My book, We Need to Talk, was published in July. When I submitted the manuscript, I’m not sure I ever fully believed the project would come to fruition, and certainly never expected I would have to discuss it publicly. And now, as the day of publication slowly recedes, I still find myself worrying about some of the inevitable questions I’ll be asked. Sometimes, I wake up at night, ashen and sweating, rehearsing my lines:
Q. What’s the book about?
A. Erm…It’s sort of about modern life in a small town. It’s about the way we live now.
Q. What were you hoping to achieve with the novel?
A. To draw a tragic-comic slice-of-life portrait of fragmented Middle England in the process of change. Does that make sense?
Q. Where did the idea come from?
A. Well, from life, really, from experience and observation.
I’m not certain these replies cut it. Let me explain…
I first cooked up the idea for We Need to Talk in 2015, but the experiences that informed the book reach further back than that. In 2003, I was living in Preston, Lancashire. There was the breakdown of a relationship, and the death of that loved one before peace could be made. Cut forward a couple of months, and I’d decided to start making music again, as I had done until my mid-twenties. I was choosing to do something I thought would have meaning when life had suddenly become meaningless. So, at 29, I quit my job, my flat, and set out to write and record music. In that pursuit, I moved around from town to town, always towards the next collaboration, living in innumerable house-shares across England and Scotland. Along the way, I worked in offices, factories, warehouses, pubs and hotels; I constructed bird-boxes, laboured and landscaped gardens to support the venture, to stay afloat. There were times when I survived on porridge; times when I sofa-surfed or lived in hostels. Although I became rootless and slightly ragged, I was, however, gaining an education, seeing life from different perspectives.
Maybe it was because I’d become marginalized and itinerant, but I had grown increasingly aware of a separation between people. Many of the towns where I stayed seemed divided; people lived in close proximity, though often without connection. In one small town, on the far fringes of the London commuter belt, there was an area down by the river which was populated by the London ex-pats and commuters, by the international academics from the nearby university, and by the well-heeled retirees who could afford the river front apartments. Up the hill, at the top end of town, the property was cheaper. That’s where the locals lived, the workers. Somehow, the two populations coexisted but remained immiscible.
During that time the 2008 economic crash had also occurred, austerity had cinched in. With austerity, there had been a retreat of local community as the closure of pubs, parks, post offices, libraries and youth clubs removed sites for human interaction. More than this though, there was a rise in unemployment, with fewer secure jobs for younger people. Mutual competition between individuals increased. Wages stagnated while house prices and rents continued to rise. If someone wanted to rent a flat when working a zero hours contract, then it might be necessary to step on the next person along in order to gain more hours or a promotion. Indeed, I was stepped on a few times. And yet, I was also the recipient of kindness. For instance, there was a moment. Things had gone wrong: I was holed up in a hostel, an old deconsecrated church in Edinburgh, I was cleaning for my rent and unable to afford food when, one night, a passer-through, an Australian man, cooked me pancakes. I hadn’t asked for it, he just offered. He must have known I was hungry and decided to feed me, to share. This was what I wanted to explore, the expansion of a selfish individualism which atomized community, balanced against the everyday acts of generosity and solidarity.
This balance between separation/disconnection and inclusion/community fascinated me. I was intrigued by the choices people make, how they weigh self-interest and personal need against kindness, compromise and belonging. However, I wasn’t interested in passing judgement on this. If a young person doesn’t come from wealth, but wants a flat of his/her own, rather than living in another house share, is it wrong to step on someone? Not for the person who gains the flat. They are merely responding to a need. And if a person gives up on a dream, or a talent, in order to gain the security and belonging he/she requires, as I eventually did, is this a failure? Simply, I wanted to place these opposing ways of being side by side.
As I searched for a form with which to capture these aspects of contemporary life, I wasn’t convinced a linear novel was flexible enough to encompass the diverse ‘realities’ I wished to include. So, I began working with the short story, shaping snapshots of lives which could be assembled to form a mosaic of a fragmented society. I read Joyce’s Dubliners with its pervasive theme of paralysis, the short stories of Chekhov, with all their expansive humanity, and drew on Raymond Carver, and how his pared back style lead the reader to directly confront character and scene. I read Alice Munro, Helen Simpson, Bernard Malamud, absorbing the ways they made a short story, an episode, reveal something about a character’s whole life.
I began developing stories that would show people doing the best they can, faced with difficult situations and choices. I wanted to show ordinary people with ordinary lives, because these were the people I knew, people so often under-represented in fiction. And I wanted the stories to be in conversation with each other, so that secure middle-aged middle class characters sit alongside a struggling young working class. I wanted to pitch values against one another, and to see how the different realities that characters face, and the choices they make, reflected off one another.
For this reason, I populated the fictional town of Sudleigh with lecturers, artists and advertising execs, alongside shop-workers, receptionists, waiting staff. There’s gap-year Tom, cleaning toilets but finding unexpected solace in his Chinese house share, and sharp-elbowed phone-sex operator Heather who will stop at nothing to become manager of the golf club. At the same time, creative writing tutor Tony, hard at work on his ironic pseudo-children’s book The Jazz Cats, is trying to pluck up courage to leave his unappreciative girlfriend Lydia. Then there’s elderly Miss Bennett who keeps putting her house on the market though she doesn’t want to move, and former lounge musician Frank who wants to pass his carpet business on to his nephew, Josh, quashing the young man’s dreams of becoming a chef. And yet, while these interlinked stories touch on grief and adjustment, marital discord and divorce, youth homelessness, domestic violence, loneliness, and damaging ambition, this is not a bleak novel. Instead it blends comedy and tragedy with the humdrum, because, to the best of my understanding, this is the weave of life.
Again and again, I used domestic and workplace settings because I felt it was amidst the mundane that real life occurs. Again and again, I found myself writing about family, about relationships, about the idea of home. Using family seemed an ideal way to explore community in microcosm, as metaphor. So I showed family in a range of ways, as supportive, as constrictive, as abusive. I examined choice and consequence, and how people, after difficult events, carry on, because, in the end, what else is there to do.
Although each story can stand alone, there are myriad connections between them, with certain characters threading through, and plot arcs extending across the whole. It was important, I felt, to create unity, to show how lives are interwoven, that though some seek community and others strike out on their own, they are all still part of the same society. But by exploring the lives of diverse characters, with some never meeting, I also sought to acknowledge the disconnection between social strata.
The thematic preoccupations, connection/disconnection, self/community along with family and home, were as much a consequence my own experiences as they were a response to the trajectory of society in light of austerity. But as I began to write the stories, Brexit unfolded, and with it we saw division and disconnection all over again, not just with the polarizing nature of the debate, but with the British separation from the European community. Then, as I was stitching the stories into novel form, Covid emerged, and we watched individualism bare its teeth once more, as people tussled in supermarkets, fighting over toilet rolls they didn’t really need. And now, in the aftermath of Covid, there is a danger the same issues as those following the 2008 crash will rise once again. There may be an increase in unemployment, greater competition for jobs; there may be less certainty, less security, and even greater pressure on the individual and on notions of community. And yet, as Covid showed, with people delivering food parcels to those in need, there will be acts of kindness and generosity too.
In the end, I decided to set We Need to Talk in 2019-2020, a year that encapsulated the sense of a country in transition. However, the book does not aspire to be state of the nation fiction. Rather, it explores the human condition at a moment in time. I aim only to show lives in flux, while the social and political landscape shifts around them. I’m interested in the choices people face, the decisions they make. I’m not interested in making statements, or passing judgement. I have no answers. I’m interested in showing life-as-it-is, honestly, with flawed, imperfect characters doing their best to get by. But the themes that emerged as a response to my own experiences may remain relevant for some time. The strains on the individual, and on society, that we have seen play out over the last few years seem likely to be magnified going forward.
As for me, mine is still a life of unsteady foundations. Like so many others in these post- austerity, post-Brexit, post-Covid times, I am unsure where I will fit, or what shape life will take in the future. Like society, my identity is in flux. Ten years ago I was working in bars, warehouses and factories, wondering how I could move forward, and where life would lead me next. Now, as a fixed-term lecturer at a university, my status has shifted, though my financial, housing and employment circumstances remain uncertain. Am I the same person who began writing this book back in 2015? I’m not sure. Perhaps my angle of vision has altered slightly. But I’m certain this will change again, as life tilts beneath my feet once more and tips me into the next situation. So, like everyone else in the current climate, like the characters in We Need to Talk, all I can do is to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
We live in precarious, isolating times, and in light of that literature can be an act of solidarity, offering a moment when we recognise that, despite the boundaries between us, we all face difficulties, we are all in it together. It offers us the chance to look beyond our own high-walled perimeters, to see life from another angle, and remember our shared humanity. It offers us a chance to reflect, and ask ourselves if we might do things differently.
Perhaps that is what We Need to Talk is really about. Now if I can just remember that and put it into a few neat sentences, then I might calm my night terrors and get some sleep before my interviews begin.
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