A portrait of a novelist as a PR man (or should that be the other way round?)
Dan Tyte claims to have invented doing up your top button when not wearing a tie. Is this the man responsible for the collar quirk which revolutionised smart casual dress? Or is this just a triumph of self-invention? A well-worn line repeated so many times that it becomes a weary kind of truth. As an executive director at an award winning PR company Dan knows the power an prevalence of the image.
I think he puts it best in debut novel, Half Plus Seven, when he says, "everyone one of us was a brand. A personal brand. What, you? Yes you."
Sometimes it seems we live in a nation of press officers where everyone is involved in promoting something or other, like every waking moment is be part of some elaborate pitch.We live in a world where “online presence” and “brand creation” have gone beyond marketing talk to become part of the common lexicon.
Dan's story is about a PR man trying to shatter this world of surfaces in search of redemption and truth.
Not fashionable ideas perhaps, but then Dan, 33, is trying to establish himself as self-appointed “anti-spokesperson for Generation Whine.”
To this end he faces one last great feat of spin, establishing himself as an author. So how does a PR man PR his novel about PR?
"The first thing you have to do is to distill an 80,000 word book into a five or 10 second sound bite. This is difficult but that’s the art of PR, having a complicated story and, in the 10 or 15 seconds of a journalist’s attention, hitting them with a zinger in the middle of the eyes which makes them want to know a bit more. That’s easier in my professional life because I know the narratives, how to play the media and how to hook stories into these narratives,” says Tyte. “But conversely I think the book does fit in with narratives which do play well and this makes it an easier job. These narratives around the maelstrom of modern life, the housing crisis, divorce rates, Tinder, mysinglefriend.com, lunchtime boozing, taking drugs is just like having a cup of tea, having a cat instead of a kid. I wanted to write our generation a tale they can connect with because they recognise themselves.”
"The maelstrom of modern life, the housing crisis, divorce rates, Tinder, mysinglefriend.com, lunchtime boozing, taking drugs is just like having a cup of tea, having a cat instead of a kid."
Half Plus Seven was born on a press trip to New York with Kruger magazine - a matte wonder which burned brightly from 2004 to 2010. The team travelled from Cardiff to the East Coast on a cultural excursion including a fateful visit to a Greenwich Village psychic.
"She said things to my friends which made me think 'this woman knows her stuff'. The one thing she said to me which really sticks out is that many will come and many will go. That feels about right."
Prescient perhaps but I doubt the fortune teller realised their brief meeting would be the springboard for a novel. Fast forward six years and Dan is back in the Empire State catching up with ex-girlfriends and student drinking buddies.
He's searching for a ghost, his youth? No. The ghost of Dylan Thomas - Dan's role model for healthy living.
"We found the bottom of many glasses and slept in Brooklyn’s most coffin like beds," there was also a pilgrimage to The White Horse Tavern and a kind of séance in a Chinatown karaoke bar.
But alas the writer’s spirit was nowhere to be found.
Dan's search for Dylan there however - on his return to the UK travelled to the poet's childhood home, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea. Stood in the front room where the Dylan was born, 200 years earlier, Dan read Onwards, a short story from the Rarebit collection.
The story "acted as the single to the album" allowing Dan to slay his butterflies before debuting material from the novel.
"When I did my first readings for this tour it was a little bit like the film Eight Mile with Eminem. I've been like Marshal Mathers, at first I was strangely nervous, despite being used to speaking in front of groups of people,” he says. “But now I’ve worked out the optimum number of pints of strong continental larger to have so I can walk on stage and feel like Iggy Pop.”
Dan is at pains to point out that he's not Bill McDare, central character of Half Plus Seven, who is equal parts loathsome and loveable. But you would be forgiven for being confused, there are obvious comparisons, not least the fact they both work in PR.
The PR world which Bill inhabits is so well observed that it can only have been born from years of experience.
That of course is down to Mark Twain's most enduring aphorism.
“It’s the well worn cliché of ‘write what you know,’ I don’t know what an astronaut does at 9am in the morning, or a lion tamer, or a chartered account. But I know what a PR person does. So there’s that. But also because there’s an unfounded perception of PR as a vaguely glamorous job where people thinks it’s all cocaine and champaign,” Tyte continues. “You’ve also got the rise and fall of the spin doctor which has lead people to see PR as quite and influential, powerful dark art which they might like to know a bit more about. So I think being able to pull up the grimy plaster and show people the wound is quite an intriguing thing. I think it has mass appeal to people interested in how the world spins on its axis.”
Undoubtedly, the book will also chime with anyone who has ever worked in an office with its deadly accurate depictions of the desk.
There's a certain kind of job which I think a lot of graduates - myself included - now find themselves in. This mostly applies to the kind of work that isn't measured in physical output and which doesn't necessarily have a visible outcome.
I think maybe it's due in part to this that such roles begin to be defined, above all else, by the experience of sitting at a computer all day. I know that I felt the poignancy of recognition in the cast of petty and thwarted types who people the fictive offices of Morgan & Schwarz.
And if I feel this way then I have to wonder what Dan's real life colleagues at Working Word in Cardiff think of the often unflinching portrayal of both office life and the PR game. Is there any danger that he has breached, if not directly then by a kind of osmosis, the PR world's Hippocratic Oath of respecting client's "confidentiality of information?"
"No," is the firm answer. “I’ve had clients tell me they don't know if they can work with me anymore. But then they read the book and they text telling me they cried at the end. Half Plus Seven is based in a PR world which, apart from the office politics stuff, isn’t really one which relates to my experience. But if you’re a good cop you can write crime thrillers about corrupt police, it's all about knowing that world and inhabiting it so you can make your story seem real. The PR world that Bill works in is quite a grotesque one and one that I don’t work in – but it’s one I’m sure exists."
In the book Bill sets out to help his colleagues, which seems to mostly involve making them confront, or at the very least appreciate, the truth about themselves.
Towards the end of the story, in what I take to be the central message, it is suggested that selling an image is perpetuating a lie and that we all need to face up to the reality of who we actually are.
But how does that fit in with the truth twisting sleight of hands and imaginative acrobatics invariably executed by any novelist who decides to cannibalise their own experiences.
Telling stories may well be telling lies. But then I guess Mark Twain had a smart retort for this too, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
It's a sentiment which Dan shares:
“If you tell the truth you can’t get caught out, I suppose in PR there are different versions of the truth and everyone has their own version,” he says. “Bill's been so busy working to construct other people's versions of the truth that he's not really been interested in his own version of the truth, the truth he's been hiding from himself."
The book launch is in the shadow of The Big Sleep, a hotel part owned by John Malkovich. Malkovich. Malkovich.
Half Plus Seven has been brought to life for the night after Dan persuaded the staff of publisher Parthian Books to play parts from the novel.
The PR woman has been dressed up as psychic. Another (less fortunate) worker sits on stage in a balaclava drinking super strength lager and hammering away on a laptop.
There's speed dating at one table while on another there’s an ice bucket filled, not with champagne but with Carlsberg Special Brew, perhaps an apt metaphor for Dan himself.
When I arrive he is darting around the room, everyone’s best friend at the same time. You’ve seen politicians press less flesh, it’s just fortunate there are no babies for him to kiss.
Dan tells me it’s like his wedding or funeral, “I turn up and all these lovely people I’ve known from different aspects of my life, throughout my 33 years, have deigned to put on their best jeans and iron a shirt or stick a dress on and come see me go on stage and talk nonsense”.
He’s not far off. The back room of the bar is filled to bursting with a motley assortment of press officers, politicians and poets.
There's a Welsh Assembly officer whose laugh, loud and like a detuned radio, leads some to suggest he may be a plant.
Tabloid hacks down pints of larger, jealous someone else has written the novel they’ve always dreamt of.
The NME editor is in the corner mourning John Terry’s last minute winner against his beloved Everton.
I chat to a producer from the BBC who's just finished reading the book. “I would like to know what Dan’s family think of it,” he says with genuine concern.
Does he really think Dan’s stepdad is a failed eighties popstar?
As for Dan’s mum, he needn’t have worried, she tells me she hasn’t read the book but is planning on ploughing through it while on holiday in Egypt.
Despite her son’s warnings about the content... “I’m a grow sliden woman - nothing in there is going to shock me.”
One of Dan's old university friends has come down from Liverpool for the night because the book was “such a great achievement”.
He keeps saying how Dan was a bit “freaked out” to see him before insisting I take a photograph of him with the freshly signed novel shoved down his trousers.
All My Friends is playing as Dan takes to the stage alongside writer Richard Owain Roberts who’s there for dramatic interjections.
Clad in leather jackets they're like The Jesus and Mary Chain had the Reid brothers refined the riot starting feedback into something resembling eloquence.
...there were six basic steps we used which could convince people into doing anything you so desired.
What if David Bowie and Robin Friday were to meet? What would they talk about? Would they be able to find a common ground? Or would they come to blows.
The Man Who Fell To Earth going toe-to-toe with The Greatest Player You Never Saw.
One a well-meaning folk singer who transformed himself into a alien sex object. The other a volatile football talent who was turned inside out by his inability to say no.
These are the ghosts which Dan conjures out of the beerlight as we sit beneath a giant Sky Sports screen in a Cardiff pub.
Robin and David. David and Robin. Between them they embody the idea that wherever you come from you can go on to be whatever you want to be. It's yours to win.... or to squander.
Choice, or at least the illusion of it, is at the heart of PR. The Thin White Duke wasn't renowned for saying "no" he just he faced a better set of questions.
Robin's infamous victory salute was a postcard to the void while Aladdin Sane got his own exhibition at the V&A.
What separates them is redemption.
"Without redemption you can be afraid of making mistakes, without mistakes you can’t learn to do things differently or better, without the freedom to take a chance you may not discover things you otherwise discovered.
"Every day we have to make loads of choices and have loads of choices made for us, which gives a higher propensity for mistakes. We’re all going to mess up a handful of times a day, having the chance to still be OK and not be in trouble with anyone the next day is kind of like redemption in its purest form,” he says.
“I’ve made loads of mistakes personally and I'd always like a second chance, maybe if you don’t always get it. Grow slideing up I was always making mistakes. I was brought up as a Catholic in a community and congregation surrounded by drunken womanisers. But redemption was always at the heart of that - the idea you can mess up but you’re still allowed back."
Saint. Sinner. Schoolboy. Star. "The Dan Tyte brand is in a state of flux" but there is one constant. Cardiff.
Dan is very much a product of this city of contradictions where ideas of old and new, rich and poor, British and Welsh are constantly colliding.
Looking for Dylan Thomas
On St David's day Dan filmed a promo video for the book - ticking off the box for "multi platform content."
The streets of Cardiff are thronged with school children dressed in black hats and white shawls. Church bells ring out in staggered peels from Llandaff Cathedral down to to St John's.
There's a procession of giant paper maché leeks and the foam forms of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Nessa from Gavin on Stacey.
Away from the parade there are insecure clusters of Cosplay kids decked out for a comic convention.
By the time I arrive on set, the pockets of my coat bulging with Welsh cakes, filming is already underway.
Back in a Porters, a week or so after the launch, and Dan has swapped his leather jacket and skinny jeans for a suit.
Director James Nee is busy adjusting the lights and focusing the camera, trying to get a “BBC Two review show classic style.”
The day before James was filming a movie with Jamie Oliver who Dan believes has been on his own redemption ride.
"Jamie Oliver was derided by people for using the word Pukka but now everyone loves him because he tried to make kids stop eating Turkey Twizzlers,” he explains.
I take a seat at the back of the room, James is talking about shadow and shine, there’s daylight piercing through the red velvet curtains, it's all very theatrical.
But Dan, speaking through mouthfuls of a Gregg’s apple danish, seems to have other ideas.
"It should be like a trailer for a film, you just want to see the explosions you don't want to see Joel Schumacher talking about what he thinks,” says Tyte.
....Thursday became the new Friday. Wednesday the new Thursday. Monday the old Saturday. The weekend invaded the week much as if Monaco marched across the border in France. Decadent but ill equipped.
Dan waited until there were no other customers around and then very quickly he took the book from the shelf marked T, walked a couple of feet and placed it in the section marked Bert’s Favourites.
Suddenly he was rubbing shoulders with Charles Bukowski and Jim Dodge in the fiction section of Waterstones, Cardiff.
Could it be that this act of illicit stock rotation was the nosebleed moment he realised: “Hey I”m a writer and I’ve got the scabs to show it?”
“That's actually been the most been interesting part of PRing a novel, based in PR, as a PR person. You have a profile for doing something and then that profile changes and the perception of you changes,” he explains. “You can see the where the levee breaks, where you stop being a PR person and become an author.”
But how much can you really separate an author from their PR? Is it ever possible to differentiate between the idea of an author and their actual work.
Often it seems the selling of a book is not about the quality of the writing but rather noise around it.
Perhaps the literary world is becoming filled with what Jonathan Franzen calls “yakkers and tweeters and braggers.”
But I guess that’s easy for him to say from the right side of a James Tait Black Memorial Prize. But when it comes to your first novel there are no prizes for not playing the game.
“You only have your first novel out once, you only get one chance and you’ve got to take it - if I don't I'll be in my death bed and will regret it.”
“I've got to be there for the opportunities to come up otherwise everything might pass me by.”
This might mean personally posting books to BBC 6 Music DJs, or trying to get a piece on Buzzfeed because “when you're trying to connect with Generation Whine, go where they like to whine”.
It’s all exposure, even being interviewed for this feature, it’s all about trying to reach the tipping point.
“I’m just waiting for some Hollywood mogul to come along and buy the rights to Half Plus Seven.”
“If any Hollywood moguls are reading this, it is a very filmic novel and does tap into the souls, hopes and dreams of a generation.”
— Adam Smith
Art direction: Small Joys