The Former Boy Wonder
By Robert Graham
Published by Lendal Press, an imprint of Valley Press UK, on 24th Feb 2022
A bittersweet comedy that takes a sidelong look at first love, mid-life crisis and the
challenges of the relationship between fathers and sons
I'm delighted to have interviewed Robert Graham about his newest novel and his writing craft. Before we go into it, let's look at the blurb for 'The Former Boy Wonder'...
With his 50th birthday approaching and his career in tatters, Peter Duffy is hard at work trying to repair his marriage when an invitation arrives in the post. Caitlin, one of his university friends, is having a party at the country house where he met his first love, the exotic Sanchia Page. If all his old friends are going to be there, there’s a slim chance that – just maybe – she will, too. Faced with this possibility, re-living his time with Sanchia threatens to turn his head and ruin all his good intentions.
Set in the new Manchester of the 21st century and the old Manchester of 25 years before, The Former Boy Wonder takes a wry look at mid-life men and the women who have to live with them.
You’re a prolific writer, with books under your belt such as novel Holy Joe; the short story collections The Only Living Boy and When You Were a Mod, I Was A Rocker; and the novella A Man Walks Into A Kitchen! With ‘The Former Boy Wonder’ being your third novel, have you noticed your style of writing change over the years?
Yes, I’ve definitely taken a different approach this time. In writing The Former Boy Wonder, the most obvious change to my working methods was that I spent more time on it – almost a decade. I was only working on it for a few months each year and there was an 18-month break in the middle of that period, but I did spend far more time on it than I’ve ever done with any other book of mine. This gave it time to grow and to allow me the space to prune it and shape it.
I studied models, which I never had before. These were novels that shared subject matter and themes with The Former Boy Wonder – in particular, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. From them, I learned how to create romantic yearning, build an effective setting, and generate mystique. Part of the way both novels do the latter is by keeping the object of desire offstage for as long as possible (42 pages in Gatsby, 58 in Meaulnes). In terms of building mystique, Gatsby is especially skilful, because in the run-up to meeting Jay Gatsby we hear about him from a number of other characters (and they say conflicting things); we glimpse him in the distance striking a romantic pose; and we see intimations of him in his setting (his mansion), and in the parties he throws there. In my novel, I kept Sanchia Page, the young woman who becomes Peter’s first love, offstage for as long as I could. He meets and falls for her at the twenty-first birthday party of one of his friends which takes place in Loston Manor, a grand house in the Lancashire countryside. I aimed to make Sanchia glamorous by association with Loston and with details of the party itself: the costumes that the partygoers wear, the lighting, the season, autumn, and a variety of music. In the early stages of the novel, Peter reminisces about her from mid-life, and in the strand set in his youth, he hears about her prior to the party and then, having glimpsed and lost her at it, races through the grounds searching for her, and finally – 67 pages in – we meet her.
In journal articles and Creative Writing textbooks, I’ve written extensively about narrative craft, and with this novel I focused my mind more than I perhaps had before on applying what I’d learned about the theory of fiction-writing. For example, one of my aims was to use setting to characterise, create conflict and suggest emotional tone. Also, I learned to understand more fully how the unconscious mind works, and to always make a note of any ideas that popped out of it. As a result, I believe I harvested this novel from my unconscious. An image I have for the process of tapping the unconscious is that the story already exists in another dimension and the author’s job is to tune in to broadcasts it sends across and use them to import it into this world. It sounds fanciful, but as a metaphor for the creative process it rings true – at least for me. Another metaphor for the writing of a novel that occurred to me in producing TFBW is that of building a drystone wall. Once I had all the constituent parts, I tried them here and there in the wall to see where they fitted best.
With this novel, I studied structure more than I ever had before. I’m a gardener, not an architect; I write to discover. I knew who the characters were before I began writing and I had an idea where the story might start and end. Other than that, I was flying by the seat of my pants. What I’ve learned this time is that although I won’t ever be too much of a planner, it helps if before you start you have an idea of structure.
I did an insane amount of redrafting. I mean just scores of drafts, and there was more to it than simply polishing the prose. I pruned and cut and wrote new material and pruned and cut and wrote new material and on and on. Stephen King said that writers have to keep going way, way, way after it makes sense to give up – and I really did.
Nobody writes a novel on their own. A great many people, friends and professionals, read successive drafts and gave me valuable, insightful feedback. The novelist Elizabeth Garner studied a close to final draft and showed me a better way to pull the whole thing together.
Over the years, around a dozen fellow writers gave me feedback in workshops. Almost as many friends read complete or almost complete drafts, and three editors gave me detailed advice on completing TFBW. It was rejected by many publishing houses and if anyone asked what it was that led to it finally getting a deal, I’d say that there were two main factors. One was Liz Garner’s report, the other the fact that I thought long and hard about structure.
Peter Duffy, your protagonist, is having a mid-life crisis! Do you start your characters from observations of real people?
With Peter, yes. One of the things I observed was the phenomenon of men who at around the age of 50 see that the end is nearer than the beginning, think that life could be better than it is and ditch their partners to start over again with somebody new. 100% of the time, this causes a huge amount of damage. In throwing everything up, these dying-of-the-light men leave a trail of wreckage behind them, inflicting lasting wounds on the women and children affected.
Does the plotting begin with a character dilemma, or an alternative way of starting the novel?
The plotting began with the situation I’ve just described, with Peter Duffy’s dilemma. At just the worst time, when relations between him and his wife Lucy and son Jack are at their most strained, he starts fantasising that his first love, Sanchia Page, will turn up at the fiftieth birthday party one his old college friends invites him to. So his dilemma is that he wants to repair his relationship with his wife and son, and when that begins to seem impossible, he begins to think he can, like Gatsby and Meaulnes, find his first love and pick up where they left off. In Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator, tells Gatsby that he can’t repeat the past. ‘Can’t repeat the past,’ Gatsby says. ‘Why of course you can!’ One of Peter Duffy’s friends tells him much the same thing, but that doesn’t stop him hoping he can.
With most of my characters, I start with an aspect of somebody I know. From that point, the character grows through what I discover they do and say and through other characters’ views of them. The goal I have in mind with any of my characters is that they get into jams of one kind or another, and that generates story. Usually, the cause of the conflict has to do with their own shortcomings.
Now that the book is finished, I can look at most of them and see how to begin with they were modelled on someone I know or are a conflation of two or three people I know. From that point onwards, they grew because I needed a story and to generate story I almost always gave them shortcomings. If you asked me about any of the characters in TFBW, I’d be able to say who an early model was but then show you how the character grew from that through having shortcomings and doing and saying things as a result of these character flaws. At a guess, the original model makes up 10% of a character; the other 90% is invented, and all of the invention is with the aim of creating a story, which always comes out of conflicts that their flaws lead to.
Peter Duffy lives for music. Did you have a playlist during your editing?
Maybe the most important songs in the writing of this novel were those that I listened to to capture a feeling. For example, The Kinks’ “Picture Book”, in which Ray Davies looks at photographs of his childhood and reflects on how they show that his family loved one another. In TFBW, Peter looks at photographs of his childhood to remind himself that his Dad loved him. He also pores over photos of Sanchia Page and yearns for that era and the experience of first love. In “I Can’t Forget” Leonard Cohen addresses an old love and in its feel and in its lyrics the song matched Peter’s longing for the past. The same was true of Dylan’s “Red River Shore”, another lost love song. To get me in the right frame of mind to write the aftermath of Peter losing his virginity: I remember playing Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge”, which sounds the way I thought Peter would feel at that point: excited and exhilarated. So I used music to get me in the mood to write a scene with a particular tone. I often thought that what I was aiming for was the effect on the listener that a song has.
The other way I used songs in this novel was to either name them or describe them. This was usually to help build characters, but sometimes it was to help with the feel of a scene. A good example of a song that’s described but not named occurs in the party where Peter first encounters Sanchia. The song I describe, mentioning details like a harpsichord and a balalaika in the recording, is Keith West’s “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera”. Describing music adds to the sensory detail and enriches the moment in a way that naming the song wouldn’t have.
One thing I tried hard to avoid was expressing an opinion about any of the music in TFBW. Value judgments are subjective, for one thing, and the author’s opinions about music aren’t that interesting to readers. In fact, an author’s opinions about anything aren’t that interesting to readers.
I love recognising the Manchester street names and locations. Is Manchester a location you found it easy to connect your characters to/place them within, and do you feel there a sense of location also bringing identity to your characters?
The Manchester-set part of the story takes place in the 1980s and 2010s. I focused on locations in the city so much that it has become almost a character in its own right. Sometimes the settings are now-vanished venues like The Boardwalk, The Gallery, The Hardrock and the Free Trade Hall. The venue and the gigs we see Peter at help to characterise him, but they also give readers who have had similar experiences something they can identify with. More than one reader has said that setting the novel in Manchester in the 80s has taken them back to their youth there. It’s not just settings that readers relate to, though. Almost any detail you put in a novel is there to give the reader something to identify with, whether it be characters, action, fashion, songs, films, or just a particular brand of coffee.
In the 80s-set strand, Peter and his friends lived in student house shares. For a couple of his friends, I had one of the Edwardian houses on Goulden Road in West Didsbury in mind and for the flat he shares with some other friends, I pictured a grotty one in a specific part of Fallowfield. It helps me create characters and write scenes if I begin with a real-world setting. In the strand in the 2010s, I set Lucy Duffy’s bookshop on Beech Road in Chorlton. In a way, writing setting in the present day of the novel was easier. I know Beech Road well. I made Lucy the kind of person who would love its cafes and restaurants and the kind of cafes and restaurants she likes help to characterise her. I know Chorlton Bookshop well, too, and although Hardy Books, Lucy’s shop, is on Beech Road rather than in the middle of the village, I’ve used details of the real shop in hers.
If you could spend a day with a character from the book, who would it be, and why?
Lucy Duffy, for a variety of reasons. Because it was a challenge to see how she and Peter would get closer again, she was the toughest character to write. Also she’s the most important female character in the book, so I wanted to get it right. At a guess, this book will be read by more women than men, so I wanted her to be believably a woman. For years before the novel begins, she has been happily managing without Peter who, for too many years, was travelling the world with his job. Because, in his absence, she has been content to get on with her own life, it was a challenge to show her coming round. Why should she let Peter win her over again? I had to write her response to his charm offensive in such a way that the reader would find it plausible.
If there was one thing you wanted a reader to take away from ‘The Former Boy Wonder’, what would it be?
It’d be great if readers enjoyed spending time with the characters and found that the pages turned easily. One of my ambitions was for the book to be funny and affecting, so I’d like it if readers were able to say that the book had engaged their emotions. Like any writer, I’d be happy if, by the time they’ve finished reading the book, readers felt satisfied by the experience they’ve just had.
About the Author
Robert Graham is the author of the novel Holy Joe; the short story collections The Only Living Boy and When You Were a Mod, I Was A Rocker; and the novella A Man Walks Into A Kitchen. His play about fans of The Smiths, If You Have Five Seconds To Spare, was staged by Contact Theatre, Manchester. He is co-author, with Keith Baty, of Elvis – The Novel, a spoof biography; and, with Julie Armstrong, Heather Leach, Helen Newall et al, of The Road To Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion; Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Creative Writing; and How To Write A Short Story (And Think About It). He grew up in Northern Ireland and for most of his adult life has lived in Manchester. He teaches Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. For more information please see www.robertgraham.life and follow Robert on Instagram @robert55graham
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