Also the answer to the question ‘Why does this ninety year old pensioner look like a teenager’ (hint: it has something to do with gladwrap.).
No really, I’ve always wondered why some people’s lives resemble ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ while others are more like The Little Princess. Is it circumstances? Luck? Attitude? A combination of them all?
Or is it – and this is where the surprise comes in – a Brazilian spirit called Saci, who just loves to drop a deceased arthropod in your smug little apple pie…
MJ Dees, the author of The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David and Living with Saci, explores just that sort of issue – which is why I pleaded with him to come in and have a chat. Come in, I said, and make yourself comfortable in this beautifully contoured electric…I mean armchair.
Rose: In The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David, twin boys are born with completely different approaches to life. James is always looking for the next best thing, and happy to complain when he doesn’t get it: David makes the best of everything, including a psycho wife who parks a bomb under their restaurant table. Do you really think that ‘innate outlook’ makes a big difference to how our lives pan out?
MJ: The idea for the story came from this idea that people are essentially satisfied or dissatisfied with what they have and that even if terrible things happen to people they will, before long, return to their happy equilibrium while unhappy people will eventually return to their default setting of unhappy no matter what wonderful things happen to them. But it is also about nature v nurture. Willy Russell wrote Blood Brothers to explore the idea of taking genetically identical twins and seeing what happens if you place them in different environments. I wanted to explore the idea that even genetically identical twins raised in the same environment could have very different outlooks and experiences.
Rose: You seem to have an amazing grasp of English working class life circa 1950s and beyond. (At least, it seems pretty darned authentic to me, as an Aussie). How’d you get it?
MJ: I was born in Hull, East Yorkshire in 1971. Hull had developed very little in the 26 years since the second world war and my parents both grew up in a period of austerity. My mother was raised by her grandmother and my father was the youngest in a large family so their upbringing was practically victorian. In addition, my parents did not have very much money when I was growing up so we could not afford the same luxuries as our neighbours. We were lucky in the sense that we could play in the streets because they were not full of cars and we played outside because their was little in the way of technology to keep us inside. In short, I just drew on my own childhood experiences.
Rose: Living with Saci seems to return to the theme of ‘what makes some people’s lives a success – and others a disaster’, but take a different perspective on it. It’s a phenomenon I’ve often observed myself – for instance, the person who through no fault of their own, apparently, just goes from mishap to tragedy to the headwaters of shit creek without a paddle. In Saci, the underlying reason is a Brazilian spirit of mischief, a sort of South American Loki. Or…is it?
MJ: The protagonist, Teresa, could be considered to be responsible for some of her own problems (although the sequel I am writing at the moment will explore what factors contributed to her drink dependence, for example) but there also many factors beyond her control which complicate her life and she seeks excuses for these in the mischievous character from Brazilian folklore, Saci. When things go missing or wrong in Brazil people used to blame Saci but in the story Teresa seems to meet her own Saci although she doesn’t realise it at the time. I am very intrigued by the lives of ordinary people, not kings or presidents or those who are very poor or unfortunate, but those in between and Teresa fits this category. Like hundreds of millions of people she is struggling to get on with life no matter what it throws at her. The sequel will carry on following Teresa where Living with Saci left off.
Rose: You’re a talented author, and I’d love you to get picked up by Simon and Schuster. But if you don’t ever ‘make it’ in terms of Amazon rankings, etc (and don’t worry, I ask myself the same question), will the creative work of writing your books still have been worth it? To put it another way, do you write for the sake of writing itself, or does there need to be something more, for you? And if so, what?
MJ: I have always wanted to write, (me too!) ever since I was very small when I would fill pages and pages with scribbles before I knew how to form letters. However, for many years I could not find the discipline to finish anything until I won a poetry award and decided to do Nanowrimo even if it took me much longer than a month to write 50k words. It took me about six months plus another year re-writing during which time I also wrote my second novel. I then started to send the book out to agents and hadn’t considered self-publishing until I started to listen to the Self-Publishing Formula podcast. SPF convinced me that self-publishing was not just a way to get published but the way to publish. Obviously, I would love to receive the approval of an agent or a publisher or the Booker or Nobel Laureate committees, but for me, feedback such as your comment in the question is just as important if not more Important than the opinions of the ‘so-called’ publishing elite. So, in order to answer the question, I would like to be successful enough to make writing my full time job (me too) and give up teaching Drama to 7-16 year olds in Sao Paulo (cleaning toilets in Woop Woop, SW). I would love to make lots and lots of money and live a very comfortable life but even if I could not make a living from writing, I will continue to write and publish books for as long as there are people who say they enjoy reading them. Or until I die. (Yep. We’re soul mates)
Rose: What’s your greatest challenge, as a writer, and how do you overcome it? Tell me so I can copy you.
MJ: I find being able set aside enough time to write pretty difficult but the biggest challenge by far is imposter syndrome. This is the feeling that I’m not really good enough to be a writer and that at any moment somebody is going to reveal how truly rubbish I am. The way I overcome this is just to keep going regardless until the next compliment restores my faith in my work again. I have no doubt that I still have a lot to learn as a writer but, in the meantime, I believe that if people enjoy reading my books then the books are good enough to be published and why wait around for a publisher when I can earn significantly higher royalties publishing the books myself while maintaining creative control over content and marketing. Agree. The trick is getting people to buy them. I favour mass hypnotism, myself.