Bobby Denise is Reigning Rampant

I’ve done something weird

Let me just to preface this with some hard info: I’ve written a novel, which is open for pledging on Unbound. Now I’m going to wang on about it for 1,900 words.

It’s fine to be creative in secret, isn’t it? But one of the annoying things about being  creative is that, for your creation to have relevance beyond your own brain, you kind-of need to show it to people. And if you’re like me – terminally middle-class, someone who daydreams about how they’d answer a knotty question on Front Row, an owner and manipulator of squishy media hands – then that is a bit of a step.

When I was writing my novel [*wanker klaxon explodes*] I was doing so in solitude: in lunch hours, at weekends, or while my wife was at netball. Although the thought of a random school acquaintance chancing upon this secret book filled me with an odd sense of apologetic shame, I was safe and alone with my ‘work’, cocooned happily in the knowledge that no-one would ever read it because it was too weird, too lightweight, or just badly written. Even if I did send the finished manuscript out to literary agents, the odds were so vertiginously stacked against me that there was no chance it would go any further than a form rejection.

So that’s as far as I got. Without thinking about it too hard, I sent my manuscript to about 20 literary agents over a period of several months while I revised and tweaked, and they all passed. Some rejected it with a little personal embellishment or authorial flourish (things like “x writer was rejected x number of times before being published, so hang in there!”, or “there was much to admire, but I need to really believe in any new author I take on…”), but ultimately my situation did not change. Writing this book had no tangible benefit beyond the satisfaction of simply making it to the end. Despite the numerous rejections, all easily searchable in my inbox for when I’m feeling masochistic, I actually felt pretty sunny. I harboured no sense of injustice or disappointment.

A few months went past and, with only a scant tidy of the manuscript (and a proof from my wife), I sent it to Unbound, fully expecting the same result. BUT GUYS GUESS WHAT: Unbound were happy to give it a go, and now here we are, in a strange situation: I have a novel, and some interest in it being published. For my part, I am now tasked with raising the requisite number of pledges to get it published, based on an excerpt, an iPhone video I made of my cat, and a written summary of some stupid ideas I had about showbiz and white tigers and Las Vegas magicians. Somewhere along the way, this could become an actual book in a bookshop. I’m having trouble telegraphing it in my head.

(Full disclosure: I had a book published once before, but I was commissioned to write it by my employer – I enjoyed the experience, it got me some money and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Although if you’re like this average-destroying Amazon reviewer, you’ll find it to be poor value. Sorry champ.)

The novel

My novel is called ‘Bobby Denise is Reigning Rampant’. For the purposes of my Unbound submission, I haughtily described it as ‘a journey through the lower echelons of celebrity and the grim reality of falling from grace. There are themes of guilt, lust for attention, moments that define entire lives and, crucially, murderous white tigers in stage magic shows.’ That’s pretty much it, actually. Oh, except there’s also an eagle in it called Karen. Karen the eagle might be my favourite character.

Before it was a novel, ‘Bobby Denise is Reigning Rampant’ was a short story called ‘Cooing At The Stripes’, which ended up being published in the very fine and graphically satisfying F(r)iction journal. Here’s the original artwork from the short story, by Josh Mowgli:

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My wife had it framed for me as a birthday present. (Did I mention how cool my wife is?)

Very much because of the encouragement I received from F(r)iction’s editor, Dani Hedlund, and some feedback from The Bridport Prize, I decided I wasn’t done with Bobby Denise. I decided his story actually went well beyond 1985 and the fact I’d basically imprisoned him for 31 years for his crimes turned out to be a big advantage.

We join him in this book shortly after his release in 2016, when the world has changed immeasurably while he has merely idled, building up his fitness levels in prison but ultimately allowing his emotional life to wander into an abyss and his insatiate lust for attention to simply fester. That tension, his sense of confusion and injustice about the world of showbiz as he used to know it, moves him along uncomfortably, bonking into people and situations with which he is profoundly unready to engage. Everyone he knows from the old days is washed up, terminally reminiscent or hanging on to their careers by a thread. A very thin thread indeed. And there’s a massive glitterball on the end of the thread. Is this working for you as an analogy? The point is, it’s a weird place for a 78-year-old man to be.

Where I stole my ideas from

During the writing process that culminated in BDIRR (this is the official acronym), I had approximately a million cultural artefacts on my mind. These are the specific examples that made their impression most obviously, though there are certainly others whose influence I completely missed:

Louis Theroux – America’s Most Dangerous Pets This documentary has everything: men and women who think they are Gods, ferocious caged animals, and the bizarre melancholy found only at that precise intersection.

Angela Carter – Wise Children I actually read this after I’d finished the first draft of BDIRR, but it’s had an important and lasting effect. As I was reading it, I was alternately heartened that someone else thought the flimsy world of performance could be elevated so beautifully, and scared that I’d somehow nicked all the ideas telepathically.

Jacqueline Susann – Valley of the Dolls AKA ‘The world of showbusiness is a total fucking nightmare, part 1: You’ll die alone, miserable and unrecognisable as who you were when life was sweet’. I was listening to the audiobook of ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King the other day and he really lays into ‘Valley of the Dolls’ for being badly written, which I found surprising. Perhaps I’ve got a tin ear for that stuff. I’ll always read stories about showbiz gone wrong, and this one is the ultimate.

Junichiro Tanizaki – Diary of a Mad Old Man A brief and effective lesson in how to make a total bastard appear somehow loveable. It’s pretty mystical, the way he manages to convince us that we like this supremely creepy, selfish and disjointed figure, even though it’s pretty clear we should be repulsed by him.

James Lever – Me Cheeta The cover of this book made me think it would be rubbish but it very much isn’t. A bit like the Tanizaki, it was a great lesson in how to make a character’s self-obsession tolerable, even endearing in its naivety. It also contains some ingenious first-person perspective tricks – there’s a bit towards the end where the titular chimp takes you on a guided tour of his house which manages to be amazingly vivid and sad without coming across as just a shopping list of ‘things the chimp can see’.

The music of Henry Mancini Not just his film and TV themes. I’m talking deep cuts. Mancini wrote amazing pop songs, chief among them being ‘Dear Heart’, which I’m a bit obsessed with. I decided it should be one of Bobby Denise’s favourite songs because it represents feelings he wishes he could access but can’t – innocence, being in love, being loved back.


Michael Chabon – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay This book is always on my mind, actually. My novel could’ve been about absolutely anything and still be profoundly influenced by K&C. More than any other book I’ve read, I’ve wanted to be friends with its characters, and felt subsequently bereft when I had to leave them behind.

Jessie Burton’s blog If you’re looking for an inspiring story about the journey from not-writer to sort-of-writer to definitely-a-writer, then this one is a belter. When I was trying to avoid editing, tweaking or even finishing my book, reading Jessie Burton on writing usually got me back on track. I was delighted at her candour in admitting she’d done things wrong the first time around, like submitting a sample to agents before her manuscript was completed, or drinking wine during future-deciding meetings. What a comfort it is to know that successful people make mistakes and can bounce back like a motherfucker.

Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcast Seriously, I can’t recommend this enough. The final episode is a two-hour rant on how to actually get writing done which, because of its insane length, might sound like a diversion tactic. But it’s really not. I highly encourage you to listen if you need to get your shit writ.

There’s a little bit of all of those things in the novel I wrote, I think. Probably too much of certain things. Regardless, this novel is what I will be shouting about for the coming 90 days. With your help, readers/patrons, this book could be a real book one day in the future. For something written purely for the pleasure of writing it, something that had no second-child expectation piled upon it from the get-go, I think that’s an exciting end to the story.

What can you do?

To clarify: that’s like a ‘What can YOU do?’ rather than a ‘meh, whatcha gonna do?’ Basically there are two options: pledge, or tell someone about it. If you’re in the slightest bit interested in weird, new fiction, then I hope you’ll consider pledging. There are a load of different pledging options including a cassette mixtape, your very own bespoke magician persona with drawings and backstory, a personal cat experience (not kidding), an angry column slagging you off written by a fictional journalist… the list goes on. They range from super-cheap to slightly less cheap, but I think they’re all pretty good value. Better value than my video games book, anyway.

If the story itself is not something you’re really interested in, that’s fine. If you’re all like, ‘God, he’s so bloody cutesy, giving human names to animals and playing on the internet’s obscene cat fetish, what an over-priveleged Wes Anderson-loving Chabon-wannabe, I HATE THAT GUY AND I HAVEN’T EVEN MET HIM’, it’s cool. Even if those are your actual verbatim thoughts, I hope you’ll perhaps consider just letting someone know that this is happening. Because getting weird stuff published is a good thing, right? Even if it’s not your bag.

For example: I have literally no time for the music of Depeche Mode, but I am so deliriously happy for them to exist that I get a lump in my throat at the sheer magnificence of human creativity, and I’d certainly consider telling a friend that they’d recorded a new album, even if I thought it was nothing more than a 48-minute guff. And a derivative guff at that. A guff that really needs to get over conventional blues scale melodic motifs because it’s not the ’80s any more and it doesn’t sound edgy, you total guffjars. I mean, I’m sure they could use my help with PR.

The take-home here is I did a creative thing and now I’m showing it to people. If you want to see it, then you need to pledge. That’s probably enough for now, isn’t it?

For the thousandth time, here’s the link.

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