“Writers are just people, they’re not unicorns”: An Evening With James Rice

James Rice

Ahead of the Writing on the Wall launch tonight, Jack Roe meets their Pulp Idol 2010 winner and author James Rice: discussing his dark debut novel Alice and the Fly, new found success and how writers are certainly not unicorns…

Taking my seat in the crowded upstairs of LEAF, Bold Street, I find myself a little confused. I stumbled across the event I am currently attending, a book launch, whilst trawling through the cultural listings for Liverpool in January. What confuses me, for the initial launch of a local author’s debut novel, is the sheer volume of people in the room. Photographs cannot be framed comfortably, drink orders cannot be heard, chairs are at a premium and the trays of hors d’oeuvres being floated by the smiling wait staff are having a terrible time trying to make the rounds. I begin to wonder who exactly it is I’m dealing with. By the end of the evening representatives from Hodder and Stoughton publishing house and the Liverpool based literary organisation Writing on the Wall, as well as the author himself, have gone to some lengths to explain.

James Rice, 27, is a Creative Writing MA graduate from Liverpool John Moore’s University, born and raised in Maghull and currently employed at the Waterstone’s in Southport. This is what I am told. He is also the wide-eyed, humble and beamingly proud author of Alice and the Fly, a book that I will not tell you anything about, except to suggest that you seek it out and read it as a refreshingly dark and hugely entertaining antithesis to the rash of teen-narrated novels and films of the last few years.

“I completely failed to avoid being thoroughly charmed and impressed”

A planned attempt to talk to James on the night, to try and get a better sense of who he is and how the book came to be, was scuppered by a long line of people waiting for a signature and a potential photo, whatever his standing in the wider community, in this time and place James Rice is a bona-fide literary celebrity.

We agreed to meet up at another point where, dictaphone in hand and wearing my most pointedly professional expression, I completely failed to avoid being thoroughly charmed and impressed in my quest to gain some information on what exactly the process of writing and publishing a novel entails.

The Double Negative: Are you happy with the reception that Alice and The Fly has received?

James Rice; Yeah, I’ve been trying to insulate myself from the reviews in order to avoid negative reaction. I’ve been told that reaction has been positive. I’ve put so much into at this point, its become so personal I feel like one bad review would completely wreck my confidence. I feel like social media has made it more difficult to distance the author from the reaction.

“I’ve been trying to prepare myself for a backlash. Every book is hated by someone, even if its just because it becomes popular”

On that — were you prepared for the attention you’ve received?

There’s been more of a spotlight, a much better reaction [than expected]. The turn out for the events has been bigger, I’ve really enjoyed the process so far.

Now that you’ve been involved with the work for so long are you still happy with it?

It’s been such a drawn-out process, to get to where I am now. I submitted the finished novel to Hodder and Stoughton [Rice's publishers] 18 months ago. At this point now that it’s out, I’m almost over it, I’m thinking about the next project. One thing that did worry me is mental illness: it’s a big theme in the book and it’s a big subject to tackle. I don’t suffer with it myself, it became a bit of crisis of conscience: ‘Am I qualified to write about this?’… The point of the story is to avoid judging people, the intent was not to offend people. At the same time, I’ve been trying to prepare myself for a backlash. Every book is hated by someone, even if it’s just because it becomes popular.

It’s an achievement to be able to talk to people about your book, now that it’s published, and it’s a tangible object.

It’s amazing, it’s a surreal experience, you imagine these things when you start out. You imagine these things, running through interviews in your head in the bath. When it comes to it, it’s strange.

James Rice (image courtesy Liverpool Echo)

Can you give me some details on your journey as a novelist?

I always remember this moment: I was about six in the garden playing with Last Action Hero action figure, having a conversation with my dad. I wanted to grow up and be an actor, so I could carry on playing like that, and my dad told me that I’d have to be a writer instead. It’s always kind of stuck with me; I always wrote from a young age, comics and terrible Lord of the Rings rip-off novels, that kind of thing. When I came to choose a uni course, this was my chance to do it — I chose Creative Writing at LJMU, did the Masters, [and that's] where I started writing Alice [and the Fly]. Without the deadlines and structure the novel probably wouldn’t have been done.

Do you have a favourite author/book?

Not particularly. I read a lot, a lot of American authors, David Foster Wallace etc. When I was starting out with Alice [and the Fly], I was influenced by teen narrated fiction, Perks of Being a Wallflower and so on, I eventually became jaded about them through overexposure and pulled back from them. A large part of the writing process was me attempting to blend what I like with my own style.

Can you give me a brief timeline between finding an affinity for writing and sitting in LEAF two weeks ago reading from your first published novel?

It’s been an organic process; this novel was started in high school, which is why it’s set in high school. The first draft was probably terrible, I didn’t really read a lot, so I was just kind of writing blind. And then I turned it into a concept album, which was awful as well.

“I’d only written the first chapter, and then to win was like a big shot in the arm, validation”

So you’re a musician as well?

Yeah, I was in a band in Liverpool, me and my mate still make music together, more for entertainment, just a lot of fun to do. I never really liked the gigging side — this is the point about the writing compared to the production side. I love making music, I still do that, but we all hate gigging and stuff and the whole process of putting yourself out there was just not for us. I think we were all kind of introverted.

So yeah, it was concept album, and then it kind of went away for a while, but when I started the MA I knew I wanted to write a novel, something substantial; I wanted to come away and be able to say this [the novel] is two years of my life. So I turned back to Alice. The Writing on the Wall Pulp Idol competition [Rice won the prize in 2010] was a big thing for me: I’d only written the first chapter, and then to win was like a big shot in the arm, validation. The editor Luke Brown was on the panel; he came to me and gave me his card and said: ‘Send it to me when it’s finished’. So that was like: ‘I’ve got to do it now’, so I just kind of threw everything at it for the next few years!

The MA helped with feedback, being in a group with other writers who could help you with your writing was good.

About validation though, once he [Luke Brown] said it was good it was like, right I’ve got to go for it. I kind of think that was the moment then, when he gave me his card I thought that’s it, I’m a proper writer. Nobody knows yet, but I am. Then I spent the next three years learning that I wasn’t because I hadn’t written the thing. In my mind, when he gave me that card, I was at this point that I’m at right now. And in reality I wasn’t I still had a lot of work to do, and it was frustrating doing that work. But I needed to do it, put in the hours.

“I went through a really down period… I left work for a while just to write, and I was trying to find a job again, it was soul destroying”

How did you get on the Creative Writing MA?

There’s a couple of banks that do what’s called a career development loan. When I finished Uni I just wasn’t ready to go into work with a creative writing degree, I just need to do something substantial. I worked while I did the MA. I knew when I finished Uni that I wasn’t ready to go out into the world to be a writer, I needed more tuition.

I went through a really down period when I finished the MA and I left work for a while just to write, and I was trying to find a job again, it was soul destroying. I remember going for a factory job and applying with this guy, moving spools of wire from one side to the other and having to play down that fact that I was writing a novel, that I had a degree and stuff, I had to pretend that was just a sideshow and I really wanted a career in moving wires. And this guy was like, you want a career, I’ll get you a career. Really as a writer I should have been thinking about the experience, but again its about validation.

That was when I was going through a crisis, like I’m only a writer in my mind, no-one else knows. That’s the hard thing, especially when you’re starting out its that writing takes a lot of time and while that time is passing it can be disheartening, you just have to accept and it and believe that you will do it. Any book worth reading, took a long time to write. Time plus time plus time equals writing, that’s the equation you just have to keep at it.

You met your agent through the WoW (Writing on the Wall)…

Through the MA, well it was linked. I met the editor, card, validation. My agent came to a talk at the MA, knows the editor, heard that he was interested in me so that put me on her radar. When I sent her the draft, about half of the finished novel she called me in and was very positive about it, basically all she could say was to finish it. That’s the hard thing about starting out is that no-one gives you a publishing deal until its done, you’ve got to write it and it takes a long time, all the time there’s a doubt, that it might never get picked up. Agent called and called me in for breakfast with publishers, very informal meeting, was offered a two book deal on the strength of that. Bigger publisher than I ever imagined… I was very happy that night. It never sinks in, it never really feels real.

“I thought I could be a writer because writers exist, you go to book signings and writers are just people, they’re not unicorns”

You’re sat here talking to me as a professional author…

It’s weird, I don’t believe it. I have this belief that everyone only has so much luck, there’s only a finite amount of luck in the world and I’ve used all mine now, by the time I’m thirty I’m gonna be like an alcoholic.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

To just keep going, this is gonna sound cheesy, you’ve got to have a bit of belief in yourself. It would be amazing, if I could talk to my younger self, I’d be fine, all of the fear that I had about it never getting published… if I could just go back to myself and say it will get published one day then I wouldn’t have struggled to put the hours in, but then maybe I would have got sloppy. I’d tell myself to just keep going, with like a little wink.

And finally, what would you say is the most important thing for an aspiring novelist to remember?

Read a lot, write a lot, and remember you only get a debut novel once. So make it amazing. Make it as good as you can. A good thing to think is that publishers are as desperate to publish new young writer with great books as new young writers are to get published. Debuts are a big deal for publishers, if they can find a new young writer and put them out there, that’s a good thing for them. Don’t lose heart, its doable. The reason I thought I could be a writer is because writers exist, you go to book signings and writers are just people, they’re not unicorns. If you just wanna write something and you want people to read it, chances are they will one day.

Jack Roe

Writing on the Wall Festival 2015 launches tonight, 1 May, with American Dreams at LEAF Tea Shop, Liverpool, 8pm (£6/4): Shayshahn MacPherson, hip hop violinist and spoken-word artist from The Bronx, New York City

This year’s Pulp Idol Final will take place Thursday 28 May 2015, LEAF, 7pm (free entry) and will be judged by James Rice

Festival continues until July 2015; see full programme here

Alice and the Fly is out now (Hodder & Stoughton) available in paperback for £13.99

Posted on 01/05/2015 by thedoublenegative