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New book: what it is, why, etc


A while back, you might remember me using this now ill-tended blog to talk about my new novel HOTEL ALPHA and its companion volume, an electronic collection of 100 short stories. The book itself is about a London hotel and the way the internet changes the lives of two people who lives there. The 100 stories serve as a sort of alternative version, taking up the little stories there’d be no space for in the main novel, giving a new life to some of its minor characters, clearing up the odd mystery from the book but mostly spinning a web of new tales spanning the twenty or so years of HOTEL ALPHA’s action. Remember me going on about that? It was here:

As I may have remarked at the time, there are two main reasons for this (maybe too) ambitious project. First, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the ‘encyclopaedic novel’ – a book which tries to encompass as much as life as possible, acknowledges the chaotic and unmanageable nature of human experience, and refuses to be bound by the traditional strictures of the novel form. But as you will know if you’ve made your way through a novel in this genre, they are as massive and frightening and often as much a pain in the arse as one would expect a book about ‘all life’ to be. By offering a vast range of extra material which the reader can either take or leave (and, because of the electronic format, consume in any order, dip in and out of, etc), I’m hoping HOTEL ALPHA will be a new spin on the ‘encyclopaedic’ idea: a novel that can be as big or as small as you want it to be.

And secondly – since the book itself is about the re-shaping of our universe by the coming of computers, it made sense to write it (and let people read it) in a way which mimicked that process. The internet has shown the complexity of what used to seem linear and simple stories: look at the way that newspaper articles now attract 1,000 counterclaims and approvals and amendments within minutes of going online – some of them from experts, some from nutjobs who think Romanians are in their garden waiting to steal food from their children, but all given roughly the same level of space. The internet, and computers in general, have also taken a lot of human interactions out of the physical sphere and into the virtual. For example, you used to buy a book in a bookshop, using cash. Now often you buy it on a computer, using a series of numbers on a plastic card which doesn’t correspond to actual money in any way you can accurately describe, and the ‘book’ that arrives is often not even a physical object either, and you put it on your ‘desktop’ which, again, isn’t really etc. etc. In the age of computers we are more empowered than ever to shape the world, but we’re less connected than ever to a lot of its physical realities. Interesting. Hopefully. Interesting to me, anyway.

So that’s why I decided to write a book in a format that’s not really been explored much before – to encompass the fact that storytelling is a different game now from the one it used to be. It’s not just that people consume books in new ways (on Kindles, iPads, probably on their fingernails by now for all I know), it’s that we understand stories in slightly different ways (as multi-faceted rather than linear). And a hotel is the perfect setting: it has its loosely connected cells of action, all influencing each other but often in mysterious ways, just like the internet does. Also, I’ve stayed in more hotels than most people alive and I’m slightly obsessed with them.

The trouble with all this, obviously, is that it takes ages to write a complicated novel and then a hundred stories. This might indeed be another reason why it’s not happened much before. But now, now things are finally starting to take shape. The main HOTEL ALPHA will come out in the last week of July. The ‘shadow-version’ made up of short stories will be released around the same time, but some of the stories will sneak out beforehand, and on this page you’ll be able to hear how that’s happening. Actually, even later this week I should have more news on how this is all going to work, practically.

Also: FUN EVENTS. Who here doesn’t enjoy an event? Over the months to come, I plan to do quite a number of readings of (some of) the 100 stories, allowing audiences to get involved and pick topics and plot a la ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. There’ll be at least one of these in London around the time of the release (and probably with some monstrously overwrought structure or timeframe), and one in Edinburgh in August, and some at literary festivals. Keep an eye out for news.

The first one, though, is this very week. But in Germany, so you won’t be there. Specifically, at lit.Koln, which is a great festival in Cologne whose patrons seem not to mind (a) listening to stuff in English and (b) humouring my less-than-fluent stabs at German. To celebrate the fact that HOTEL ALPHA is definitely happening and its release is within sight, I am going to be reading all of the stories that exist so far (about 80) in a twelve-hour-long spectacular that will also include audience participation, a bit of comedy, and a considerable effort of stamina and goodwill by all concerned. But in Germany.

If you follow this blog or my life, you’ll be aware that events of this duration are nothing new – in fact twelve hours only really counts as a half-marathon in comedic terms. But it’s the first time I’ve tried a purely literary event over this sort of duration. The Germans are big book-consumers and enthusiastic goers-to-experimental-arty-things, so I am hopeful it will be quite enjoyable. But in any case it’s another step in my general aim of uniting literary shindigs with the sense of chaos I aim for in my stand-up shows. I’ll learn lessons and refine material and unleash a devastating series of book-themed happenings over the rest of 2014 and beyond. Be warned.

As I say: more on everything to do with HOTEL ALPHA will follow in a fairly regular stream from now on.

And if you’ve been ploughing through this thinking ‘yes, yes, but you’re a comedian. When the hell are you going to do some comedy?’, it will relieve you to hear that I’ve got a brand new show for Edinburgh which will tour all over the country from October. Some of the shows are already, quietly, on sale. Others are to come. They’ll announce all the dates in one neat pile in the next few weeks, I think. Don’t panic, comedy-but-not-really-book-fans!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have about twenty stories to write by Friday. Any ideas?

The next book

You may imagine sometimes that this blog is dead, but it never quite goes away. Today it awakens once more from sleep to tell you a little bit about the new novel which I’ve been working on compulsively for – pretty much – the past year.

The novel is called Hotel Alpha and it takes place over thirty years in a five-star hotel in Central London. The hotel is run by a charismatic, slightly Gatsby or Willy Wonka-like man called Howard York, and his wife. The book is jointly narrated by their adopted son, and by their concierge who has been there since day one. The son is blind, the concierge – because of his devotion to the job – is all-seeing. But both of them must confront some awkward facts about the man who’s their hero and the place they call home. That’s right! It’s one of these books where NOT EVERYTHING IS AS IT SEEMS and someone has a SECRET FROM THE PAST. I experimented with writing books where everything is as it seems and all characters are perfectly transparent, but they lacked a certain narrative tension.

The action takes place largely in the nineties and the decade just gone which some people, but not me, called the ‘noughties’. The novel is heavily concerned with the coming of computers and the internet, and the way that revolution quietly transformed our understanding of the universe and the way we interact with it, and with each other. It is also about a man who builds a fabulous life story for himself and has to try and bend reality to keep the story going. Like The Great Gatsby, one of my (and everybody’s) fictional yardsticks. The publishers and I are hoping for people to say ‘it’s like the Great Gatsby with computers’, so if you could start tweeting stuff like that, that would be brilliant. Failing that, we will just keep saying it ourselves.

And – here’s the twist – this is quite a fun twist – the novel comes with 100 extra stories which will be online, and which readers will be able to access once they’ve read the main thing. These stories, taking place around the hotel, will be a sort of ‘alternative version’ of the tale, focusing on little moments from the novel, following minor characters who we only saw very briefly, tying up loose ends, jumping off to unexpected digressions which there wasn’t space for. A little bit like a massive-scale version of my earlier book ‘Eleven’, if you read that. The reader will be able to navigate between the 100 stories in any order; there’ll be clickable links and everything will connect to something else. The idea is that the online version of the book will be to the printed version what the internet is to a newspaper: the same base material, but (almost) infinite where the original is constrained. Or, to put it more briefly, it’ll be like Choose Your Own Adventure for adults.

This way of presenting a story (from 100 angles, all different from the first version you heard) will mirror some of the book’s questions about how we gather information and how we understand ourselves/the world, since we live in a time where virtually unlimited versions of ‘the truth’ all co-exist and are equally accessible and often equally vocal. But also, it should be fun. Quite a few books have had extra ‘online content’, but not too many to date have really exploited the medium of the internet to create a piece of work that’s vastly bigger and broader than a novel can be on its own. That’s the aim.

Over the coming months on this blog, I’ll occasionally announce ways you can sneakily read some of the stories before the whole thing appears – which is not for ages, by the way. Hotel Alpha won’t actually come out till next July/August. When it does, though, it will be marked by a couple of launch events which are fairly elaborate even by my calamitously ambitious standards. For details of those, and more ‘leaks’ about the book itself, stay tuned. And by ‘stay tuned’ I mean don’t do anything, just wait for me to tweet every couple of months or so.

The most curious among you (who also live in appropriate parts of the country) can find me at various literary events over October, which are below. I’ll be talking partly about ‘The Knot’, partly about writing in general, but will probably throw in some bits and pieces about this project.

I’m – I wouldn’t say optimistic, but I think this is going to be quite interesting. I suppose for me, that is optimistic.

The dates:

October 11 CHELTENHAM LIT FEST (with Danny Wallace)

Literary performances you will enjoy

Oh hello.

I mentioned that I’d be doing some book-based events which were slightly ramshackle in structure, and ‘mashed up’ (as young people say) readings, stand-up, question-answering, and other as-yet-unplanned elements of literary entertainment. The overall effect being a show beyond the dreams of even the friskiest bookworm.

So, now the first few of these ‘bookomedy’ outings have been confirmed. The dates are below. The only complication is, a couple of them will have proper moderators or MCs, and so will more or less resemble the traditional book event after all. These have been denoted with a *. Even in those cases, I’ll try to ensure there is a refreshing strand of mayhem. At the others – hold onto your literary hats!

Here they are. I haven’t provided much in the way of venue information. I’ve just named the cities. That’s because I have a lot of faith in people’s googling.


October 6 WARWICK

You should feel absolutely free to come to any of these events. I would be very pleased if you did.



It doesn’t happen often these days, but this is a blog.

(I’d remind you that the original intention was a ten-year-blog, though – nothing more than that – so as I’ve said before, there’s plenty of room for substantial lulls in the frequency without actually betraying the original gameplan. In fact I could take another two years off and there’d still be every chance of doing it justice, eventually.

As I’ve also said before, though, the main thing preventing me from keeping the blog up like a hobby, as I used to, is the competition from more interesting projects. I’m popping up now to mention a couple of them quickly.

This year – surprisingly even to myself – I am not doing an Edinburgh show (other than an event at the Book Festival, which is on August 16) and not touring in the autumn, and so I’m not currently running the treadmill of ‘Edinburgh previews’ which most comics are slogging along right now. Instead, I’m focusing on the next novel, which is coming along nicely, and another book beyond that, and various other writing projects which I think you will like when you find out about them. But I am continuing to do the odd ‘work-in-progress’ where I perform 45 or 60 minutes of rambling, unfocused comedy. ‘Work in progress’ where it’s not entirely clear what the eventual ‘work’ is meant to be. If you’re new to this blog you may feel I’m not selling myself very well, but most readers will be aware that by my standards, this is actually hard sell. And more to the point, if you didn’t like rambling, unfocused comedy, why would you be listening to me in the first place?

So – the previews for an as-yet non-existent show, these breeding grounds for new material of wildly varying quality, will be on these dates and at these places:

July 1 (this Monday), Monday Club (which is on a boat, the Tattershall Castle)
August 5, Phoenix Festival (google this; they’ve just put tickets on sale)
September 12, Invisible Dot, Kings Cross (you might have been here before, if you like rambling comedy, which etc etc)

There could be more added at short notice, but that’s something to be going on with, isn’t it?

Also. Instead of a proper tour, I plan to do a kind of experimental show in a very few selected literary venues this autumn. It’ll be a little bit like my normal book events – in other words, readings from my novels which I continually interrupt to chat about other stuff; Q and, as they say, As; miscellaneous talk… but interspersed with a bit of Actual Comedy and some surprises. It’ll be about three parts book-fun to one part standard-fun. I have about four venues lined up for this – most of them, this time, not in London, but at literary festivals where people might tolerate this kind of business. As soon as they are confirmed, I’ll be here again telling you about it.

Lest I seem too low-key even by the standards I normally keep, I will just make absolutely clear: I’m not just banging on about these shows to pass the time. I’d really like you to come. And given that ‘you’, by reading this blog, have proved yourself to be (probably) the sort of person who enjoys me and my various efforts and entertainment, that is not even an end-of-blog platitude. It’s a fact. I want you to come to these things, please.

Thank you. See you (here at least) soon.

Please pay me to do something difficult and uncomfortable and I will pass this money directly on to the needy

Two weeks from now I will be around 17 hours into my stand-up show for Comic Relief; maybe 19, or 22, depending on when you read this – but in any case an awfully long time, I think we can agree. Much longer than you’d ever want to do comedy for, or probably even WATCH comedy for. But that’s exactly what is going to happen.

I will probably have had the same clothes on throughout. I will have had minimal access to my family, to fresh air and toilet facilities, to the outside world in general. My voice will be all buggered. I’ll be like the idiot you get at a party who rants on and on while everyone else crashes out on sofas. I will have lost, as they say, my marbles.

I’ve put various pleas for help up here, and help has indeed been forthcoming. We have people doing a dazzling range of sponsored challenges and it is shaping up to be a fairly spectacular, messy, great/awful event. But I now need to ask for one more chunk of help, the most basic form of all. That’s right: money.

Ooh, it’s a filthy subject isn’t it. It’s not mentioned between gentlemen. Never a borrower or a lender be. Or maybe it’s ‘neither’.
Anyway, to hell with all that. This is Comic Relief. They support desperately poor families across the UK and in some of the world’s most impoverished spots. They provide food and water and medicine and shelter for people with unimaginably hard lives. Oh, you know all this. It’s Comic bloody Relief. Right?

So here’s the link. Anything you can give me will be enormously gratefully received. I’m going to start with a modest target and work up, hopefully. To put it in context, someone already has £400 to get hit in the face with a custard pie every hour while learning to play piano. Am I going to be outdone by a goon like that?

Please sponsor me. I know I’ve occasionally troubled you like this before, when I ran the half-marathon for my sisters’ charity, and so on. Or when I went to Senegal for Action Aid. But rest assured, after this I will shut up. Sponsor me now and I promise not to do anything public-spirited or in any way kind for the foreseeable future.


You can help by going to this address (it also takes you to a place where you can set up your own challenge, if you’re still keen on doing that). I will see all donations so I can honestly claim I’ll love each and every person who chips in. Unless I have a pre-existing grudge against them. But even then, I’ll put it aside.

This is going to be quite difficult. Your support will help enormously. And more to the point, help people you don’t even know. Thanks.