My First Time with...Dan Dalton
Dan Dalton is a writer and journalist based in North London. He is a former staff writer at BuzzFeed, where he covered books and pop culture. Johnny Ruin is his debut novel, and he'll be joining us at The Riff Raff on April 12th to tell us all about it. Snap up your tickets here >>>
Here's the blurb for Johnny Ruin...
If a tree falls in a forest and Jon Bon Jovi is with you when it happens, is it still a figment of your imagination? Haunted by the idea that he is somehow broken, the narrator – a depressed, heartbroken, thirty-something writer – embarks on a journey through his own mind with his spirit guide, Jon Bon Jovi, for company. From the redwoods of California to a crumbling New York City, they travel the highways of our narrator’s memory, an imagined America, where his thoughts are tangled with fragments from the songs and movies that shaped him, and where he can’t help but replay scenes from his doomed relationship. When his ex-girlfriend turns up demanding that he forget her, he must decide whether he’s ready to let go…
Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book?
I first had the idea in 2005. I was 22, visiting Los Angeles after graduating from my Creative Writing degree at Leeds University. I was staying in a hostel on Venice Beach, spending my days wandering the boardwalk, visiting the cafes and bars, working on rewrites of a different novel. LA is a strange place; bright and colourful, but at times empty and vapid. Everyone is looking for something; fame, fortune, a few bucks. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but what I found was an idea. It started simple, about a man on a road trip back home to East Coast. He didn’t much like the person he’d become, but the closer he got to New York, to home, the more he returned to himself. I wrote a brief paragraph of outline and a draft of the opening scene, but quickly realised I didn’t have the story yet, or the experience to write it. It would be ten years before I felt able to sit down and write the novel.
Over the years I kept developing the story. At some stage it became a road trip through the narrator’s mind, but with the same core goal, to return to himself. Every few years I’d sit down again and try to write it, always stumbling after the first chapter. During this time I decided to have the narrator joined on his journey by a spirit guide. Much like Dante has Virgil guide him through hell, I realised my narrator needed a companion on his voyage. I chose my childhood hero – my Virgil, if you will – a certain Mr. Jon Bon Jovi. When I finally sat down to write the novel that would become Johnny Ruin, in August 2015, I had ten years of notes, ideas, false starts, chapter outlines, dialogue, and, importantly, life experience to draw from. Before I could start to write the book, I had to become the person who was able to write it.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write your first book?
I wrote my first novel at 21. If I knew what I know now I might not have sat down to write it, so I wouldn’t burden myself with advice. Ignorance is really helpful.
What’s your go-to procrastination method?
Netflix. Or naps.
What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing it?
Writing it was a bit like a six-month tantrum. An exercise in anger, frustration, and constant failure. I slept well afterwards.
Best thing about writing your book?
“I have to go home and write” is a great excuse to avoid socialising.
And the worst?
Sitting down and writing. I enjoy editing, but I don’t enjoy writing most of the time. It’s painful and laborious and I can’t recommend it. I do it because I have to.
Go-to writing snacks?
While I was writing this I lived on hummus, cheese and tomato flatbreads and coffee.
Who or what inspires you to write?
Films, probably, more so than people or books. Film was my first love. As a kid I didn’t often have the patience or stillness to sit and read, but I could always watch a film. Reading Johnny Ruin you can see how informed it is by film. We all think cinematically to an extent, but there’s something about the sensory quality of film that I want to recreate in prose. The sights and sounds. The music. The silence. The framing of shots. The emotional resonance. How you can say more in a look than a line of dialogue. Books taught me about language. The shape of it, the textures, the aesthetics. But I learned everything I know about story from watching films.
The book that changed you?
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill. It’s so sad and funny and heartbreaking, and I felt like it gave me permission to do write the way I wanted to write. I was lucky enough to get a blurb from Jenny for the cover of Johnny Ruin, and it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, probably more exciting than publishing the thing.
Your pump up song?
Bon Jovi, obviously. It changes, but probably “Blood on Blood” right now. It’s a banger.
If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?
I’ve met Jenny Offill, so I’ll say Maggie Nelson. She’s a genius.
One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?
Don’t write to be published. Write for yourself. If you get published, great, but that’s a result, an outcome, not a reason to write. It can take years without guarantees or money, and the only way to keep going is to believe in what you’re doing. The best way to make sure you’re doing that is to write for yourself.