Interview: Difficult Second Album Syndrome
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.