If you were out drinking with your mates at any time in the 90s, Karl Coppack’s And What Do You Do? is the book for you. If you ever wondered through a fuzz of JD and cokes if your random collection of drinking pals would stick together for any length of time, this book is for you. And if you’ve ever banged your head against the wall of male-female friendships and the subtexts that complicate them, as so memorably voiced by Harry in Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally, this book is for you.
Told from the perspectives of four friends who meet in South-East London as young ‘uns and how they navigate life, loves, careers, arguments, taking on the good times and bad together, And What Do You Do? will remind you of lots of things from your younger days you thought you had forgotten. If you met the four of them in a bar, you’d be overawed a bit by Mike and Kate but then you’d realise over time that Chad is one of those pure souls that no group can function without and quiet Jim has loads to say of interest once you get past the outer layers of spikiness. The story will make you laugh before, ultimately, not so much breaking your heart as setting it on a roller-coaster and then putting it through a wringer.
When I first encountered Kate, the lone girl among the four, I thought she was going to be too good to be true – a trying-too-hard Cool Girl like the one in Gone Girl – but then she got drunk and puked on her own shoes in a cab and I thought, ‘Great, we’re going to get on!’ It is brilliant writing, as the four distinct voices of the friends emerge and develop throughout the tale. These different perspectives allow us to see that while Chad thinks the rest of them see him as a loser for settling down young, really they all know he’s got it made, but there are consequences for Jim as his self-image is tragically at odds with the love the others feel for him.
And What Do You Do? perfectly captures how for my generation, friendships can be like marriages: Kate calling her flatmate Mike to demand he bring home a takeaway and he remembers all the times he’s held her hair back as she throws up. They display real love and depth of feeling for each other but, being British, it all has to be hidden under many layers of piss-taking and only expressed when drunk, if at all.
She ends the call, but I sit with the phone next to my ear anyway… What I feel for Kate is nothing but joy. It’s reassuring that she’ll be my friend for the rest of my life and, if such a thing exists, the next one too.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was how the author resists any temptation to have them be ‘going places’ and achieving success in spite of themselves, as with This Life +10 or similar stories. Jobs are dull, careers are haphazard, reorganisations and redundancies constantly loom. Yet despite the sense of work just filling in the gaps between drinking sessions and other fun stuff, Mike has a moment of realising his bosses haven’t only been sent to wind him up, when George opens up (one Friday in the pub, of course) and it dawns on Mike that the people around him have their own lives of which he knows nothing. And What Do You Do? encapsulates how the things we are ambivalent about – whether jobs or relationships – often end up having a disproportionate effect on the course of our lives.
We were lucky enough to have author Karl Coppack answer a few of our questions:
10mh: Really loved the book! Especially enjoyed the way it shows us the four friendships developing over the years. Can you tell me a bit about where the idea or the inspiration came from?
I’ve always wanted to write a first person book but told from four different characters rather than one. To be honest, I was as much interested in the style as the story – something that counted against it when I sent it out to agents! If anyone has read PG Wodehouse they know that the tale itself isn’t important. It’s the style that makes you roll on the floor kicking your legs in the air.
The biggest inspirations were Colin MacInnes and Stephen King. I’ve always envied how they manipulate language to tell a basic story. Look at MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners. It tells a fairly prosaic tale about the race riots in London in the 50s and although the language is dated (Daddio!) he just brought it alive with lovely phrases that never tire or outstay their welcome. I’ve always wanted to write like that so I made Mike Chubb as opinionated as possible to give him that sort of quirky language-based outlook on life and then put a story around him.
Stephen King once wrote a novel under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman called Rage. It’s banned now as it was about a pupil who goes to school one day and shoots his teachers and fellow pupils. There were similar Columbine-like killings just after the publication so King pulled it. I read it when it was released as part of The Bachman Books when I was about 15 and I don’t think I’ve been affected by any book other than maybe A Clockwork Orange. Again, it’s the first person style and language that made it live. I read that book every six months or so.
As for the idea for And What Do You Do? I wanted to write about the three stages of youth. In 1990 nothing matters more to them than music and parties. In 1995 they were all moving into their first jobs and six years later they were disappointed with what they’d done with their youth. I based it in South-East London as their houses were the places I lived in during that time. I suppose I wanted it to be about music and work with a later emphasis on the latter as it’s far less important than we’re meant to believe. I’ve never understood why people regard work as vital. Sure, it pays the bills but that’s all it’s ever been for me (and Mike) so I wanted to be one of the few people writing about how uninteresting careers are.
10mh: What made you decide to show the four main characters’ points of view? Was it difficult to switch between them and did you have a favourite to write?
Well, I liked that they’re very different people and that there are little factions and power struggles between them. Mike thinks he’s the leader, Chad looks up to Mike, Jim thinks he’s not good enough for any of them while Kate sort of binds them altogether. They all fall out with each other at some point and there’s very little time when all four are in the same room. I like that. I also wanted to write about how you treat your mates as you get older. Many of us have friends purely for nostalgic purposes. They’re always going to be mates but at some stage you do wonder why. The four characters grow apart but are always held together by some force or other.
Mike was the easiest to write by a mile as he’s loud, arrogant and cocky. His word is law but he also has a gentle side although it’s seldom spoken. The first person format makes it easier to divide the real Mike and the face he shows the world. For example (minor spoiler) at one point he’s asked if he regrets not going to Chad’s wedding. His inner monologue tells us that he hated every second of that day as there was nowhere he’d rather be than seeing his old mate get hitched, but he replies that he was never bothered about going and that it was no big deal, really. People move on, etc. He’s only kidding himself but I like being able to highlight that duplicity.
Kate was the most difficult to write. I wanted her to be strong but not obviously so while making her feminine but not always too dissimilar to her masculine mates. That wasn’t easy. She’s also the moral compass of the group so she carries that responsibility.
10mh: Do you have any routines or rituals that you like to follow when you are writing?
If wishing could only make it so! I have a plan but I seldom adhere to it. I’d like to write 2,000 words per day if I could. If I’m getting somewhere and the characters are standing on their own two feet I’ll write till I drop – on my phone on the tube, in a waiting room, anywhere. I once missed an exit on the M1 because I was writing dialogue in my head for a scene I wanted to write. Ideally I’d like to be in that frame of mind all the time but in the real world I have a job, write for football websites, charity sites, etc. so I can’t always do it.
10mh: Who would be your favourite literary friends – either fictional characters or writers – to hang out with or go on a messy night out with?
Is Oscar Wilde too obvious? Stephen Fry? Probably. I love George Orwell and wish I could write like him. I do think Stephen King is underrated as a writer, though not as a storyteller. His ‘On Writing’ is a must read even if I don’t always agree with him (I like adverbs, dammit!) so I’d love to meet him. I’m a big fan of both Holmes and Watson so that would be a night out.
10mh: What does the future hold? For the writer and for the characters?
I’m about a third of the way through the next novel though I’ve no idea how to end it. I’ve just reached the stage where the characters are independent so I’m hoping to sail through at least the first two acts. I’d like this one published rather than just being available as a download so I’ll work a little harder to secure an agent this time. Other than that I’ve written a few short stories around a central theme so that would come next.
Would I write about Mike and his mates again? Not for a while and I’ve never been a fan of that ‘thirty years on’ type of book that Sue Townsend brought out with Adrian Mole. I’ve always liked the idea of writing a newspaper column as Mike. I started tweeting as him (@AWDYD) for a while but wanted people to read the book first so I ended up using it as a promotional tool. Never say never though. If something comes up and those characters fit an idea, I’ll go back to them. And What Did They Do Next or something.