Chris Russell: Where Do Novels Come From? The Five Stages of Songs About a Girl

Chris Russell: Where Do Novels Come From? The Five Stages of Songs About a Girl

The band in their schooldays (Chris is on the far left)

1) 1994: I formed a band

When I was thirteen, I met my best friend, George. George was a blue-eyed Beatles fan with a Fender Strat and the voice of an angel, and we hit it off immediately. After seeing Bon Jovi headline Wembley, we decided the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle looked like a damn fine lark, and started a band. We raced through a series of band names, including 4-Ever (yes, we genuinely spelt it like that), Forest Dreams (that one lasted about half an hour) and the Latin-inspired Pro Mori, which won out mainly because, from a distance, it looked a bit like Bon Jovi. We recorded an implausibly long cassette-tape album called That’s The Way The Story Goes, and harangued all our friends into buying it. We played concerts in village halls and country churches, performing epic two-and-a-half-hour-long sets because that’s what Bon Jovi did. Then, one evening, as the sun set over the Thames Valley, we sat in a tree in George’s garden, our hearts full of hope and wonder, and swore that, one day, just like our heroes, we would play at the world-famous Wembley Stadium.

2) 2002: I started having adventures

Chris and George at Wembley Stadium

In the summer of 2002, I graduated from university. This meant it was time to lay aside my textbooks, my extensive collection of highlighters and my well-thumbed copy of Great Expectations, and start living. We had a rock ’n’ roll band to launch, and adventures to pursue. Admittedly, the first of those adventures involved working as unskilled labourers for a local landscaper, carrying out all kinds of dubious tasks from picking up litter in supermarket car parks to cleaning out dead people’s houses – but what the job lacked in glamour, it made up for in being the only time in my life when I had muscles. Then, slowly, surely, things began to pick up. We found a drummer, and became The Lightyears. We started touring internationally: Europe, Asia, America, South Africa. We played sold-out gigs, flew business class to New York, watched the sun rise from roof-top jacuzzis and stayed in a series of spectacular five-star hotels (the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town even put our name on a plaque, next to Maroon Five and Michael Jackson). We once turned up in a bar in Seoul, South Korea, to find photos of us on the walls, and our music playing on the stereo. We ate breakfast with elephants in Thailand. We played Glastonbury, made a record with Sting’s producer and shared a stage with members of Queen, Journey and The Who. Then, in 2009, we realised a childhood dream when we got the opportunity to play Wembley Stadium to a crowd of 45,000 people. Sure, we were nowhere near as big as Bon Jovi – not even close – but in our own way, we’d made it. We got to say the words “Hello, Wembley!”, and see our faces on the big screen. We stood backstage, in a dressing room most recently occupied by the England football team, and just grinned at each other. This was a moment we would remember for the rest of our lives.

3) 2009: I accidentally became a novelist

Chris, onstage with The Lightyears

Shortly after our Wembley performance, George said to me, with a twinkle in his eye: “Buddy, I think you should write a novel… about me”. Since I had a history of doing pretty much any mad thing George suggested, I began work on what would eventually become Mockstars, a coming-of-age comedy about friendship and rock ’n’ roll, inspired by my tour diaries for The Lightyears. There was a rather nice circular logic to this. Although writing had been my first love, I had temporarily set it aside for life as a touring musician. But without my ever asking it to, music brought me back to writing. Music gave me something to say. It gave me a voice. And now I had the novel to prove it.

4) 2012: I got rejected, a lot

I had a finished novel. I had adventures under my belt, a coffee mug with the word “Writer” on it and a spreadsheet of publishing contacts I’d sifted from the internet. I had a beard, for heaven’s sake. Surely it was only a matter of time before I became a best-selling novelist? Well, no. Not exactly. Turns out that novels about up-and-coming indie bands aren’t that easy to sell. People liked my writing, but nobody was prepared to get behind it. I twiddled my thumbs. I shaved my beard, and grew it again. I ate a lot of hummus.

5) 2013: I fell in love with One Direction

While I was struggling to sell Mockstars, a YA trilogy was forming in my head. An intense, heart-thudding romance told against the technicolour backdrop of a world-famous boy band. It was a book I knew I could write. I’d never been in a famous boy band, obviously, but I understood what it was like to be a professional musician. I understood that a band is like a strange little family: you’re brothers, rivals, collaborators, friends and confidantes all at once. I knew I could take my experiences with The Lightyears and re-tool them in the form of an imaginary, chart-topping boy band called Fire&Lights (see what I did there?!), and weave in a turbulent romance to tie the whole thing together. And this is where One Direction come in. Around this time, I picked up a freelance job ghost-writing for a 1D fan club in Australia. Up until then, I’d always admired the band from a professional standpoint – but after just one week immersed in their world, things changed. I woke up one day, and it was suddenly so obvious: I was a Directioner. I was irretrievably obsessed with them. I suddenly knew all their surnames, their favourite foods, and who they were rumoured to be dating. Crucially, this meant that I was beginning to understand what it was like to be a fangirl, or fanboy… because I was one. Soon, my characters began to emerge: Charlie, the smart, witty but shy sixteen-year-old with a passion for photography; Melissa, her best friend and England’s biggest Fire&Lights fan; Gabriel, the mysterious teen heart-throb with a troubled past. And as the days went by, an entire fictional world began to spread out before me.

I was ready to write Songs About a Girl.

Three years later, and here I am on the verge of publication. I look at my novel’s gorgeous, shiny cover, and can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity. Mind you, I’m determined too, and slightly delusional, and it’s a combination of those qualities that’s led me to where I am today. So if there’s a lesson here, I guess it’s this – dream big, but work hard. Work really hard. Because dreams, without dedication, are just whispers on the wind.

Oh, and by all means start a band, but don’t name it 4-Ever. The school playground can be a very cruel place.

Find out more about Chris and his writing at