Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth? These are people you know, but not as you know them.Peel back the mask and see.
This book is dedicated to the victims of violent crime, the struggle against discrimination in all its forms and making the world a better place for our children. That is why 30% of all profits will be shared between Stop Hate UK, The North East Autism Society and Friends of the Earth.
Part of an interview by Kate Horsley, Editor of Crimeculture Magazine
The good news is that Backstories looks set be your real breakthrough book. But tell me, Simon, what makes Backstories so special?
Hi Kate, Backstories is a collection of stories with a famous, (or infamous) person hidden in every one. They are all characters you know, or as the tag-line says, characters you think you know – but what makes the reading experience so unique is that I don’t tell you who they are. This means your job is to find them. That’s the game.
It’s what gives you that Eureka moment of discovery, when you realise who’s mind you’ve been living inside for the last twenty minutes. It is also what gives these stories their particular resonance.
What do you mean by, ‘their particular resonance’?
What I mean is – I could’ve just told you a straight biographical story about some little known moment in the character’s life, but if I tell you, here’s a story about – Madonna, for example, you will inevitably bring your preconceptions with you into the story. By withholding her name, I can take you on a journey into the life
of a young Italian American girl, show you her difficulties and anxieties and drives and allow you to rediscover her wholly anew – which in turn means that when you do realise her identity, your existing view of Madonna is overlaid onto your fresh insight into the character in the story. This leaves you with two different but equally valid truths to take away – and that is the source of Backstories’ resonance.
Who are these characters?
Most of them are my childhood heroes, (and villains), famous people from when I was a kid and even from a little before. For me, there’s something about people from an earlier time that carry an extra aura of mystery, and makes unravelling them all the more compelling.
What led you to write Backstories?
It began with an urge to understand my heroes, to cut through the shiny, public image bullshit and get to something more meaningful – and maybe get back in touch with how it felt to be seventeen.
The real trigger though, was going to see a musician from way back when. The truth is I was a bit concerned. Would he still be any good? Or just a bit sad? I mean the guy’s well into his seventies.
In fact, he was utterly and completely brilliant. Great voice, great music and above all, great honesty. That gig was my inspiration for this book, and for anything I write. To get to the emotional truth.
So the next day put aside my novel and wrote a little piece about this guy’s life.
That might’ve been that, but my wife, Nikki loved it. I told her there was no market for short-stories, but of course, as happens far too often in our house, she was right and I was wrong.
Is there any point to Backstories, beyond just entertainment?
In fact, Kate, there are two.
Entertaining people is, I think, a valid reason for any book – but as I say, the point for me is always to seek emotional truth, and the two things are, of course linked.
There’s nothing more compelling than heartfelt truth – and nothing more utterly tedious that fakery.
Clearly, the truth of people is that we’re very much closer to our childhood selves than we like to believe. Really, we’re all just kids – with a thin veneer laid on top – fighting our childhood battles over and over again. Why is Trump a
narcissist? Why is Elon Musk obsessed with outer-space? Why was Janis Joplin so unable to cope with stardom? Psychology 101 tells us that the answer lies in their childhood – what Backstories does, is, make that truth ‘explode into the reader’s consciousness’* (as someone said). And that’s the point. I want to make you feel this truth, rather than merely understand it.
Beyond that, of course, there’s another obvious truth that I highlight through the revelation of these characters – that black or white, gay or straight, neuro-typical or not, whoever we are in the great diverse spectrum of life that is who we’re meant to be. We’re all human beings, and with a little effort and a willingness to put aside preconceptions, we can all be understood.
That, in turn, is why my characters are so deliberately diverse.
My own questions for Simon
When and where do you prefer to write?
The spare back-bedroom is my sanctuary. Once the kids are safely off to school, there’s nothing better than to sit down with inspiration buzzing round my head, and begin. Of course if there’s no inspiration it’s a lot less fun, but I begin anyway. I might have to write a page or two that goes straight in the bin. That’s just the price I pay. But I know, if I dig through the shit for long enough, eventually, I’ll come up with the treasure.
Do you need peace and quiet when you are writing?
Yes. Absolutely. My God, peace and calm and quiet please. There’s nothing worse than thinking and writing my way into someone’s soul, and then have to go and talk about plumbing or packed lunches or any of the essential minutia of life that surely could’ve waited.
If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
I don’t know if I could. Writing is, (as someone said), my chance to talk without being interrupted. Collaborations can be great, just not for me, which isn’t to say I’m proud of that – it’s just the way it is. That said, it’d be crazy fun to sit down with Oscar Wilde in his pomp. I love Graham Greene’s heartfelt guilt, Peter Carey too – and flawed and dated as he may be, my first teenage literary love was Hemingway. I can’t quite imagine trying to write with him, though. All I can envisage is rum, and sparks flying.
Say someone asks if they can use your name in a book. Would you rather be the ‘good one’ or the ‘bad one’?
Bad, but not too bad. Or maybe good? I don’t know. I think I’d want to write it.
Who would you like/have liked to interview?
Hemingway, Wilde, Greene and Carey, amongst many other writers. But there are also numerous leaders, activists, singers and film stars – particularly from the 60s 70s and 80s who really caught my imagination growing up. The thing is, I can’t tell you who they are, because many of them are hidden in Backstories, and of course, it’s your job to find them.
Where can I find you when you are reading?
In bed, last thing at night. Very occasionally, I might read during the day, but it feels such an indulgence, when I should be writing.
Where can I find you when you are not writing/reading?
Out walking with Barney the dog, and the children, or maybe driving them to tennis or swimming or singing or art… (A little lockdown silver-lining is I spend a lot less time in the car and a lot more actually with the family.) And very occasionally, when all the work is done, I get to spend a little time alone with my wife, Nikki.
What goes through your mind when you hold your new book in your hands for the first time?
There’s a strong sense of satisfaction, but the truth is that by the time a book has reached that final stage it feels like history. The passion is always for what I am writing now.
How do you come up with a title for your book?
A hundred different ways – asking people I trust is probably number one – that, and trying to get to the core of what the book is about. I wrote most of Backstories with the working title of Cameos, but these stories are more than just cameos, more than just a walk-on by a famous person. They go to the root of who the character is, and most importantly, how they came to be that way. So deep down, I always knew Cameos wasn’t quite right.
It was quite late on, pretty close to finalising the book for copy-editing when I watched The Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, (a brilliant, harrowing film). Afterwards, my sister-in-law said that she thought the backstories were the best bits in a lot of films, and I thought, yes, yes they are.
How do you pick a cover for your book?
A little like the title, I’m looking for something that goes to the essence of the book, and maybe amplifies that idea in a thought provoking way. It helps enormously that my wife, Nikki, is an artist. She helps me put my rather wild ideas into something meaningful on the page, (and discard the impractical ones). With the brief in place, we then pass it over to the utterly brilliant Gill Heeley who does the real heavy lifting, and to whom I am so grateful for the fantastic cover of Backstories.
Thank you, Simon Van der Velde
About the Author
Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, labourer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as travelling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters and insights for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Shortstory Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.
Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, Nicola, their labradoodle, Barney and two tyrannical children.