I loved colouring. This cat was going to be great. It was going to be orange and I was going to get going on it straight away. I coloured and coloured and coloured with that orange crayon. But as I coloured and coloured, it became increasingly clear that I was producing an – albeit expertly coloured – A4 orange rectangle.
I was, I’ll admit, disappointed in myself. But it’s so boring doing the outline, and colouring-in is so brilliant.
In the intervening years not all that much has changed.
I started writing The A to Z of You and Me without a plot in mind. It wasn’t a case of it being a common rookie mistake on my part – I absolutely understand the desire for a compelling narrative – it’s just that architecting plots has never felt like the right starting point for me.
Instead, what I’ve been doing lately is adopting an alternative structure – almost like a ‘found’ object – and working with it. The alphabet, say. Or the human body. Or both.
Everybody’s got a body, after a fashion. That’s what makes somebody somebody. And more or less everybody uses an alphabet of some kind. They are universal structures that everyone can relate to. So these were my starting points, and I wanted to see what sort of a plot would emerge.
My original high-concept idea was a sort of literary Gray’s Anatomy, which could be dipped into in any order – like a reference work – but which would still tell a single complete story.
Now, I’ve often had cause to reflect on something my sister once told me. She’s a graduate in fine art, and she said that the most successful artists she’d worked with were ‘those who are able to step away from their original concept at the crucial moment, and allow the work to take on its own life’.
To remember this came as quite a relief, because eventually I reached a point where merely writing individual body-part memories was not expansive enough: there was a story beginning to emerge between the body parts that was growing ever more insistent on being told.
It was the story of Ivo, a young man who is at the end of his life, having had to pay the price for something that was not his fault. He has Type 1 diabetes, which is a condition some people simply develop, without having brought it upon themselves; it’s fundamentally unfair. Anyone who’s tried to stick to a decent diet through January will know that being obliged to stay disciplined for the rest of your life is going to be almost impossible; at best, full of temptation.
One broad theme that seemed to resonate through the story was that of responsibility and blame. Does Ivo deserve to be in the position he is in? Do bad choices make him a bad person? How much should he be able to depend on his friends to support him? It’s interesting how flawed a character can be before the reader disconnects or loses sympathy. Patrick Bateman, anyone? William Stoner? Ignatius J Reilly?
It was questions like these that I needed to be able to explore, so I set about improvising the individual scenes, writing and expanding on the first things that came into my head, allowing them to flow freely over the doubly restrictive framework of ‘alphabet’ and ‘body’. I tended to write at night when I was usually fighting sleep to get scenes finished: it was a tension between enthusiasm and unconsciousness. Each morning I couldn’t really remember what I’d done the night before, but I could remember whether it had given me a good feeling, and I might go back and rewrite that scene from scratch, layering on fresh instinctive thoughts as I went.
This way of writing around the ‘A to Z’ structure enabled me to give a context: a way in which Ivo can affect and be affected by the outside world, and it provided a welcome relief from what might otherwise have been his interminable navel-gazing.
I’ve only just this minute realised I could have had a chapter called ‘navel’.
I’m not going to lie here and say this has been an easy or efficient way to write a novel. It took me six years to write, and I cut maybe 50,000 words of extraneous body parts. Then there were the problems caused by basic structural inconveniences. You try writing the required tender and romantic scene when all you’ve got to play with is Groin. Or Gut. Or Gonads.
I must admit, I did try to cheat a bit. I had scenes sitting sheepishly between the body parts, pretending not to be there, but essential to the whole. But then I had to navigate the book past an agent and an editor, and they skilfully held me up to my own standards. ‘You have to make sure,’ my agent said, ‘this book delivers on its promise’ – that it should be, as it purports to be, an A to Z of body parts, of a man telling the tale of his body, and why he was put on this earth, and how he might have squandered his very reason for being.
Upon receiving my orange A4 rectangle of paper, my Primary School teacher, Mrs Carbass, cut it into the shape of a cat, added some eyes and whiskers with a marker pen, and pinned it to the wall display.
It occurs to me now that she was my first editor.
The A-Z of You and Me is published on 12th March in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, and is one of our February books of the month. To find out more about James, visit his website, www.jameshannah.com or find him on Twitter, @JamesHannah.