Fixing a Novel in a Changing Time – and Getting the Body Hair Right

‘Why do headphones have to be so damned small?!?!’ That’s a line from a festival session blurb connected with my novel Analogue Men and the fear and grumpiness that comes with the feeling that technology is outpacing us. Why the fear and grumpiness? If technology is outpacing us, then so perhaps are younger people, fashion, work, language, cuisine, etiquette and who knows what else. And that line stands out from the blurb because headphones have already bigged up again. It’s a classic analogue moment, railing against a change that’s already changed again.

Analogue Men features iPads and other devices with earbud headphones. In the planning stages, a few years ago, earbud headphones spoke clearly of young people. In those early notes, they might even have been attached to iPods rather than iPads. At the same time, Jimmy Iovine (a 61-year-old who’s as digital as can be) and Dr Dre were ramping up Beats Electronics, rebelling against the crappy bud sound and building some mighty sets of cans that looked retro but gave amazing audio. When I wrote the novel, their early models were starting to get come traction. When I edited it I looked at the earbuds and thought ‘Would Jack be using Beats by now?’

But questions like that are a recipe for tail-chasing – a novel has a time and a place, and that’s okay. My kind of novel – at least the kind like Zigzag Street, Bachelor Kisses, Perfect Skin or Analogue Men – has to be written to take a snapshot of its now, and then it has to take its chances, both in the moment it’s published and the months and years to follow.

We are vain, naïve or recklessly optimistic if we set out to write for posterity at all, because posterity doesn’t take an interest in much. I’m lucky enough that Zigzag Street is still finding new readers as a book soon to turn 18. In it, Jerry Seinfeld rates a mention, along with discussion of his girlfriend, with whom he broke up the following year. No one in 2014 throws the book at a wall because that fact stopped being a fact in 1997.

Still, publishers are sometimes anxious about books dating, despite most of them now having the shelf-life of yoghurt (the books, not the publishers, mostly).

Early in Analogue Men, the central character turns up to start his new job managing a radio station. Behind the reception desk is Venice (pronounced Vuh-neece). Early in the planning of the novel, Venice was wearing tight low-rider jeans which, when crouching, revealed a tramp stamp tattoo and G-string T-bar. Andrew, the central character, can’t help but have his eyes drawn in that direction. Awkwardness might ensue. I was focused on the (admittedly minor) awkward comic potential, and forgot to factor in the change in fashion between planning and writing. My publisher picked it up. The meaning of Venice’s fashion choice had changed. To have her dressed that way now (2013, the ‘now’ of the novel) would mark her as out of date, unaware. It would be telling people something I wasn’t setting out to tell them. So the low-riders and the T-bar needed to go.

But our bigger debate concerned pubic hair. There’s discussion of pubic hair removal in the novel. Widespread removal of pubic hair is one of the things that perplexes Andrew about the contemporary world – Gwyneth Paltrow having recently been in possession of some was news at the time (news: having pubic hair recently was news) – and I had a variety of ways I could make the topic pay off in the novel. But my publisher told me pubic hair is back. In fact she said “When our [insert title of senior Random House staff member here] returned from her summer holidays in January 2012 she said ‘what is wrong with young women now, they have gone all untidy.’ When we enquired, she meant they no longer went to the waxing extremes that had been around for a while. Anecdotally, younger people don’t seem as afraid of pubic hair as Gen Y’s and some X’s were.”

So I did what I did when my agent suggested removing the fart jokes from Zigzag Street, but I knew they had to stay. I called for reinforcements. In Zigzag Street I went for the noble history of the fart joke extending at least as far back as Rabelais. In Analogue Men, I called on Robyn, Andrew’s GP wife, who can quote genuine studies saying that the pubic louse is at risk in the US due to widespread pubic depilation among college students. While some cool young people might be going old-school down there, there are waxing salons all over the place keeping this topic in business, for now at least.

So, in Analogue Men, iPads are invading the house, the headphones are still earbuds, the future of commercial radio (of many things) is the subject of debate, the old Gold Coast Hospital is run-down but not yet shut, Amanda Bynes has recently made that unfortunate remark about a rapper and her intimate parts, Justin Bieber has just outed himself as the world’s least appropriate monkey owner. It’s 2013 in the inner western suburbs of Brisbane and at the Gold Coast, and that’s how it is.

It will still make complete sense in 2014. It will still work as a version of now. I can’t say how much of it will work in 2032 and how much will be like referring to Jerry Seinfeld as dating Shoshanna Lonstein. Of course I’ll be happy if it still works at all for new readers then, but the job I faced was to write it for now. For us, now. Same plan as with Zigzag Street in 1995.

And how is it working now? I’ve just seen this review from Carolyn, an avid Dymocks Adelaide reader:
‘Have you found yourself gazing out of café windows wishing you were more interesting to your companion that the latest celebrity tweet that keeps them glued to their phone screen over coffee? Or maybe you think that life might just be too short to perfect the lighting and plating up of your latest steak and chips so you don’t miss a photo-op and the all-important chance to increase the number of ‘friends’ who ‘like’ your dinner. Don’t worry, you are not the only one wondering if the modern world is really all it’s cracked up to be – Nick Earls gets it. In Nick’s latest novel – Analogue Men – Andrew Van Fleet is struggling to reconnect with his techno-savvy wife, kids and even his dad, who buys iPads in 6-packs. His family has passionately embraced the Digital Age, leaving him way behind while he has been absent overseas for work. Andrew is trying desperately to find a relevant place for himself within his family as he rapidly approaches 50 – his ‘wagyu years’. This is an extremely funny novel and very entertaining. So if you actually remember what it feels like to laugh out loud before it became a tired acronym – this book is for you.’

So, no guarantees, but there’s some author relief in knowing that, at least once, it’s worked exactly the way it said on the box.

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16 Responses to Fixing a Novel in a Changing Time – and Getting the Body Hair Right

  1. Robin Storey says:

    I totally agree, Nick. (Like, totally!) You can only write the book true to the year it’s set – you’d drive yourself crazy trying to update it to the minute. As an analogue woman I’m really looking forward to reading it. And I’m sure that in 2032 people will still be reading it – even if only to exclaim at its very quaintness – ‘OMG! Can you believe it? They had those stupid earbud things hanging off their face back then – how did they survive without microchip ear implants?’

  2. Donna says:

    Looking forward to reading it. And very glad you left the fart jokes in Zigzag Street, though they do mean I have to be careful about which public space I read it in 🙂

  3. I kept writing and rewriting The Prodigal Hour, until finally Katrina happened and I was like, “No, I can’t incorporate every current event, even if it *is* a time travel novel.” I ultimately settled on October 2001 (and September 2001, elsewhen, and 1923 Munich — what? It’s a time travel novel!), and it was much better for it, even as it came out nearly ten years after its actual setting. I don’t think people much minded. It’s the now of the book.

    Earbuds are still very much in. Beats has small options, but I see other smaller options every day, so no worries there.

    In the states, I’ve heard them called “Whale tails,” though I’ll leave to what I’m referring as an exercise of the reader’s imagination.

    Pubic hair grooming has become so mainstream the male equivalent is now called “manscaping.” And still, in general, as popular as it isn’t. Different strokes (and lengths) for different folks!

    I think that’s the difference; a lot of people nowadays are about acceptance. “I see you over there, and I’m not into what you’re doing, but you do you, and I dig that.”

  4. Christine says:

    Enjoying the book. I can relate to the disconcerting feeling that somehow every single other person in the world simultaneously discovered and mastered some new technology while I was apparently looking the other way, distracted by a piece of dust (even though I’m clearly so very much younger than Andrew *cough*). Must say I was disappointed though when I clicked on the ‘pubic hair’ tag on this post and saw you’ve so far only got this one post on this pressing topic. Get on that, would you?!

    • nickearls says:

      Yes, I’m sorry about the disappointment regarding ‘pubic hair’. That’s shameless fishing on my part, motivated by the fact that the third-most-common search term to lead people here (after ‘Nick Earls’ and ‘Nick Earles’) is ‘Mila Kunis naked’, because I used it once in a blog post about dodgy tags and the kind of traffic they might draw.

  5. Hey, curled up in bed, the flu has got me- Somewhere in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Temperature, so I’m in that slightly dazed state. Got your new book to read, up to pg20.. So far, fits the need.. Better continue that way..

    • nickearls says:

      Good to hear. I can’t guarantee it’s antipyretic, but I hope it keeps meeting other needs.

      • Dolma Beck says:

        Hey Nick, your book continues to entertain/ light and breezy. Very short , though, on any sex scenes. Or intimations that this Brisbane couple even bother going there anymore.. Maybe I’ve yet to get to that part? As a woman , ten yrs older than your guy, fond memories return about 70s music. Didn’t hit Qld, though, till early 90s. Sydney was my home town. Regards, Dolma

        Sent from my iPhone


      • nickearls says:

        Thanks Dolma. If I’m to be honest about the motivation re the sex scenes, it’s probably at least partly because they’re much easier to write distractingly badly than well. Anyway, please assume they’re happening – I’d just backed the camera out of the bedroom door by then.

      • Dolma Beck says:

        Nick, of course , Brisbane in summer- can’t imagine much sex actually goes on!
        All good. Dolma.

        Sent from my iPhone


      • Dolma Beck says:

        Hi, again.. Just got around to reading programme for Byron writers festival- and there you are. Cool. It’s been fun, hanging out with your ” family”, for a few days.. Regards, Dolma.

        Sent from my iPhone


  6. My daughter and I are huge fans ever since you were in residence at PCWC in Perth, WA and we drove you around way back in 2000/1 (I think). Anyway I want to buy here this latest copy BUT where are signed copies available for sale?

    • nickearls says:

      I think it was December 2000 when you drove me around? I remember that trip pretty well.

      I visited Booktopia last week specifically to make sure there would be signed copies that could go anywhere. I signed dozens, so they should have some. Alternatively, if you’d like it personalised and made out with a specific message, the best option might be to contact Riverbend Books in Brisbane in the next day or so. They’re the bookseller for my Monday evening event, so I should be able to sign one then for them to mail to you on Tuesday.

  7. Sorry – should be ‘her’ not ‘here’.

  8. Pingback: Ep 28 Stunning writing studios, a ridiculously priced comic book, extreme reading and we talk to doctor turned bestselling author Nick Earls. | Australian Writers’ Centre writing courses – Ignite your creativity

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