I did a spoken word event recently in Tiverton, Devon, at a lovely shop called Liznojan Books, an independently run mother-and-daughter outlet with delicious cake. At this event I was asked two questions which I’ve given a fair bit of thought in the intervening hours: one question that I’d been asked a few times before, and one I definitely hadn’t. The first question was “Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?” and the second was “Is it true that your granddad was DH Lawrence?” The answer to both was “No”, but I can’t promise that it always will be. We are all in a constant state of change. I don’t have any impulse to do stand-up comedy right now, but maybe I will, one day. At the moment, DH Lawrence is not my granddad. But perhaps he might be, at some point.
Around three years ago, at a point when I was changing quite a lot about my writing life, I decided to take a different approach to the talks I do in support of my books – make them less centred around readings and instead memorise stories about my life, either those already in print, or those that had happened more recently, and retell them without a book in my hand. I’d noticed that, even when I was listening to a live reading by an author I loved, I had a tendency to drift off a bit. I’m sure people used to do the same at mine. The Q&A sessions at my events had often been the liveliest bits and I realised that I had an ability to turn an answer to a question into an entire story in itself: a talent that I no doubt get from my dad, whose stories always segue into other stories, and only actually end when somebody finally interrupts him or he falls asleep. I liked challenging myself to turn up for talks with very little idea of what I was going to talk about, and seeing where it went. Sometimes trying out a story on a crowd and listening to their reaction enabled me to pinpoint moments that people found especially poignant or funny, and I altered a sentence accordingly. Once or twice, this happened after the horse had bolted, such as with this passage from my last book, 21st Century Yokel, where my dad is talking – in archetypally loud way – about the fox hunt near his house in Nottinghamshire:
“THEY’RE COMING OVER THE BACK FIELDS BY HERE IN A MINUTE. JO! GET THE CAT IN! HE’S ORANGE. THEY MIGHT MISTAKE HIM FOR A FOX.”
When I recite this at my events, audiences have already started laughing after the word “ORANGE”. I now leave out the subsequent sentence. My dad did say that final sentence, but I could quite easily have left it out of the book, as it constitutes an overexplanation, when the joke has already hit home. I would have known this, had I told the story live before I wrote the book.
I find that I’m never nervous at my talks nowadays, unless there are close friends or family in attendance. I enjoy making people laugh and I’m relaxed and intermittently – particularly during the bits featuring my dad – quite loud and sweary. But I think my advantage is that I’m an author talking about my book and when people come to see authors talk about their books they’re generally prepared for something a bit more sedate and serious. Were I to start presenting myself as “comedy”, I’d put the pressure on, set the bar too high. I also try to keep everything in perspective. I’ve surprised myself by how much I like public speaking, but ultimately I’m a writer, not a talker.
For the last six months I’ve been hard at work on my debut fiction collection, Help The Witch: a quieter kind of writing that possibly lends itself less to spoken word than my previous work. I have written nine books before this one, all non-fiction, which seems like a long time to be in deferral, when you have always been so in love with fiction. I’ve really been dragging my feet. But maybe that’s more to do with the pressure of my granddad being DH Lawrence. People don’t realise how hard it is to have a literary legacy like that in your family and I have felt the weight of it like an anvil tied to my ankle for many, many years.
My granddad isn’t DH Lawrence. The numbers just don’t add up, for a start. DH Lawrence died in 1930. Which means he would have had to have sired my dad or my mum before that, which means they would be at least around 90 now, and my dad would have been about 80 when he ran the London Marathon in a superhero costume of his own invention. It’s all possible, just about, but unlikely. One of my granddads, Tom, died before I was born, but only two years before I was born, not 45. The other wasn’t DH Lawrence; he was Ted, who worked in a women’s underwear factory and enthused infectiously about compost. I think I understand how the lady who thought my granddad was DH Lawrence might have got the wrong end of the stick. In the last chapter of 21st Century Yokel I wrote about my granddad Ted, life on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, and the way the ghost of DH Lawrence seemed to haunt our family in various eerily coincidental ways for a ten year spell beginning around 1988. At all times during this chapter I made it clear that DH Lawrence wasn’t my granddad. The lady who thought my granddad was DH Lawrence might have been told about the chapter, skimread it, and got her information garbled. Whatever the case, she admitted that she’d since spread the word to several other people that my granddad was DH Lawrence. I don’t think that this could become a widespread belief, barring the vastly unlikely prospect of an information apocalypse in a century or so where very little information about me and DH Lawrence survives, and the even more unlikely prospect that anyone gives half a fuck about who my granddad was by that point. But I also think it’s an illustration of how sceptical we should be about the stuff living people tell each other about other living people, and dead people. I think it’s also an illustration of why I have always trusted fiction so much, viewed it as no less “true” than non-fiction, believed in its function as telling lies in the service of a greater truth. While I wrote my nine non-fiction books, around ninety percent of my reading comprised novels or short stories. Once, during a radio interview about my first book, the DJ admitted he’d in fact thought it was a work of fiction, which – in a meta sort of way – just happened to have a narrator with the same name as mine. I perhaps should have been flattered, but I was horrified. “If I’d have been permitted to write the book as fiction, I’d have made it loads better than this!” I thought. Fiction was by far the greater art form and always would be and because of this, when I finally did it, hopefully in about three years, my fiction would be superior to my non-fiction.
In view of this, having now finally sent Help The Witch off to my publisher, fifteen years after the DJ’s misunderstanding, I might be expected to feel more euphoric about finally completing my first work outside of the parameters of non-fiction. I also understand why I don’t. 21st Century Yokel was a book of fairly epic size which had a teething period of truly epic proportions: all sorts of people in the publishing industry told me for years that nobody would be interested in such an odd and “brandless” and “journeyless” book, I lost 23,000 words of it in a data disaster and had to start the whole thing all over again, then finished it in less than a year, and knew that – whatever it was, in the grand scheme of things – it was better than anything I’d written before. For a bigger feeling than that, I think I would have probably needed to write a lengthy novel, which, despite a certain amount of yearning to do so, I chose not to do, just now. Help The Witch is a shorter book, half the length of 21st Century Yokel. It’s a collection of unsettling stories, some of which might have ghosts in them: a winter book, being published in time for Samhain. I was a huge fan of the Fighting Fantasy books as a kid, where you rolled the dice to find out what happened next, and I like to think there’s a not entirely dissimilar ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect to these stories as well: there’s quite a lot of space in them, not a lot of answers. Room for the reader to write their own narrative, in addition to the one I have written for them.
This was a hugely exciting book for me to be able to write. When you’ve been writing in your own real life voice – even if only often as a way to talk about more universal experiences – for seventeen years, it’s a vast relief to be able to embody other characters, think in the way you think they might think, explore their lives. I found it very freeing. The title story is the one most in debt to my own life, and takes a lot of inspiration from my time living in The Peak District last winter, on top of a spooky mountain: a foolish decision in terms of my own mental health, sleep patterns and bank account, but a positive one, if viewed solely in terms of my own writing. The narrator goes through several of the same experiences I went through and, like me, is somewhat addicted to crisps. But he’s very unlike me in several other ways: he’s an academic, who isn’t really very into firewood, hails from Sussex, and has just had his heart very severely broken. This was perhaps a risk, because after reading it some people are probably going to wonder if I am actually an academic from Sussex, who has recently had my heart broken, possibly by some girl who only went out with me because my granddad is DH Lawrence. But instinct told me that a first person diary would lead to the strongest story. Elsewhere I’ve experimented with form much more. There are tiny stories, long stories, a story almost told in the form of property listings, a story told in oral histories, a few journeys far into the future, and a couple of nips into the distant past. Help The Witch was originally just a working title conjured out of thin rainy air when I had two hours to think of one before the book went up for funding, but it turned out to be more relevant than I ever could have imagined: I think it hints aptly at something running through the stories, quite deep down, like the seam that ran under the house where I lived in The Peak District from the old mine at the top of the hill.
Help The Witch is my darkest book, my least comic book, but it’s also my most playful. I think it’s very apt that most of it was conceived in a terrifying, almost certainly haunted house in a snowy wilderness at the height of winter, but it’s final few pages were written in baking sunlight on a beach in Devon, after a mile of salty swimming in water whose temperature hadn’t quite caught up with the weather. I am in debt to that disturbing house, despite all the trouble it caused me, and I am in debt to all the long walks I’ve been on in remote, ominous places over the last decade, and I’m in debt to the inexplicable incidents that have happened to me in my life, and keep me wavering back and forth over the line marked ‘Supernatural Sceptic’. The book would have been markedly different without all these factors. Two other things had a significant impact on Help The Witch’s character. One of the excellent aspects of writing a book of ghost stories is that when you tell people this, they invariably have one of their own to share, whether they’re a believer or not. One of these – told to me by my friend Jecca and her mum Cathy, on the cusp of winter, in the ghost-packed city of Norwich – brought me out in an icy rash of goose pimples and was the genesis of one of the longest stories in Help The Witch, so thank you, Cathy and Jecca. I owe you each a pint of Adnams. I also think this book was – much like 21st Century Yokel – massively impacted by that decision I made three years ago to change my writing life, giving up journalism, writing on this website, for myself, and using a non-traditional publisher. I approached these stories more loosely because of that. That decision – to step away from the media, from the extra reach and recognition it can bring to a writer – has been hard at times but I think it’s resulted in a second book in a row that’s exactly what I intended it to be, albeit one that’s smaller and weirder than its predecessor. I spent so many years beating myself up for not completing a work of fiction that now I’ve actually done it, I’m finding the feeling of not beating myself up any more extremely disorientating. It’s not quite how I expected it to be. I always thought when I finally wrote fiction, that would be it: I’d stick to it forever, because it’s the purer art form. Now I don’t feel so unequivocal. I’ve loved writing fiction and it’s given me a taste for something bigger in that area, but I’m reading more non-fiction than ever and I’ve shown myself recently that non-fiction can be more fun than I ever used to imagine it to be. I’m hugely looking forward to both of them being a big part of my future.
Have a read of Help The Witch.
The cover art is by Joe McLaren. See more of his work here.
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