Stephen May: 'My stories say things that are not being said'

Stephen May speaks about shambolic men, a misspent youth, and his third novel

You’re probably unable to tell from the photograph but this morning Stephen May suffered the kind of mishap that might befall the men who populate his fiction. “I was trimming my beard,” he explains, as we walk through Bloomsbury in the chilly February rain. “The battery conked out on my razor. I’ve left the charger at home in Yorkshire so I’ve had half a shave.” I point out that at least he, unlike me, was sensible enough to wear a coat and we make a dishevelled pair as we arrive at an empty pub, a few minutes after opening time.

“This is a rare excursion for me,” says May, ordering beer. “For the first 10 years of my adulthood, I drank too much and ran around too much.” This was after leaving school with five grade “U” O-levels but, although he riffs entertainingly on failure (“Who wants to get Ds?”), I’m suspicious of May’s slacker shtick. His new novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day, is his third in six years, after his debut, TAG (2008), and Life! Death! Prizes! (2012), which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. He’s a late-starter when it comes to writing but he was always a precocious reader and, during our conversation, quotes Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert and Franz Kafka. Is he exaggerating his former fecklessness? “I wasted so much time. But I’m not unambitious and what looked like spectacular under-achievement turns out to be material because I write about under-achievers. It’s a writer’s job to pay attention to things other people miss.”

Life! Death! Prizes! was narrated by Billy, a mixed-up teenager, struggling to raise his little brother after the death of their mother. It earned May comparisons to Dave Eggers and J D Salinger but, even though most of Wake Up Happy Every Day is set in San Francisco, his heart remains in England. “Nicky is a small-town boy in America,” he says of his new novel’s main character, who is, like May, 50. “This country’s spirit is in places like Bedford, where I grew up, Kettering and Ipswich. The type of men I write about live outside big cities, lack self-confidence and rarely feature in contemporary fiction. Even Nick Hornby’s characters are more sorted than mine.”

May says “sorted” as though the word represents an unobtainable state for him and his characters. He was visiting his “very sorted” daughter while she was studying at Berkeley University when he chose his American setting: “I expected to hate California but I loved it.”

Along with his wife, Sarah, and infant daughter, Scarlett, Nicky is staying in San Francisco with Russell, his multi-millionaire best friend. When Russell drops dead, Sarah helps Nicky pass the death off as his own, assume Russell’s identity and enjoy the fortune they believe will bring them happiness. “It’s not the most plausible aspect of the plot,” May admits, “but I reckon today it’s easier than ever to steal somebody’s identity.” Nicky undergoes a makeover so that he can impersonate an alpha male plutocrat but, although Sarah likes his six-pack, their champagne lifestyle loses its sparkle. They notice that the rich rarely laugh and money makes life predictable.

“When I’ve been around wealthy people they’ve seemed to lead quite restricted lives,” says May. I highlight the gulf between his characters’ thoughts and what they say out loud and he says: “We all hold convictions which we daren’t express. My male characters struggle to be kind against their darker instincts. The women are decisive and just plain nicer. I know the men annoy some people. My daughter, who didn’t like my second novel, said: ‘I’ve met boys like Billy and they’re fucking annoying’.” I sympathise with May’s daughter, up to a point. Initially, I found Nicky’s everyman persona grating, average and incurious, but once he’d developed some guts and imagination, I cared about him.

While May’s characters rein in their opinions, he has plenty to say in his books and in person. Having spent his 30s teaching, he’s angry about government education policy: “The Tory attitude is: ‘Our kids can do creative stuff but your kids will be stacking shelves’. It’s absolutely shocking.” He still teaches creative writing and co-wrote a guide to the subject, so what did he make of Hanif Kureishi’s recent remarks about “waste of time” courses? “A teacher who says – as Hanif does – ‘fuck the prose, think about your story’ is helpful. Writers can find mentors on library shelves but being among supportive, competitive students is nurturing.”  

Teaching, raising three children and working for the Arts Council exposes May to various generations and idioms. His characters share his disdain for everyday bullshit and Russell’s estranged daughter Lorna’s repartee with her roommate is as convincing as the touching story of Nicky’s old dad back in Blighty. “I wanted to create a range of voices,” May says, “to tackle themes of friendship and money. Nicky and Sarah expect to have fun with Russell’s cash but many of us would be embarrassed by vast wealth. It would disrupt your ordinary interactions and relationships. I’ve read that the joy you feel on receiving £30,000 is the same as if you receive £1m.”

With Lorna growing suspicious, Nicky is in danger of being rumbled as an impostor but his problems escalate when an assassin, who’s both sinister and comical, is dispatched to eliminate him. “She’s based on somebody I met on a children’s writing course,” says May. “Students were asked to reveal something surprising and she said: ‘I could kill you all with my bare hands’.” Is he wise to reveal this? Isn’t he concerned that this aspiring J K Rowling will track him down? “I’m more worried that Nicky’s views about the cake habits of women in offices will land me in trouble. But I think I need to toughen up.”

I’m not so sure. Talk of misspent youth, assassins and obstreperous protagonists belies the emotional core which makes May’s books moving. “In some ways, having children saved my life,” he says, when I suggest that Scarlett represents her parents’ best hope of happiness. “With them came a safety net of responsibility that stopped me destroying myself. I agree with Flaubert that you should ‘be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work’.” Does writing make him happy? “In a sense all books fail. They’re never as good as they could be but this weird compulsion to express myself gets more urgent with age. I need to tell stories and say things that aren’t being said.”

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'