Interview: Darrel Bristow-Bovey – Reveal And Retreat, Or Crises Are A Funny Business

December 11, 2014



Part of the appeal of popular columnists is that they only offer snapshots of their apparently endlessly fascinating selves and their psyches once every week or month. So writing a memoir-ish book-length work – as Darrel Bristow-Bovey has with One Midlife Crisis And A Speedo – rather wrecks the mystery, doesn’t it? The necessary disconnect may be harder to regain after this.

“I was thinking about that when I was writing the book,” says Bristow-Bovey.

“By the way, ‘memoir’ is too strong a term. I don’t think you write a memoir unless you’re a president or have brought down a government. This book is by no means a comprehensive survey of my life. There’s only so much material a man can accumulate and it often occurs to me that I should be saving it for a better use than a short article somewhere – for something like a book.”

He pauses.

“It’s sad to think that the more you reveal, the less interesting you are. I suspect it’s true, though. And I am excited whenever something happens to me, as it gives me new ideas. And some things only make sense to me when I think about writing about them.”

Another important aspect of the columnist’s craft is their ability to lay themselves on the line; to be honest, and sometimes brutally so. Is that more of a challenge over a sustained period when writing a book?

“In 800 words, it’s easy to give the illusion of intimacy,” muses Bristow-Bovey.

“What you don’t say speaks loudly. It’s about smoke and mirrors in columns; about creating spaces for readers to fill in. The same principles apply to writing a book, unless you’ve set out to write something like Mein Kampf, in which case you don’t hold back. It’s kind of boring. But putting down everything, without artifice, makes you one of those mad people who wander the streets.”

Midlife crises are more often than not, the punchlines to jokes almost guarantee to be short on sophistication. Was Bristow-Bovey’s therefore more difficult to face when it became a reality?

“I think so,” he nods.

“I hadn’t realised that there was this mockery aspect to it. That was weird to me. I think guys buying sports cars and so on to deal with it cheapen the thing. A mid-life crisis is not a psychological or medical condition: it’s when your perception of time crashes into reality and you’re not where you thought you would be. It’s an analysis of your own misuse of time.

“And for me, those guys who don’t have sufficient inner life to wrestle with it – the sorts who buy Porches or sleep with young women – are going to have it play out a different way.”

What adds greater pressure to the situation: Bristow-Bovey’s own expectations or the expectations or example of others?

“My own have been more problematic,” the author admits.

“That said, though, you run into resistance from those around you. They say: ‘Look how much you’ve achieved’ and ‘What are you complaining about?’.

“A midlife crisis is difficult to talk to others about. Them listing things that you should be proud of is unhelpful. It’s in your head. It’s a solipsistic thing, but that shouldn’t diminish it. It’s different for women somehow, and I’m not sure how – maybe they wrestle with it in their own way with childbearing and so on. But most men never engage with what’s behind it, so they’re caught unaware and without resources when it happens.”

All of which is terribly serious – a potential problem when you’re known for being funny and are under pressure from the bulk of your readers to remain so. Is that pressure an issue?

“It was in this book,” concedes Bristow-Bovey.

“I thought: ‘Why would anyone want to read my personal whining unless I’m entertaining them?’. My previous books were humour books, but I don’t want to write that way anymore. Much of that was relentless show-offyness, squeezing as many laughs as possible into a space; playing ‘Seize The Punchline’. I try, these days, to make honesty the first priority.

“The second half of this book matters more to me. I struggled with the first half, which is funnier, because there was more of a pull towards the old style, which dictates what comes next. When I was done with that I stopped; I didn’t think I could finish.”

Is there a temptation to instead write something more conventionally literary – to show off what level of craft he is capable of?

Bristow-Bovey leans back in his chair.

“When you have ten years off from writing prose professionally, you have lots of time to write a novel,” he offers.

“I started so many times, and it all fell to ashes within a couple of months, even with people encouraging me to keep at it. I think my instincts were right, though. I wasn’t ready yet. I’m hoping I’m a late bloomer. I did have some success as a writer early on, but I feel that might have been something else.

“I’m certainly a late bloomer as a human being. I now feel I can mix with other adults on an equal basis, and I hope that will be the case with fiction writing as well.”

Like so many funny writers, Bristow-Bovey has a knack for memorable metaphors and similes. Is that likely to serve him as well outside of the sort of writing he currently does?

He grimaces.

“That’s the show-off part, and it does come easily. But often, as a reader, I suspect those tricks are hiding something – it can happen when you’re straining for humour.”

Is Bristow-Bovey’s midlife crisis a thing of the past now? “Mid-life” is a fairly vague designation…

“Apparently, it goes in cycles,” he says.

“I suspect that’s true when people don’t engage with what they’re feeling. I’m not sure there’s a definitive way to deal with it, though. You can think something, but until you put that into language, it’s not real. I hope that doing so, as I have in the book, means it doesn’t come back.”

If that doesn’t work, what’s the next big hurdle likely to be?

“Well, as a result of the crisis, I resigned from some pretty high-paying work, so the next challenge may be money, which isn’t very glamorous,” Bristow-Bovey smiles.

And if he finds himself unable to write as a means of processing what he’s going through? Then what?

“It may not be a huge change for the worse, sadly,” shrugs Bristow-Bovey.

“I didn’t process anything that way for a decade and I became, I think, a better person during that time. Writing often gives the illusion of sorting something out.

“Writing happens to be what I can do. Being able to love or to be a decent person is completely unrelated to artistic expression. Some people have a more innate gift for kindness, but I have to work quite hard at it, which actually strengthens the writing.”


Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s new book, One Midlife Crisis And A Speedo, is available now.