Interviewing James Hannah

There are only so many books which make me cry in public places. James Hannah’s The A-Z  of Me and You had me crying on the tube. This is a story about Ivo and Mia.

Ivo fell for her.
He fell for a girl he can’t get back.
Now he’s hoping for something.
While he waits he plays a game:
He chooses a body part and tells us its link to the past he threw away.
He tells us the story of how she found him, and how he lost her.
But he doesn’t have long.
And he still has one thing left to do …

I fell in love with this book, the style and quality of the writing, and the journey Ivo goes through. He is in a hospice at 40 and as he talks about various body parts we learn his story. I can’t recommend The A-Z  of Me and You highly enough and I urge you all to borrow or buy a copy.

In honour of the launch of the paperback (out on the 27th of August from all good and evil book retailers) I hopped onto the Blog Tour train and interviewed James Hannah himself about his wonderful debut novel and what went into writing it.

Enjoy! (and then read the book)

As a main character I loved Ivo. He was entirely believable and fallible and very, very human. How did you go about creating him?

The immediate answer to your question is another question: Who would play a little listing game, dividing up their body at the end of their life, telling a little biography of each part, while remaining articulate enough to get coherent ideas across?

That was the book I wanted to write, so I needed a character who could fulfil that. I put the question to a doctor friend of mine. She told me of someone she felt would fit the bill: there are a lot of people of a youngish age who have not managed their diabetes properly, and have developed kidney failure as a result.

So my answer was Ivo. He is someone who’s struggling with the question of what to do when he is afflicted by a condition that is not his fault (i.e. type 1 diabetes), which limits his social options at precisely the time when he is keen to try out his limits. Anyone who’s attempted to maintain a disciplined diet through January will know how hard it must be to extend that discipline across the rest of your life.

In The A-Z of You and Me we discover more about Ivo’s life, his love, and his losses as he goes through the A to Z of anatomical parts. When the alphabet is put together we learn his story. What inspired you to structure your novel like this?

I’ve been playing for a while with the kinds of structures that everyone is subject to. Everybody is subject to language, and everybody has a body of some description. Just about everybody has pulled off a jumper too enthusiastically and split their earlobes; just about everybody has sat too heavily on their coccyx and immediately wanted to die; quite a few people have contemplated their ten digits and compared it with the practicality of the decimal numeral system – so there are common stories in there. So my purest intention was to write a novel that collected as many of these common experiences as possible and united them into something everyone could relate to. As I went on, however, the questions that the story began to pose (the questions about who my main character was) began to take over and I followed them to their logical conclusion.

The A-Z of You and Me is also a very funny book, full of humour. Did you find it easy to write these scenes?

Humour absolutely has a place in scenarios even as tragic as this. Any time you get two or more people together, it’s possible to laugh at the absurdity of a situation. Indeed it’s possible to laugh and how overwhelmingly sad a situation has become, because of the sheer bad luck of it. Laughter does not undermine sadness. It can help to define it.

To see the humour in such sad situations made them somewhat of a relief to write, and hopefully the experience is the same for the reader.

In a sense, my sole task in writing The A to Z of You and Me was to make it as funny and humane as possible. The premise is already infused with such tragedy that I didn’t need to make it any darker. My working title for a good few years was ‘The Body Comedy’, just to remind myself that the idea was to keep this light.

James Hannah (c) Claire Cousin 1

James Hannah, copyright Clare Cousin

The ‘I and You’ structure of The A-Z of You and Me put me right into the heart of the story. What made you decide to make the reader so important and have them be at the very core?

This was absolutely my first decision after I’d decided to write about the body being anatomized in this way. I wanted ‘I’ to be speaking to ‘You’, because ‘I’ is entirely physical (wedded to the body and its failings), and ‘You’ is entirely metaphysical (devoted to aspirations and matters of the mind).

For many years I and You didn’t have names, but I made the decision to avoid unnecessary confusion and by naming them Ivo and Mia.

‘You’ also represents the thing I can’t control. I can’t control what the reader brings to the book, I can only control the shapes on the page. I wanted to embrace that, so whatever the reader thinks of Ivo feeds in to what Mia thinks of him.

I have to say, my most treasured responses to this book have been from people who have had a lot to bring to it themselves; people who have been through similar situations, who might have been reluctant to read the book in the first place for fear of it being too close to home. Having these people populating ‘You’ makes the book a far richer experience, I think.

I found The A-Z of You and Me to be such a tightly plotted novel with each body part detailing a little more about Ivo and Mia. Did you plot your novel meticulously and know which memories would be related to which body part or could vital elements of your novel change as you wrote?

I started out with only two fixed ideas about the structure, namely: get the rude bits of the body out of the way early (fortunately ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ are blessed with an abundance of rude epithets); and, build the book around the difficult letters. So, what body part was I going to use for Q? What about X, Y and Z?

So these were the body-parts I worked out first, and then I really improvised around the others. ‘H’ was a nice one to think about, because you have the notion of a ‘head-versus-heart’ decision. ‘K’ would be fine, because there’s a whole kidney situation going on, which in turn would relate to ‘B’ and blood, so I started to see rough patterns as to how the book might pan out.

But it was extremely difficult to finish. It is absolutely vital to keep the reader on board and to – as my agent put it to me – ‘deliver what the book promises’. I spent a good year trying to get the last two or three pieces to work in a way that was not going to cheat or irritate the reader. For example, I couldn’t just have flipped through my medical dictionary, saying, ‘What begins with V? Hmm… “Vas deferens”’ and then had a chapter about that. For one thing, Ivo is never going to say, “Oh, do you remember that time my vas deferens really came up trumps?” People would throw the book at the wall.

So making the story work in a convincing way, breaking the information at a decent pace without drawing attention to the structure, was extraordinarily difficult. It was a tough edit. But every word has fought hard to remain on the page, which is exactly how it should be.

Your supporting characters are extremely well thought out and rounded. Is it easier for you to create these secondary characters as opposed to the main protagonists?

It’s funny, this notion of secondary characters. Sheila the carer, for example, is much more of an attendant to the main plot, coaxing it through, persuading Ivo to face up to his situation, without ever telling him to. Amber too, somewhat unwittingly, represents something to Ivo that makes him behave differently. So to me it feels like they are attendants.

As such, I have enormous affection for them and gratitude to them. As I was writing, these characters started to ask awkward, practical questions and not allow me to write in a lazy direction. So maybe they were the most enjoyable characters to write, because they would hold me and the plot to account.

You recently completed a creative writing course run by the literary agency Curtis Brown. Is this something you would recommend to aspiring authors?

Ooo, tricky. It’s such a personal decision, and it changes as you develop. There’s no doubt that I benefitted enormously from the focus and commitment of the Curtis Brown Creative course in Autumn 2011. But it was the first course I’d ever been on; I’d never once entertained the idea of going on a course in the previous 18 years of writing. I don’t wish I’d done it earlier, but I’m very glad I did it.

Perhaps the most valuable thing I gained from the course was the 14 other people on it. It’s so hard to synthesize a large group of creatively compatible people. They were all of different ages, had different needs, brought different energies, and took different things from it.

The course included talks with agents and editors, and showed me that publication was possible. But I was the one who kept the standards as high as I could, and I was the one who refused to send my manuscript out for a year after the course was finished because it just wasn’t quite right.

A good course will merely draw you out of yourself; it’s not going to do the work for you. But if you’re ready for it, it might make all the difference.

Can you tell us all a little about your writing process? Are you a pen and paper sort of person?

It’s horses for courses. I find writing longhand gives me time to think, so I almost always develop my ideas by writing in wet black ink on the right-hand page of an A5 diary. This has the benefit too of feeling like ‘home’. So wherever I’m writing – hotels or spare rooms or coffee shops or at home – as long as I have wet black ink on the right-hand page of an A5 diary, I’m in the right mindset.

Sometimes I rewrite what I’ve written from scratch, copying bits and bobs, until I’m happy. Then I type it up and expand on it, which is an entirely fresh creative pass.

If it’s still not right, sometimes I write it back out longhand, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Can you tell us what you are working on now?

I’m trying to master being an acceptable dad to a two-year old, safe in knowledge that by the time I’ve got a handle on that the two-year old will be three.

Thank you!

No, thank you! You’ve been extremely kind about my book; thanks so much for having me.

Huge thanks to James for this brilliant interview!

To find out more about James pop over to his website here and be sure to follow him on Twitter here.The A-Z  of Me and You is out on the 27th of August and is available for pre-order all good and evil book retailers.

Make sure you all check out the rest of James’s blog tour…there are some really fantastic bloggers on the list!

AtoZBlogTourOne (1)

AtoZBlogTourTwo (1)

I was given this book for free as part of the blog tour. My review is definitely my own and neither it nor my opinions haven’t been swayed by the free book swag.

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