John Doran is currently touring his new book, Jolly Lad, around the UK with Norwegian post-noise-punk band Arabrot, Johnny Kowalski caught up with the writer at the East Side Projects in Birmingham to find out more.
“It’s not a ‘my drink and drugs hell’ kind of book. I took drugs all the time for a quarter of a century and despite having some catastrophically bad times on drugs, and despite the fact that they nearly killed me, and nearly drove me mad, I really loved taking drugs and it was something I was very comfortable with doing a lot of.”
Acclaimed music journalist (The Quietus, Vice, Metal Hammer) John Doran has written a book, Jolly Lad. It could very easily be the most interesting memoir released this year. However, trying to sum up the themes of the book is complicated.
“I hope that the book is individual, that it doesn’t really fit into one thing or another. It’s not really about music, but then it kind of is about music. It’s sort of about the recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse, but it’s not really about that. The book is actually about memory and how memory defines you, it’s also about being working class. It’s as much about my dad as it is about me, and it’s as much about me becoming a dad as it is about me recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.”
“What they [the prospective publishers] wanted was the ‘waking up outside with shit in your pants’ kind of stories. You know ‘I’ve ended up in an insane asylum, and I’ve lost my house, and I’ve murdered someone.’ There is some pretty grim and graphic stuff in there because you have to put all the other stuff into context, but it’s not a misery memoir”.
Though such diversity might make for an interesting read, it does not make a book easy to sell.
“I initially talked to two much bigger publishing houses about my book. Both of them said ‘we really like this, we want to work with you. When you rewrite it, our marketing department will know what to do with it, we could have a really big success on our hands.’ I didn’t want to, fifty per cent of which was me being obstreperous, and fifty per cent was like, I don’t have the time, I’m in my mid forties, I work two jobs, I’ve got a kid, I don’t make much money, I’m not some bourgeois person that can afford to take a load of time off work to rewrite a book just because some marketing department doesn’t know what to do with it.”
The writing of Jolly Lad is an intense story all of its own.
“I decided to come off antidepressants that I’d been on for over a decade as I was writing the book. Of course you can’t write a book when you’re coming off anti depressants because you end up with what feels like really bad brain zaps, you get really bad depression, you get short term memory loss, so the first draft of the book was appalling. I’d describe it as the Unabomber Manifesto on poppers. I also had a painkiller habit which my doctor made me quit at around the same time.”
“So you throw all these things into the mix and I had a proper nervous breakdown. My editor quit, she said that I should ‘give up all ideas of being a writer, the book’s awful, you’re obviously ill,’ and she’s been a friend of mine for twenty-five years. I really wanted to abandon the book, quit doing The Quietus and go and lick my wounds somewhere because I felt so low. I was talking to people about spending time in a psychiatric facility because of how poor my mental health had become.”
“Then a friend of mine died in that period which in the short term made me even worse, I became hysterical and couldn’t get anything done. I’m not usually a very emotional person but I was in tears all the time. However, my mate that had died was an extremely creative person, and he didn’t have the option to make art anymore. So I started to see the idea of abandoning all this stuff as obscene. It felt like I didn’t have an option, that I had to pull myself together and get on with it. Eventually, I was glad that I did that.”
Of course, the story doesn’t end there.
“The editing phase was remorseless, it was horrible. You’re forced to confront every point in your life where you’ve been lying to yourself. A lot of the stories started off as dead funny, but by the time I was editing the book, they weren’t funny at all. I used to think that it was dead funny that I got stabbed three times, but it’s not. I started to see things through the eyes of my girlfriend, who used to get really upset when I told that story as a joke.”
“My view on it was that if I told the story as a joke, I come out the winner. It isn’t like that at all, you have to see it for what it is, you’ve lived a life that’s lacking in a lot of respects and you’ve pissed a lot of your life away. Some shit things have happened to you and they probably wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t so fucking drunk for twenty-five years.”
Though flecked with distress and pain this story is not without its points of redemption.
“I’ve made some pretty bad mistakes in my life, but at times writing this book felt like the worst of them. I’m never going to write so intimately about myself ever again. It was ok at first when I was doing the columns for Vice but it turned into a proper fucking nightmare. In the long run though, it’s positive. There’s a lot of stuff out of me that’s in that book and it’s kind of like I don’t need to worry about it any more.”
During the interview John emphasised that he’s not some kind of William Burroughs or Hunter S Thompson literary drugs hero, but he’s an ordinary guy who “likes to watch Game Of Thrones and eat too much Turkish food.” This is undoubtedly true but it is his more unusual qualities that will stick with me most, including his passion and down to earth dedication to what he does.
“I really want to be like Jay Z and say ‘I’m a fucking brilliant writer,’ but I genuinely don’t think that. I have bipolar condition, some days I think I’m a brilliant writer, some days I think I’m the world’s worst writer. I think a lot of writers are like that. The only way I can cope with it is if I don’t think about my writing and just do it and let other people worry about it. Other people say it’s funny, other people said it helped them stop drinking, other people say it helped them stop taking drugs – that’s up to other people, those other people might be idiots!”
Jolly Lad is available here – http://strangeattractor.co.uk/shoppe/jolly-lad/