Books

04.24.14

He’s Got a Ticket to Write, or How a Late Train Produced a Novel

The train Dominic Utton took to work broke down a lot. Each time it happened, he wrote to the railroad. They wrote back. And a novel was born.

When my debut novel, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time, was published this year, the feeling was unbeatable. I toured every bookshop I could find just to see it on the shelves. I checked Amazon and Goodreads reviews with something approaching obsession. Five-star reviews made me deliriously happy; three-star reviews crushingly sad. I kept simply picking up the book and gazing at it … It looked beautiful. It felt beautiful. My name on it—beautiful.

Do all first-time authors feel like this? Possibly. But my joy was increased by the knowledge that, really, writing my novel was a bit of an accident.

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is a story about train travel, tabloid journalism, love, life, and the importance of good pop music. It’s an epistolary novel, told entirely in the form of emails between Dan, a harassed new dad and reporter on a scandal-hit Sunday newspaper, and the eponymous Martin Harbottle, managing director of the train company that takes Dan to work and home each day.

It is not a true story. But it has its roots in my own experiences—as a journalist and a train commuter.

We like to think of our novelists as tortured, romantic types, starving in garrets, scribbling their souls out amidst a mess of empty wine bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and endless sheets of crumpled paper. But the truth in my case is that I wrote my novel on a commuter train between Oxford and London, surrounded by nothing more romantic or tortured than take-away coffee cups and businessmen.

And when I started writing, I had no intention of writing a novel.

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time began life as a blog—and before that, as a single angry email. It owes its existence to a certain amount of British good manners, a healthy dollop of equally British smart-arsed humor … and the extraordinary power of social media.

Let me explain.

Four years ago I started commuting from my home in Oxford to my work at the News of the World newspaper in London. It meant an hour on the train each way—not such a big deal in theory, but in practice, the reality was that the “hour” journey was very rarely an hour at all. The Oxford-to-London line is managed by a company called First Great Western—and they are notorious for running services both chronically overcrowded and regularly delayed.

For 14 months, like most commuters, I did nothing more than tut to myself at the shoddiness of it all and carry on suffering with everyone else. Until one morning I snapped.

I quickly found that to arrive at work (or home) on schedule was the exception rather than the rule, meaning almost daily apologies to my boss, or my wife, or both. But for 14 months, like most commuters, and British commuters especially, I did nothing more than internalize my anger, tut to myself at the shoddiness of it all, and carry on suffering with everyone else.

Until one morning I snapped. On June 28, 2011, after a 35-minute delay, I tracked down the personal email of Mark Hopwood, the managing director of First Great Western (it doesn’t appear on the company Web site, funnily enough) and sent him a long, passive-aggressive rant in which I vented all the frustration of my previous year-and-a-bit’s commuting nightmares. And then I told him that I would be writing back to him—every time, in fact, I was delayed—and that the length of my emails would reflect the length of those delays.

The idea, I informed Mr. Hopwood, was that I would waste as much of his time as he was wasting of mine—at the rate of about 100 words per minute. So a short, five-minute delay would mean a pithy 500-word email … but a half-hour hold-up would necessarily entail an equally soul-sapping 3,000-word epic for him to trawl through.

And that, I thought, was that. The chances of Mr. Hopwood bothering to actually read it were slim—I did it more for the cathartic threat of action, rather than in expectation of any result.

Except … extraordinarily, brilliantly, he wrote back. He promised he would read any complaints. So I felt I had to carry my threat through—and we began corresponding. And that’s when things began to get interesting.

I told a friend at work about my emails: After reading them she thought them hilarious and showed them to more friends. One of them suggested I set up a blog and post the ongoing correspondence online for anyone to enjoy.

So Letters to First Great Western (letterstofgw.blogspot.com) was born. At first I had a tiny amount of readers—up to 20 a week at most. Until one evening, my Twitter feed went crazy. Somebody with a huge following had found the blog, tweeted a link … which was duly retweeted by others, and then again by still others—and overnight Letters to First Great Western was pulling in over 1,000 hits a day.

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Martin Harbottle's Appreciation of Time by Dominic Utton, Oneworld Publications ()

At that time my delays were requiring around three emails to Mr. Hopwood a week. With such a large, engaged audience to write for (and such a lengthy word count to hit), the letters became increasingly absurd, funny, rambling, full of pop-culture references and drawing inspiration from the likes of Spike Milligan and Henry Root. And Mark Hopwood kept writing back.

Before long the local press caught on—and after them the national press. I was interviewed by the BBC, featured on their flagship news programme Panorama … and then, one morning, received a phone call from a literary agent. Had I considered turning my blog into a novel, he asked.

I certainly did after that conversation.

The result was Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time—which takes as its central premise the idea of a slightly snarky, smart-arsed, but essentially right-minded tabloid journalist writing letters of complaint to the boss of his train company. Through a year of correspondence the lives of both men and their relation to events in the world outside the train carriage are revealed.

The novel was written in six months on the same trains I composed my (real) blog letters on. I often found myself in the surreal position of simultaneously writing genuine emails of complaint to Mark Hopwood … and fictional letters to the fictional Martin Harbottle.

In the end it was all too confusing—so after nine months, 98 emails, nearly 50 replies, and more than 100,000 words of complaint—I finally ended Letters to First Great Western. To date the blog has had over 137,000 hits.

The manuscript of Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time was finished soon after, sold to Oneworld Publications, and hit the shelves in Britain and the U.S. this spring. The reaction (so far) has been almost overwhelmingly positive.

And the best moment of all? The first time I saw someone on my morning commute reading a copy. Not only that—he was laughing, too. That’s got to be worth all the delayed trains in the world.

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is out now.