Tell us a little about your experience following the publication of STUART
in the UK. What surprised you? Was the experience rewarding?
What surprised me was how much hard work it is! I'd though I would now be off
on a Greek island, whooping it up, but there are forever new things to do. Before
Stuart came out, I was always bumping from one job to another, trying in my
spare time to get newspaper editors to answer my begging letters and calls.
One spent so long ignoring me that I ended up sending him an email asking if
he was alive or dead. After that, with that paper, I was dead. I couldn't afford
to eat anything but rice and ketchup for weeks. Now, editors ring me. Do this,
do that. It is the most peculiar feeling. I pick up the phone ready to bumble
and gush and plead, and they're asking me a favour. I've just been invited to
a Vogue skating party! I only wish Stuart was still around. It would have been
extraordinary to go together.
The best thing about all the attention this book has got, is the confidence
it gives. I thoroughly recommend it.
Because this is "A Life Backwards" let's look back: Can you pinpoint
the moment when you realized that Stuart would become the center of a book-length
When we were sleeping on the pavement outside a London office block. This was
during a protest against the imprisonment of two homelessness charity workers
who had been given sentences of five years and four years because some of the
people they were looking after were secretly trading drugs on their charity
premises. Stuart and I were furious at these convictions. It was while we fumed
and shouted and handed out leaflets to the startled pedestrians that we became
friends and I realised he had an extraordinary story to tell.
Why Stuart? Why not another person you encountered, or even why not tell
your own tale?
The second part of that is easy: Stuart has had a more unusual life than I
have. But Stuart was unusual among any people, not only among the homeless:
eloquent, thoughtful (much too thoughtful for his own good), frank, troubled
and filled to the brim with extraordinary anecdotes and clever, albeit often
Are you continuing to work with the homeless? What are you doing now?
A couple of years ago I founded a street magazine in Cambridge called Willow
Walker, which you can view on www.willowwalker.org. It's a small thing that
began as a single sheet hostel newsletter, until I discovered a simple way to
get in huge numbers of contributions. Instead of asking people on the streets
to write articles for me, I interview them. Then I type up and edit the result.
(Before putting the article into the magazine, the person checks it. Only when
the interviewee likes the piece does it get published.) This way, there is no
end to the amazing stories you can get. Three of the best have recently been
re-published in a national newspaper, The Guardian. I've got three more
waiting to send to the editor there. The money from these sales is split between
the magazine running costs and the contributor.
Apart from that, I'm working on the film script of Stuart (see next
question), writing up the proposal for my next book and, of course, it being
now 1am, drinking gin and tonics while I try to think of good answers your questions.
We understand that the book has been optioned for a film--very exciting.
Are you involved?
You bet! It is with Sam Mendes's company, and I made it a condition of the sale
that I get a shot at writing the script. I'm not going to throw up a chance
Readers must want to discuss the book with you. Has anything about the
reaction surprised you? Has a comment from someone surprised you or made you
look at the book, or the event of the publication, in a new way?
The intensity of the reaction has been a surprise. It's hard for me to believe
that a little over a year ago I was living on nothing a week, with my fantasy
being that I might, if the book ever came out, get a review in the local paper,
The Cambridge Evening News.
Two recent reactions stand out for me, at the moment I'm writing this. The first,
a glorious letter I got from Spain. A woman living there read a review of Stuart
and rushed to write to me. She had been Stuart's teacher, in England, twenty
years ago. She had pictures of him from then. Her letter was filled with excitement,
happiness, buoyancy, but also with regret and pain, and a dragging sadness that
had kept with her all these years about the little boy she had known and realised
was something special. An unforgettable letter. It is coming out as an appendix
to the paperback edition in England.
The second reaction is different: a man I met at a book event recently wanted
to know if Stuart was a voyeur's book, and I didn't know to answer him. So I
went home and beat my forehead about it. Yes, it is, in a way. Clearly, a large
part of my initial interest in Stuart was because his life intrigued me; I wanted
to gawp at it. But as I got to know him and admire him, I wanted more than simply
to stare. It sounds corny to say I wanted to understand him. Put it this way:
I wanted to get enough information so that I could think about his life myself
- it was a very important life. He had been to emotional reaches that I had
never got near to approaching, and he'd had brought back information about what
it was like out there. Being with Stuart was like watching a horror movie and
a travel movie and a thriller and a drama and a comedy and Lord knows what else:
you found yourself endlessly fascinated and tumbled about by what he had done,
was thinking, was about to do; but because what he was telling you exposed how
humans react in such extreme situations, he was telling you about yourself as
How would Stuart himself react to the book's success?
I wonder about this a lot, and never come up with a good answer. It wouldn't
have been a simple reaction, that's for certain. Part of him would have been
delighted. He wanted this book to be published as much as I did. But how would
he have coped with the attention and money? He might have spent it all on heroin
and alcohol. Or he might have bought the house in Swansea, Wales, that he always
said he wanted. He longed for that house; but he frequently longed for that
overdose as well. While he was still alive, I imagined various plans to protect
him from being overwhelmed by the money should the book ever be published, which
mostly seemed to involve giving it to someone else and making him beg for what
was rightfully his. He would have loved the attention, and he would have handled
it superbly - charming, outrageous, thoughtful, quick witted, excited, a dream
interviewee. But he might have been hoping that the book would solve problems
and cleanse parts of him; and perhaps, after all, it would not have done. He
would have found himself and his troubles as unsolved and as dirty as ever.
What then? The fact is, I don't know how he would have behaved. He was never
expected. He always wrong-footed me.
Interestingly, Stuart's mother recently went to see a medium, who reported that
Stuart liked the middle and the end of the book. That's as much as I know. He
refused to comment about the beginning.