Title: Coming Apart at the Dreams
(I was rather pleased with this. I’ve always been quite pleased with my titles, on the whole – often the best part of my books! Obviously a play on the phrase “coming apart at the seams”, and referring to the fact that the two main characters split up because of their differing hopes and dreams and ambitions).
Word count: 78,694
Written: March to August 2000
Story: Michael and Catherine, a young couple in their early twenties, arrive in his home village, having recently become engaged. He’s English and she’s Australian, and he’s brought her home to meet the family. However, when an ex-boyfriend of hers and her brother turn up from Australia, she begins to doubt whether Michael is really the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. It all ends up fairly miserably for poor old Michael.
Opening: “It’s still raining.”
Michael couldn’t suppress a thin smile. He looked at Catherine, an expression of restrained amusement crossing his face as he did so.
“You were expecting something else?” he asked sarcastically. “After all, this is England. You knew what you were letting yourself in for.” Catherine returned his gaze with one of those long, withering looks that only women can give, and he turned away chuckling.
“Yes, but does it have to rain so much?” she asked, looking up and down the length of the station in mock desperation. She then looked at her watch. “And the trains don’t run on time.”
Background: At the age of sixteen, I had one of those ridiculous, intense, angst-ridden crushes on a girl who was in my year at school. Absurd and pointless, but it felt important and dramatic at the time, as these things tend to do.
One day in March 2000, said young lady showed me a short story she had written for her English homework, to get some feedback about it. (Friends and acquaintances have often been kind enough down the years to regard my drive to write as somehow qualifying me to give advice and criticism on their own writing). It was very good, and I liked it, and said to her how I ought to show her some of my work in return.
I was sitting in the school library the following day, flicking through The Guardian’s education supplement, when I came across a piece about a writing competition for a 3000-word short story on the theme of “The Perfect Journey”. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, and I wrote a story called Home, about a young couple on a train journey, both for the competition and to show her.
I never heard anything back from the competition, of course, but the object of my unrequited affections went into raptures about it, saying how good it was and how much she’d enjoyed it, and how I had to carry it on. Well, of course, what else could I do? The following month I started turning it into a novel under the title Coming Apart at the Dreams, with the original short story as the opening chapter, carrying on the story of the young couple.
I spent much of the summer working on it, and when we returned to school to start sixth form in September, presented it to her as a gift. Goodness only knows what she made of that, but when she eventually read it she was gracious enough to claim that she’d enjoyed it. She was always very kind to me, although of course I only took that as encouragement to continue my ill-advised declarations of adoration.
Looking back: Ye Gads, it’s dreadful. I don’t hold it in any of the affection I have for Fatescape, although that might be because it’s tied up with all the teenage angst I had going on at the time. I do feel rather embarrassed when I look back at the way I behaved with my crush on the girl in my year, and my feelings about Coming Apart at the Dreams are all part of that embarrassment.
It doesn’t help that it’s an incredibly self-indulgent book. It’s basically a 78,000-word love letter, when all’s said and done. Filled with less-than-subtle allusions to the situation between her and I, and ham-fisted attempts to show what a perceptive and interesting and sensitive and intelligent sort of a guy I am. The central character, Michael, is of course a version of me that “thinly-veiled” would be far too generous a description of, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything remotely interesting.
If I’m looking for something to say in its credit, then I suppose it was at least my first attempt to write something grounded in the real world, and be a bit more mature. (If you can call writing a novel to try and impress your teenage crush in any way mature). It’s also set in barely-disguised versions of the places I lived and knew at the time, the first time I was writing about my own background and upbringing. I felt embarrassed about this as I thought it betrayed a lack of imagination, but later on I’d come to embrace it, on the basis of thinking “why shouldn’t these places have novels written about them?”, and that eventually led to a more recent effort of which I am more proud, The Wicket in the Rec.
What’s also interesting is, looking back at my diaries of the time, I wrote that I didn’t feel anywhere near the same sense of achievement in writing Dreams as I had with Fatescape. I didn’t remember that, but I suppose it’s true – nothing else since has felt like as great an achievement. As if once the first one is done, nothing else matters until I write one good enough to be published. Which I haven’t yet, and Dreams certainly wasn’t.
Submissions: I did submit it to some agents and publishers, but never had anything other than form letters back from any of them. Which is not surprising, really!