Book Group Discussion: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

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.

a-z

On its difficult subject matter… (Helen Redfearn) (Kathryn Eastman) (Jacquie Bloese)

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.

On Ivo… (Kelly Rufus) (Anne Cater)

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)IMG_3053

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.

On hIMG_3052is inspiration and edits… (Emma Crowley) (Heidi Bartlett) (Kathryn Eastman) (Verity Wilde)

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.

On the ending… (Vicky Torzsok) (Amy Fulwood)IMG_3048

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.

 

The Essential Wonders of The A-Z of You and Me

It is always a rare and exciting moment in an editor’s life when a typescript arrives on your desk (or in your inbox, as it does these days) that REALLY sends tingles up your spine and down your neck and leaves you reeling. This is how I felt after reading THE A TO Z OF YOU AND ME.

We see so many talented writers, but there is one thing for an editor to personally love a book and another thing for a groundswell of colleagues to love it too, and to want to publish it, and make it work in the marketplace (a tough place, as you may know).

When I first read Jim’s novel, I thought: here is a stunning voice – quietly witty, dark, generous, modest, curious, regretful, hopeful –  that touched me deeply. More importantly, I was convinced I had discovered a book that I would want to press into other people’s hands and urge them to read.

Jim’s central character Ivo is an everyman, but he has his own particular story – he is in a bad way (to put it mildly) – and he has brought this bad way on himself. So his story is in a way a battle of the demons, and how he comes to terms with those demons.

You could say this is a book about death. But others say it is a book about life. It’s all about how you look at it, what sort of personal story/baggage/experience the reader brings to it. And that is its strength – a story that can be many things to many people is truly a universal one.

I envy new readers of THE A TO Z OF YOU AND ME who will go on the incredible journey I first went on when Sue Armstrong, Jim’s most ferociously talented agent, first sent this to me. I laughed, I cried, to use that terrible cliché. But isn’t that what every life experience is about? Glorious ups and terrible downs, and finally an unforgettable sort of calm and reconciliation.

The ending of this book is truly one of the most heart-wrenching I’ve ever read in my days (years) as an editor. It truly punched me in the stomach and made me re-assess everything I’d just read, it made me contemplate my own life, and that of my friends and family.

I won’t give the ending away here, of course, but reader, be prepared. It is an uplifting ending, in the purest sense. You will never ever forget it.

Thanks everyone for reading this. Enjoy the book, and pass it on!

Jane Lawson (Editor, Penguin Random House)

The A-Z of You and Me is one of our February books of the month, and will be published on March 12th in hardback and ebook. 

The A-Z of You and Me: Colouring in the Cat by James Hannah

The A-Z OF YOU AND ME REVEALWhen I was at Primary School, aged four, I was set the task of drawing a cat for Mrs Carbass’s Noah’s Ark wall display.

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.