it began to resolve itself into… well, into a book, with strengths and weaknesses, like all books.
Libby: So was that a relief?
Chris: Yes, definitely. Before that, there was this huge fear that it wouldn’t even be a book. I know it’s only a minor comic novel anyway, but that somehow makes the uncertainty involved in writing it all the worse. After all, if you set out to write the next War and Peace and you fail, then there’s something heroic about that. But if you set out to write something much more achievable, like say Jonathon Fairfax 2, and you fail even at that, then that’s ridiculous.
Libby: What would failure involve?
Chris: You know, not managing to finish it. Finding that what you have is so unworkable that there’s no way of solving the problems with it.
Libby: Have you ever not managed to finish a book?
Chris: Yes. I was writing a serious historical novel set in the Boer War. I had lots of chapters, but they were just little stories. I had a writing teacher at the City Lit who really liked them. But I didn’t know how to put them together. I put some up on my website and an agent saw them and got in touch. But he wanted me to turn them into a Sharpe-style adventure. I tried to compromise, and in the end just got so confused about what I was doing that I had to give it up. But in the meantime, I’d spent a lot of time on the book. And time is expensive – I have to earn the money to pay for it by working and saving really hard, which is stressful.
Libby: So it’s not so much the writing that’s stressful as everything that makes the writing possible?
Chris: Yes, exactly. That’s what I was trying to say. So I have to try to keep my mind focused just on what I’m writing right now, this moment. It feels a bit like a high-wire act. No matter how much you’re wobbling, you have to keep on taking the next step and try not to look down. I kept finding big plot problems, and I’d have to continue writing it, just trusting that I’d eventually find solutions to all those problems. But that means pouring time into something that might turn out to be fundamentally unworkable and impossible. And time was the thing that woke me in the night, panicking about how stupid I had been to give up so much to try to make a go of writing books. I found that bit of it really stressful.
Libby: How did you deal with the stress?
Chris: I mostly just lived with it. Some of it’s unavoidable. I overheard a writer at the London Library saying that every project of any kind goes through this phase, which she called the Valley of Death. It’s a time when it appears that the problems with the project are so huge that there is no longer any prospect of success. You have to gallop on into certain destruction, charge for the guns.
Libby: Like The Charge of the Light Brigade? So you’re like a 19th-century soldier?
Chris: Yes, I’m like the modern desk-based version of a hussar. It might look like I’m just sitting in a chair eating baked goods, but I’m actually bravely riding to certain death – while simultaneously performing on a high wire in the circus.
Libby: So, to return to a question I asked earlier, how long did you spend bravely riding a desk towards certain death?
Chris: More than two years.
Libby: Two years? But didn’t John Steinbeck write The Grapes of Wrath in six months?
Chris (blushing): Yes. Everyone wrote all the good books in far less time than it’s taken me to write this probably-not-very-good book. But there are extenuating circumstances.
Libby: Such as?
Chris: I’m dogged by stupidity, accidents, illnesses and misfortune of all kinds. I should have written it and got it out in 2014, when my first book was selling best. But I lost that year to working to buy a flat – which didn’t happen. So I didn’t start properly working on it till February 2015, when I was too ill to do anything else. My plan was to get a first draft in a couple of months and then go back to combining writing with freelance work.
Libby: Sounds like a sensible plan.
Chris: Yes, but it wasn’t to be. My brain was really not working very well at that time, and the work I did on the book when I was ill turned out later to be more of a hindrance than a help. Anyway, I started to feel better in March, but on my first weekend of feeling properly well a car drove into me on my bike. The people driving it were so evil that, combined with the illness and insane rents, it just ruined London for me. I started to feel it was a hostile place. And every day was so expensive that trying to write a book there was just too stressful. I didn’t know where else in England I could live – it felt like too big a decision – so I took a friend’s advice and went to Berlin, intending to finish the book in six months.
Libby: Ah, Berlin, the city of artists.
Chris: The city of artists who never really get round to doing any art because you can just sit by the canal and have a really nice ice cream instead. Berlin was cheap enough to be much less stressful, but I hadn’t reckoned with how distracting it would be to find myself in a completely new place, with a language to relearn, friends to make and ice creams to eat. And after six months I found that I really hadn’t got very far with the book. So around about the beginning of November I stopped trying to work in picturesque cafes, joined a co-working place, and started treating it like a job. I turned up every day and, like Stephen King says in On Writing, ground it out, sentence by sentence.
Libby: And how long did it take, this grinding it out?
Chris: By the end of January, I had what I called a first draft. It wasn’t though, really. The plan I’d made for the book while I was ill in London didn’t make any sense, so I had to re-plan it in the middle of writing. That meant the first draft was unreadable: the beginning set up plot lines that never appeared, and the end referred to events that had never happened. The second draft was more like a normal first draft, and the third draft was the one I sent out to test-readers in September.
Libby: So really the book took from November to September to write? Ten months?
Chris: Yes, except that I was interrupted by bits of paid work that came along – I took on freelance stuff if it came up when I could easily leave the book, like between drafts. And I was also interrupted by lots of ridiculous things, like the time I was kept in a German hospital for several days because they thought I was having a stroke.
Libby: And were you?
Libby: So why did they think you were?
Chris: It’s a long story. We’re allowed to admit our mental health problems these days, aren’t we?
Libby: To some extent. To be honest, you’d need to be a bit more successful before you could really get away with it.
Chris: Oh well, I can always delete this interview later. Anyway, I have a very longstanding problem which involves my brain and personality suddenly stopping working, which is inconvenient. The NHS calls it depression.
Libby: That sounds a bit glib.
Chris: I’m trying to keep this light while staying honest – it’s a tricky balance. And I couldn’t have talked about it like this even a few months ago, so I must be making progress. Anyway, over the years I’ve developed a sort of speech problem that only comes on when I’m having, well… mental problems. Actually, it’s more like someone’s pressing a pause button. Sometimes that sounds like a stutter, sometimes like I’m dictating a word at a time, and sometimes I just can’t speak. One day, while I was writing the second draft, I turned up at the co-working place doing some pretty extreme stuttering. I was very confused and not making much sense.
Libby: Why did you go in, if you felt that bad?
Chris: It’s actually quite difficult to recognise when I’ve moved from fairly-normal-just-about-succeeding-in-staying-on-top-of-it to blatantly-not-functioning-anymore. Anyway, a friend at the co-working place – Adam Fletcher (an extremely funny writer and easily successful enough to admit it if he had any mental health problems) – said he was worried about me. He pointed out how alarming it was to watch, and suggested doing something about it.
Libby: Going to a German stroke ward?
Chris: No, just going to a doctor. But my stuttering, as I later found out, sounds exactly like the speech patterns of a person who’s having a stroke, as the people at the doctor’s spotted. And that was how I ended up in an ambulance, speeding my way over to an emergency stroke clinic. I stayed there five days, doing what was effectively a series of practical German exams while they tested my brain in lots of different machines.
Libby: And what was the result?
Chris: Good news: I wasn’t having a stroke.
Libby: Did you think you were?
Chris: Not really. But who knows? And when you’re confused and can’t speak and a lot of quietly commanding Germans in white coats are telling you to take stroke medication and climb into a brain scanner, you tend to go along with them. Or at least I did.
Libby: So did you discover anything?
Chris: Yes. They said I had a somatoform speech disorder. This was a big thing for me though, because, after all the tests, I finally knew for certain that my problems weren’t to do with my mental hardware – it wasn’t an odd form of epilepsy, for example. But more than that, there was something really powerful about Adam’s drive to do something about the problem.
Libby: Hadn’t you been doing anything about it before?
Chris: Yes, but this led me to be a bit more systematic about things I’d already been doing. I read two books that made a big difference: Spark, by Dr John Ratey, about how exercise affects the brain; and Overcoming Depression, by Paul Gilbert, which sets out six proven things you can do to counter depression. I’ve read lots of other books about depression, but these were the only ones that made a big practical difference. Paul Gilbert draws a parallel with Type-2 diabetes: it can be fatal, but you can beat it if you make big changes in your lifestyle and give it priority over everything else. I started being serious about doing that.
Libby: So are you saying that you wrote a lot of this book while mentally ill?
Chris: I suppose I am.
Libby: And did that have an effect on the book?
Chris: I’m not sure. One of the strange feelings about writing a book is that you’re somehow not responsible for it, that it comes from outside you. There are a lot of bits of this book that I’m a bit embarrassed about, or that aren’t really what I’d think of as my taste – like the toilet scene – but they just came out, and they seemed right for the book. A book becomes a bit autonomous, and seems to want to be itself.
Libby: So what comes out is the same, no matter what state you’re in?
Chris: Not exactly. It can get impossible to write, of course. But it’s surprising how independent the bit of me that writes is – how separate from the bits of me that deal with being a person in the world. It was odd to be writing a book like this while I was in hospital, and odd to be writing when I couldn’t speak properly.
Libby: So what can you say about the relationship between depression and this book?
Chris: Well, depression is more or less the whole reason I want to write books like this. Reading has often been a lifeline, and I’ve come across some powerfully antidepressant books, so that was the kind of book I wanted to write. Jonathon has a lot my vulnerabilities, though I try to soften them a bit, so as not to make the books depressing. And this book, really, is my attempt to dramatise the difficulties I’ve had – and that most people have – with jobs, with work, and with the whole bizarre way that our economy works. It’s about this feeling that the stupid things you have to do to keep a roof over your head are killing you, and forcing you to pretend to be a different person. For most people that’s metaphorical, but for Jonathon in this book it’s also real. So writing this was a way of dealing with difficult things in a fun way. It was always meant to be a way of recovering.
Libby: And have you recovered?
Chris: No. But I might be getting there.
Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed is available in ebook and paperback from Amazon UK, Amazon US, and can be ordered from any bookshop. For full buying options, please see the JFMBD page.
When I put my first book out, there was no easy way of finding a professional cover designer. And I was sure it would disappear without trace anyway, so I decided to do everything on the book myself. Designing and drawing the cover was the bit I enjoyed most.
But I’ve always suspected that people could see the cover was home-made, and always wondered if the book would have done better with something designed by a professional. (One designer said my cover was good, but that it ‘lacked design finish’ – and I think people pick up on that.) So I decided not to do the cover of the new book myself.
If you try to use Google to find people to do anything on your book, you immediately come up against the problem that almost everyone offering their services is almost hilariously lacking in the advertised skills. Fortunately, since my first book, a website called Reedsy has appeared. It vets people before allowing them to offer their services, and gives a guarantee of satisfaction.
Reedsy lets you shortlist five people, and you have to write a proper brief. Then the five bid for the job, and Reedsy handles the payments. Even with this, it’s a hard decision – especially for someone like me, who breaks into a sweat just trying to decide what to have for lunch.
Anyway, I ended up choosing Patrick Knowles, who did the cover for Rivers of London, one of the rare successful funny books. I really like Patrick’s work, because it makes the books feel like a lot of care and skill has gone into them. It’s also completely clear what kind of books they are.
But it turns out that giving feedback on the various stages of a design is a skill at least as difficult to master as actually designing something. If what you’re looking at has the wrong feel for the book, how do you say that in a way that will allow the designer to give it the right feel? Never having done this before, the whole process felt like a protracted disaster to me (again, to put this in perspective, so does lunch). But Patrick seemed to take it all in his stride and see it as just the way it goes. I talked to a friend of a friend who’s an art director for a children’s publisher, and he agreed with Patrick: that’s how covers are. ‘It’s always shit till it’s not,’ he said.
I shared some of the rough designs on Facebook, and then a friend of mine who’s an illustrator said, ‘How about this?’ and posted a quick sketch. I immediately liked it, and so did Patrick, who did his own version. So that was how we ended up with this cover…
I felt a bit guilty though, because this same friend – the great illustrator and recent Australian, Edward ‘Dward’ Ward – had, months before, suggested the title. The book – and, by extension, I – owe him a lot. (E.D. Ward is a genius, as his cut-away technical drawing of a kitten (and its tiny crew) will immediately prove.)
E.D. Ward said he’d like to work up a version of the cover for his portfolio (mainly to distract himself from having moved to Australia). And I like the results an inconvenient amount. Here are two versions of it…
What do you think? It would be great to know.
Well, this is odd. I’ve just stumbled upon this huge blog post that I wrote when I left London, but which I obviously felt too ashamed to post at the time. It is fearsomely long, and probably only of interest if you are me. But I suddenly feel like posting it. After all, no one has to read it, and I can always delete it.
Here it is…
So tell me, Chris, why did you leave London?
It all comes down to money, illness and accidents. And what I want to spend my life doing.
I’m never sure where to begin explanations. I try to start at the beginning, but then I want to go further back, to explain how the conditions for that beginning arose. And then I want to account for those conditions, and so it goes on. Left to my own devices, I think I would begin my answer to every question with an account of how the universe formed. It’s the main reason why I look blank for a couple of seconds whenever anyone asks me a question, which is why so many people take me for a foreigner or an imbecile. So, you’ll see that I’m exercising considerable restraint when I begin my answer (to the question I’ve asked myself) in 2014.
Firstly, my book suddenly did well last year. It didn’t make me a millionaire or anything, but it’s earned me about £20,000 from 25,000 sales. That’s pretty unusual for a self-published book, especially by an author who hasn’t got any other novels out, and especially by one who does none of the relentless self-promotion that we’re all meant to do. (This blog is a very low-key attempt to embark on that relentless self-promotion.) So it makes sense to follow it up before all its readers entirely forget it. It makes sense to do that, and I also really want to do it. I want to write another book. I’d like to write many more. I want to be allowed to dream and imagine and entertain myself for a living (or at least for part of a living). In any case, the first step is to finish another book, and that was looking close to impossible in London.
Secondly, I felt that I couldn’t go on as I was. It feels strange saying that, because really everything was finally working the way I’d always wanted it to, and in April last year I finally stopped constantly feeling like an abject failure. I earned more from freelancing last year than I ever have, and I went to Edinburgh with a comedy show that did pretty well. I had enough money for a deposit on a flat, and was only saved from buying one by the sudden change in lending rules. (Since I’m perhaps starting to blog, I might write about buying a flat, since it’s by a long way the most stressful thing that has ever not happened to me.) Instead I moved into a nice, unshared flat – the first time I’ve managed that combination in London – which is to say, in my life.
But even though everything was going well last year, I was feeling more and more overwhelmed – working, performing, writing, trying to buy a flat, trying to keep up with friends and family – all of which involved emails, Facebook messages, texts, calls, going places. And all the tasks I was juggling meant chopping up my attention into ever thinner slices. I felt like I was constantly reeling, like my brain was overheating. (My brain is happiest, I think, when it has only one thing to deal with.) I don’t want to make any big claims for how busy I was – I think most people are probably much busier, and have far more more demands on them. I don’t even have children or a proper job and I felt overwhelmed. But then I’m made of much less stern stuff than other people, and friends constantly laugh at how slowly I do everything. I can’t help it: I’m just designed to run at a lower speed, and the effort to keep up with everyone else is quite a strain.
In November, something gave. It was a week after I’d moved into my new place, and the day after I’d cleared everything out of my old room. I woke to find that my back was catastrophically unable to do anything without immense pain, and I had a temperature. But the worst thing was that I felt exhausted, in my brain and body. I think there are two kinds of tiredness. There’s the normal kind, which I usually have, where you look and feel incredibly tired but can still somehow do all the things you need to do (I think parents are particularly familiar with this kind of tiredness). And then there’s the other kind, where you can’t do anything, and have to psych yourself up for the effort of just tying your shoes, which leaves you panting slightly. I had the second kind. And it wasn’t just physical. My brain had slowed to a crawl, and I didn’t have the energy to hold a thought long enough to do anything about it.
I thought it would pass in a few days – a week at the outside. And I maintained that week-at-the-outside prognosis for the next four months. I was in the middle of a couple of big work projects when it struck, and I’d taken time off so I could move house, so I had a lot to catch up on, as well as all the arranging of bills and changing of addresses. But I decided to be realistic: I called my clients and told them I would be out of action for a week, That’s something freelancers don’t do, because it makes you look like a flake, and it invites your client to go and find someone else who can do the job now. But I did it. After a week I didn’t feel much better, but I did have the energy to force myself to finish the immediate bit of the project I was working on – finishing designing a workshop and running it twice. I more or less did an acceptable job, but afterwards I felt even more exhausted than I had before.
I should have gone to see the doctor, but I was too tired. That’s one problem with the NHS: you need to be in pretty good health just to have the energy to deal with the system. I’d moved house, so I needed to register with a new doctor, which meant looking them up on line and making decisions. I was just too tired. When I did get the energy together, I found all the ones I was allowed to register with were rated terribly by their patients. I called one anyway, but they didn’t answer the phone – one of the things their patients had complained about most bitterly. I could have gone to my old doctor, but that meant a fifteen-minute bike ride or an hour’s journey on public transport. It also meant phoning the doctor at the stroke of eight, because that’s the only time you can make an appointment. You need to keep calling till you get through, and then you need to deal with a person. I was too tired for any of that. I was too tired even to think about it all. And anyway, I’d be better in a few days. It was just a virus.
I finally did get enough energy to see a doctor in February, and had blood tests. They said I’d had a nasty virus and was now post-viral, which would make me very tired for about six weeks. I wanted to take a holiday, but I found it impossible to organise. It sounds ridiculous, but my brain was too tired to deal with looking things up on websites, comparing options and working out what I’d like. In fact, that kind of switching attention and evaluating options was exactly the thing that my brain found most stressful and overwhelming.
I didn’t feel well enough to work, so I took time off and stayed at home. That’s a pretty disastrous thing for a freelance to do. But after a while I thought I might be up to dealing with the slow and deliberate process of building up a book, so that’s what I did.
I really enjoyed it, and soon moved from the planning to the writing, and then built up so that I was doing about three thousand words a day. By Saturday the 28th of March I was feeling better – not completely better, but able to do things again. I started cycling again, and I went to my first improv class since November. I really enjoyed it, and was quite surprised that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it.
But on my way home that night, I was hit by a car.
It was midnight, and I was cycling along Lea Bridge Road, which is by some way the least pleasant road in London. I was wearing my bright yellow jacket, had my lights on, and was riding in a completely conventional along-the-road-in-a-straight-line sort of way when a silver soft-top BMW pulled into the side of me, from my right. It was a smartly executed manoeuvre into a fairly small parking space, and it would have been quite impressive if it hadn’t involved driving through me. I had that horrible slowing-of-time effect as I tried to deal with a car smashing itself into me. There wasn’t really much I could do though. And then I had the equally horrible slight-gap-in-consciousness as I struggled to come to terms with not being on my bike anymore but lying on my back in the gutter.
A man got out and said, ‘You’re all right’ in a brisk and friendly tone, with about a quarter of a question mark at the end. I was a bit shocked. I, quite uncharacteristically, said, ‘What did you do that for?’ Then the driver appeared. She seemed on the verge of tears and said, ‘I’m so, so sorry. There was a car behind driving too close and I just wasn’t paying attention. Sorry,’ it was pretty much exactly what all the insurers, lawyers, etc tell you not to say, but it instantly made me want to be nice to her. Though I thought my hand was broken (it’s happened before), I was even a bit hesitant in raising the issue of getting my bike fixed. The front wheel was badly bent, and I didn’t know what else might be fucked in a less obvious way. The woman gave me her name and phone number, and then the man asked me how much a new wheel would be. I said I didn’t know – maybe it was £80 last time I’d bought a wheel, but I couldn’t really remember. He said that was too expensive and started trying to haggle with me. The woman then joined in, and asked me to tell her the kind of wheel it was so she could check prices on the internet.
By the time I got home my shock had worn off and I was so angry that I couldn’t sleep. What kind of person drives half a ton of expensive metal into someone else and then, instead of feeling guilty and wanting to make sure they haven’t injured another human, immediately thinks about how to save £20 on the cost of repairing the damage? When I called the woman on Monday, the man answered. He refused to give me his insurance details, and just offered me £50. ‘Take it or leave it,’ he said. ‘It’s a generous offer.’ (The final cost was £340, plus about a week’s lost work, worry about my hand, which is half my livelihood, and hours and hours in police stations and hospitals.)
Hospitals are horrible places to spend time. I spent much of Sunday in A&E at Whipp’s Cross, waiting in queue after queue and not even succeeding in getting an x-ray. I saw a bored GP who told me, ‘It’s probably not broken’, which is what they told me on the phone the last time I broke a hand. At seven-thirty in the evening I gave up and went home. I might as well admit that I cried briefly, in a convenient deserted and decaying alley, just because the place was so grim, implacable, alienating and unhelpful.
Well, that pushed me out of the productive time on my book. It meant I had to spend time on admin and phone calls, going to the police station (it took four hours to do all their paperwork), seeing my GP, chasing up lost x-rays, filling in insurance forms.
I was angry. I was angry at being mistreated by people who had already quite comprehensively wronged me by striking me hard with a vehicle. I was angry with my insurers for making their forms so hard to fill in, with the London Cycling Campaign’s solicitors for constantly saying they would call back and then not calling back. I was angry with the police for asking me the same questions several times in very slightly different ways so they could put my answers in several slightly different forms and databases. And I was angry with the structure of reality for allowing a fundamentally well-meaning person like myself to suffer unjustly. What made me most angry was wasting all that time – that massively and unbelievably expensive London time.
People have always told me that London’s an expensive place to live, but for most of the time I’ve been there it was more that you just got much less for your money. You sacrificed having a lovely place to be at home for the sake of having a lovely (or at least really interesting) place around you when you went out. In 2010 I accidentally became poor, and moved into a grotty shared house in Hackney – the rent for my room being around the same (£550) as my sister’s mortgage on her house (with garden) in Leeds. And that seemed fair enough: I lived with a painter, a musician and several visiting cats, and I could cycle anywhere in the huge city in less than an hour.
But in the last couple of years it has become genuinely expensive. The people moving in to that shared house were paying £800 a month, there were five of them instead of three of us, and even the cats seemed to have disappeared. I wanted, at last, to live somewhere nice and not share. The cheapest place I saw was £900 plus bills, and it was tiny and indescribably horrible. To get somewhere big enough to accommodate both me and some of my possessions, the standard rate in Walthamstow (further out than Hackney, which was then too expensive even to look at) was £1,100. Even the places I saw for that amount were not nice, and each had one major thing wrong with them. I opted to pay £100 more and live in a small but nicely decorated one-storey granny flat, tacked on to the side of a proper house.
Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t got ill? I almost certainly wouldn’t have moved to Berlin. I might have carried on earning enough to pay my London rent without too much stress.
But how much stress is too much? The fact that I’d got ill almost as soon as I moved in to my new place made me suspect that something inside me had been longing for a break, and that finally getting to a comfortable place without housemates (the last year of sharing was very tense, all the original people having left by then) had told some inner part of me that it was finally safe to be ill, to stop holding on. And I asked myself, ‘if this illness were trying to tell me something, what would it be?’
The most immediate answer was that it was trying to tell me to sleep a lot, and to spend almost all the rest of my time sitting on my sofa, reading and watching TV, breaking for a daily walk around the almost-charming Hollow Ponds, in the bottom-most splinter of Epping Forest. I haven’t watched so much TV since I was a kid, when I would hurry home from school to watch the cartoons, distractedly sit through utter shit like Record Breakers or We Are The Champions, and then sometimes get the huge reward of Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, or The World at War, all of which I watched on our very old black and white television, which took time to warm up before it would show a picture. Nowadays we have Netflix and iPlayer, and somewhere around 2000 people worked out how to make TV series like the Wire that are so good you want to live inside them. I watched Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Better Call Saul, and The World at War for the second time in my life. Partly because of this I’ve been feeling closer to my childhood self again, like I’m coming home.
I was alone a lot, not feeling able to deal with people but also often feeling lonely. It made me realise how much energy life in London requires. Everyone’s scattered all over the city, so we end up meeting in the middle, often to do things, like improv, which are fun and yet also take work and organisation. Everyone’s manically busy all the time, trying to earn enough to live in London while also trying to do all the things that make living in London worthwhile. I felt as though I had dropped out of the world, and that no one had really noticed.
When it comes to mournful perceptions like that, I’m a pro. I have considerable experience and expertise when it comes to getting depressed – I’ve been doing since I was nine, and have become so skilled at it that I was rewarded with almost two years of individual therapy on the NHS. If I’m going to blog, I may as well talk about depression, I suppose. Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive made me feel that it’s all right to admit to having one of the most common diseases in the world. And perhaps I can do it without self-pity, and without making myself unemployable. But that’s for another time.
Anyway, all this made me realise that I didn’t have the energy to resurrect my freelance career and my London life and finish my book at the same time. Nor could I face the stress of trying. I felt as though my ability to deal with stress had permanently diminished. Anyway, I decided to do one thing at a time: to finish the book and then get a proper job.
But being driven into by a BMW had already cost me a week’s work on the book (as well as ruining my bike and the pleasure of cycling in London). It made me see how much pressure being in London was putting me under. If the book took another couple of months, it would cost me at least £5,000, and that was just for the first draft. If something else unexpected happened – someone else hitting me with a huge piece of metal, for example, or another illness – then it would cost even more and take even longer. And how long would it take me to get a job afterwards? It seemed very likely that I would end up watching my savings disappear and have nothing to show for it.
And when every day is so expensive, you need to get a lot done to justify that day. You start to obsess over word counts, and I didn’t want the book to turn into yet another source of stress – how can anyone enjoy reading it if I don’t enjoy writing it? And what’s the point of writing if I don’t enjoy it? I already have a way to make money from writing that I don’t particularly enjoy.
And that’s when my thoughts really turned towards going somewhere other than the most expensive city in the world to write my next minor comic novel. I had to make the decision fast, because I had a six-month break clause in the lease on my flat. If I didn’t hand in my notice on it in a few days I would have to stay there till November.
I was thinking of putting money aside as a budget for writing my new book, so I wouldn’t have to stressfully and unsuccessfully try to do it in the evenings (when I’ve been writing dispiriting things for money all day and can’t face writing another word) and weekends. If, say, £5,000 would buy me (probably less than) two months in London, why not go to a place where it would buy me more time? A friend had been to Berlin the summer before (also to finish writing a book) and said she had lived very well on a thousand pounds a month. Though my book’s selling a lot less well than last year, it could still contribute about a third of that. And I felt that what I really wanted was time. I wanted a break from stress and pressure. I wanted to live more calmly. Taking five months to write a book sounded much nicer than taking two months. My friend told me that lots of people go to Berlin to write or make music, or whatever, and the fact that it’s so transient makes people more friendly, since they usually arrive not knowing many other people.
It all sounded great in theory, but there were lots of dangers. My therapist holds that people are the only really effective antidepressants, and that depression arises because of problems feeling secure in relationships. So leaving everyone I know and going to a place where I know no one at all seems almost the stupidest thing I could possibly do.
Only time will tell.
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.