You’re not going to want to do this, but I need you to briefly picture me in the bath. It’s okay. You can think about something nice again afterward.
Because here’s the thing. After I’ve bathed, I have a specific way of drying. You may even do the same. I don’t get out of the bath right away. I dry all parts of me except my feet, while still standing in the water. Then I raise one foot, and dry that, before putting it down on the mat. Then I dry my remaining foot, before finally departing the tub. This has the benefit of meaning I don’t drip water all over the bathroom or turn the bathmat into a sodden mess, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I learned it from watching my father when I was a small child. The real question, therefore, is why he did it that way — and I only thought to ask him when I was older, and the habit was permanently ingrained. He explained that when he was a student at university in Nottingham, the lodgings where he lived had no heating — and so he developed the technique to stay in the warmth of the water as long as possible.
I live in California now. Most of the time, it really ain’t that cold. The way I continue to dry myself when I get out of the bath — last mention of this, I promise — is thus wholly a result of the frigidity of the the digs where my father lived in the faraway black and white era of the 1950s, long before I was born, in a country five thousand miles away.
Increasingly I've come to realize that’s how life is, all the time — each of us shaped and constrained by emotional characteristics, behaviours and world-views that we’re often not even aware of. Some come from personal histories, our own paths, but others were born in the lives of forebears, passed down like strange heirlooms. We’re never just ourselves. We’re everyone who came before us, doggedly manifest in the shadows of our souls, in some sense still alive.
And that’s what my new book is about.
Well, partly. It’s also about a four-foot-high talking mushroom called Vaneclaw.
This week marks the official publication (in UK stores, and on Amazon, and for the time being it’s also available in the US here) of HANNAH GREEN AND HER UNFEASIBLY MUNDANE EXISTENCE. It’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. I’ve made something of a habit of writing things not quite like anything I’ve done before — as my agent/s, publisher/s and probably some readers will wearily attest — but this one’s even more of a swerve than usual.
The title is noticeably long (and was originally even longer, with “The Story of” at the front, but there’s a limit to how many words you can fit on a book especially when your name already has three parts). The novel’s road to publication was pretty long, too. When my son Nate was younger I put him to bed on alternate nights. For the first several years I’d read to him, but then — while he was in a sustained phase of believing “Ben 10” to be the most compelling piece of entertainment ever conceived by mankind — one night I started making up a story involving its characters. This almost immediately stopped bearing the remotest relationship to the TV series, but Nate enjoyed it (and soon wouldn’t accept any alternative); it saved me having to try to read a book in low-light conditions; and while on some evenings it was a struggle to make up story in real time when I’d spent my entire day doing exactly the same thing, it had the advantage that I could tailor the narrative to his readiness for sleep… slowing the action as he got drowsier. And it was kind of fun.
So we stuck with it, for over two years, every other night, across two countries, three houses and more than a few hotel and motel rooms along the way.
Eventually there came a point where Nate had long-ago stopped watching “Ben 10” and I’d gone through every conceivable combination of circumstances the characters could endure. So one night back in 2013 I started a totally different story — about a girl called Hannah Green, who lived in Santa Cruz. It got zany and dark pretty quickly and I fell into the habit of making a short note of whatever random stuff I’d come up with each night. I can’t recall why the story was abandoned halfway — possibly because of an abortive attempt to read Nate some Ray Bradbury — but a while later I came upon the notes I’d made and realized that I'd like to know what happened next.
The rest of the book came quickly. It was, however, unlike anything I’d produced before, and so I didn’t know what to do with it. I showed it to my wife, who said it was worth putting out there. So I then sent it to my then-publishers, who did the publisher equivalent of staring at the manuscript as though it was a half-chewed mouse deposited on the kitchen floor by a cat. In their defense, it was nothing like what I’d promised, nor even a new version of the book I was actually supposed to be rewriting for them at the time. So I put HANNAH to one side and got on with hacking away at the other novel — in the end, unsuccessfully. We couldn’t agree, and parted company in 2015.
In the unnerving void that followed I was drawn back to HANNAH. I did another couple of drafts, and got some positive comments, most encouragingly from my old friend Jo Fletcher. Eventually I was delighted to sell it to the best editor I’ve ever had, and my previous publisher — Jane Johnson, at HarperCollins.
And… so here it is. It has a young protagonist, but there are grown-ups in it too. I wrote the book for adults, but also for kids, or maybe it was the other way around. And for old people. And the twenty percent of cats that can read. It really does have a talking mushroom in it. But also the Devil. And Big Sur, and Siberia, and Santa Cruz, of course — where I live. And a rollercoaster, and Bach, a handy map of the frozen foods section in Safeway, and quite a good recipe for pork rillettes. Okay, some of those last things aren’t true. But you may rest assured that nowhere in the novel is there any mention of me being in the bath.
I have a lot of affection for HANNAH. Partly because it’s the result of making up whatever the hell I liked — without rhyme or reason or being bound up in commercial realities — for the first time since my first novel, ONLY FORWARD. Also because I remember those nights, nearly four years ago, when I sat with my back against the wall in the quiet dark, and made stuff up for my son.
The early years of childhood pass terrifyingly quickly in retrospect, at least for the parent. What at the time can feel endless will seem like the blink of an eye once it’s done. As I write this, Nate’s twelve, and generally finds his own stories at bedtime these days. I’m very glad to have some of our earlier evenings together preserved in this book.
I’m excited to hand it over to you now, and I hope you like it.