It was Tuesday, August 19th 2008, and I’d been working on a play about an invisible elephant which was going nowhere, later to be a short story called Life Force, and published by Weirdyear 2011. My diary started talking about Drew Gummerson’s excellent novel, Me and Mickey James, and how I wished I’d thought up a book about pop music. But then, my diary entry that day said, ‘a book about how good alcohol is should be equally funny’. Why not? And My Life in the Dog and Duck was born. I wrote the one page synopsis the same day, and I was reading Toby Litt for style tips.
By August 22nd, I’d changed the pub name to The Marquis of Queensbury, and the working title became the oh-so-witty, The Marquis of Queensbury Rules. At least I thought it was witty. I heard Drew’s short story on Radio 4, and it inspired me to re-engage with my prose writing for the first time in a couple of years. On the 26th I started writing about an unnamed character buying a pub. I introduced a second character called Eugene, later to be Jimmy, and then Monty Blomqvist.
September 08 was full-on hard work to keep the idea going. I had nothing like the inventiveness of Drew’s work, and I was frustrated because I’d achieved a good prose style the previous year. I just didn’t have the spark though. I needed to add things like waxing, tattooing, perma-tans, and a yellow transit. Why not give it the kitchen sink as well, I thought?
Chapter 2 was formed in the hope that I might get some kind of encouraging lift, but I didn’t despair. It was early days, and I felt a familiar style was showing through. Fortunately, in September 08, I threw out another idea after working on it for a day: a novel about camping. The pitch makes me shudder even now. “I Don’t Like Camping, I Love It. Roo Bridge is a millionaire with a strange obsession”. Work in progress! Not.
It was back on the Marquis a day later, taking it steadily, returning to a point where it would stick in the mud, and then advancing further each time. 25 pages! But I was also working on a story called Shush!! which became Telescopes to be published in The Front View 2010. Interchanging between these projects relieved the work, because each project was at a different stage: a new story, a finished play, an embryonic novel. Too much to do really.
But things seemed to already be in place with the Marquis, because of the good synopsis, and I was already returning to rewrite the opening. I had a look at Magnus Mills again, and saw he started Restraint of Beasts with a few lines of pure dialogue, no he saids, she saids. I’d decided to make it linear. ‘It could be good’, I wrote in the diary, and I really believed it. I was moving flashbacks to the front, writing into it, folding it all over and making dialogue where it was boring narrative, and it was coming to life slowly.
I was motivated by the great reception my play received from Hanna Slattne at Tinderbox: “There is a lot of really nice stuff going on between this group of young people against the backdrop of 11/9 which creates some potent juxtaposition between the bigger picture and the personal”. Sadly she couldn’t offer production, but maybe I could write after all, and it was a good place to stop writing plays. Quit while you’re ahead, I said.
Also, I won Manager of the Week on Guardian’s Fantasy Football. Little things.
At that early stage, I’d been thinking a lot about the use of the word ‘gay’, particularly with respect to how my own work was received. ‘Gay’ was being seen as: “difference, an ‘outsider’ perspective, or a disruptive, provocative attitude”. That summed up my writing, and I didn’t mind if anyone thought my work was ‘gay’. In fact, I was delighted.
At the end of September 08, the financial shit hit the unregulated fan. What better motivation, but with so many projects on the go I was growing tired. I brought the Sicily into the Marquis for the first time, because I’d just been there on holiday and I had that long, narrow descent out of Taormina down to the beach in mind. No Roland Bamber chasing them yet though.
At the end of October, after only two months, I submitted the opening to a couple of agents. My confidence was boosted by watching Ray Mears in the Arctic circle eating moss. Believing that agents might like the raw idea (unsurprisingly, I never heard back), I thought I’d better actually write the novel, so a Marquis wordcount plan started with the aim to get to 1000000 by the Christmas that year. Working to a word count plan, and constantly moving on to get a new total each day had worked on my first novel, Tony Blair: The Wilderness Years. The funny thing is, completed Tiger Hugs is now only 48000 words.
I was worried about the introduction of an unnamed Only Fools and Horses type character, but I gave him a herbal cig and a Peruvian coat instead of a cigar and posh coat so no one would think he was Del Boy. Damian’s Peruvian coat is now an Astrakhan coat, and the ciggies are only retained in the Oceania cabin scene. No one seems to think of Damian as Del Boy now, but if they do, they’re not telling me.
End of October 08, and I needed separate story lines to keep two bar-flys called Sid and Jimmy involved (now Gripper and Monty). At that time they were just sitting there saying stupid things. Sid needed to constantly want to contact someone – his mother. Jimmy had a toilet obsession, and his tight pants kept causing him trouble, often talking about restricted internal organs. Sophisticated stuff it wasn’t. I reached 17000 words, and I was getting over the major problems, and building some kind of launch pad. I reached the end for the first time with a word count of only 20000.
Early November 08, and I was back at the beginning, adding 1000 words a day. I was also working on another story with a boy on a horse, and a woman called Molly, and that came over to the Marquis at some point. By the end of November 08, I made the end again at 30000 words total.
I had a brief return to the plays and stories, and when I returned to the Marquis I started heaving out the crap, sending the word count plummeting. I ship called the Jolly Condor came in post-synopsis to boost the pitifully low word count. I had fears about it being too surreal, but I pressed on. The Condor at that time was a floating hotel, and so weird I can’t even remember what that hotel bit was all about. Fortunately, the Condor steamed on to become the Jolly Condor, and it ceased to be a hotel. I worked to really expand the Baghdad section, and the Golden Balls bar, and closed in again on 40000 words.
On Dec 17th, I wrote, “Final chapter fun with the French restaurant stuff mixing into Nathan Ryan. I like the circular nature of the first night and the last. 42196 words. Still problems over the kid. I think he should reappear in the cellar through the coal hole and reunite him with Terry at the end.” Terry became Damian. The kid was always just Damian’s kid and he does return at the end. I had a Fathers 4 Justice theme going, played down a little more now, but still there.
On Dec 19th, I wrote , “Cracking on with the Marquis and it’s all lovely work, lifting, progressing, lightening”. Ended the year on a 46000 word high.
So what happened to the book about how good alcohol is? What took so long?
Read Tiger Hugs @authonomy