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On The Table Read, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Graeme Puckett talks about his new book, Which Would You Rather, and what inspired his main character, Brian Rayment.
In short, what is Which Would You Rather? About?
It’s about a man who imagines himself to be living his life in a film. He uses this escapism as a means of coping with his social ineptitude and of making himself feel more important. He also happens to be a psychopath but not a very competent one. His life is a stumbling journey from one dilemma to another, hence the reason for him frequently asking himself – ‘which would you rather?’ His inability to answer this question with anything approaching common sense leads him into further dilemmas.
How would you define the book’s genre?
It’s a black comedy – a dark comedy where you wonder if you should be laughing at such things – and then you realise – yes, of course you should!
What are some of the key themes that you explore in the book?
How people will find a way to justify their actions to themselves, however alarming or wrong they may seem to others. How people will have double standards.
I’m convinced that everyone has double standards in some situation or another – The driver who is irritated by pedestrians until he’s out walking and then becomes irritated at drivers. The vegetarian who won’t eat meat on the grounds that it’s unacceptable to kill animals but who will swat mosquitos. The distorted, comparative importance of some things compared with others. The fact that Brian is clearly more concerned with his stealing than with the murders he’s committed. The importance to him of planning a soundtrack to a possible film of the murders rather than dealing with the bodies. These things are simultaneously disturbing and funny.
What inspired you to write the book?
I think it was more to do with desperation than inspiration. After two years of sitting things out and killing time until we could get back to the things we loved, I was desperate for a creative outlet. I painted four canvases in the preceding months, but now what to do with them? One day I just started writing and enjoyed it. My only initial challenge was to make myself laugh as I wrote, generally using the absurd juxtaposition of ideas and situations.
Have you always wanted to be an author?
No this is the strange thing. I suppose like everyone, I have from time-to-time thought, I should try writing a book. And then the thought goes and I’ve moved on back to what I was doing. This was the ultimate spur-of-the-moment thing. It was raining, I needed a project, and I just thought I fancied writing something. 2 hours later I had a 2000-word complete murder scenario. I realised – well that’s it, that’s all finished . . . unless I add something to continue it. Imagining what would be the absolute worst thing to occur to upset Brian’s plan, I added that and so Brian now had to continue on his journey and adjust his plans.
Brian, the protagonist, is an interesting character; what was it like developing him as a character, and where did the inspiration for him come from?
The inspiration for Brian Rayment came from the real-life Brian Rayment, a good friend who we see regularly at our classes and dances. Two weeks into the writing I asked Brian if he minded if I used his name for a story I was writing. He said he’d be honoured. I’m not entirely sure that he still feels quite so honoured now the book is completed.
Brian makes me laugh, not always intentionally but he does make me laugh. He is easily side-tracked and can wander off down many unexpected paths when telling a story. I’ve seen him get annoyed at things that most would laugh at and I’ve seen him laugh at some very annoying things, but he’s an endearing character. All the endearing qualities of the book’s Brian are based on the real Brian. All the highly suspect, illegal and unacceptable qualities come from my hugely amplified version of him. It was enormous fun writing and exaggerating him. All the arty side of Book Brian, colour, surrealism and his love of film, come from me.
You’ve had a very creative career, from being a portrait artist as Butlins to working as a freelance illustrator and corporate caricaturist for 25 years; has your career shaped your novel writing in any ways, and if so, how?
In everything I’ve been involved with the element of the unexpected has played an important role. In art and illustration, you are often looking for a different take on things – a surprise element that makes the work stand out from the rest. This juxtaposition of normally unrelated things is the basis of both surrealism and humour. In our dancing, if we can bring out a new completely unexpected and dynamic move it almost always raises a smile and creates excitement. The combination of completely unexpected situations and unlikely pairings was the perfect way to create comic openings in the book.
You’ve been swing dancing since the 1990s with your partner Ann, and became UK champions after 18 months, could you tell us more about the world of swing dancing, and why you enjoy it so much?
Unlike a lot of dances, swing dance has its roots in improvisation. Originally there were no classes in Lindy Hop, the name coined by the black dancers of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, or Jitterbug, as it was mainly called by the white dancers. In retrospect, I’m sure the improv element and the subsequent unexpected and humourous possibilities, are what appealed to us. Now that it has become mainstream, it has become a more structured dance but still with plenty of opportunity to put your own slant on it. A lot of people try Swing dancing, but there’s a natural filtration process whereby all the boring, safe people tend to drop out and the unusual oddball element of society stick with it and love it. We are in fact holding dance classes for life’s misfits. I love it!
What was one of the biggest challenges you experienced when writing Which Would You Rather??
Double checking the timeline of dates and times. Not really challenging, just tedious. I’d keep a much better ongoing record in future.
And what was one, or some of the highlights?
The greatest joy was not knowing what was going to happen. It struck me that real life is often hilarious and just unfolds day by day, so that would be the only sensible way to approach a story. I tried to end each writing session with Brian in a dilemma or a tricky predicament of some sort. Most nights during the writing period I would send myself to sleep thinking of absurd ways for Brian to respond to these predicaments. If I went to sleep laughing, that was the next day’s writing taken care of.
Do you have a writing routine?
There was a time when you imagined writers using a feather quill pen on parchment. Over time this evolved into sit-up-and-beg typewriters being used then lighter versions for touch-typing. The evolution continued through word processors, computers and texting.
Most of the time I dictated sentences and passages into my phone using the microphone voice recognition. The wonderful thing about this was that I could add to the story as I was walking around town – waiting in a queue – eating lunch. It hardly impacted on the day at all.
At the end of each day, I transferred anything I’d written to an ongoing LibreOffice Writer file. Each time I’d added another 5000 words or so, I’d go over it and edit. If there was a section, sentence, phrase or word I was still unhappy with, I’d highlight it in blue. When the story was complete, I had many blue highlights and over the next few weeks, they gradually disappeared.
Did the pandemic impact your writing? If so, in what ways?
Yes, it certainly did. It kick-started my writing. Without the pandemic, there wouldn’t have been the book. Good old pandemic.
Who, or what, are some of your literary influences?
I always feel slightly ill at ease linking my own name in the same breath as these literary giants. I would cite Woody Allen, S.J. Perelman, Spike Milligan and James Thurber for their absurdism, surrealism and happy disconnections that make for such enjoyable humorous reading. The great storytellers John Steinbeck, Stephen King and John Grisham for exactly that – their wonderful can’t-put-it-down story-telling. Ellmore Leonard for his funny and completely believable dialogue and Henry Cecil for his very funny courtroom scenes and dialogue.
Do you plan to write more book in the future?
I have no plans to . . . and yet I’ve already written the first 10,000 words of the sequel. The thing is I need a publisher. I self-published this book but that isn’t something I could or would continue to do. So . . . Anyone out there know a publisher who’d be interested in taking on this book and the next?
And finally, what do you hope that readers will take away from the book?
I sincerely hope they take away a strong ‘stitch’ pain in their sides from laughing too much, and a long list of friends for whom they need to buy further copies of the book – ooh – and a letter of advice for their best friend who works for Netflix, saying that Which Would You Rather? would make the perfect next project for them.
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