When John and I went to teach in Saudi Arabia in 2012, we thought we were heading to a cushy post in Riyadh. Instead we were packed off to Najran, a small town near the Yemeni border. It was there, in this dusty, isolated and entertainment-free posting, that we met Carlos Hughes, and we soon became great friends with this friendly and funny guy from Wigan who was a veritable treasury of general knowledge, a talented comic and a great boxing coach.
One day he mentioned that he was working on a story and would we mind reading it? The story was about a red-head kid named Darren who came from a long line of bin men (garbage men) but dreamed of higher things, like going to the moon. His dreams were ridiculed by Dad, a hilariously appalling bigot, who tried to squash the notion by calling him Buzz Aldrin…and the story whizzed along from there. Following Darren from Wigan to Korea, where he went in way out of his depth as an English teacher, I was in stitches from go to woe.
Since then, Carlos’ writing career has taken off. The story we read in Najran was published as White Monkey (2016. Soon after came Tommy Twice: This is Your Life (2017), the tale of a northern ne’er-do-well who drags himself up from the depths of despair through an unexpected career change. And more books are in the works as we speak.
It’s no coincidence that both of Carlos’s protagonists are northerners. He himself was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1972 and grew up in nearby St. Helens in Merseyside. Leaving (being thrown out…) of school at 16 without any qualifications, he joined the army and went on to do a plethora of nightshift jobs which he was ultimately sacked from. He entered many a two-horse race in which he came fifth and was fed a regular diet of failure, misery and pain – a lot of it self-inflicted. Life took a turn for the better when he managed to get into university at the age of 31 and took a further upturn when he left the UK to live life as a teaching expat overseas. He returning in 2012 to complete a master’s degree but now lives in Hennan Province, where he plans to write a few more books based around comedy and language-learning.
I caught up with him this week to ask him about the writing life.
Both of your protagonists, Tommy and Darren, grew up in northern England as did you. Like Darren Finnegan, you’ve taught English in Korea and like Tommy you’re a keen boxer. How much of your writing is autobiographical?
They are somewhat, I think writing tends to be a tribal endeavor anyway, even if one doesn’t want to write ‘what they know’ then they tend to find their best writing within their life experiences amongst their own cultural group – especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Tommy Twice would have made for a greater book if he was a Native American living in a reservation in Montana or North Dakota, the actual story is universal, but a Native American writer would do the dialogue a lot more justice than I ever could. In my opinion, the settings are very limited to what I know if I want to give that story the best authenticity, which is important to me and I am sure to readers as well. People from my part of the world know that Tommy Twice is a book written by someone who knows the area and the subject very well – that kind of authenticity is important in those kind of books.
I was a member of two boxing clubs – Britannia ABC in St. Helens Merseyside and Shrewsbury ABC in Shropshire when I lived down in Telford. I wasn’t a very good boxer at all and I realized early on that my talents didn’t lie within a ring – but I knew enough about it to write Tommy Twice. But it isn’t particularly autobiographical; though there are elements of my life within it, I wouldn’t say it was an actual blueprint. Same with White Monkey – unfortunately, my time in South Korea wouldn’t make for a great comedy book as it wasn’t that interesting. What made White Monkey was that I was able to mesh my experience with many other peoples’ and take an imaginary wand and add other theoretical experiences into the mix. The great thing about comedy is that you can take the clay and mold it into whatever you want whilst adding and subtracting the amount of clay to end up with a worthwhile finished product. It really is one of the great art forms that allows you to do that.
There’s a saying ‘Death is Easy, Comedy is Tough.’ Humor is one of the hardest things to write well and I envy how easy you make it seem. Do you have any tricks or tips for aspiring humorists?
The main thing is to recognize what comedy is, because comedy really is everywhere, and that there are rules to it. Not everything can be translated into comedy, it’s wrapped around either failure or the bursting of pomposity. If you understand that comedy can’t be victimless – that there are winners and losers and that someone has to fail, someone has to get hurt or humiliated and that someone has to be vanquished -then you’re on the way to becoming an astute observer and being able to write really good comedy.
One thing I think makes effective comedy in literature is the use of dialogue. Scenes or comic set-ups can work a lot better in visual cinematic form but can fall flat in written dialogue. If you’re going to use them, you need to lead in with dialogue or lead out with dialogue when it comes to comedy literature.
Third-person-limited narration I find is a good vehicle in which to write comedy literature. It might limit you in certain ways but if you have a good comedy character then you’re able to describe dialogue from other characters as well as using the inner dialogue of the main character. I don’t think White Monkey would have been as nearly as funny if it had been written in the third-person-omniscient voice. That it was written from his perspective made it easier to access some really good laughs – especially when it came to Darren trying to traverse the many ‘culture shocks’ he had to face.
I am also a HUGE fan of comedy villains in all my work. The use of comedy villains cannot be overstated and they NEED to have the funny lines. I always have a good comedy villain in anything I write because they’re fun and enjoyable characters to write for. If you watch Trailer Park Boys then you see Mr Lahey has the funniest lines. Julian isn’t funny because he is the most successful and intelligent character in the show so it would be hard to make him funny. In the Dukes of Hazzard Boss Hogg again had the best lines; the Duke boys weren’t the reason why anyone tuned into watch that show even though most people would rather be the Duke boys than Boss Hogg.
This also goes for non-comedy – the villains have the best lines – from JR Ewing in Dallas to Nick Cotton in Eastenders. A good comedy villain also has to be reasonably successful and likeable. When someone watches Tom and Jerry no one I have ever known likes Jerry and we always tune in hoping that Tom catches him and gives him a good hiding – and the reason is we want to see Tom come on top because we like Tom and a lot of us see ourselves in Tom (and Coyote in Road Runner) more than we do with either Jerry or Road Runner.
So good comedy is a reflection of ourselves or our worst characteristics, so when writing them, they need to be somewhat recognizable to be truly funny.
How does the writing process work for you? I seem to remember that White Monkey was largely composed in your head before you ever put fingers to keyboard—something I can’t imagine! Was Tommy Twice like that as well?
Yes, I read Aki Kaurismaki and he does the same when he writes a script. He works out the basics of the beginning and how it ends, sets the physical scene and the main characters and leaves it for a reasonably length period of time. He said this in an interview:
“When I write, I almost completely work in terms of my subconscious. I digest the theme of the film and what I know of the basic story. Then I wait for three months for my subconscious to finish its work. My writing is very unanalytical, but the final outcome is a pretty precise script, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. The late Matti Pellonpää used exactly the same method as an actor. I gave him the script and he read it at once. Then he didn’t touch it for three months until just prior to the shooting, mainly to learn the dialogue. He used his subconscious to develop the character and to do all the work, like a lazy man would. His subconscious did all the work that a lesser actor would’ve burdened himself with. I consider the subconscious the most ingenious and cheapest hireling you can have in this line of work.”
When I wrote Tommy Twice it was amazing how it came out within a very short space of time. I wrote 250 pages within two to three months–very, very quick. I’d sat on the idea for two to three years but the funny lines and dialogue were coming out on a very consistent basis that even surprised me. And this wasn’t dialogue that I could have thought up if you asked me to on the spot but was rather spewed out from the inner conscious – there were times I thought ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ So now I am big believer that all books are written in the subconscious and that the actual task of writing is just a physical activity, like wielding a spade to dig out gold from underneath the earth.
Who are your influences, whether literary or comic?
Influences are everywhere, even in places you wouldn’t think it existed. Mainly, they’re in your own life, if one is rather successful then influences are harder to find or rather, it would be harder to recognize comedy when you come across it because good comedy is wrapped around pathos of the failures and the bursting of egos of the successful.
I’ll give you an example, the greatest comedy sketch of the last ten years and it wasn’t in a book or in a film, it was actually when Donald Trump met up with Prime Minister Abe and President Macron of France.
Donald Trump is the poster boy of the much vaunted ‘Alpha Male’ that young men want to be and think themselves of. He represents what a successful American man is in the way he looks and acts – so when he met with Abe (who also typifies a certain stereotyped reservation and dignity associated with Japanese people) and physically dominated him with his handshake – it set up the fall later when Macron (who also typifies the refined, rather feminine qualities of French manhood – especially to the mind of English-speaking westerners) grabbed Trump’s handshake and pulled him towards him with them both grinning away.
You could see what Trump was thinking behind the smile, which was ‘You fucking French cunt.’ It didn’t matter what Macron was thinking in regards the comedy value of that scene. He could have been thinking of what to buy for dinner that night but in the end it didn’t matter because his stupid smirk was enough – he was the victor and thus relegated himself to ‘straight man’ status – but that for me was a brilliant lesson in comedy and far superior that anything made in the arts in showing a student the mechanics of comedy. It couldn’t have worked at all if Donald Trump had met Macron and then Abe – it worked because it went in the pattern it did and that the three men were hyper-inflated stereotypes of their particular nations, it also worked because Trump shrugged off the humiliation and regained his composure because no one wants a totally vanquished and defeated comedy villain; the best comedy villains have that lack of introspection and they get to fight for another day as bold as brass and as confident as ever whether it is Donald Trump, Tom the cat, Coyote from Road Runner, Boss Hogg, Dean Wormer, Rigsby from Rising Damp. So I think the inspiration has to come from recognizing comedy situations where they’re not meant to be and recognizing the mechanics of what makes them funny.
On what books or writers make me laugh? Bill Bryson, Irvine Welsh, Charles Bukowski and the wonderful Alan Bleasdale who wrote the Scully books.
You self-published your books, something I’m also considering. Can you describe the process a little? Advice for noobs? Pros and cons?
I think the best advice is to find a good company who can design the cover and the manuscript – you can find a company who can do it all for a good price, if you can do it yourself and not make a dog’s dinner of it then fair enough but I could have never have made either my books to the level of presentation that the people I hired did. So, I think the best thing to do is concentrate on the writing and editing and pay the money when applicable for cover design and typesetting the manuscript
I think there are a lot of pros – you get to write what you want and you are your own copy editor, what you put out there belongs to you. Also I think you steer the ship and it will always be out there. I don’t think there are many cons, even for writers who find a publishing house and are traditionally published, they’re still up against a sea of books, it is very hard to stand out these days however you manage to get yourself published. At least with self-publishing, if you are a talented writer with your own distinct voice, you get to keep it. It might take longer to find your audience so if you’re in a hurry for all that – that might be a con.
I don’t think I would ever submit another manuscript to another publisher or agent, from now on, it will all be done through the medium of self-publishing. However if Penguin Books wants to offer me a dirty great big cheque for my books then I am not going to say no!
Thinking about your readers, what is your goal (if any) in terms of the effect you want to make, aside from making people laugh?
I think when you write comedy you accept that the reader will take what they want from the writing, whatever your personal viewpoints are. If you read any of my work then you’ll be able to see my worldviews on racism, sexism, homophobia, feminism and xenophobia as well as my political leanings as they’re all quite clear, but these all have to take a back seat to making the reader laugh – that is the most important thing to me. If a reader laughs at my writings but thinks the technique is crap and it’s offensive then it matters not because to me my writing has done its job.
Also there is that temptation of writing on what you want the world to be rather than what the world actually is. I think it is very important to reign in what you want the world to be because in written form it comes across as preachy which is not what you want in a book – not unless that is the aim of your message of course. I think effective comedy is wrapped around the realities of life and that the most effective comedy displays that – hopefully as a vehicle for future change in the guise of food for thought.
Can you describe your next fiction project?
At this moment, it is a follow-up to White Monkey that is set in Saudi Arabia and is called Desert Monkey. The book is bubbling away in my inner consciousness but it will be written probably in the summer. The story lines and villains are all in place for another barnstormer.
For the past few years you’ve been living in China and (I believe) enjoying it very much. Any chance you’ll write a book about your Chinese experiences?
Yes! I am planning on writing a book about studying Chinese for a year at a Chinese university so this will be my first truly autobiographical book as I will intertwine my five years living in China and the experiences I have already had here. So that will be fun to write as I have the first chapter in my head of when I was learning French as a kid in Wigan from my very non-Francophone French teachers (they were all from Wigan and their pronunciation of French words wasn’t very – authentic) so the first chapter of that book will go off with a comedic bang!