My two new books!
Updated: Jul 12
A couple of years on from Love in a Lost Year, I'm releasing two new books. In the unlikely circumstance someone has a question, or multiple questions, about said books, I'm here to answer them! (Some of the lower sections contain extremely mild spoilers [is 'extremely mild' a contradiction?], just for your information.)
What are these books and why are you saturating the market further? NOBODY CARES ... except someone might
It's 2023: I should have graduated from the University of Leeds with BSc Economics exactly ten years ago. With a Russell Group university degree and a year abroad studying in Australia, which had been organised to slot between second and third year, the world was set to be my oyster. But my mind had other ideas and I made the decision – or rather, was forced – to drop out just over a year in. (I recently tried oysters for the first time and felt instantly nauseous, so it makes sense.) I’ve written a lot about this (dropping out, not oysters) over the years, but it’s about taking ownership of that time, of the insidious illness that is depression, which was the reason for me starting the two projects I'm now self-publishing. Getting Involved is a fictionalised account of my time studying in Leeds, while Losing Sight of the Moon is a true travel narrative based on a spontaneous trip I took shorty after dropping out. Part of me writing, and self-publishing, these stories is my need to put those memories to bed, to simultaneously let go of and make (kind of) permanent that seminal time for me.
But it isn't about me – hence my putting them out into the world instead of keeping them as notes in my drawer and sprawling, jumbled files on my laptop. Literature, without being dramatic, helped save my life. It started with reading books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. Experiencing emotions on the page that I shared so strongly made me feel less alone, less fearful. And fear, anxiety, and particularly lack of confidence play huge roles in the books I’ve written. The dedication for Getting Involved is for the quiet ones. As well as for anyone having a tough time with their wellbeing, these books aim to offer comfort to those who struggle to naturally assimilate in an often rowdy, boisterous world. For those who tap a beer can or twist a finger into a balmy palm at the edge of the crowd because they don’t know what to say. Don’t know how to get involved. It’s summed up so perfectly for music, for art in general, in The Verve's ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, where Richard Ashcroft sings of his craving to hear sounds that ‘recognise’ the pain within him. That’s how I feel about literature. That reflection and identification of hurt, its validation, which somehow translates to easing the pain and quelling the fear, even if temporarily. That’s what I hope to impart to just one reader with these books. Because it can and will get better. I know how it feels to completely lose that hope. I know how it feels to read people's assurances that it will get better but you feel so low you don’t trust or believe them. But it will get better.
Why the *fudge cakes* would you release them in tandem – do you even care about making money or building a brand or a career in writing, or do you hate the structures that be?
I took the decision to self-publish both these books simultaneously for various, you might think tenuous, reasons. But, at least, if part of writing them was to take ownership of that time, then self-publishing lends itself to a different kind of ownership, that control of things like the covers, when to release, how to balance commercial viability with raw honesty. On that last point – before you think they are uncoordinated ramblings of the heart unfiltered – both these manuscripts almost got picked up by agents/publishers. By which I mean I was asked to submit the full manuscript for Getting Involved (then called something else) but was rejected, and on another occasion (with a different title still) was asked to resubmit with edits, again rejected; Losing Sight of the Moon (predictably, not named so at the time) was basically accepted before the publishing house had a major restructure and moved completely away from creative nonfiction to producing solely textbooks and healthcare titles. So I'd like to think they contain the ingredients of commercial books with at least some kind of hook, satisfactory ending, build-up of tension, etc., whilst staying true to the stories and the turmoil of emotions experienced back then. Both contain plenty of action and dialogue, other characters experiencing their own issues; lots, I'd hope, to satisfy a more general reading audience. Having said that, one agent liked Getting Involved but rejected it stating the ending wasn't dramatic enough. Smirking, I typed a 'thanks anyway' email response, though knew there was nothing wrong with the ending. A month later I did another full read-through, thought about it awhile, then worked in a different, more dramatic ending.
But as well as taking control and not getting selected by agents/publishers as a reason for self-publishing, as some of you who struggle with confidence will know, it's not in my nature to take too much of people's time, so because of the similarities in themes between the two – depression, education backdrop, coming-of-age, both set in the early 2010s – I see the simultaneous publication more of a choice for a potential reader. If they wish to read something on said themes but, for example, prefer a travel narrative to a campus novel, or vice versa, or fiction to nonfiction, they can chose to read one or the other appropriately … not that I'd be averse to anyone wishing to pick up both.
Dude, you’re publishing stories set around 2010, they're not relevant – YOU’RE not relevant
Stepping into the Student’s Union bar for the first time last year during my master’s at Brunel University, I was met by a sight that warmed my heart. On the bar, a sign advertised deals on VK, the vintage alcopop available in a positive rainbow of flavours, and, beside the sign, a group of first years enjoying said drink deals. I’m far from the type of person to encourage binge drinking, but this brought me joy because it was exactly the scene in the Student’s Union bars in Leeds when I first attempted university back in 2009. And, though brands may have changed, I imagine ten years before that the same thing was occurring. There's a similar mindset amongst students, in some regards, irrespective of the generation.
Of course there have been a ton of changes over the past decade and a bit, in culture and attitudes, as well as ‘physical’ changes to the world around us and what we do; a major one being the prevalence of smartphones. Right on the verge of the smartphone proliferation, when I started in 2009, only a handful of people had the earliest models, while now we spend an average of just over four hours per day on them in the UK, a massive shift in the way we use our time. It probably forced a few grey hairs up the amount I fretted over whether the time period was fading into irrelevance, but when I asked my copyeditor whether I ought to revise the story, setting it in 2018 instead, she said absolutely not. The period in which it’s set was my authentic experience, and she worried some of this would be lost in the update. But mostly she said to keep it where it is because of the fact so much of the university experience, and the stress of being a late teenager, doesn’t change greatly through the generations, and therefore maintains universal appeal no matter when it’s read. People are still reading No Longer Human (1948), Norwegian Wood (1987), and Prep (2005) [some of my absolute faves; there is no way I can recommend my novel over those ones! … this is where you chose mine anyway because I’m so damn humble]. In those novels the story and most of the themes remain relevant and universal, and the references of the period, to this observer, only make them more intriguing – those novels are a kind of time capsule, teleporting the reader into the past, becoming important historical references as well as emotive novels.
And when doubt still sets in over this, I think of rocks. Geology is a humbling subject in relation to the length of a human life. That some precious metals took billions of years to form makes any worries about the relevance of something less than 15 years ago seem completely and utterly preposterous. And there are enough sources of worry in this life to make new ones up!
So, if you've read this waffle and are somehow still interested, some more details on the content and stories behind the stories:
One of my greatest triumphs is dropping out and, even though it took years, opening up about having felt rushed into it – because this prompted my sister to pause her UCAS application. She was seventeen at the time. I didn’t know then that I was the reason. But she took two years out, working at a pub, taking city breaks here and there with friends, and, crucially, landing a job working on the tills at a pharmacy. This caused her rethink: at seventeen she'd applied for sports science, but at nineteen, when she reapplied, she opted to go into healthcare. She’s now a fully-qualified nurse and loved her course and placements. She was excited to begin her journey into the so-called ‘real world’ after education. When she did finally tell me the true reason for her pausing that initial application, I secretly cried. That I could make a difference through my words staggered me, made me feel powerful, inspired me to keep pursuing my writing. You sometimes need those nuggets of affirmation to give you the strength to continue.
The protagonist Charlie essentially is me. This is a work of autobiographical fiction that digs into the reasons so many students struggle with their wellbeing during higher education, examining peer pressure, relationship difficulties, the financial challenges of coming to university from a working-class area, the lingering stigma attached to men talking about their emotions, and a system that pushes students to make the huge decision of where and what to study for three years of their life when they’re just seventeen. And that final point is key, feeding into some of the others before it: when young people come straight to university from college they’ve not had the chance to experience prolonged full-time work, or to see the world in which the things they learn at university will have an effect, and often have to scrape together living costs rather than thriving, which a year or two out can alleviate. I really believe, and am a case in point, that rushing teenagers through the doors of higher education can cause far more harm than good. And, having retaken and completed my undergrad in 2019, I’ve seen first-hand how many students feel this way.
But this book isn’t just for late teenagers and twentysomethings by any means. Above all it’s about being honest with yourself, knowing who you are. Seeing that happiness won’t happen externally, but when you decide to accept certain aspects of yourself, learn to stick up for how you feel, learn to love your flaws. It's also important to get this from men. Seeing other men open up emotionally inspires me without fail. And, to be blunt, with suicide rates for males alarmingly high, it feels critical to have male voices out there speaking about these issues. An arm around the shoulder – telling a reader who might be suffering with depression that things can get better, even when it seems impossible to feel hopeful about anything. Because it’s also a celebration of the things worth living for in life: family, friends, a sense of belonging and identity.
I started writing my experiences in Leeds as a direct result of reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which remains one of my all-time favourites. Moving through New York with Esther, the protagonist of Plath's only novel, looking in at the shady bars and career opportunities with a neutral, sometimes bleak and apathetic, eye inspired me to kick out a twenty-thousand-word novella charting my somewhat similar experience in my abridged second year at Leeds. With bulking out, this gradually turned into forty-thousand words, at which point, with encouragement from creative writing tutors at the time, I began submitting and it was nearly taken by a publishing house in Los Angeles specialising in novellas. They requested a resubmission with edits, which I carried out in a stressful month, but ultimately received rejection. After this (I hadn't yet built up that very necessary writers' resilience), I shelved it. A couple of years later I dug it out for a reread and felt it could be more than a story of having depression, but one that traced it back to some of the causes. I started writing semi-autobiographical events of my first year in Leeds – attempting to capture some of the frantic energy and potential, along with signs that this nineteen-year-old was on a precipice: things I now see were there all along for me in real life. It became a standard first novel length, eighty thousand words, chronological in moving from first into second year. Only after submitting to the Cheshire Novel Prize, which I can safely say is the best writing prize experience I've had so far, and receiving feedback, did I alter the narrative to have a dual timeline for, as I see it, greater impact. And, begrudgingly but rightfully, on the advice of an agent, as mentioned above, my final change was to add extra spice toward the end. From my first draft of twenty thousand words to this edition four times as long that I'm releasing into the wild, it has been almost exactly seven years.
Toni Morrison said to write the novel you wish you could read. I’m not narcissistic enough to think my novel could have altered things for me back then, but at least to some extent I believe Getting Involved would have benefited past me – it’s something I would have wanted to read whilst experiencing such distress in Leeds. With student mental health frequently under the spotlight, as I see it there is a need for a campus novel that tackles depression head-on.
It's about ...
... seeing beauty in life and opportunities for discovery in this world but not feeling able to grasp them, either through character or means; being on the fringes, feeling like an outsider, not quite getting something everyone around you seems to understand innately; major fear-of-missing-out; chronic overthinking; borderline insomnia; doubts over sexual capabilities; shyness; obsessing over even the smallest missed opportunity; learning to love dubstep; learning to love screamo; learning to love Enya; crisp sandwiches and custard creams by the barrel; feeling hemmed in by the city; harvesting leeks; smoking shisha; Skype; relationship drama; a fight amid the strobes at a gig in an abandoned warehouse; chasing fish while swimming in the clear harbour waters in Croatia; a muddy bike ride and a snapped chain; a sponge cake fight until dawn; drugs; a panic attack; an embarrassing mistake live on student radio; playing too much FIFA; trying to meet one’s own needs while enduring the pressure of others’ expectations; discovering how to let go of said expectations; coming-of-age; being spoken over; finding a voice.
As a bonus treat, I made a little Spotify playlist to accompany Getting Involved, with songs that tie in thematically, those referenced in the book, and some that evoke the time.
While Getting Involved looks at some of the signs of a build up to a major depressive episode, Losing Sight of the Moon reaches further back, as the expansive travels across North America are interspersed with reflections on defining moments from childhood and adolescence. Travelling can be such a reflective experience, especially while in transit looking out at the changing scenery, in my case a bus window, feeling an odd dichotomy of intense emotional anguish and then spells of blunted sensitivity where I didn't feel a thing. Then, which some don't expect of a person suffering with depression, little pockets of excessive joy, often brought on by a moment of generosity (in the book, a certain trip to McDonald's in L.A. typifies this!).
And that final point on human benevolence was a key reason for me writing my experiences. The amount of kindness I received on the road was borderline ridiculous, far outweighing the scary incidents, of which there were plenty. When rewatching Fleabag, one of the moments that stood out to me was where Phoebe Waller-Bridge's character is sitting at a bar verbalising doubts over her situation in life and the people around her, and in response the esteemed businesswoman on the stool beside her looks Fleabag in the eye with critical earnest and says, 'People are all we've got.' I immediately thought of my time in the States. Right back to my being able to afford the flight. When I dropped out of uni I still had seven months left on the rental agreement in my shared house in Leeds and was in my overdraft. I applied to countless jobs online over the following week, then accompanied the online search by handing out CVs around the city centre. No joy. Frustrated and jaded, I took a batch to Headingley, where, in Subway, I did the usual: forced a smile, so they knew I’d be great to work with, and asked, ‘Are you accepting CVs?’ and, ‘Is the manager in?’ Except this time I couldn’t be arsed with the fake positivity. I felt like shit and couldn’t get a job. The manager came out of the office and faced me at the tills, and I just let the desperation that had been brimming in me pour out. I told him way too much – about dropping out, about struggling to find work, about being willing to cover any amount of hours if they were available, literally four hours per week or sixty – I’d take anything. He let me talk, took in my spiel, and a few days later I locked my bike to a lamppost by the dustbins round back and tied on my apron for my first shift. The manager, as it happened, had also quit university, understood my situation, felt pity and knew I would work hard. That job – closer to the sixty hours per week than four – funded my trip.
This book is also intended to be an inspirer and anxiety-reducer for anyone thinking of travelling somewhere, or taking any decision they're fretting about. If you're feeling somewhat ready, or have had a burning desire to do something for a while, go for it. There is a lot of scare-mongering in our media, and there are real threats and, of course, plenty of situations in which you have to be extremely cautious, yet (I'm conscious of writing this as a white male) most people want to help. I knew far too little of the places I visited, the customs, the dangers, even the correct way to conduct myself at a buffet, but, with the help of people, all strangers before I stepped on the plane, I got by. I wasn't exactly thriving, but I got through it and I learnt so much.
Building on that, I hope something else which comes through is that there is relief in ridding yourself of the pressure to have the best time of your life. Things don't usually live up to the stratospheric expectations we often attribute to them. On The School of Life videos, social media is alluded to as the worst invention, mental health wise, humans have ever created. Filtered, glossy photos of smiling people basking in glorious sunshine can cause envy, fear-of-missing-out, bitterness, or that horrendous, inescapable, itchy feeling that you could be doing something more. Know those photos are often not telling the truth. The smiling person might not feel like smiling. When I came back from my trip back in 2011, despite not posting any of said sunshine photos (you'll see why if you read it ;) ) I'd often receive envious smirks when I explained some of the places I'd visited. But this is because I was guilty of not telling the whole story. And I felt incredibly lucky to have gone on this trip, which just made the guilt worse that it hadn't been 'all that'. So when people looked jealous hearing where I'd been, I could only manage to smile along. That said nothing of how I actually felt on the trip – but how can you tell someone you've just been to some of the most famous cities and places of natural splendour in the world and not had a great time without seeming spoilt or snooty? Well, as so often in my case, I chose to write it first, to make sense of it all. After that the honest verbal communication becomes far easier.
The events in Losing Sight of the Moon took place in May and June 2011, and I wrote the first draft whilst on a government-funded volunteering scheme in India in 2014. It was the first time I’d experienced a writing flow and routine. Despite, or because of, living in a village with no electricity or running water, sleeping on a roll mat on a concrete floor surrounded by a mosquito net offering protection from the giant spiders that hung in the corner of the tiny school by day and came to play at night, I slept the best I ever have in my life – eight hours without fail, every night. It meant I woke up with the rising sun and birds of the rainforest. After saying goodbye to the previous night’s curry, again, like clockwork, each morning at six a.m. in the squat toilet, I took out my notepad, walked down to a big rock by the valley, and wrote. I barely lifted my pen until breakfast at eight a.m., when all our group was awake and pottering around, taking showers in the water we pumped up to the cubicle from a stagnant pond. It was exciting and calming to do this every morning, and it felt cathartic getting out all the events of that five-week trip in the States. These mornings in India were the time I really fell in love with writing, as I tried to creatively convey all the actions and emotions – the sheer cold of camping in a paper tent in Yosemite, not knowing where I was heading at any point, in any regard, and the overwhelming generosity of so many people I met.
After finishing the first draft shortly after the India trip, I left the manuscript for a few months so I could come back to it with fresh eyes and renewed vigour for edits. In my naivety, I didn't edit it that much. Miraculously, this was the state in which it almost got accepted; a publishing house read my first fifty pages, requested the full manuscript, and emailed to say they enjoyed it. That praise was in the first paragraph of the response. The second paragraph began with 'Unfortunately', and explained how the company was moving completely away from narrative nonfiction in a structural revamp. So it was a no. Back to the drawing board. It seemed that had been a strange bit of luck that took it so close to publication, since everywhere else rejected it, multiple advising I work on the book's narrative arc. It's something for which I sought professional help from a former-book-industry friend of a lecturer at university. She agreed on the necessity of a structural revamp, so I made sizeable edits, and it's the reason I split the memoir broadly into three categories: 'Alone', 'Friends', 'Family' – moving from that lonely state to noticing and appreciating support networks, people who have your best interests at heart. It's fitting that all my close family read this manuscript years ago and offered feedback, as did friends of mine and my family. It's really down to this support that I'm releasing this book, and possibly writing whatsoever.
While Getting Involved required bulking out, advice from professionals and beta readers led me to trimming Losing Sight of the Moon by around ten thousand words. I realised it had too much reflection, too much of my life that wasn't interesting or relevant to others. It's one of the reasons it's so important to get objective feedback and also leave the manuscript alone awhile before making your own edits. I set out writing this with Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my mind; that mixture of action and travel alongside philosophical enquiry (in my case those moments of reflection). Feedback made me realise I'd taken the latter too far, and that I was 'telling' instead of 'showing' at times. Others made me realise this, and I'm grateful for it, as now it's in a state where I'm really happy with the progression of events and that balance of action and reflection. I hope readers are too!
It's about ...
... the ‘unglamorous’ side of traveling; stealing showers and bad hand-washing of clothes; aimlessness in life and on the road; the pains of leaving your teenage years behind; feeling like an outsider, as above; being naturally quiet and wanting to change; eating a handful of nuts and raisins for regular sustenance and then consuming a years-worth of food from an all-you-can-eat buffet in one sitting; witnessing unbridled wonders at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Zion Valley, and a 7-Eleven self-service hotdog counter; learning how to break the rules, sometimes the law, when necessary (disclaimer: where absolutely nobody gets hurt); the rewards of being a good listener; hating yourself; the joys of being brutally honest; getting scorched by the Arizona sun; tripping in the woods from accidentally smoking something far stronger than weed; hostelling; a shambolic night on the Las Vegas Strip; sleeping in any nook available; drooling on neighbours’ shoulders on Greyhound buses; multiple encounters with the police; a leaky fuel tank; falling in lust with anyone who offers free food or a place to pitch your tent; lacking the confidence to approach someone you find attractive; the unusual pleasure of being tired and hungry and sightseeing solo; the awkwardness and joy of meeting a stranger and sharing a silence; being able to break said silence; opening up.