Yesterday I started writing down notes for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher.
This, in every potential interpretation of the phrase, is me getting ahead of myself. The first book has not been published. It hasn’t even been seen by publishers. The first few chapters have been read by a handful of friends and the whole book by barely anyone. I have no tangible reason to think that writing a sequel is a worthwhile use of my time.
But here I am.
I’ve spoken in a couple of blogs about how special Nelson and the Gallagher felt to me. This was for a couple of reasons; the first being that it’s loosely autobiographical and as such is infused with a certain nostalgia that makes it more than just another story. But, reading over the whole thing the other day, I think it’s more than that. I think Nelson works because it knows exactly what it is and, impending rewrites notwithstanding, largely succeeds at its goal. Again, this is stupidly premature. It could go to publishers and be roundly shot down. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t think it’s strong or have a good feeling about it. I wanted to write something warm, funny, quirky and relatable, something that nerdy fourteen-year olds everywhere can read and see themselves in, and I honestly believe the book achieves that goal.
I’ve written autobiographical stuff before, an exercise I have mixed feelings about. From 2009 to 2011 I painstakingly wrote everything that had happened to me from the age of fourteen in a series of long, rambling, messy novels. I can’t honestly say why I thought that was a good idea. Probably mainly because I’ve always been prone to nostalgia and wanted to relive the events of a few years previous. I also think there was a big streak of vanity in that project – I genuinely believed my life, depicted as accurately as memory allowed, would be interesting as a book. It wasn’t.
As commercial narrative non-fiction, that project was doomed to fail. But as a personal chronicle of my teenage years, I’m glad I have it. It’s not something I will revisit, but it taught me a lot.
Nelson, by merit of what inspired it, does carry at least some of the DNA of that project, but it’s by no means an extension or revisitation of the same idea. The key difference is in the name; Nelson is not me, and therefore his story doesn’t have to match up with mine, even if the two run loosely parallel to each other. Nelson and the Gallagher was inspired by real events, but doesn’t depict them. It is fiction with a streak of reality running through it. And, if my instincts are correct and the story is worth continuing, then any sequels will be the same.
I think a lingering sense of embarrassment over the autobiographical thing has left me a little sensitive and almost defensive about Nelson. If the last time I wrote something based on my life came from a place of vanity then what’s to say this isn’t the same? Is it inherently arrogant to assume people want to read about your life?
The truth is this; we all go through experiences that teach us lessons and writers use those experiences to shape stories. The job of any writer is to find a way to make what matters to us matter to a wider audience. And if I’m really being honest with myself, there aren’t many things I’ve written that weren’t, in some way, about my own experiences or feelings. Hometown and Reunion were about people and places I missed. The Critic was about my experiences in the theatre scene. Regression was about my growing sense that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. Springsteen was about me slowly learning to appreciate the people in my life. Even when I’m writing about somebody who literally exists, I’m still kind of writing about myself.
Does that sound self-obsessed? Well consider the curtain lifted, because that’s what writers are. The vocation is basically a lifelong attempt to grapple with our own feelings and experiences. Writing, after all, is a lot cheaper than therapy.
So no, Nelson isn’t especially new for me. It’s just more obvious in what it’s doing. And it’s still fiction. The second book will feature a remix of events and characters from my later teenage years, shaped into a coherent and hopefully engaging narrative. And the intention will be the same as the first; to write a funny story about mistakes and embarrassments and pathetic moments that tells the target audience that no, you’re not alone. Even if you think life sucks, even if you think you’re a lame loser who everyone hates, you’re okay. Things get better, and you learn. You’re not the first person this stuff has happened to, and you won’t be the last.
Honestly? I think that’s a pretty worthwhile message to convey.
Writing words about writing words.