The Art of Letting Go, or The Strange Case of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus

January 03, 2018 | Blog, Other News | View 2 comments ↓

When novelist and TLC reader Ashley Stokes set out to write a short story, he was overtaken with a madcap story about a shouting man named Kevin, and a beast lurking in a London suburb. The story became a novel. Then, everything changed. After all the hard graft, experiments, even at one point securing a publishing deal for an earlier work and representation by an agent, Ashley decided to shelve the novel. Here, he explains why, and what he’s learned along the way. 

Recently, I decided not to continue looking for a publisher for my novel The North Surrey Gigantopithecus. This, after three years on and off writing the thing; letting it live under my skin; loving it, enjoying it, sharing it with people who liked it, too, and thought it relevant to these distorted, inverted times; reading it at events, editing, honing and generally thinking I’d written something no one else could have written. I’m waiting on a few publishers, but I am not going to send it out anymore.

Rejection is a learning curve for writers, I always tell people, part of the process, the game of it.

Rejection is a learning curve for writers, I always tell people, part of the process, the game of it. The novel was my sixth. In the past, my first novel, written when I was twenty-five was rejected with long, detailed letters from publishers. Many of them suggested that I was a potentially prize-winning author who just needed some time to grow. The novel was extracted several times, was taken up by an agency and got me a place on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The novel I wrote on the MA was accepted by a big London publisher who then changed their minds (something I’ve not heard happen to anyone else). I was lucky enough to find another agent for my third, which was initially accepted by editors at two London publishers, only, in both cases, to be turned down by sales people for not being ‘big enough to launch a season’.

This was when I was thirty. The publishing landscape was changing. Older writers had told me I only had to produce something editors couldn’t dismiss. I had done that, but now you had to write something that guaranteed it was going to sell, sell a lot and sell fast. Still, thirty years old: I had a lot of time ahead of me. My short fiction was getting picked up and I was teaching creative writing and working for TLC, fully immersed in writing and learning all the time.

In my thirties, I wrote a fourth novel that I couldn’t get anyone to read (the landscape had become craggier and more forbidding yet again). My fifth was published but by a small press I co-owned. It did OK, locally, but it was about a creative writing lecturer going quietly mad because he can’t find a publisher, or live like a real-live human being instead of an overgrown student. The rejections received by the first four novels had hit me so hard that I’d tried to make something of the experience, construct a story out of it, cope, salvage.

I don’t feel hit hard at the moment, now that I’ve given up on The North Surrey Gigantopithecus. I feel strangely calm. I feel outflanked, for sure, but that’s not the same as dejected. It’s not just the publishing landscape that has changed. I’m coming to think that, regarding the strange case of The North Surrey Gigantopithecus, that by the time I’d realised what I’d got, I was telling a story that few would have the patience to listen to.

*

I always knew the book was weird, and finding the support of a publisher for a straightforward book written in a straightforward way is still a longshot. In fact, the idea was so weird that at first even I didn’t want to write it. Cut to 2012, I am in one of those moods where I’ve nothing to do but don’t want to go to bed. Channel-hopping, I come across an American TV series about bigfoot hunters. I was just passing time, but certain currents in the programme did appeal to me. Firstly, the team members were always shouting the odds about so-called evidence that was obviously no such thing. The shouting was certainly funny, as were the convoluted lengths one ‘squatcher’ in particular would go to prove that a smear of mud was a footprint, or a shadow in the distance on some shaky film was an evolutionary throwback and not a bear or a bloke mucking about. I was also reminded of being about eight and being totally obsessed with unexplained mysteries: ghosts, cryptids, UFOs. The normal world had certainly seemed far less interesting than the paranormal one. And, when I came to think about it, the idea that there’s a gigantic ape-man creature hiding out in the woods, there’s something epic about that, something great, even if it’s a load of cock that only an idiot would believe.

Then I had the fateful thought, when my low-wattage writer’s brain kicked into gear. What if? What if this happened, not in the backwoods of Arkansas, not in the sprawling forests of rural America, but in my hometown.

This is what I started to entertain: writing a story about bigfoot hunters in my hometown of Sutton, Surrey. There are no bigfoots in Sutton, or yetis or any other hairy hominids, and no one writes about Sutton, either. In all the novels I’ve read, I’ve only ever found one reference to Sutton, one line in Greg Baxter’s Munich Airport. The narrator mentions going on a training course in Sutton once. The rest of the novel is set in Munich Airport. Blink, and you’ll miss Sutton. Nothing happens in Sutton. Not only was I going to write a story set in Sutton, it was going to be about bigfoot hunters in Sutton, the untold story that the world had been waiting for. Most of us live in places like Sutton. Monsters exist. Go for it.

At this time, I was thinking of writing not a novel, but a short story that would be in form and content similar to some of my others. I set about designing a cast of characters, one of whom, Kevin, would communicate only by shouting. I came up with the title very early. I came up with a format that had worked well in the past, that of a document, a report, with supporting footnotes told by another character intent on arguing the toss. Then I took myself to one side and admitted that this was a bad idea, not the sort of project I should be working on, given that I’d gained some credibility with my collection The Syllabus of Errors, which as theme had a much more elevated end of suggesting there was something very Weimar Republic going on in England post the 2008 financial crisis (few believed me), and now I was going to top that by writing about a man who can’t be dissuaded from shouting that there’s a bigfoot in Sutton.

I abandoned the story until November 2012, when two august and unimpeachable sources of news, known for their impartiality and rigorous fact-checking, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, reported that a bigfoot had been sighted in Tunbridge Wells. The beast was real. Someone had seen it, so it must be real. The abandoned story suddenly seemed to have legs (and long, swinging arms and red glowing eyes).

 

*

It was still a short story when I started it. I’d intended a report of about three thousand words with about five thousand words of footnoted commentary. I wrote the report to plan, basing it on an American news item about a man who dressed up in a ghillie suit – camouflage for jungle snipers – and pretended to be bigfoot on the highway to scare passing motorists, the prank going horribly wrong when he was hit by a car and killed.

It was when I started to write the commentary in the voice of Kevin, the true believer, that something happened. He took over. I’d found a strong voice with all sorts of tics and twists to it. I started to invent a lot of lore that amused me. I rewrote the history of Sutton as if it were a place where all the mysteries of the world would be revealed.

It was when I started to write the commentary in the voice of Kevin, the true believer, that something happened. He took over. I’d found a strong voice with all sorts of tics and twists to it. I started to invent a lot of lore that amused me. I rewrote the history of Sutton as if it were a place where all the mysteries of the world would be revealed. I spent a whole morning one day trying to create two research teams, eventually the Alien Primate Expedition and the Sutton Hominid Investigation Team just so when the merged the acronym would be A.P.E.S.H.I.T. The story reached twenty thousand words. I am writing a novella, I thought. When it ended after fifty-eight thousand words, I realised I had written a novel, and a short one. I’d also had more fun writing than I’d ever had before.

A couple of other things had happened while I was writing the first draft. One was that I discovered that the idea of an English bigfoot isn’t so fanciful. Well, it is, obviously, but there is a sizeable community of people who claim to have seen mysterious yeti-type creatures in England. I found one report of an appearance very close to where Kevin’s team research a sighting in the novel, opposite North East Surrey College of Technology, and another supposedly seen at nearby Boxhill. There have been sightings all over the country. One report of a woman who had seen the Sherwood Forest Thing’s willy on the Worksop Road had a particular impact on me, as did a story of a couple making love in the open air at Bolum Lake in Northumbria, site of a spate of British bigfoot sightings, thought that a man in a gorilla suit was watching them from the treeline. There’s even a British Bigfoot Research Facebook group, where many of the members talk and argue much as Kevin does. Kevin is real, too. I was onto something maybe slightly bigger than I’d thought.

The other thing that happened was the about three quarters of the way through I realised that the way Kevin talks about science, as some sort of conspiracy purposefully designed to prevent him from living in a Heroic Age was analogous to the way people I know at home, in Sutton, have always talked about the European Union. This was back when the idea of a referendum was a far-right con trick dreamed up by the sort of newspapers that print UK bigfoot stories as real news. It was a curious thought. It made me laugh.

Over the next two years, between short fiction assignments, I redrafted the book three times so it worked as a novel. I gave it an unusual form, positioning it as a file sent to the reader from Kevin for safekeeping while he’s on an important mission. If you never hear from him again, you’re to send it on to the Daily Mail, and forward a letter to Kevin’s son.

I shared parts of it. People liked it, which made me optimistic (though every novel I’ve written has been liked by friends; it means nothing when it lands on an editor or agent’s desk). I read extracts at a couple of events and people had laughed with me, not at me. It was a comic novel, a comic experimental novel. People seemed to get that. About eighteen months ago, I started to send it out. Now I have stopped doing that.

I might have taken a more classical route and a far less experimental one. But the novel as it stands is experimental. Its form — letters, reports, commentaries — is that of a pile of papers, ironic as I’ve often thought that the unpublished novel, after all avenues have become cul-de-sacs, devolves into no more than a pile of paper. I’ve heard it said that experimental fiction is often more fun to write than read, advice I obviously refused to heed.

It’s quite possible that if I’d considered the story as a novel from the start, I wouldn’t have written it in the way that I did. I might have taken a more classical route and a far less experimental one. But the novel as it stands is experimental. Its form — letters, reports, commentaries — is that of a pile of papers, ironic as I’ve often thought that the unpublished novel, after all avenues have become cul-de-sacs, devolves into no more than a pile of paper. I’ve heard it said that experimental fiction is often more fun to write than read, advice I obviously refused to heed.

I did feel a certain pressure to write a story with footnotes, although the novel ended up without them. It so happened that the first stories I wrote that reached a wider audience, my novel Touching the Starfish and my story A Short Story about a Short Film used footnotes. I love footnotes, love Pale Fire, House of Leaves, The Mezzanine, Tristram Shandy, and David Foster Wallace’s The Depressed Person, but I hadn’t intended on becoming that bloke who uses footnotes all the time. After a few subsequent stories were published, I frequently had people contact me and register their surprise that the footnotes were absent. I kind of felt, therefore, that if I was writing a new collection, it should contain a footnotes story. I would be doing what people expected of me.

Of course, there’s a small part of a readership that likes to see something odd, different and difficult-to-pull-off. There’s a much bigger readership that simply resents having to keep breaking away to look at some excursion written in the footer. David Foster Wallace may have justified his use of end-notes in Infinite Jest to remind the reader that he or she is reading, but quite a lot of readers just want to read, to follow the experience of the story.

Of course, there’s a small part of a readership that likes to see something odd, different and difficult-to-pull-off. There’s a much bigger readership that simply resents having to keep breaking away to look at some excursion written in the footer. David Foster Wallace may have justified his use of end-notes in Infinite Jest to remind the reader that he or she is reading, but quite a lot of readers just want to read, to follow the experience of the story.

In the evolution from short story to novel, the Gigantopithecus lost its footnotes and became sequential. The report was broken up into little prologues to Kevin’s longer sections. You read the cool facts and then the argument that the cool facts are lies told by the heartless, all this sandwiched between two letters, one addressed to you the reader as if you know Kevin from way back. You are from Sutton. You used to hang out with Kevin. When the time is right, you are to send his testament to his son and his exposé to the Daily Mail.

Even so, there was still quite a lot of effects I added to Kevin’s voice that made the story still feel experimental, and many of these effects came from a feeling that people expected me to produce such a voice. Kevin mangles the English language, frequently shifting registers from south London slang to scientific-sounding diction that he clearly doesn’t understand in the same paragraph. He confuses A.K.A with e.g. He divides the world into two types of people, those who don’t believe in the North Surrey Gigantopithecus (‘croissant-munchers’) and those who do (‘Knowers’). He also divides the world into three domains: Sutton, the centre, ‘the Yanks’ (where there are a lot of bigfoots) and ‘abroad’, where Kevin’s Ukrainian ex-wife Bohuslava comes from. Ukraine was chosen on the spot really, but I still had a creative problem in working out how Kevin would ever get a wife. Later, deep in my Kevin research I was watching a bigfoot video on YouTube and up came a pop-up advert: Meet Ukrainian Wives now. Ah, so that’s how Kevin meets her, from watching bigfoot videos on YouTube, accidentally clicking a link and believing what he finds there. Meets her, though, but can’t sustain the relationship, as another facet of Kevin’s personality is an utter inability to talk to women, a fear of whom he can’t conceal and has to compensate for by shouting about his obsession with the North Surrey Gigantopithecus. He also frequently repeats the same words and phrases as if doing so makes them true. He adds a shouted, ‘FACT’, to a lot of sentences. He confuses himself both with a superhero and a special forces soldier even though he works for a company that rents skips. He makes up words, dismisses reasonable ones, and is a font of arcane lore about the occult history of Sutton. His machismo is such that he can’t admit to himself that he’s terribly lonely. Loneliness is rarely a source of strength.

A typical Kevin passage might be:

 

         “Then I had a wander around the flat in my samurai-style kimono dressing gown, looked at all the empty space where I couldn’t be arsed to put up a Christmas tree and decided that after I’d dropped off my boy’s presents at Beelz’s that night I was going to get suited-up and go on a solo Giganto hunt. Up on the Downs. Over to Chipstead or Stoneleigh. Night vision goggles and two grands’ worth of thermal imaging camera (aka, The Heat Ray, a great bit of kit). It was Christmas after all. Some people wouldn’t be around to see Christmas now, so I ought to be grateful for what I’d got.

         The point I’m making here is that even though the Red Darkness is everywhere in Sutton and I’ve felt it tailing me ever since I was a little kid, I don’t associate it with Giganto. I don’t think Giganto has anything to do with it. Giganto is pure. Giganto is normal.

         I had a stand-up row about this in The Dog in Carshalton once, with that Janine, when we were supposed to be on a date. It’s not a manifestation of male aggression and territorialism, I argued. I’d seen it, so how could it be a consensual effing hallucination (whatever that is)? Or ‘a sordid rape fantasy dressed-up as male-crisis mountainstrongholdism’ (whatever that means), or an ‘anti-authority totem for paranoid delusionals’ (whoever they are). Nor is it ‘emblematic’ (whatever that means) of a ‘juvenile desire to escape the responsibilities of adulthood, marriage and child-rearing’. ‘How can that be?’ I said, a bit loudly, I reckon. I had been on the Jack and the Jameson. ‘How can that be when half of them are effing birds? Patterson-Gimlin had tits.’”

 

I have always set myself a target of writing something no one else could have written. Even if I had done that here, and developed themes and language tics I’d used before — that some of my readers seem to like, expected of me — I may well have forgotten WG Sebald’s advice that if you are to write about obscure things, don’t do so obscurely. I may have also missed his ‘by all means be experimental but let the reader in on the experiment.’ Kevin kind of sucks all the light out of the room.

I always knew it was going to be a longshot at a distant and very small target. I’ve never calculated with my writing, never followed publishing trends. ‘Write something set in the past or abroad or about celebrities,’ an agent told me once. ‘That’s what they want.’ I couldn’t do that. My mind doesn’t work that way. My imagination doesn’t gift me ideas like that, either. And all the publishing blooms die quickly anyway. Be yourself and wait until the lightning strikes you. So, the book was finished, but the shot was long, the target small and far-off. Then something happened that initially felt like I’d hit pay dirt: Brexit.

Of course, when I’d started the book I didn’t think there would be a referendum. And I’d long been suspicious and dismissive of the anti-EU camp who, like Christopher Hitchens, I see as a manifestation of British fascism. After all, blaming a country’s home-grown social problems on treaties and minorities; believing that there’s a future golden age buried in the recent past and that a self-proclaimed, hate-mongering, bed-feathering man-of-the people is some sort of saviour, these have a lot in common with the social psychology that led to Nazism, that leads to disgrace, to murder.

This isn’t the venue for any outlay of the issues as I see them but let’s just say, if the EU is so bad, why lie about it? A transparent liar gets up and tells a transparent lie with great confidence and no capacity for shame, and half the country lift their right arms in the air and parties like it’s 1933? I had been feeling an existential dread in the weeks before the vote, mainly due to the Goebbels-league lying, the gutter-racism, the anti-intellectualism and the crassness of the cause. Afterwards, as the implications of the result began to sink in, it wasn’t so much the fact of the folly, but the impact of the bullying voices you started to hear online: ranting, capslocked (‘FACT’), devoid of self-awareness and empathy, insistent, confrontational, historically illiterate, and weapons-grade ignorant. The English language was being mangled all out of shape by people who had never bothered to learn it properly, these denizens of a special island for special people, anointed in the blood of Nelson and The Few, nostalgic for a long dead Empire they had spent not one second of their lives trying to understand. And they want you silenced. They want you vanished. Some of them want you dead. Only last week I read a post from someone in Carshalton, the suburb of Sutton where I grew up, calling for Remainers to be shot.

I had ignored and laughed at this constituency for years. Why? Because until the shooting starts, they’re hilarious. Of course, UKIP was for nutjobs. Touching the Starfish had even featured Kip and Myra de Courcey, UKIP candidates in rural Norfolk and the sort of couple who would run a concentration camp. But here they were, rampant, triumphant and in your face.

In The North Surrey Gigantopithecus, there’s a moment where Kevin really believes he has the beast in his viewfinder. He’s going to film it. There’s going to be category-A proof that will change the world and get one over on all the posh nobs and arseholes who make up the scientific community. Overcome by emotion, Kevin starts to fantasize about how life will be transformed.

 

         “The North Surrey Gigantopithecus is us, you see, us, you and me, FACT.

         It tells us where we’ve come from. It shows us what we have lost. It’s the last piece of the evolutionary jigsaw, the final link in a snapped chain. From this moment on, we will know who we are meant to be.

         It’s the last part of me, too, the bit that was stolen from Kevin Appledore, the lost moments of my time, the key to my life, my life that will now make perfect sense.

         When this gets out, when this hits the newsstands and the search engines, everyone in the world is going to become a Kevin Appledore.

         Everyone’s Kevin now.”

 

Between the referendum result and the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ speech, it felt as if we’re all Kevin now. Kevin had won. Your future was to be hectored by someone like Kevin barking over a Tannoy propaganda from the Daily Mail that he confuses with his own thoughts. Everything you had tried to do in life to not be like Kevin had been for nothing, everything you had read, written, studied, learned, adjusted in yourself. Kevin had won. The beast was real. The beast was amok (and of course, Sutton, Kevin’s centre of the world, was the only borough in London to vote to leave the EU).

For a while this made me think that I was onto something, that the novel was more than just a comic romp about a man who believes in a suburban yeti. It was about fake news. It was about fanaticism. It was about what can happen to you if you isolate yourself, or life isolates you, if you waste too much time on the dream to end all dreams, stare too long in the mirror hoping to see the hero you will one day become.

I shared a little passage with some of my students. One said, ‘No one will believe that you wrote this before Brexit and Trump.’

No one’s going to read it, either. There is the possibility that the novel resides somewhere on the difficult-to-bad spectrum, but why drop it now? I don’t feel ashamed of it, when usually everything I’ve written before the last two pieces affects me with a mild-to-punishing sense of embarrassment.

Because Kevin won.

I didn’t necessarily come to the decision to abandon the novel on my own. I may have carried on, just because there are always a lot of avenues and I feel I owe it to myself to explore all those avenues. I’m not great at self-promotion. I don’t get out there and network much. I’m not especially clubbable and I’m introverted, but the book deserves it, right? It was by talking to my partner that I realised the problem.

I didn’t necessarily come to the decision to abandon the novel on my own. I may have carried on, just because there are always a lot of avenues and I feel I owe it to myself to explore all those avenues. I’m not great at self-promotion. I don’t get out there and network much. I’m not especially clubbable and I’m introverted, but the book deserves it, right? It was by talking to my partner that I realised the problem.

If Kevin had lost, if Leave had lost, if Trump hadn’t won despite flapping his trap like a Nazi and talking a load of rapey trash, the story might be different. I fully accept that anyone who voted Leave is unlikely to want read anything written by me. I burn slow, muck about, am prone to density, melancholy and maximalism and I don’t write about the SAS. But in the other camp, who wants to read about Kevin when Kevin has won? Who wants to read a novel about a psychopath shouting a load of nonsense when people are being shouted at, and worse, by psychos in the street and online all the time now? Who wants to read about a man who can’t talk to women without shouting in the Age of Trump, Fallon and Weinstein? Who wants to read about Kevin after Jo Cox?

This isn’t to say that the book is pro-Kevin. It’s a cautionary tale. It says, ‘Don’t go here’. Kevin does come to an epiphany, sort of, but you have to wait a long time for it in even a short book, long enough to feel alienated by it. If the book is a warning, the warning comes too late. All the Cassandras and Pandoras are not going to have the patience. The beast is real. The beast runs amok, shitting up campers and ripping deer to shreds. I am either going to be confused with Kevin, or called a ‘traytor’ (again) by Kevins. And, hey, people read to escape their troubles, not wallow in fantasies of their oppressors. Much of the talk in mainstream publishing I’ve heard recently has been for the need for ‘uplift’ — happy endings, hygge soup for the chicken soul, stories in which things work out. I’ll tell you a secret. Things don’t work out too well for Kevin and it’s all his fault. There is a kind of uplift but not one I would recommend. Really, no agent or editor is waiting for this sort of book to turn up on their desk.

You learn as much from your failures as your successes, as much from rejection as acceptance. You have to.

Still, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. You learn as much from your failures as your successes, as much from rejection as acceptance. You have to. I very much doubt I’ll fall into writing a novel as I did here and take a series of contingencies this far. There was probably a moment at around 20,000 words when I should have said to myself either start this short story again to keep it short; or if this is a novel, how can we make it work? I could have told it from another point of view, from that of Kevin’s boy or wife, for example. I could have calmed it down and made Kevin more deceptively reasonable. I could have written a straight horror novel. I could have realised there’s little market for the downright odd, and that writing something no one else could write isn’t enough.

Stories you abandon and stories that no one wants are stages on the way to somewhere better.

Even so, writing The North Surrey Gigantopithecus certainly opened a lot of imaginative space for me, rekindled passions and interests I’d forgotten, took my back to a different place and time. I also suspect that I got a lot of my system about where I’m from and what I do. The stories I’ve written since seem to be of a new stripe. They’ve learned from Kevin to emphasise story and lower the volume on voice. Stories you abandon and stories that no one wants are stages on the way to somewhere better. I would always encourage writers to take risks but here I probably took the wrong sort of risks, was too cavalier, too excited by what I had stumbled upon. I was writing for me. Now more than at any other time I can remember it is time to write outwards, see the world for what it is and ask searching questions about how it works and where we have come from. Otherwise, we’ll keep finding ourselves in the dark, in the woods, scanning the trees with our thermal imaging cameras, waiting forever for the possibility of a confirmatory eye-shine or a howl at the moon.

 

 

 

 

Ashley Stokes is the author of Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors, and editor of the Unthology series, and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings. He’s also Head of the Unthank School and a longtime TLC reader. His most recently published fiction is ‘Anticlockwise’ in Bare Fiction 10.

2 comments on “The Art of Letting Go, or The Strange Case of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus”

  1. B.P.Smythe says:

    A great article, Ashley.

    You’re right, it’s a long slog to getting published and rejection is like being stood-up on a first date. And who hasn’t had that happen? Still, Kevin and the lurking beast is something different. Give it a go, even a self-publish. It could catch on big, who knows?

    Regards
    Barry

  2. Peter Courtney-Green says:

    Thanks, Ashley, for confirming my belief that there is nothing more extreme and dangerous than a Guardian reader – FACT!

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