Meet Will Kelly. English teacher. Film fan. King of sandwich construction. Still in love with The One, desperately searching for An-Other One. In his decrepit flat, Will's lifeline is the telephone. There's Alice (who remembers his birthday), Simon (who doesn't), Martina (the one-night stand), Kate (the previous tenant of his rented Archway fleapit) and of course Aggi - the inimitable Aggi. His Legendary Girlfriend. Or is she? Two men, three women and a donkey called Sandy... basically it's your classic love hexagon.
I'd loved writing for a long time and the thought of writing a novel had crossed my mind hundreds of times. I always knew that the kind of novel I would write would be about ordinary people doing ordinary things and would have a confessional nature to it. Obviously Catcher In The Rye was a big inspiration as I suspect it is to nearly everyone who reads it as a teenager and also the Adrian Mole diaries too. Douglas Coupland's Generation X was also a big influence. I loved the fact that he was writing about real people, that nothing much happened in his books and that he was part of that whole early nineties post grunge introspective slacker scene epitomised by films like Richard Linklater's Slacker, Kevin Smith's Clerks and bands like Pavement and Sebadoh. The British band The Wedding Present were also a massive inspiration to me. They wrote songs that perfectly captured how real people feel about love and jealousy and heartbreak and betrayal.
The whole "Male Bridget Jones" thing came from a headline in The Express when My Legendary Girlfriend first came out. It was a great piece of publicity and helped bring a lot of readers to my books. But like most comparisons it was a bit short-sighted. An older, bleaker version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole might have been more accurate (but less snappy). Or even Catcher In The Rye set in Nottingham and Archway. Or even Generation X through the eyes of a twentysomething Brummie who likes indie music. Sometimes I just wish that if people are going to make comparisons that they would at least think beyond something that has happened in the last five minutes because it's just lazy. One final thing [although I'm pretty sure that this makes me sound like I "doth protest too much"] but surely if I was going to do a knock off Bridget Jones in order to make a stack of cash would a book about a weekend in the life of a borderline depressive from Nottingham who can't get over his girlfriend THREE years after she dumped him be the way to do it? Come on, give me some credit.
A lot of people assumed that I used to be an English teacher. A lot of people also assumed that I was a smoker too. I suppose it's quite flattering that people think Will is so real that I just transcribed my life onto paper but that wasn't the case at all. Will is an English teacher simply because a lot of my friends went into teaching after university and a lot of them hated it and left after a few years. It seemed like exactly the right profession for someone like Will.
Have I dumped, been dumped or lived in a dump? Yes, yes, and yes. But I think I should make the point that Will isn't me. He's like an extreme version of the kind of people who take being dumped really badly. That said the bedsit Will lived in was very much like one I lived in for a while only it wasn't in Archway. I made Nottingham Will's home town because I had a few mates who had gone to uni there so I knew it quite well. I do like some of the things Will likes (the film Drunken Master II, Gregory's Girl and Hula Hoops) but I draw the line at melted ice cream and cereal. And finally...no, I have never fallen in love over the telephone.
Will is mean to Martina for so many different reasons it's ridiculous. It's down to self-loathing, pity, reverse psychology, an attempt to put her off, fear, love, ignorance—you name it it's probably in there. I actually like Martina. She's like the female version of Will. And I suppose if you're Will the last thing you want is to be in a relationship with the female version of yourself.
A blogger I came across via Google described the difference between My Legendary Girlfriend and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity like this: "When you get dumped you want to take it like Rob in High Fidelity but the truth is you're probably more like Will in My Legendary Girlfriend." I think that pretty much sums it up. Some people are stoical about the end of a relationship and others go off the deep end. If you've never been off (or even near) the deep end you won't get it. And I like the fact that some people don't get it. The majority of people wouldn't understand some of my favourite things in the world I know and I wouldn't want it any other way. Because that make them special to me.
Lots of people like Will Kelly exist. Sometimes they're male and sometimes they're female, sometimes they're young and sometimes they're old. The Will Kellys of this world are just a bit more sensitive than most people I suppose. They know they should move on but they just can't seem to do it. Obviously Will's an extreme but that's why I think My Legendary Girlfriend works so well. He knows he's whining. He knows he's pathetic. And yet he still carries on. I don't think I've ever rooted so much for one person to get their happy ending in my life and so when he gets it part of me feels like I get it too.
Part of the reason comes down to the fact that I rewrote My Legendary Girlfriend so many times. And part of it is down to the demands of Will's character, which I'll concede can be a bit extreme at times. Some of it comes down to the fact that as a novice writer I was so desperate to keep the attention of the reader and therefore packed it full of jokes. And whatever difference is left is probably down to the fact that the book I wanted My Legendary Girlfriend to be was initially very different to the way it ended up.
The original title of My Legendary Girlfriend was Nothing. It was going to be this very bleak sort of existential novel about a guy who was depressed about being dumped by his girlfriend [I was I hasten to add in what I've labelled the "angry young man" phase of my early twenties]. The idea was that the reader would get a snapshot of the excruciating minutiae of his life and literally nothing would happen in it. That was near enough (give or take a few weird dream sequences) where the first draft ended up. It was all very bleak and serious. Once I read through it all however I realised that it wouldn't work. It was just too...dark and more than a little bit pompous but in reading it I saw with a bit of tweaking it could be a fun book. So I kept the intensity, added hundreds of jokes, upped the drama until it was just outside melodrama, and lightened Will's character so that even though he was depressed he could see the funny side of being depressed. One of my favourite parts of My Legendary Girlfriend is when Will realises that he's wasted 11.5 per cent of his life wishing his ex-girlfriend would come back to him and compares his life to a can of Coke. "It took a while but I calculated that 11.5 per cent of a 330ml can of Coke was — roughly speaking — three mouthfuls! Sodding sod! I've wasted three mouthfuls of the only can of Coke I'm ever going to get!" That paragraph pretty much sums up the mindset of Will Kelly.
The drafts in question were one's where Kate's character had come to the fore and Will falls in love with her on the phone. He makes the arrangement to go and see Kate in Brighton as in the published version but in the last scene you realise that he has chickened out and gone to work as normal. I liked it because I thought it was realistic but then I realised that a depressing ending isn't actually any more "real" than a happy ending. This is actually just a myth propagated by people who want to be considered serious by critics. They say Happy=commercial and sad=literary which is obviously ridiculous. I'm now personally of the opinion that the best ending for any book is the one that's most fitting for the characters. That is all. And given that I'd made Will spend three hundred odd pages being miserable I reasoned that he sort of deserved a happy ending.