Hello and welcome to Words Are My Craft for today’s stop on James Hannah’s The A to Z of You and Me blog tour! This is such an honour, because as you already know, the book was a wonderful read. Today, James and myself take part in a Q&A, discussing the book and how it came to its brilliant existence. Enjoy!
There is a lot of excitement about this book already, with media attention and nominations for literary awards. Can you describe how it feels to have your first published novel become so successful in terms of acclaim?
Does it go without saying that publishing is not a straight meritocracy? It does in my house. My bookshelves are packed with reminders of that.
What I see when I consider the critical response to The A to Z of You and Me is a small number of passionate people who have taken it and embraced it and worked both persistently and enthusiastically to put it in the hands of the people they would most like to respond to it.
Certainly I worked very hard to make it a successful piece of work on its own terms, but it takes (often other people’s) dedication, creativity and wisdom to persuade readers to choose that work, to bring it towards the top of their teetering reading piles, to open it and to read it.
So the feeling I’d describe is one of surprise, relief and gratitude. Surpriefitude.
How did the idea of setting out the narrative in an A-Z format come about?
I was having a sit and think about constants in life. What are the things that we are all subject to before gender, before nationality, before society impinge? What is common to everybody? Well, in basic terms, everybody has a body of some kind. And everybody has a language of some kind. And it was a short hop from there to begin compiling those kinds of stories that occur in everybody’s body.
If, for example, you have ten digits on your hands, you have the whole reason for the decimal numeral system. Did you know an inch is based on the width of the thumb? Carpenters are thought to have developed it as a way of getting a relatively stable and entirely portable unit of measurement. Hence ‘rule of thumb’.
I could go on, but you get the idea: there are a lot of good stories in anybody’s body. So the absolutely pure and long-distant starting point for this book was the notion of trying to develop a set of stories that would mean something to everyone, and would coalesce into a single character.
It becomes clear from early on that Ivo is dying in a hospice. How did you go about tackling the challenge of writing those fantastically written passages in which Ivo is slowly slipping away and in and out of consciousness?
The main task in those latter passages was to work and work at the language until it was reduced to its essential parts. Early drafts started out with Ivo being unrealistically communicative so I could at least get the shape of the action, and get the dynamics right. Then I pared it down over many drafts until he was almost completely silent, but the shape of the established action remained. They’re the shortest lines in the book, but they inevitably took far and away the most time to get right.
Despite its often-upsetting subject matter, the book is also consistently funny throughout the story. How difficult was it to balance the two extremes within the same narrative?
It was never my intention to turn the screw on the gravity of Ivo’s situation. The interest is not for me in the extremes of his illness or even his dying; indeed, I kept his condition to a minimum, and didn’t have him lose limbs or go blind, as many in his situation do.
There is of course plenty of darkness in his back-story, so it could have been prohibitively miserable.
It was important to me to realise the whole thing in as light and expansive a way as I could. Humour and hopeless situations are not mutually incompatible, so I gave the book the working title of ‘The Body Comedy’ as a reminder to myself that I needed to keep it light. It’s interesting though that I’m often surprised by precisely what people laugh at; laughs often arrive because the rhythm is right, rather than simply because a line is some kind of zinger.
Ivo has many flaws and has made a lot of mistakes throughout his life, and yet he is still inherently likeable and, at least for me, manages to rouse sympathy in the reader. How important was it for you that he didn’t come across as the ‘perfect’ protagonist? How do you personally feel about Ivo?
I’m really pleased you think he’s likeable; let’s be honest and say some readers don’t. They think he is too passive and entirely responsible for his own sorry situation. Personally, I think he’s a kind, gentle, thoughtful character who wants to better himself, but simply doesn’t have the tools or support to do so.
There’s a prevailing opinion among certain sectors of certain societies that you can succeed at anything, as long as you try hard enough. But I don’t believe that always to be the case. I think Ivo really does try to get himself out of a situation that is not his fault, and he makes your average number of mistakes. Who among us has not decided to eat that whole packet of biscuits, open that second bottle of wine, or do something extreme just because? It’s not like he develops an addiction, but rather has a pattern of low self-worth.
I found that this book addressed the notion of social influence throughout. We witness Sheila, his carer, attempt to positively influence Ivo’s mood on a daily basis; we see Mia trying to keep him on the straight and narrow; we watch Kelvin try to get him to make amends with certain people. Ivo, in turn, influences how Amber deals with her mother’s death. Was this an intentional theme or something that came about as the story progressed? Do you feel that Ivo listened to himself more than others?
There is the old phrase ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’, which keeps returning to me as I think about The A to Z of You and Me. I don’t think the phrase is true. I think sometimes you end up with friends from the people who remain, and these friendship groups can become toxic or self-defeating.
The difference between past Ivo and present-day Ivo is that, late in the day, he is surrounded by people with a little more ambition for themselves and for him, and that frees him up to make progressive choices. And he has a lot of good to give, and a lot of kindness to realise.
If you like, the entire subject of the story is of Ivo striving to better himself and falling tragically short.
You have been writing for a number of years now, although this is your debut novel. In what ways did taking a creative writing course aid the writing of The A-Z of You and Me? What were some of the biggest lessons you took away from that course?
The A to Z of You and Me was perhaps three-quarters finished when I started the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, and perhaps two-thirds finished when the course ended. It wasn’t cheap or easy, but it represented a big effort to say, well, at least I gave writing a proper go.
I’d been writing for 18 years by that point (autumn 2011), and had always resisted the idea of going on any kind of course (I’m your quintessential autodidact). However, I felt the time was right for me, and I managed to establish how best to communicate with agents and editors, and understand what they are – in a very general sense – looking for.
Sometimes all you need is to know that a thing is possible, and that keeps you going.
You have an MA in Samuel Beckett studies. What appealed to you to do this and in what ways do you feel Beckett has influenced your own writing?
Perhaps the main thing I could say about Beckett is that I relate to his work in a completely instinctive way that I don’t really understand. Even now I’ve read all of it, published and unpublished, he remains unknowable. The forgivable temptation is to try to explain his work, but I don’t find that helps; it just limits it. I only desire to experience it; I come away with an interpretation so personal as to be worthless to explain.
My response is visceral, not intellectual; I am drawn to it, and when I am reading or hearing or seeing Beckett, I feel at home. It’s in the rhythms for me, and is as soothing to me as the rhythms of Nick Drake’s guitar playing or Alan Wren’s drumming.
I suppose Beckett’s (and Drake’s and Wren’s) influence is in a sense of trying to maintain an absolutely disciplined approach while staying loose enough to retain essential warmth.
But then, you know, I have a vexed relationship with Beckett. After all, I have about as much in common with him as I have with my own great grandfather, which is to say on the one hand nothing whatsoever and on the other absolutely everything.
I’ve always been clear though that I never wanted to imitate him. I don’t want to be some kind of Samuel Beckett tribute act. What would I call myself?
What was the most enjoyable part in the journey of creating this novel – from writing to publishing and promoting – and why? Is there anything you would do differently in hindsight?
It really took me by surprise when people became emotionally invested in what I’d written, which is a bit stupid of me, because that’s precisely what I set out to achieve. To hear some of the deeply personal and moving responses to the book is hugely rewarding, and somewhat unsettling. As for what I’d do differently, well, when I gain a bit of hindsight, I’ll let you know.
Lastly – will we be reading/hearing more from you in the future?!
I should probably start thinking about that, shouldn’t I?
I’d like to extend a huge thank you to James, and the publicity team at Transworld Publishers (Penguin Random House) for offering me the opportunity to play host in such an exciting blog tour.