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The Interview

Life Begins at Twenty (something)

Felicity Cloake

Felicity Cloake talks to Iain Hollingshead about his debut novel and the tricky business of sex scenes

Twenty Something is one of those stories which is so simple, yet so brilliantly entertaining, that you kick yourself for not having thought of it first. A year in the life of twenty-five-year old, self-professed tosspot Jack Lancaster, it chronicles his attempts to become, well, less of a tosspot, by chucking in his tedious City job and his conniving Sloane girlfriend before he’s overwhelmed by a looming ‘quarter-life crisis’. It’s contemporary, very funny, and captures young, professional London so beautifully that it deserves to be read in centuries to come as a kind of fictional, twenty-first-century Pepys’diary – although sadly one with fewer lobsters. 

Like his creation, Iain Hollingshead is a twenty-five-year old graduate who lives in London. Rather than toiling over Excel spreadsheets, however, he writes a weekly column for the Saturday Guardian, ‘Loose Ends’, and is currently knocking out a series of tie-in books for the BBC spy series, Spooks – very glamorous. In fact, when I meet him, he’s on his way to an interview with Glamour, ‘the magazine that fits your life and your handbag’, and he even very sweetly refuses my offer to buy him lunch, which clearly means the novel’s made him filthy rich in its first month. Oh, to be an author.

Although Twenty Something is well worth reading for the sheer joy of the story, one of the most interesting things about it is its refusal to fit into the well-worn literary genres of youth fiction. University novels have a long history in this country – think of Brideshead or David Lodge – but I struggle to call to mind any which deal with that nebulous period between leaving education and settling down. Sure, we have chick-lit, but not only is most of this aimed squarely at the utterly vacuous, it tends to depict a slightly later stage of life, where the heroines are anxious to settle down and the objects of their lust rejoice in ‘sexy’ stubble and leather jackets (I mean, honestly). There’s not much chronicling the peculiar existence of the young, footloose, middle-class urbanite, and there’s an awful lot of them about. 

When I suggest this innovative ‘grad-lit’ theory of mine to Iain, he agrees: ‘No, I’m not sure it does fit neatly in with anything else on the shelves at the moment. I mean, it’s had some quite interesting reviews, because they’re trying to put it into the genre of ‘lad-lit’, but it’s not really. One person compared it to Bridget Jones, but then it goes much darker than Bridget Jones, and I hope it’s slightly better written.

 ‘That’s why I wrote it, because I felt there was a kind of gap in modern fiction, that no one had ever written about, that kind of young twentysomething age, especially from the male viewpoint.’

This is Iain’s first novel, although he admits to ‘a kind of dark, literary, wanky thing’ he started whilst on his gap year. ‘It was pure self-indulgence, I wrote three chapters, and I sent it to my mate, and he said it was absolutely rubbish, so I gave up.’ He finished his next attempt the year after leaving university, got an agent four months later, and a publisher, Duckworth, four months after that. I wonder if he began to frantically change things once he knew it was actually going to be released upon the world: ‘Yes, quite a lot actually. I tweaked it a bit when I knew my parents were going to read it, and then once I knew it was going to be published I took out a lot of the swear words. I had to think, is that necessary, or can I tone it down? I did that quite a lot all the way through.’ 

After all this polishing, he was phlegmatic about any changes Duckworth suggested. ‘And they changed very little. I wasn’t that attached in a “you will not touch my novel!” way and all the stuff they suggested made it much better, like making the ending much less sickly, making Jack’s dad more prominent – it was more a case of, “Yes, good point” than “No! Don’t touch it!”’ However, he’s understanding of those who feel differently. ‘I think some people must find that really hard, if they’ve spent years working on a novel, and every word is in the right place. It might have been different if it were a second novel, but with your first book you’re not even expecting to get published. It’s just a shot in the dark. The fact they want to publish it at all makes you so happy, you’re just like, okay, I’ll rewrite it in New York if that’s what you want.’

Something which didn’t quite make the cut was one of those notoriously tricky beasts, the sex scene. Iain cringes at the memory. ‘Oh, it was pretty shocking. My agent reckoned I should have kept it and then I could have won the Literary Review Bad Sex Award! I don’t know how you’re supposed to go about it. You start to feel like you’re in a porn movie. It’s got to be vaguely sexual, and vaguely emotional, and vaguely spiritual, but actually describing what’s going on – I just couldn’t do it!’

Despite this excruciating experience, Iain says he enjoyed writing the novel ‘very much’, professing surprise at authors such as Jilly Cooper who claim to find the process agonising. However, he admits, ‘I’m finding that slightly with what I’m doing at the moment, but I guess I had no deadline for this. I wrote it in two and a half months, writing really quickly, working part-time two or three days a week. Also I had two friends that I forwarded it to every month so I got continuous feedback, and I felt like I was entertaining someone at least.

‘But no, I genuinely loved writing it. The temping work I was doing was so rubbish that I’d look forward to Wednesday or Thursday because “Yeah! It’s my writing day!” And I’d sit down and do four, five thousand words. I was very good although I had the occasional horrible block when I’d just go and cry in the park. Now I find it much more difficult, because I know I have to do two thousand words every day and if I miss one day then I have four thousand to do the next. It’s a bit depressing.’

He didn’t even waste time on the boring business of planning things out beforehand. ‘I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, but how Jack was going to get there, I had no idea. I barely planned it at all, actually. I bought a diary and I plotted the major events, but to be honest, all of the best bits, the bits I enjoyed most were unplanned. I just thought, why doesn’t he quit his job in a funny way? Or he could go to a Rugby match or whatever, and they just grew from that.’

Some of Jack’s little rants strike such a chord with me that I have a suspicion they may have lurked in Iain’s head for a while before finally finding an outlet in the book: ‘Oh, absolutely. That’s what’s so much fun about the first-person format. If I went to a dinner party and I had a funny conversation then I’d think “Ah! I can work in a little monologue about that”, that sort of thing.’  

Iain has certainly followed the old maxim, ‘write what you know’, and the book’s acknowledgements even thank ‘the summer of 2002, for persuading me never to work in a bank again’. I wonder how autobiographical it is. ‘No, it’s not at all really. I worked in a bank, and did a City internship in 2002, which I loathed. I had a lot of fun, I loved the office banter, and the going out, but the work was just so shit, and there were so many objectionable people there, and I guess that gave me the idea. And all my mates have worked in City firms, doing internships and graduate schemes and things like that, so I had a really good insight into that world. And yes, I’ve also worked in politics, so there are a lot of similarities.

‘But there’s a lot of stuff in there which I didn’t do when I was there. So, I didn’t get naked at the polo, and when I worked in politics I didn’t get sacked for writing an offensive letter. It was more like, what would it be fun to have done, rather than, what did I do. I wrote about what I knew … but with a fictional slant.’

Sadly he claims that none of the characters are based on real people, although ‘I did once have a boss who was like Mr Cox, but not quite as bad. He didn’t speak in Latin, but he did speak in this convoluted, tosspot way, and he was just a real wally. So he was quite influential. Then everyone else was an amalgamation – Leila’s your perfect girl, Lucy’s your nightmare ex, Flatmate Fred’s the slacker who won’t settle down, Rick’s your very ginger lothario, and Jack’s your standard bright, disillusioned graduate, so I suppose everyone’s a kind of stereotype. It’s quite funny, because it’s really hard finding surnames in a book so all the surnames are people who were in my house at school. Every single one.’

Iain is interested, if a little amused, by my admission that the classic tragic twist in events managed to coax a tear from my jaded eye, whereas the Evening Standard review criticised the way it altered the tone of the narrative. He argues that it was a vital to the plot, ‘I think you need an event which changes everything otherwise the whole thing would just have vaguely fizzled out. I wanted Jack to change, to become a slightly nicer, more likeable person by the end, and something needed to happen which forced him to sort it all out.’

So what does the future hold for Jack and Leila? ‘I want to see how this book does before I decide what I’m going to do next. If it does really well, which would be lovely, then I’d obviously want to do a sequel because the characters are quite a lot of fun. There is a scope for it to carry on I suppose, because he sends that “I love you” text message to his entire phonebook. I mean, something’s got to happen if you do that. Maybe when they’re thirty-something  …’.

In the meantime, he has started work on another novel, ‘a kind of jolly PG Wodehouse meets Jilly Cooper story about a village cricket team’, and has also, rather excitingly, had some film interest in Twenty Something. Blasé as ever, Iain shrugs this off: ‘I don’t know if I want to sit and write books for the rest of my life to be honest. I love writing, but there are other things I enjoy doing as well.’ Like teaching in a prep school, I suggest. ‘Well, not exactly. I’d like to go back to university, and I’d like to work in politics again. Journalism maybe. I think I’d enjoy being back in an office. I’m going to carry on writing books, but I don’t want to be sitting at home forever … I don’t actually like it very much.’


Twenty Something by Iain Hollingshead 
(Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd 2006)


Related article: Rebel with a Cause, interview with publishing legend Peter Mayer