I am now old and can use the phrase, ‘many years ago.’
Ever since hijacking my high school’s Wikipedia page I have written comedy, and, many years ago, (there we are) I was in rehearsals for a comedy play that I had written and was directing and acting in for the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
For the last two years I had been doing stand-up and making short films and putting on comedy plays at university. I always knew I wanted to be a comedian, in whatever guise, and these seemed to be the most natural ways to do it. I was Python-obsessed and young and frivolity was not yet to my mind a vice.
A few weeks from opening, one of the cast brought in to rehearsals a copy of A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. During a five-minute break I picked the book up and started reading. Immediately I knew that I held in my hand the highest comedic art. The opening line still makes me smile—’Was anyone hurt?’. Smarter, more elegant, vastly more subtle and ingenious than the frivolous tenor in which I was working, its apotheosis—’I will tell you what I have learned in the forest, where time is different…’—still makes me shake my head with wonder. I had discovered in a single page what I was supposed to be doing. A comedian, yes; a buffoon, not if I could help it.
Deciding to write novels was not a natural decision for a man from early youth malnourished on films and television. Certainly I read, but history and philosophy. I wrote, but jokes and scripts. Prose fiction was to me a tedious world which demanded too much patience and too much attention to impart any real pleasure.
But in Evelyn Waugh the prose was immediately pleasurable. No sentence is an obstacle though each is elegant. Each is a joy though not one is flippant. No smiles are equal in their satisfaction as those which spring from his mastery. I still have not found his equal. Five years later I can read very few novelists, certainly no more than five, without immediate and infuriating boredom.
So I called the Fringe show off. I was to set about writing a novel. About what? I had no idea. But I would begin with imitation. Who had Waugh read when he was my age? Who formed his style? Surely if I read them then they would form from my personality a style comparable, though not identical, to his. I read Firbank, Wilde, Wodehouse; Saki, Ruskin, Forster. It was here that I was to find the second-biggest influence on my life and style.
The life and work of John Ruskin have provided me with five years of abiding joy. He formed my taste in travel, art, history, religion, as Waugh did in literature, civilization, temperament. Ruskin’s work on The Naturalist Ideal had the same affect on me as it did on Millais and Rossetti, and influenced my style directly.
Thoroughly miseducated by two modern thought factories, I today hold that I was taught how to think by Friedrich Nietzsche, Evelyn Waugh, and John Ruskin. I grafted onto Waugh’s progenitors the reading I most enjoyed—Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, Berlin and Kraus, Chesterton and Dawson. And I read for months, voraciously, all with one end in mind—read until you can write.
On the 21st of February the following year, at the age of twenty-five, I was in my university’s library, reading Waugh’s diaries. I went straight to that day’s date in his life, the 21st of February, 1927, when he was my age. I still have not forgotten what I found. “It seems to me the time has arrived to set about being a man of letters.” It is one of the few of life’s signs that has never stopped driving me.
Within another few months I had come up with a story. I had read; I would see if I could write. I toiled for a few months and by the epilogue thought that probably I could make a go of it. The manuscript, pretentiously written in pen and ink and by typewriter, I burned. Four months later two major disintegrations in my private life precipitated a departure. I wandered around London and the cathedrals of England and the Lake District, and went for the first time to Venice, with Ruskin as my guide. All the while I was working on a new story.
I made little attempt to write as I drank the length of Italy before languishing in Portugal. Getting no work done at all, mostly because of port and ginjinha, I retreated on the advice of my brother to Vietnam. I sweated my way through three-quarters of a book and then abandoned it. It was poorly planned and involved me composing passages of iambic pentameter. But my power was growing.
I went back to Melbourne to work and save up a small fortune so that when a new story came I could go away again and really write. And so I did. Switzerland, Italy, Normandy, Vietnam, at last to New York, where I overwintered to finish another book. When that was done I returned to Melbourne to prepare it for submission to agents. That book too, I realised after the change of location, was ill-conceived. And in New York I had come up with another, stronger, story and was already working on that.
I would write the new novel—certain to be the culmination of three years of preparation—and move to London, get a literary agent, and that would be that.
I went to Vietnam again, to research and write what was to become Waxed Exceeding Mighty. It took me eight weeks to write the thing, and after moving to London I again needed to do paid work in order to recover the thousands lost to the comfort which facilitates writing.
Two months later, the manuscript rejected by agents in London and New York, I looked into self-publishing. I genuinely believed the book to be too good to go forever unread. I had spent years preparing to reach the last page of that thing; because agents told me they would have trouble ‘placing it on the market’, did that mean that it should not be read?
It was while preparing that book for publication that I came up with the idea of The Comedy Novel—the idea that a book could be as funny as the sitcoms and comedy films that we all love and can quote by heart, but brisker and less pompous than the modern novel. Where a novel might use humour as an accessory to storytelling, I would use storytelling as an accessory to comedy. Evelyn Waugh writing for South Park; P.G. Wodehouse meets The Hangover. There was my pitch, my point of difference. It was the perfect synthesis of the way I thought and wrote with my upbringing and sense of humour. (My full explanation of The Comedy Novel can be found here.)
I published Waxed Exceeding Mighty and for six weeks smuggled copies of it into London bookstores, exhorting my very few social media followers to steal them. Thus was born #stealthisnovel.
With that book behind me I could at last plan and write a novel knowing exactly what it had to be. My style was now long-formed and came without effort or affectation. I had groped through Waxed Exceeding Mighty for a unique form. By its end, from writing to publication to marketing, I had found it. I would write the first ever true Comedy Novel. A sitcom in prose; the humour of a Judd Apatow film on paper.
I went to Venice and Bangkok to research the new novel and again to Vietnam to write it. I finished the first draft in London, and submitted it to agents in October. The full manuscript was requested by two of them but I proceeded with the self-publishing process anyway. I had little faith in the publishing industry’s willingness to take risks on new talent or to innovate. They want above all for me to have attended writer’s workshops.
That novel, now published, is called Exquisite Hours and is the first true Comedy Novel. The agents indeed saw no value in taking a risk on new talent or on a new genre. I launched the book in February 2016 and it sold out four print-runs in six weeks. The traditional publishing industry… can now suck a fat one.
I am again in Vietnam, having completed the story for my third novel, soon to head to Cambodia to begin writing it, then to London again to finish it. I aim to launch it in February, in Los Angeles, the city whose residents bought the most copies of Exquisite Hours.
Thus then has one come to be writing books. I have sacrificed four years, two small fortunes, my liver, most of my old friends, and two relationships, up to it. The writing part is vastly enjoyable, the researching extremely rewarding. The rest is unutterably frustrating. Utter boredom in the evening, irascibility around almost everyone.
I have had several very happy individuals tell me to do something else. They have seen that a lot of the time being a writer of books makes for unhappiness. The lack of remuneration makes the pursuit not only frustrating but foolish. But I do not choose to write. There is simply no other occupation from which I could glean even the smallest enjoyment.
I have to write.
Others have to pursue mortgage repayments, job promotions, and their infants. I have heard that such people also are often unhappy.
J.H. June, 2016