Described by his editor, Jane Lawson, as having one of ‘the most heart-wrenching endings’ she has ever read, we just had to choose The A-Z of You and Me as one of our next books. One of our own, a CB Creative graduate, James Hannah came in to chat with his readers and answer their burning questions. Luckily James brought tiffin, so when the questions kept coming, he was fuelled to stay with us even longer! Here’s some of the discussion.
The book was certainly written from an emotional place, and served over the years to help process a series of situations my friends and family were going through. So rather than being emotional in a bad way, to write, it provided comfort. However, not everyone processes emotions in the same way, and one person’s ability to see the humour or pathos in a situation might be upsetting to another, and I think you’ve got to trust own your instincts.
I don’t know if I looked upon it as a challenge, I was more interested in accessing those feelings or examples that were universal. Everyone has a body, and there will be certain common experiences we’ve all been through (exchanging a glance with an attractive person, say, or having a memory flood back after smelling a certain scent) so my task, was to see what kind of story emerged from threading those kinds of experience together.
I have to say, my concern was not about Ivo’s bleak state of mind, but about making the bleak subject light enough to read. From the very beginning I knew I was going to have to work hard to keep it from being overwhelmingly miserable. There is on the whole not a great deal of reflection from Ivo on his death, and on how he feels about death: for him it is a process of engaging more with the world around him – a whole lot of life-affirming things rather than being bleak. Ivo is able (with help) to free himself and free the people around him.
…the hospice story is one that we’ve all been through, or we will all go through; it really could be anyone.
Ivo is not directly based on anyone I know or on me. It was more a matter of finding a character who was in a certain situation, and obliging him to react to it. I actually had Ivo diagnosed by a doctor friend, right at the beginning. I needed him to be clear-headed all the way up to the end of his life so that he could articulate his thoughts. The idea of diabetes and a kidney condition came up, and this sparked off the interesting central issue of his having a condition that is not his fault as such, but which impinges on his everyday life and his relationship with his friends. In a sense his friends are just doing normal stuff that many people do, the problem is, it’s killing him. By the time Mia comes along, the friends are so influential, Ivo is unable to make the leap of aspiration to her way of living. So, you see how the kidney diagnosis informs the rest of the book. Different diagnosis, different book. People’s reactions to Ivo’s poor choices are really interesting. He certainly makes some poor choices and is very soundly punished for them, however, is Ivo really so unlike a lot of people?
On Ivo’s friends… (Catherine Higgins-Moore)
I think this is a toxic little group of friends, but not in an unusual way. A big question for me is: how much right do you have to tell your friends not to do something? Ivo’s friends should be telling him to take his insulin and live a duller (by their judgement) life. Or should they? Do they have that right? So the ‘toxicity’ between them has I think built up, I don’t think any of them chose it to be like that.
On Sheila… (Emma Macey)
Sheila is an absolutely pure character to me: I didn’t author her as such, she simply came along and tended to the plot in the way that she tends to Ivo. I’ve this sense that she comes along and refusing to allow me to go the obvious way with a scene. She’s attentive, but she’s not fawning, she’s caring, but she doesn’t take any nonsense. She never allowed me an easy time, and I love her for that.
On balancing humour and sorrow… (Jo Lenaghan)
The balance of humour versus sorrow was surprisingly easy to achieve, because the subject is all sorrow, so my task was to make it as funny and light as I possibly could. It’s my choice currently to write prose that flows and so it was a question of being as easy on the reader as possible. My working title for the book was ‘The Body Comedy’, which reminded me that it needed to be as funny as I can make it. As for the intimate topics, anything (auto)-biographical is refracted or distanced to the point where it could have been anyone. And that’s the saving grace really, the hospice story is one that we’ve all been through, or we will all go through; it really could be anyone.
I’ve been working on predetermined structures for a while, so the idea of working with the alphabet structure was a natural progression. The problem with reading an alphabet is you get to ‘c’ and then it seems like a very long alphabet. The first thing I had to do was break outside the structure without really seeming to, and then have it intervene in a more helpful way. So getting the present-day storyline to take over was important.
It wasn’t exactly hard to write, but it was extraordinarily hard to edit. I would change one bit, and half the book would suddenly wink out of existence. So it took a very long time. It was an endurance test. It’s the ‘illness’ aspect that took the most research — what would Ivo be able to do? How would be treated? What would he be feeling?
On choosing the body parts for each letter… (Kathryn Eastman)
G was a huge problem for some reason. By this section of the book, you really want to start getting to the nuts and bolts of the central relationship in the book. And for that I had G. Gut. Groin. Gonads. Not a promising area. So I had to work around that, somehow. I’d known what I wanted to do with X, Y, Z from the very beginning. ‘Eyes’ was tricky, because more or less all of literature has been given over to lyrical descriptions of eyes, so anything you write sounds awful.
I had the end from a very early point, although it was interesting to see how it changed as the context around it changed. My sense was that I would always seek to reunite ‘I’ with ‘You’, but it became more about Ivo’s understanding of himself, and freeing up his friends who ultimately care about him enough to potentially feel permanently bad if he dies without freeing them. I initially thought that everyone was dumping their needs onto Ivo before he died, but when it happened, I realised he needed to accept responsibility for himself & his (non) action & felt a sense of shocked relief just as Ivo did. It was very powerful and surprising.
The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah was published on 12th March by Doubleday.