I’ve had three novels and one novella published, and there’s maybe fifteen unpublished manuscripts that sit on my computer in various states – from, This has potential, to I should revise this one day, to This should never see light again.
I read a romantic comedy/relationship novel about six years ago. The writing was good. The voice was excellent. The story engaged me immediately.
Then it proceeded to enrage me.
It was a just happens to story.
That means nothing was earned. No reaction was a result of somebody’s action. Things just happened because they needed to in order for the story (and the relationship) to move forward. Everything just fell into place, like somebody was putting it together from big, blocky jigsaw pieces that were only ever going to make the same bland picture no matter what.
The people were also perfect. Even their fucking quirks were perfect. And somehow they found one another. How could these people ever be single given their perfection?
The book inspired me to write a story where the two leads had lots of history, and where that history prejudiced expectations, decisions, and outcomes. Because that’s life. We carry shit. That shit affects how we move forward. When we meet somebody, we carry that into that relationship. Sometimes, we shoulder it. Usually we try to mould it. Other times, it drowns us.
I wrote this first as a 10,000-word short story. At this point, it did play out as a traditional romcom. The problem was:
I felt there was much more story than I was getting down on the page
in creating such flawed characters, the story became about their journey, rather than their relationship.
Who was my protagonist, August, really? The short story had hinted at August struggling to fit into the world because of a troubled past. But I hadn’t fully explored that.
With Just Another Week in Suburbia, I was criticised by some that the protagonist, Casper, was too passive. He was meant to be – events overwhelm a man who’s never truly learned to take care of himself. As the shit piles up around him, he’s afraid to make decisions because that would mean he has to take accountability – not something he’s ever done.
August has made those decisions, but unfortunately they’ve led to a painful, sheltered life. The world’s battered him around. A car accident killed his parents when he was a teen. As a young man, he married a domineering woman and the relationship spectacularly went to shit. The love interest he meets now seems strong and independent. So, at first, they complement one another. But it’s not so much about the relationship that develops, but how the relationship forces August to take ownership of what his life has become, and find a better way to move forward. This became the crux of the story, rather than it being a romcom.
I always wanted that to be clear. That’s why this became my opening line:
This is not a love story.
Later, when the reviews came out, I was pleased that most reviewers got it. For example, from Suki Harrison at Brisbanista:
… whilst it dips its toe into a tale of romance, the book is more about August’s journey to muddle through his troubled past and learn to love himself, his past and create a life he’s finally comfortable in.
That journey meant I could use the precepts of romcoms as a pathway, but then also play with them.
August Fallingis a refreshing read within the context of the often over-stylised drama-romance genre this novel sometimes pokes fun at.
That’s something that emerged more and more as I was writing, as I learned more about my two central characters.
And I take a lot of pride in the love interest (I’m not going to name her, as August not initially knowing her name plays an important part in the opening of the book). Life had been unfair to her. But she is strong, independent, and driven. She has aspirations. She temporarily becomes the guide for August – not that she sets out to do that. It’s not her job to save August. But, naturally, when you’re in a relationship you do complement one another. The relationship itself helps August learn more about himself.
That became the course on which the story was built. It also meant that the story had to take risks. Since it wasn’t going to function as a romcom, the journey of self-discovery played out as a map of shit decisions. That’s how we learn in life: by failing. And life’s good at humbling us, even when things seem to be going great.
Les Zig uniquely captures the fragility of the male psyche in the addictive non-love-story, August Falling.
This was something else I was glad came out. Stories don’t often explore male sensitivity. Then again, life doesn’t often explore male sensitivity.
Here’s an interesting sidenote: years ago, I worked (as an editor) on two anthologies about cancer: Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer and Below the Belt: Experiences with Prostate Cancer. We had no problem getting submissions for the former. For the latter, we struggled for two years. In the end, I emailed every support group in the country asking for stories. One of the facilitators rang me up. He told me I was unlikely to get stories. He said when women had a problem, they got together, talked about it, and worked through it, but when men had a problem, they internalised it, worked out what they had to do, and that was it.
With Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling I tried to put men in positions where they were forced to discard what they knew, to explore what and how they felt, to show vulnerability, and come out the other end better than where they started the story.
Casper’s issue was (in its way) easier for him to deal with it because it was circumstantial, whereas circumstances had repeatedly traumatised August so his general outlook was tentative and negative, and he had to find a way to come to peace with himself.
August’s sensitivity translates from the page, hitting its reader like cupid’s arrow. One can’t help but feel themselves tugged along on his journey of self-discovery as he battles the anxiety induced by his parents’ death and his own broken marriage.
Now this could’ve been dreary. So August became a writer, which I felt honed his ability to observe the world around him and find insights. He used humour as a way to cope.
Protagonist August is utterly lacking confidence in social situations, but his inner voice is sharp-witted with a writer’s keen eye for observation. These elements combined yield a conversational narrative bursting with endearing candour.
So I was writing to a genre that’s not formally recognised: guys sorting out their shit. But is that a real thing? Could it be a genre?
I actually think other stories in this unrecognised genre do exist out there. Tim Winton’s The Riders, A.M. Homes‘ Music for Torching, John Williams’s classic Stoner, and Laurie Steed‘s brilliant You Belong Here, all involve men trying to sort through their feelings, thinking, and ego and to move forward in a better way than they’ve ever done before. If the stories were primarily about women, they would be considered chick lit. There should be a equivalent genre with male protagonists.
That’s not to say that these stories speak only to a readership who identify as the same gender as the protagonist. We don’t read to identify directly with the circumstances contained within a story. Take something as fantastic as Harry Potter as an example. Not one of us is learning to be a wizard who has to face a dangerous enemy. But we relate to Harry’s struggle, the obstacles he faces, the failures he experiences, and the way he picks himself up to continue moving forward. That’s what we all face in life. That’s where we make a connection in reading.
In my humble opinion, the genius of this work is its hybrid nature. August Falling is a cross between the (1) the ordinary and the offbeat …
‘I drift in and out of sleep until my alarm buzzes, and after I pack the last quarter of my book into the satchel Julie brought for me, it’s back to my normal routine, although there are a few examples of extravagant behaviour – singing in the shower, flipping my omelette in the frying pan, and even a twirl when I lock up and head for the station, satchel wedged under my arm. I know I’m being stupid but sometimes, it’s nice to be stupid.’
(2) the mundane with the lyrical – like this evocative description of waiting for the train home after work…
‘Commuters pack the platform until we’re a singular consciousness of fatigue and resignation. When the 5.13 rolls up, we spill into the carriages, and flood the seats’
and (3) the uplifting and the down-to-earth …
‘She regards me as if I’m somebody, which makes me feel a fraud but I squelch the thought and appreciate the feeling for what it is. I am somebody…I’m me. And there’s nothing wrong with that.’
And the journey (while still trying to remain spoiler-free) is meant to culminate in the characters (like Casper) taking ownership, rather than being saved by somebody – which is often the cliché in romcoms.
You can save somebody physically. But you can’t save anybody intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. We can be advised. We can be encouraged. We can be consoled. But, in the end, it’s a journey we achieve alone, because the onus is always exclusively on us – the individual – to take whatever action is required.
And that journey doesn’t always take us to the destination we desire.
This novel’s conclusion is not predictable, yet one of the most realistically satisfying I’ve read in quite some time.
It’s tricky when you’re trying something new, rather than writing to an established genre. Preconceptions can work against you, because people expect something a story isn’t, and was never meant to be. When it doesn’t conform to those comfortable patterns, disconnects can occur.
But when I read reviews like these, I knew people gotAugust Falling. I’m grateful to them, because that recognition and identification is greater than any other reward.