|A Minor Incident: Badly Drawn Boy
'You must be excited about the film coming out,' a friendly and well-meaning acquaintance remarked at the end of 2001, a few months before the movie version of About a Boy was released. (Those weren't her actual words. Her actual words were, 'You must be excited about About a Boy coming out.' I changed them because, prose stylist that I am, I wanted to avoid that double 'about'. I'm sick of it. My advice to young writers: never begin a title with a preposition, because you will find that it is impossible to utter or to write any sentence pertaining to your creation without sounding as if you have an especially pitiable stutter. 'He wanted to talk to be about About a Boy.' 'What about About a Boy?' 'The thing about About a Boy...' 'Are you excited about About a Boy?' And so on. I wonder if Steinbeck and his publishers got sick of it? "What do you think of Of Mice and Men? 'I've just finished the first half of Of Mice and Men.' 'What's the publication date of Of Mice and Men?'…Still, it seemed like a good idea at the time.)
I smiled politely, but the supposition mystified me. Why on earth would I get excited? There had been interesting, sometimes even enjoyable bits along the way- selling the rights to a book for an unfeasibly large sum of money, for example, meeting the people responsible for the film version, seeing the end product, which I liked a lot. I'd be very suspicious, however, of any writer who was actually excited by any of this process, which can on occasion be distasteful (About a Boy ate up a director and got spat out by another film company before it was made) and stupefying prolonged; indeed, the time before, during and after a film's release is positively unpleasant. You get reviewed all over again; you discover that half your friends never read the book in the first place; the bits of the film the people like the most turn out to be nothing to do with you.
But the first time I heard the soundtrack to the film really was exciting, in the proper, tingly sense of the word. Seeing one's words converted into Hollywood cash is gratifying in all sorts of ways, but it really cannot compare to the experience of hearing them converted into music: for someone who has to write books because he cannot write songs, the idea that a book might produce a song is embarrassingly thrilling.
Like a lot of people, I spent a large chunk of 2000 listening to and loving Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of the Bewilderbeast album. It's one of the very few English records of recent years I've had any time for; it's thoughtful, quirky without being inept (despite my earlier presumption that the name of the artist was somehow indicative of the ramshackle nature of the music, a presumption that stopped me from listening to him for a while), it's melodic, it borrows lightly from all sorts of folky, rocky things I like (Damon Gough is an early-Springsteen devotee), it doesn't show off, it is un-English in the sense that it wouldn't be much use to Ibizan clubbers or boozed-up football hooligans, it has soul. It also sounds cinematic, with its little snatches of orchestration (it begins with a brass-band instrumental that would not have been out of place in a gentle sixties comedy) and its range of moods. It seemed to me that Damon could write a wonderful film score, and I would have suggested him for About a Boy had I not known that writers have less chance of influencing film adaptations of their books than they do of changing the weather. And then, the first time we met, Chris and Paul Weitz, the co-directors, told me that they had already asked Damon to provide all the music for the film. This struck me as being troublingly neat- could it really be possible that the music in my head was the same music as in theirs? - but anyway, here I am, in my office, listening to a whole lot of new Badly Drawn Boy songs and music cues that very few people in the world have heard yet, and feeling lucky.
I began writing About a Boy in 1996, the year my son Danny was finally diagnosed as autistic. There were lots of things to think (or panic, or despair, or lose sleep) about, and money was only one of them, but I suddenly went from feeling reasonably wealthy - I was in my fourth year of earning a decent living from writing, and for the first time in my life I had some savings- to financially vulnerable: I was going to have to find enough to make sure that my son was secure, not just for the duration of my life, but for the duration of his, and that extra thirty to forty years was hard to contemplate, in more or less any direction. And then, no sooner had these worries begun to take hold and chafe a little bit than this Hollywood money arrived. Until the movie was made, this was the only connection I had forged between the book and Danny. The character of Marcus was nothing to do with him. (Marcus is twelve, and brightly voluble, if odd; Danny was three, and five years later is still unable to speak), and I don't think that Danny would recognize the parenting that Marcus experiences. It's possible that, if I had been childless, I would have been attracted to a different kind of story, but that's the only way that About a Boy is about Danny.
'A Minor Incident' a sweet, heartfelt, acoustic strummer with a wheezy Dylanesque harmonica solo, refers directly to a major incident in the book and the movie: Marcus comes home from a day out to discover his mother, Fiona, lying comatose on the sofa after an attempt to kill herself, her vomit on the floor beside her. The song is her suicide note to her son. I wrote one for her too, but it wasn't in the form of a song lyric, and Damon's words capture Fiona's dippy, depressive insouciance perfectly. But here's the thing: once I'd listened to 'A Minor Incident ' a couple of times, it started to make me think of Danny in ways that I hadn't done when I was writing the book. 'You always were the one to make us stand out in a crowd/Though every once in a while your head was in a cloud/There's nothing you could ever do to let me down,' sings Damon as Fiona, and the lines brought me up short. Autistic children are by nature the dreamiest of kids, and Danny's ways of making us stand out in the crowd can include attempts to steal strangers' crisps and get undressed on the top of a number 19 bus. But that peculiar negative in the last line
…How did Badly Drawn Boy know that it's the things that Danny will never do (talk, read, play football, all sorts of stuff) that make those who love him feel the most fiercely proud and protective of him? And, suddenly, five years on, I find a mournful undertow of identification in the lyric to the sing, because the money from the sale of the film rights has forced me to contemplate my own mortality; like Fiona, I'm thinking of a time when I won't be around for Danny- for different reasons, but the end result is the same.
So there we go. That's where the excitement lies: in the magic coincidences and transferences of creativity. I write a book that isn't about my kid, and then someone writes a beautiful song based on an episode in my book that turns out of mean something more personal to me than my book ever did. And I won't say that this sort of thing is worth more than all the Hollywood money in the world, because I'm a pragmatist, and that Hollywood money has given Danny a trust fund which will hopefully see him through those terrifying thirty or forty years. But it's worth an awful lot, something money can't buy, and it makes me want to keep writing and collaborating, in the hope that something I write will strike this kind of dazzling, serendipitous spark off someone again.