MMU Creative Writing alumnus and acclaimed author, Stephen May, discusses his latest novel, Life! Death! Prizes! with Humanity Hallows.
Words by Neil Harrison.
Tragedy is useful. Tragedy sells. Hand-wringing politicians, casually fascinated daytime T.V. viewers and shit-stirring rags all regularly suckle at tragedy’s teat. Stephen May’s second novel, Life! Death! Prizes!, derives its title from that curious chunk of the misery-as-trade spectrum, the so-called ‘real life’ magazines.
“He said “I’m Sterile.” – Then Gave Me THREE BABIES!” – Bella
“Hacked and Drowned – By The Man She Adored!” – Chat
“Win a £100 Morrisons Voucher!” – Pick Me Up
The book’s narrating character, nineteen-year-old Billy, acutely (and hilariously) describes this phenomenon as ‘trauma porn’. As Billy and his five year old brother find themselves at the centre of a real life story of their very own, the novel unravels into a witty, poignant and heart-wrenching story about a teenager attempting to cope with loss, new found responsibility and, well, being a teenager (think Salinger, post-Irvine Welsh), as well as an insightful and honest representation of small-town British culture. May says:
“I’m very interested in Britain, in British society. The majority of British people live in small towns and [share] the experiences that go along with that; everyone knowing each other, and each other’s business. That doesn’t seem to be reflected in a lot of literature … hopefully some of the book’s themes are recognisable to most people.”
“The thing about [Billy’s] story is that it’s very much about putting an ordinary person into an extraordinary situation and seeing how he reacts. It’s about seeing how his actions affect what is happening to him, and to those around him … and what will happen next. You need to have that narrative propulsion.”
Speaking to May, it is apparent that a lot of his own experiences have gone into the nineteen-year-old, ‘ordinary’ narrator of Life! Death! Prizes! The sense of dissonance, for instance, between Billy’s unyieldingly protective love for his younger brother, Oscar, and the inevitable reckless irresponsibility of his teenage years is a constant element of the narrative. These features are beautifully weighted throughout. May explains, “I had a child when I was quite young. I was twenty one and I had this child whom I loved, but I was still growing up myself.”
As far as the validity of writing from the point of view of a nineteen-year-old is concerned, the writer has a simple defence prepared:
“I’ve been a nineteen-year-old. I still remember being nineteen, vividly! If I had spent a year as an airline pilot, then gone on to write a book about an airline pilot, no-one would bat an eyelid.”
Difficult to argue with. Especially as throughout the novel he executes the sardonic, subversive tone and wit of an intelligent teenager magnificently. In many ways this is key to the general tone of the book, which manages to be insightful about everyday British life in a refreshing way. There is no agenda prepared, no soapbox. The book occasionally deals with some serious, often disturbing (and disturbingly recognisable) themes in a subdued, matter-of-fact manner, which somehow enables them to pack more of an emotional punch. This is perhaps because the rest of the bulk of the story is laced with wry, darkly comic humour. A good example, and my own personal favourite among Billy’s insights, being, ‘Social Workers are the goalkeepers of the public services – they are only ever remembered for their mistakes’.
Despite the acclaim Life! Death! Prizes! has received (‘Sharp and Funny’ – The Guardian, ‘Touching’ – Independent on Sunday), as well as the Costa Book Award nomination, which saw the book as one of only four shortlisted in 2012—and up against Hilary Mantel, it is clear the title of ‘author’ does not yet sit easily with May. This, he agrees, may be a defence against complacency, but argues:
“Writing, at the moment, is really just one of a number of things I consider to be ‘what I do’. I suppose it is beginning to take a larger role, but still the idea of calling myself ‘a writer’ or ‘an author’, I’m not so sure about. Maybe I don’t feel I have a substantial enough body of work built up as yet. At the same time, I get quite offended when people who have less experience of writing than I do, who maybe haven’t been published, call themselves writers.”
Speaking of his body of work, May has recently finished work on his third novel under the title, Wake Up Happy Every Day. Explaining the progression of his writing up to this point, he says:
“My first novel [Tag], which was the result of the MMU [M.A. Creative Writing] course, was very much my ‘punk rock’ book. By the time I was writing Life! Death! Prizes!, I found I had a larger skill set to draw on, a few more colours on my palette, so to speak, and recently, writing the latest one, I’ve had even more colours. … It is also about using them wisely though. I suppose there’s a danger in the future of using too many colours.”
Cue a long conversation about bands and artists that make poor albums by straying too far from their musical roots. May, it transpires, does not like Radiohead.
In spite of this glaring flaw in his personality, things seem to be going well at the moment. He has recently adapted Life! Death! Prizes! into a screenplay, following interest from the film industry. This process he claims to be glad to have done, despite it feeling like ‘operating on your own child’. May also says he would like to use the experience gained in writing his novels to return to writing plays, something which he did before gaining his Master’s Degree, to good reviews.
If May continues with anything near the form he displays in Life! Death! Prizes! (and resists the lure of the dreaded avant-gardefourth album) he might, for once, have to be content with at least one of his job titles. After all, for a drama teacher he makes a bloody good writer, and he speaks with little fondness about previous vocational routes he has taken: “When I was a journalist … I would [actually] hope to get the boring stories.” He admits to holding off answering phone calls in case there was an ‘exciting’ story on the line. “I’d take ages to answer, hoping someone else would pick up [and get] the bank robberies. My heart just wasn’t in it.” Also, describing an “unhappy stint” working as a writer on an ITV “continuing drama,” he says it was so bad, “it was the only job I’ve ever just walked away from, with nothing to fall back on.”
It was during this unhappy period of writing for television, however, that the inspiration for Life! Death! Prizes! was to occur, as May explains:
“I was going home one night, at the end of the day, and someone tried to mug me. … I had a case with a laptop in and this guy tried to snatch it, but I managed to fight him off—it wasn’t heroic or anything, I just thought, No, you’re not having this. It was only later that I thought how stupid it was to have fought back, he could have had a knife or anything! He could have killed me, and for what? Just a bunch of Emmerdale scripts!”
Life! Death! Prizes! is available now, published by Bloomsbury. For more information visit sdmay.com