COMEDIAN Danny Wallace put a positive spin on his life with Yes Man, the book that became a Hollywood film starring Jim Carrey, and his latest project, a work of fiction, is just as life-affirming.
Everyone loves a love story. Despite all the proof to the contrary, we yearn to believe in fairytales, which promise that somewhere out there is The One: our perfectly matched soul mate and life partner. Jason Priestly believes. No, not the actor. This Jason Priestly is a former teacher driven from his profession by a sniper, and driven from his long-term relationship for reasons that he only reluctantly reveals as his tale unfolds during the course of Charlotte Street.
“In a sense, that’s how I write naturally,” says Danny Wallace, the 36-year-old comic who is instantly recognisable from his television shows and their accompanying books, which include Join Me (in which he started a cult), and Yes Man (in which he assented to everything). The latter of these was also made into a film starring Jim Carrey.
Wallace took a cautious approach when writing his debut novel. “I thought, with the history I have, that it might alienate people who’ve been with me for a while if I immediately did something entirely different. It was a gamble. It could be quite confusing because they’d imagine [the main character] to be me. But hopefully, after 20-30 pages, they’ll realise this is a world and he’s a guy in that world.”
Set on and around the eponymous London street in the heart of Fitzrovia, the novel hinges on a chance encounter. As an overburdened young woman steps into a taxi, she drops her bags. Priestly comes to her aid and their eyes lock momentarily. For Priestly, that split-second connection is as searing as a welder’s torch, soldering them together. But her taxi is already moving down the street when he discovers that she’s left behind – not a glass slipper, no, but a disposable camera. How can he return it? Would it be so wrong to develop the pictures, hoping that they’ll offer clues to help him track her down? Is it an invasion of her privacy? But what if he does nothing, and it turns out that she’s The One?
Over coffee in a Glasgow café, Wallace and I talk hearts and flowers. Playing the cynic, I challenge him to stand up for the notion that there really is a “The One”, rather than any number of possible The Ones out there. Isn’t matchmaking really about timing and, to an extent, the overlapping of circumstances?
Nodding, he says: “There’s plenty of The Ones out there, just that some Ones are better than others. If you find one of the better Ones, hang on. I met my The One [Australian Greta McMahon] at a time of my life when I was being more open and doing more things. It taught me that you can make life happen if you’re putting yourself out there, taking more risks and doing things you wouldn’t normally do because you might think you can’t be bothered. You’re as likely to meet the love of your life at a bad party as at a good one!”
Jason’s approach to life is far more romantic than pragmatic, and in that regard he’s not that far removed from a character such as Bridget Jones. “I think there are plenty of romantic men out there who really want the moment that only seems to happen in, say, a chick flick,” Wallace replies. “I had the idea of [one such] moment that I thought was strong enough to hold the book. What would you do if you’ve seen someone, and you’ve imagined this entire universe around a fictional relationship? Imagined what your kids would be called, where you’d holiday? It happens all the time, about a movie star or the girl serving you at Waterstones.
“For Jason, his life is about moments, as well. He craves the moment in a relationship that’ll be strong enough to take him all the way through it, so that one day he’ll be there with his wife telling their many great-grandchildren how they met. He wants life to work that way.”
Wallace recounted the story of how he courted his wife, Greta – aka “Lizzie” – in Yes Man. It even involved photographs – she showed him pictures of giant things that Australians have felt compelled to build – and indeed, Charlotte Street revisits some of the same themes of that earlier, non-fiction book. Reworking these ideas, Wallace re-explores how events can cause us to retreat from the world, the redemptive nature of friendship, and our complicated relationship with technology – or the way that technology complicates our relationships. For instance, Jason tortures himself with repeated visits to his ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page, and winds up in hot water when he sends e-mails while drunk.
We are all stalkers nowadays, says Wallace. “It’s 100 per cent harder to move on from a relationship because it’s always there in your face. You can’t help seeing what the other person is doing. If you’re still friends on Facebook, or if you get drunk and Google them, you can still see what they’re up to, how happy they are and who they’ve met. The information is right there. You’ve got to be stronger than ever to be able to move on.
“That’s why I used the disposable camera in the novel. We take photographs all the time now. We document everything, and most of them we get rid of. But with a disposable, you have to be sure that what you’re putting into that box is worth putting in. You’ve only got so many moments. What if you take one and the next moment is even better? And then it’s lost, it’ll never be there again. In Jason’s logic, there’s a part of him thinking, ‘Well, maybe there is a story in this camera, because she had to want to take these photos. What will the story be?’”
Joining Jason on his quest to decipher the mysteries behind these images – and on the harder emotional journey, to heal his psychological scars and reboot his life – is his best friend, Dev. Their bond is a love story every bit as touching – and important – as the one Jason dreams of forging with his fantasy woman. This chimes with Wallace’s personal experience, he tells me. “They do love each other. I am very affectionate with my mates and I love them. Some of them I absolutely adore, and we’re never afraid to talk about that. I think there’s loads of us like that. It’s that thing again, the under-represented part of the male psyche, in terms of love. Love for your friends, and love for, or at least a yearning for the romance that leads to the person that you can call The One.”
I hope our conversation doesn’t sound too soppy in the recounting, because we have not stopped laughing since saying hello, when I ask how the hell he found time to write a novel, given his daily radio programme, his television projects, time spent pitching a sitcom pilot to Hollywood, and the time-consuming distraction of his young son, Elliot, to contend with.
Sounding slightly baffled, he reveals that the two-and-a-half-year-old has discovered small talk. “For a toddler, everything should be exciting – you shouldn’t need to plug any gaps, but he’s heard people do it. He sat down next to my wife and went, ‘So, are you working Saturday?’”
Has he been hanging around hairdressers? “Exactly! ‘You going anywhere nice?’ Little moments like that are great, but it means my working life isn’t as straightforward as it was. I’m lucky that I get to do things that I find fun. The rule is to try to do it well, so that you have the opportunity to have more fun later on. But yeah, I jump around the genres.”
What, then, are his literary influences? “The Beano taught me everything I need to know, I swear to God! I learned how little stories work and how jokes work. It taught me about beginnings, middles and ends. Brevity – not wasting a word if you can help it. I was born in Dundee, in 1976. I was proud that The Beano came from a building not far from where I lived. And from there, it took me on to PG Wodehouse, who I adore. My favourite book is probably Diary of a Nobody. That’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In terms of contemporary stuff, David Nicholls, Nick Hornby.”
That’s interesting to hear, because a lot of men tell me they don’t read much fiction. “I do, but I am usually more drawn to non-fiction because it’s easier to read. If you’ve got an interest in a subject or a person, you’re half-way there. With fiction, you don’t know who these people are going to be or what the story is, whereas non-fiction is tangible and real and you’re just a bit nerdy and getting into it a bit more. Fiction is a tougher buy-in, I think. Unless you’re just a massive fan of a name brand author and know what you’re going to get.”
Wallace himself is a name brand, it just remains to be seen whether his fans are willing to jump genres with him.
• Danny Wallace is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday night at 8:30pm. For information, visit www.edbookfest.co.uk
• Charlotte Street is out now from Ebury Press, priced £12.99 (paperback).
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