I met Alan Devey while we were both studying English Literature at Plymouth University’s Exmouth campus in the mid-90s. We ended up co-editing (along with Chris ‘Metaller’ Perry) the campus magazine, writing scurrilous (and probably actionable) articles about life in Exmouth which amused us, if no-one else…
After graduating, we went our separate ways but stayed in touch thanks to the wonders of social media. I’ve followed Al’s progress as a writer over the last 20-odd years, first with Chris on their satirical Home Defence UK webzine and then his own novels, short stories, comedy scripts and screenplays.
The Gestalt Switch, his most recent book, is set in 2023. Seven years after the original referendum, successive governments formed by the two main ‘traditional’ parties failed to expedite the UK’s exit from the EU and so a populist Party For Change has swept to power with a manifesto which makes securing Brexit its core aim. The country is polarised, much as it is now, between Positives (leave voters) and Negatives (remainers). When one of the new government’s leading lights is killed in a plane crash, which the government quickly declare as murder by Negative sympathisers, the struggle between the two ideologies rapidly descends into violence.
The central character, Ian Freeman, is a Positive voter and the story is told in his first person diary entries. Half a century or so later the diary has been carefully preserved by a marginalised American academic whose own sympathetic commentary provides an insight into how the fraught situation in the UK was eventually resolved.
It’s a compelling read, nicely paced and obviously very topical. What struck me most about it is the way in which British society rapidly crumbles, but the public’s attention is diverted thanks to a never-ending supply of US TV boxsets and a doubling of efforts in keeping the country’s streets neat and tidy. I thoroughly recommend it as a chillingly prescient piece of speculative fiction.
Al kindly agreed to do an interview so that I could ask about how the book took shape, amongst other things.
Ben Banyard: I don’t need to ask how the idea for the book came about – Brexit’s been part of the country’s consciousness now for a good five years. What prompted you to sit down and start writing it?
Alan Devey: For a long time I wanted to write a story that illustrated how this country was as much at risk of turning one group of people against another as those places where discrimination ended in bloodshed like Kosovo, Ireland or Rwanda. I wanted this division to be purely on the basis of ideology, so the two sides couldn’t be differentiated in terms of appearance. The turn to polarisation and violence would be solely on the basis of what they believed. I didn’t particularly want this to be about religion, partly because I’d written about that before, but mainly because religious belief is no longer relevant to the vast majority of people in the UK, particularly the young. When I started seeing how people were using their beliefs about the EU, however fantastical, to split into radical Remainers and extremist Brexiters, that gave me the hook I needed. After that it all fell into place very quickly.
BB: Did you feel like you had to write to keep up with changing events to ensure it would be current? Did you have to edit based on real world events?
AD: Not really and I think that would have been a losing battle if I’d tried – such was the pace of events. I was reading a piece about Orwell’s 1984 recently that talks about the difference between prophecy and prediction. It isn’t appropriate to look to fiction writers for specific predictions of the future – that’s an area for experts in economics and sociology and culture and trade deals and so on. What we can do, perhaps, is try to highlight concerns about where society is going, as dystopian writers do in general. The other thing I had on my side was that, because the Brexit process is very much in the eye of the beholder and will take years, if not decades, for replacement trade deals to be resolved, it was inherently plausible for the thing to still be dragging on come 2023. And it will be, all the lies about “getting Brexit done” notwithstanding.
BB: What was your main aim in writing a book about Brexit? Did that change as the story developed?
AD: I saw our departure from the European Union as a good way of exploring wider issues around English identity, the fallout from colonialism, the dangers of extremism and creeping fascism as well as the effects of political propaganda on ordinary people. In light of December’s General Election result, these issues now feel more relevant than ever.
BB: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
AD: Firstly, getting into the mindset of someone we might characterise as a “follower of Farage” and continuing to inhabit that persona on a daily basis for half a year. But that was absolutely key to the success of what I was trying to do. There are already instances of more established authors, who have clearly never encountered someone like my protagonist, writing out of a Remainer standpoint to characterise all Brexiters as two-dimensional fools or simplistic bigots. The reality is much more variegated and complex, if no less depressing. The other challenge was to try and have a clear (if implicit) continuity in the plot, when utilising two unreliable narrators, and writing both in the first person. In that sense, this was probably the trickiest thing I’ve ever written.
BB: The main character feels like he might be an amalgamation of different people you know personally?
AD: I’m glad Ian Freeman seems that way but he really isn’t. Like most people I have older relatives who voted to leave the EU (as well as younger associates who gained an entirely new identity post-referendum, through the Remain campaign). But it was actually far more useful to listen to politicians and public figures who were pro-Brexit and research anti-EU sentiment online; through people’s blogs and comments and social media accounts. That’s the upside to everyone being able to express their opinions publicly – it’s all out there for writers, and easily accessible.
BB: Did writing the book change your own opinion of Brexit at all?
AD: Not really. I’ve always been ambivalent about the European Union, recognising that, in reality, there are pros and cons to being part of it. As Jeremy Corbyn said, staying in the EU isn’t going to solve all of Britain’s problems, and neither is leaving. Some European countries do extremely well within the EU, others manage perfectly well outside of it. The problem we have now is that the disaster capitalists are in charge, so instead of a none-too-damaging soft Brexit with Customs Union that a progressive party might have negotiated, we’re now looking at a very different prospect. It’s clear by now that leaving the EU is going to make anyone who isn’t rich a lot poorer, with immigration obsessed over by the bunch of incompetents we currently have in charge. They could suddenly decide to do anything: go ahead with No Deal, remove all rights from EU citizens living here, decimate British workers’ rights and our environmental standards. It’ll be whatever they think plays well to their political base; men (and women) like my protagonist who actually amount to less than a fifth of the electorate, but can still dictate our politics, just as they have in America with Trump.
BB: Would you say that this is your most overtly political novel so far?
AD: Yes, although my collection from a few years back – Outside The Comfort Zone – Tales From Austerity Britain – has stories that are similarly engaged with Britain’s political landscape.
BB: Would you say that you are a political writer generally?
AD: It depends on the project. There’s usually some resonance a writer can tap into by nodding toward contemporary politics at least, often for satirical purposes. That said, probably the most successful thing I’ve written in terms of recognition is a romantic comedy feature film set at the Ottery St. Mary barrel burning festival. This has been a finalist in a number of script competitions and you’d be hard-pressed to find any politics in at all. But the personal is always political to a certain extent, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to identity. If you come from a traditionally marginalised group (in my case, the working classes) your existence is always going to have a political context, whether you’re aware of it or not.
BB: What is your creative process in terms of planning a novel? Do you break it down into specific scenes that you want to cover off so that you have a clear plan of attack?
AD: I do nowadays yes. I didn’t when I started out, and then I would wonder why I was running out of steam partway through. I think lack of planning is also where a lot of writers’ block comes from, because if you know in advance the scene you have to write next, you can always get it down, however poor your first draft may be. Don’t get it right, just get it done; that’s a useful rule of thumb if you’re the kind of writer who struggles to finish projects. In short, my process these days is to scribble down notes and ideas that occur to me over a period of months (or years), type these up to expand on them, then fill an A4 notebook with scenes and summaries from the notes to create a structure. This then becomes the basis of the first draft.
BB: How long did the book take to write?
AD: There were months of part-time preparatory work combined with my day job. Then I took time off to immerse myself in the fictional world. If I’ve done enough preparation I can get a first draft done quite quickly, writing about 10,000 words a week. In this case, it flowed better than ever, because there was an urgency behind telling this particular story at this particular point in time. Then comes the work that isn’t so much fun – endless revising, rewriting and polishing which takes me months. Overall, from beginning to end, I’d say this book probably consumed about a thousand hours of my time.
BB: How did you fit the writing around family and working life?
AD: As I say, for a novel like this I have to work on it full-time from first draft to final draft so I took nine months off from the day job using money I’d saved working. It would have been quicker, but this book coincided with becoming a father so I was working on it full-time while parenting. This brought its own challenges but at least I was around to offer a spare pair of hands to my other half for the first part of Arthur’s life. I also found myself procrastinating a lot less than previously. If you know you only have two to three hours to write your daily word count before the baby needs attention, you’re less likely to lose focus and end up taking five hours or more to hit your target, as I used to before fatherhood.
BB: You choose to self-publish on Amazon – is this a conscious decision to ensure you retain creative control?
AD: That’s one of the advantages but the simple fact of the matter is that I didn’t have any choice. I spent six months trying to interest literary agents and publishers in this book, but after approaching fifty or so I decided to stop banging my head against that particular wall. I didn’t get many responses at all, although one agent did say they had to pass because “Brexit is still too raw” which I found amusing. When you’ve been failing to interest the UK literary industry in your output for as long as I have (twenty-two years and counting) you start to have an insight into their preferences. Regardless of merit, no one is going to take on a book they don’t think will be profitable, and when it comes to The Gestalt Switch they’re probably correct. Also, publishing in this country is overwhelmingly dominated by upper middle class Remainers. They’re likely to baulk at entering the head of an obsessive Little Englander like my protagonist for 300 pages.
BB: You have several other titles available – which are you most proud of?
AD: You can probably relate to this too but, as a writer, you tend to be most proud of the last project you’ve finished. Hopefully this is down to the fact that you’re always improving in your craft, rather than novelty or narcissism. So yes, I definitely had the feeling on completing The Gestalt Switch that it was the most accomplished thing I’d written, as well as the closest I’ve got to capturing on the page everything the story was in my head. If I do another book, hopefully I’ll be even prouder of that one.
BB: You’re also a scriptwriter. How did that come about?
AD: If I get an idea that compels me to write it, I’ll always look to the medium where it can be most effectively translated. If that idea is more visual and less ‘interior’ than prose, it might suit a screenplay instead. While I’ve always tinkered with script ideas, it was only in the 2010s that I invested in Final Draft and really began to work at the ins and outs, partially inspired by the excellent Scriptwriting module I undertook on my Creative Writing Masters, which brings me to your next question…
BB: You recently earned an M.A. from London Metropolitan University – would you recommend that to other writers?
AD: While such courses aren’t cheap and would not benefit every writer out there, for me it was an important step. An M.A. gives you a year, full-time (or two years, part-time) to concentrate entirely on your literary work. You learn a great deal, including how to take (and give) criticism. If you’re lucky, you’ll also make some useful contacts. Perhaps most importantly though, if you have qualms about calling yourself a writer when you don’t earn a living from it, being in that environment gives you the confidence to embrace ‘writer’ as an identity and, hopefully, a vocation. Certainly that course made me feel like I broke through to the next level, artistically and creatively. I look back on some of my earlier work now with a sense of embarrassment, as I think most writers do.
BB: Do you have any general advice for writers?
AD: There are the usual ones: read widely, write as much as you can, put in ten thousand hours to get good and don’t see it as a way of attaining fame and fortune because, for 99.9% of writers, it isn’t. Aside from that, the big one is finding like-minded and supportive people. In the wake of my M.A. I joined a number of writing groups which have proved to be invaluable. Again, gaining recognition or readership has more to do with contacts and luck than talent or hard work, sadly, so it is important to get away from your desk and ‘network’ out in the real world, however much that can be awkward for an introvert like me. Certainly most of the opportunities I’ve grasped through recent years have come from accessing supportive writing communities online, including groups like Bang2Write and London Comedy Writers as well as social media sites. They’re hugely important for marketing and promotion, especially if you’re going to self-publish.
BB: What’s next?
AD: Through my role helping to run London Comedy Writers I’m producing and writing episodes of an all-ages sitcom we’re putting out as a podcast, the first series of which we’re looking to release this year. We have most of the episodes recorded with an absolutely phenomenal cast so that’s exciting. It’s not political at all but I’m also working on my first play which will be a reaction to the state of the nation. Finally I’m developing a period sitcom and I have a low-budget feature (or short series) in development with a Welsh production company that may or may not lead to something happening.
On the flip side, I’ve vowed not to attempt any more novels, at least in the medium term, as they’re too labour intensive and there’s no recompense (now I’ve got a kid, I need to provide in the traditional way, by winning bread). Never say never though. Also my friend, the comics artist and writer Kev Hopgood, has suggested turning The Gestalt Switch into a play, which is an interesting idea….
You can download The Gestalt Switch to read on your Kindle (free – Kindle Unlimited/£2.99 otherwise), or order a paperback copy for £7.99 here.