Some time ago I was asked to write about myself and how I started writing the WHSmith Fresh talent novel, The Life Assistance Agency.
I started the Life Assistance Agency many years ago. It was initially called the Karma Account, which considered how our deeds might determine our destiny, and this led me to consider how hard this must be for people who are immortal, and particularly laborious once they found themselves into the 200th year.
Not knowing any immortals to ask, I had to make one up. Or rather I didn’t. I forget how I first encountered Dr. Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist of the late 1580s, but I’m glad I did. He had pursued angels, so it wasn’t a huge leap to him chasing immortality.
He seemed a good starting point, particularly in the absence of any others. Actually, Damon Albarn and a few other writers were drawn to Dee at a similar time, which I was initially angry about – ‘hold on, he’s my historical figure.’ – but then concluded it was all rather elegant synchronicity.
It’s hard to know when I started writing. I recall a story involving my Action Men that was never finished, which is probably for the best. I remember sitting down when I was 21 and asking flat mates to not disturb me, as I scribbled out some poems that in my mind’s eye were part-obscured by curling smoke of Gauloise cigarettes and unrequited love. That the latter was still easier to come by in light of a local newsagent selling French cigarettes this was particularly galling. (Excuse French regional pun). I then tried writing short stories, but having read Raymond Carver’s, the standard was set too high.
I was drawn to the spirituality of the Romantic poets, who seemed to spend more time loafing around Greek islands and having orgies than actually writing anything. However, as a life style choice I was made quickly aware of its limitations, so started working in IT recruitment instead.
There are few things more motivational than an office. Forget sunsets, hilltops and breaking waves; open-plan corporate environments are the true muse. Employees beavering away at desks are actually people writing novels, rewriting the small print of an office milk whip, or re-juggling their Fantasy Football teams. It’s a fertile environment for the imagination, and one in which I learnt the crucial skill of writing while actually doing something else entirely.
Rather foolishly in terms of sales I eschewed writing about Irish dysfunctional families and buried abuse, to write the sort of book I wanted to read – escapist, light-hearted and occasionally funny. Basically PG Wodehouse with semi-automatic weapons. However, there’s great risk is suggesting you’ve written a humorous book in case it’s, well, not funny.
Like the sun, my novel was something best seen from the corner of my eye, staring at it directly and I’d be blinded. Of course starting a novel before you’ve written a short story gives you no idea how long it’s going to take, nor how hard it is. However, for when people ask what you’re doing, it does create an allure of intelligence, so long as it’s not your boss. It also justifies sitting down for long periods of time.
Anyway, I digress. I left IT recruitment to follow a 15-year career as a mental health social worker. People ask if my novel is influenced by this, and the answer is no. It would be unfair on the clients, and myself. After all, voyeurism in made-up characters is acceptable, somehow less so in real people.
I liked the idea of a novel that was fantastical, but that didn’t deliver anything too unbelievable too quickly; so that you are already sucked into the narrative by the time anything unrealistic happened, by which point it was too late. Even then, I’ve been careful to place events in a very real world of fast food and pop music so the fantasy never gets entirely out of hand.
The idea of a Life Assistance Agency had always appealed: a company that does not need to define itself by any specific services, or indeed any viable business plan. Our main protagonist Ben Ferguson-Cripps is exactly the sort of customer the Agency dreams of and this is how he first hears of it in Chapter 1:
I looked again at The Life Assistance Agency business card, and marveled at the optimism of a business plan that involved punters not mocking such speculative services. I recognised the card’s Impact font. The KLF used it on their record sleeves.
Your problems, our assistance
Where telephone banking and dietary supplements fail,
The Life Assistance Agency succeeds.
Private investigation, sick day excuses, situation manipulation, people: lost and found, Life advice, , coincidences arranged, hits arranged, soul mates found (special rates apply), final Will and testament re-writing, fear of death minimalisation, account massaging , Swimming lessons, Feng Shui and Bonsai trimming.
0208 333 21-0
07873 643 338
This is the start of what has been described as a romp, a farcical road trip and the Blues brothers pursuing the Holy Grail, and not just by me, but readers kind enough to not only find excellent similes, but to put them on social media . The Life Assistance Agency’s first case is a missing university lecturer, before the agency in turn find themselves pursued by a Psychic Society intent on preventing ordinary folk from straying into the occult.
When writing a novel it is important to be ambitious whilst remaining realistic – which is exactly the sort of advice that the Life Assistance Agency’s proprietor, Scott Wildblood, has spent a lifetime ignoring. And I guess I did too. Annoyingly writing is something you can only learn by writing. And nothing tells you you’re not yet ready to publish like showing it to someone who rips it apart. It’s these bruising moments that sort the wheat from the chaff; which is exactly the sort of overused metaphor that an honest reader will suggest you rewrite. It hurts, but what doesn’t kill you makes you a better writer.
My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 – is available here – – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance
A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’
and on ebook here –