Who in their right mind sits down to write a novel? I certainly never did. Not the first one in any case. I read blogs all the time of young people struggling with that first book, determined that they're going to drag that book out of themselves by hook or by crook. It takes balls and I take my hat off to them. (Pause to raise hat). I just sat down and wrote a novel. It wasn't an ego thing. I'm not saying I'm a natural or better than anyone else. It was just me working things out on a bit of paper and then a second bit of paper until I ended up with 181 printed and bound pages. I was a poet. What the hell was I doing writing a novel? I have to confess that it is a weird feeling holding a book in your hand – not a manuscript – an actual book with a cover, an ISBN number, a dedication, an acknowledgement and an advert in the back for your next book. It's also a nice feeling. I know I use 'nice' far too often but this is one of those occasions when it is the right word. It is a nice feeling.
I've already explained where the idea for the book came from so let me expand a bit on that.
Jonathan Noel, the protagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella, The Pigeon, works as a bank guard. He is in his fifties, lives on his own in a small room, which he is in the process of buying from the owner; he shops daily, owns seventeen books and has a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He expects to have a good twenty uneventful years ahead of him before he has to worry about dying. He is an exceedingly Bleaneyish character. He's certainly more Bleaney than he is Krapp.
On the other hand, Jonathan Payne, the protagonist in my novel, Living with the Truth, is a bookseller. He's in his fifties and owns a small flat which he inherited from his father; he lives alone, shops daily, has a wall full of books and, strangely enough, also happens to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He wishes he was dead and if he doesn't die soon he'll devolve into Krapp.
One of the questions they invariably ask at interviews is: Where do you see yourself being in x number of years. It's a question I really hate answering. When I started working on my novel I thought I'd reached about the lowest point in my life. Unbeknownst to me there were greater depths to be plumbed. It was however from that point that I gazed futureward: where did I see myself being in twenty years? I saw myself living on my own and that really was the plan. I had carted around a couple of hundred books for years so there was no way there wouldn't be books in my life but, as it seemed like I'd never write again (despite, ironically, the fact I was in the process of writing) I did wonder what kind of job would I like to end up doing? Working in a bookshop sounded cool. And undemanding. Owning one would be out of the question but what's wrong with a bit of wish-fulfilment? If my character was going to be a miserable old git then I wanted him to be in the right kind of setting and I've encountered a few miserable old gits in second-hand bookshops. On top of all that I still expected to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke.
There is no antagonist in Krapp's Last Tape. Krapp wrestles with the truths about himself. There is no antagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella. At least not in the first nine pages. There is a pigeon. What was I going to do?
I have racked my brain and I couldn't tell you at what stage I decided to introduce the personification of truth as Jonathan's foil but I can't. I just kept bringing my Jonathan up to that point where he opens the door to be confronted by … by what? In my youth I'd read The Master and Margarita and a bit of Gogol so the concept of magical realism was not unknown to me even if I wasn't aware of its name. Besides I'd grown up with so many TV programmes from I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and My Favourite Martian on and it was never a problem for me to suspend disbelief.
What does Truth look like? We know what the stereotypical Death looks like or at least we used to until Neil Gaiman came along and re-imagined her as a skinny goth chick. Justice is this blindfolded bird with scales and a sword. Father Time is this old dude in a robe, lugging around a dirty great egg timer. But what about Truth?
I see Truth as a personal thing. My Truth wouldn't necessarily look like your Truth. Jonathan's Truth appears as a young man of about thirty, with curly hair, bright eyes and dressed in a pinstriped suit. He sticks out like a sore thumb in Rigby, the seaside town in which Jonathan lives. Do I really have to explain the choice of name? Apart from the obvious association with the Beatle's song (Rigby is where "all the lonely people" live) I was also thinking about the character of Rigsby in Rising Damp. In Beckett's writing he references Dante and Racine, I reference pop culture.
What would you do if Truth knocked on your door? He's one of those characters that's pretty hard to avoid. Many of us succeed for years. But it's a rare individual who can keep off his radar for ever. And our Jonathan is simply not one of them.
If you'd like to see how our poor Jonathan reacts when he first encounters him you can read the entire second chapter on my website. You'll also find examples of my other writing, essays, short stories and poems and a bit of a bio.
The book is now available for those who simply have to know more. It's available on Amazon.co.uk and Foyles but unless you're ordering it as part of a larger order that qualifies you for free shipping you would be cheaper to order it via the publisher's website and I suspect delivery will be that bit quicker too.
Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense