I am delighted to present an interview I conducted with Robert Graham –
author of The Former Boy Wonder.
Robert Graham has published novels and short stories as well as having a play performed by Contact. He also teaches creative writing in Liverpool.
The Former Boy Wonder is a compelling book that covers first love, mid-life crisis and the challenges of the relationship between fathers and sons. It also features lots of music as the main protagonist was a music editor.
I have 4 questions about the book itself, covering the eras it goes through, the father/son relationship, the fascinating inspiration and of course the music.
Thank you to Robert Graham for agreeing to be interviewed and thank you to Isabelle Kenyon for being instrumental in setting it up.
Now onto the interview…
What inspired you to set your novel in the 1970s, 1980s and 2010s?
The novel has two narrative strands, one of which takes place in the early 2010s, when the protagonist, Peter Duffy, is about to turn 50. This landmark birthday makes him look at the dying of the light and wonder if his life – which in any case is falling apart – is as good as it gets. He’s contemplating his own mortality. I chose the early 2010s simply because I began writing the novel in 2012 and looking around me for details of the place and time was all I had to do to make the setting convincing to the reader. The second narrative strand is set when Peter’s a student. If he turns 50 in 2012, that will mean that his student days will have been the early ’80s. Even though I’m a few years older than Peter, setting that strand then meant I was familiar with all the cultural references, the signifiers of the era. Given these dates, he would have been a teenager in the 70s, which I was, too. All of which is to say, I didn’t have to research any of the eras in which the book takes place. This was helpful, as I did have to research quite a few other things, including being an Art student at Manchester Poly (I studied American Literature in Norwich), working in television in the ’70s (Peter’s father is a TV star at that time) and London, specifically Notting Hill, in the ’80s.
You have a very informative website about your writing and inspirations. You talk about studying a handful of novels but it sounds like you particularly studied The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier. Why these authors in particular and what impact did this have on your writing in The Former Boy Wonder?
Because of the crisis Peter is experiencing as he approaches his 50th birthday, he begins to remember his student days and long for his first love, Sanchia Page. I studied The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes because both share this theme with TFBW: lost love. Both feature a romanticised account of a young man falling in love for the first time and both hang on an older man longing for that first love.
In Le Grand Meaulnes, the debut of Yvonne de Galais, the woman the hero of the book falls in love with, is delayed. To help me give Sanchia’s entrance maximum effect, I studied the build-up to her first appearance. The journey that will eventually bring us to Meaulnes’ coup de foudre is stretched out over twenty-two pages, when it could easily have been covered in two. Fournier withholds the key moment of the novel’s first act for as long as he does to generate tension, engage readers and, with specific details at the party, prime them for the arrival of a magical creature. Details such as a treasure chest of children’s trinkets, a Pierrot, coloured lights, and plangent music give the party a fairy tale quality. With this steadily delayed entrance, we have the sense that Meaulnes is passing through a dream-like setting and being drawn inexorably towards something mysterious. When Isabelle finally appears, Meaulnes’ great moment arrives, and he falls headlong in love.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator, meets Gatsby at a party where, although it isn’t phrased in that way, he falls in love with him. The dramatic beginning of this love story is equally delayed, as Fitzgerald takes his time building up to Gatsby’s first appearance and keeps him offstage long enough to intensify the reader’s desire to meet this romantic character. Just as Fournier delays Meaulnes’ first encounter with Yvonne for twenty-two pages, Fitzgerald builds up to the arrival of Gatsby over the course of forty pages.
I tried to apply what I had learned from Fournier and Fitzgerald about delaying the debut of the object of affection. The first suggestion of Sanchia Page is on p 13 of TFBW. She’s next mentioned on p 27 and then on p 46 and doesn’t make her first appearance until p 51. At the end of their first scene together, she introduces herself: “My name’s Sanchia.” This is a direct steal from Fitzgerald’s novel, where, when Nick meets him, the eponymous hero says, ‘I’m Gatsby’. In my defence, I would quote the novelist John Updike who said, “My purpose in reading has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal.” I steal and I almost always have. I’ve learned that all artists do – and that it isn’t cheating. Halfway through the writing of TFBW, an article by the novelist Julian Barnes appeared in The Guardian. In it, he said evidence had emerged that, while writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had carefully studied Le Grand Meaulnes. The article then went on to examine some of the ways in which he used Fournier’s novel as a model for his own – which encouraged me to keep on doing what writers have always done: steal.
What inspired you to write about the relationship between a father and son?
I particularly wanted to write about my experience of losing my father when I was a child. My father passed on when I was 8. In the novel, Peter’s father abandons the family to go to London and seek his fortune when Peter is 9. I wanted to write about the experience of growing up without a father and longing for the one I lost. Freud said that a 16-yar-old boy’s desire to be affirmed by his father is stronger than his sex drive. So, I knew I had a subject matter with dramatic potential. I wrote about the experience of being a father of a teenaged son because I have a son and he once was a teenager – and the experience of being a father is one of the most important relationships of your life. With Peter’s relationship with Jack, his son, I mainly wanted to get a few laughs, so any time Jack appears, my aim was to make the things he says to his Dad funny.
Lastly, for a bit of fun and because music is huge in The Former Boy Wonder: What music do you like and why and do you remember the first piece of music you bought?
As you say, music looms large in this novel, but I always tried to avoid Peter having an opinion about any of it. I don’t think a novelist’s opinions about music are of much interest to a reader. (In fact, a novelist’s opinions about anything aren’t of much interest to a reader.) On Spotify, there’s a TFBW playlist and it gives an indication of my tastes. Some of the tracks on it I played to get me in the mood to write a particular scene (Roxy Music’s “All I Want Is You”, for instance); some are there because their theme coincided with one in the book (for example, Leonard Cohen’s “I Can’t Forget”); and some because they had a particular function in the book: the morning after he loses his virginity, Peter puts on Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge”.
It’d be great to able to say that that the first record I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s first album or The Fall’s only hit single, but the truth is it was Sandie Shaw’s “Monsieur Dupont”. Not so cool.