Sunday, August 16, 2015

In conversation with author Robert Glancy


If anyone enumerates the most exasperatingly dull things ever produced by humankind, then terms and conditions documents will definitely rank highly on this list. Yet author Robert Glancy took this topic and somehow transformed it into one of the most amusing and poignant debuts of 2014. The story of a man who loses his memory and gains the chance to rethink his life, Terms & Conditions has earned the author praise and delighted readers all over the world. In an interview with Books & Authors, the writer talks about his literary journey, the inspiration behind his first tome, and what we can expect from his next novel.

You have lived in many different countries. Would you like to share a bit about why you have travelled and how the experience of living in different places has influenced your writing? Is there a place in particular that you call home?
I was born in Zambia and raised in Malawi — a country known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ but made famous as the place where Madonna adopts children. At 15, I moved from the warm heart of Africa to the cold bones of Edinburgh, where I discovered what a real winter was and came to truly appreciate the term ‘culture shock’. After Edinburgh I studied history at Cambridge. Then [I went] off to London where I lived for many years until the weather started to get me down. In my search to return to warmer weather, I moved to beautiful New Zealand in 2003, where I’ve lived ever since, except for 2014 when I moved to France and divided my time unevenly between cat-sitting and writing my second book. The cat just about survived and I finished my second book, Please Do Not Disturb. I am now back in New Zealand writing book three. In my heart New Zealand is home.
Travelling has had a huge influence on my writing. When I left Malawi as a blond-haired boy, I thought the whole world was like Malawi, that everyone had photographs of a dictator staring down from the walls of shops and offices, that everyone had to sing and line up along the road whenever the dictator toured the country. So when I got to Edinburgh, I realised that where I’d been living was different to the rest of the world. From that moment on, I started to try and capture the experience of the different places I’d lived. And when you sit down and try to capture experiences, to trap moments on a page, you become a writer.

How did you go from working at a PR firm to becoming a full-time writer? What inspired you to become a writer?
My communications career sort of found me before I had time to find out what I really wanted to do. In truth, all I’ve ever wanted to do is write. Whenever I’m asked when I ‘started writing’, I always say I never ‘stopped writing’. Most people leave school and stop writing because they don’t have a teacher encouraging them. I never stopped, I just kept writing. So I’ve always been a writer but it just took me a while to convince other people that I was one. Like most writers, I was inspired to become a writer by other writers, by that magical moment when you’re sucked into a book, into a new world. My parents are big readers and though we lived in Malawi — where many books were banned by the dictator — we still had full bookshelves packed with everyone from Paul Theroux and Joseph Heller to Chinua Achebe and Dickens.

How did you come up with the idea for Terms & Conditions?
I was working for a computer games company and I was giving away a game as part of a competition. When I read the competition terms and conditions, I started to laugh; they were just so ridiculous, they tried to protect the company against every eventuality, and I thought about the poor lawyer having to think of all those worse-case scenarios.
Stephen King said many of his books came from combining two ideas and that happened with me. I’d had this neurotic man, Frank, in my head for a long time as a character but I was never sure what his job was and suddenly when I read the terms and conditions I realised: Of course! Frank is a corporate lawyer!
Then I read other terms and conditions and they were comedy gold, like the terms for a company that makes MP3 players, which warned that you could not use their MP3 in the ‘development or manufacture of a nuclear weapon’. So I just stretched the idea and thought: what if this neurotic man tried to write the terms and conditions of his life. And when I got the idea of breaking up the main text on the page into fine print at the bottom of the page — a sort of civil war between what Frank was saying and what he was thinking — I realised I had an interesting structure for a comedy.

How would you describe the novel?
It’s a dark comedy about a lawyer with amnesia rebuilding his memory by drafting the contract of his life, which defines all the terms and conditions that bind him to his wife, his brothers, his job, God, life, and the universe.

Were any of the events or characters in the book inspired by actual events or the people in your life? Can we see any aspects of your life and personality in any of the characters?
Frank’s main frustration is that he spends his life writing words that no one reads. That is a little in-joke between Frank and me, because I’ve also spent many years writing alone and being consistently rejected, so Frank and I share the frustration of writing words the world ignores. Thankfully that’s where the comparison ends. I’m in no way as neurotic as Frank! But I do see aspects of my life in the book — I think we live in an increasingly corporate world and Frank struggles with this, he finds himself in a difficult ethical conundrum with his job, and increasingly finds all the nice aspects of his wife being eroded as she becomes more ambitious, more corporate. I do use my experience — any author who pretends they don’t is fibbing — but I try not to use people wholesale, as it were. I use elements of them, and I know my friends and family are too clever and have too good a sense of humour to take offence if they spot a fragment of themselves [in my book]. (Well, I hope so anyway!)

After writing a whole novel based on the premise that no one reads the terms and conditions, do you actually read them now?
Ha! Good question. Well, I had to read so many for research purposes and I wish I could say I still read all my terms and conditions but sometimes I just can’t bear to. They’re so dull they make my brain dribble out of my ears. So it’s a half answer but I do read them when it’s something massive like my mortgage contract but, no, I don’t read them if it’s iTunes (though I can say, hand on heart, that I’ve never used an MP3 to build a nuclear weapon). The really funny part was when I got my book deal from Bloomsbury, my contract was called: The ‘Terms & Conditions of Terms & Conditions’.

Is a movie adaptation in the cards? What would your dream cast be? You seem to want Jim Carrey for the film …I wish. I’m open to offers. I sent Jim Carrey – or I should say: I sent the person who runs Jim Carrey’s Twitter account – a tweet because he’s made so many great movies and many of them are based on a quirky conceit like my book. My dream cast would be:
-    Director/Producer/All Round Awesome Guy: Jim Carrey
-    Frank: Jake Gyllenhaal
-    Doug: Stanley Tucci
-    Oscar: Ray Winston
-    Alice: Carey Mulligan
-    Sandra: Emily Blunt
-   Malcolm: Michael Fassbender (well, his voice anyway, as Malcolm only exists in emails.)

Is the road to getting published bumpy or smooth?
Long and bumpy. In my 20s I thought I was an awesome writer so I kept sending books out and they kept being rejected. At 30 I reread the books I’d sent out in my 20s and saw why I’d been rejected — they were terrible. So I gave myself 10 years of writing without sending anything out and after the 10 years — with my 40s looming — I sent out Terms&Conditions and I got lucky.

Is there any chance you will polish the manuscript you wrote years before Terms & Conditions for future publication? 
No, that manuscript shall remain safely buried in a drawer where it belongs. It’s a relic of my bad 20s when the creative process of writing made me feel so good that I forgot to stop and analyse if the results were actually any good.

Your second book, Please Do Not Disturb, will be released in early 2016. What can you tell us about it? 
It’s set in a small African country and it follows the lives of four people in the three days leading up to their Independence Day celebration, the only day in the year when the nation gets to see its ailing dictator. It was the book I’d wanted to write for years — since the moment I arrived in Edinburgh and realised I’d had a rather strange childhood — so when I did sit down I think a lot of it was slushing about in my subconscious ready to go.

Any message for readers in Pakistan?
I really hope you enjoy the strange story of Frank Shaw and I hope someone invites me to a literary festival there one day, so I can see your beautiful country.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 16th August, 2015 *

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