The Carter USM frontman explains how OCD led him to books with pictures, and reveals the ones he’s stolen from to write his new book
Jim Bob began his career as the singing half of indie stalwarts Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Since the band split up in 1997, he has released some eight albums, the most recent two being “concept” accounts of a struggling comprehensive school and a crime-gripped city desperate for superhero help.
His rock’n’roll memoirs, Goodnight Jim Bob, were published by Cherry Red Books in 2004, and a “mini-novel” was included with his 2007 solo album A Humpty Dumpty Thing. Storage Stories, his “comic fictional autobiographical novel and collection of short stories”, is published this week.
“I have mild OCD. One of the symptoms is that when I read a book I often have to read each sentence two or even four times before I feel I can move onto the next one without thinking one of my loved ones will die in a plane crash. Big fat doorstops of text are a daunting prospect. The 560,000 words in your copy of War and Peace could be as many as two-and-a-half million for me. I like short chapters, big titles and even gaps of empty page. I think this might be one of the reasons why I like books with illustrations. A picture between chapters, mid-paragraph or even -sentence takes my OCD-addled mind off all the re-reading nonsense and I can get to the end of a book a lot more efficiently. As Telly Savalas so memorably said, “A picture paints a thousand words.” That’s two or three pages closer to the end of War and Peace.
“I always wanted to have illustrations in my own novel. Maybe just a couple of graphs and a picture of the building where the book is set, and I knew there’d be a drawing of a job ad at the start of the book. Then I added more and more pictures and they became an integral part of the story and the way it’s told – I couldn’t imagine the book now without them. My drawing skills are pretty limited, but luckily the main character in my novel – the one who’s drawing the pictures in the story – turned out to be somebody with limited drawing skills too.”
1. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s ridiculous of me to place it at number one, or to even call it illustrated. There’s only one drawing of a tombstone that appears a few times in the book. It’s not even a particularly good drawing of a tombstone. It’s at the top of my chart though, because when the picture appears at the end of the story it’s as the punchline to my favourite ending to any book ever. I won’t ruin the book by saying what it is.
2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I may have stolen the idea of actually making the illustrations part of the text in my novel from this book. For example, the way its young hero will say something like “there was a date on the postmark and it was quite difficult to read, but it said” and then instead of telling us what the postmark says, there’ll be a picture of the postmark.
3. The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith
I bought this book largely based on the way it looked: its unconventional size and its hardback jacket over a paperback book. I judged it by its cover. Then I read it and it’s excellent. Like the images in The Curious Incident, Michael Smith’s simple drawings form an actual part of the text. Perhaps it was actually here I stole that idea from. The writing reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s, if he’d come from Hartlepool.
4. Motel Life by Willy Vlautin
I was originally going to compile a Top 10 of Musicians Who’ve Written Novels but I’ve only read five: three of those are by Willy Vlautin. It would have been more like Top 10 Books by Willy Vlautin. The Motel Life is the first of his novels. It’s the story of two brothers from Reno who skip town to avoid the consequences of a hit-and-run accident. Told in a heartbreaking matter-of-fact way, with illustrations mainly of motel signs, gun shops and trashed cars. Like snapshots from a Greyhound bus window.
5. Life After God by Douglas Coupland
A book of short stories, with a connecting theme of a generation brought up without religion. Different to Coupland’s other stuff – which I also love – this is more of an introspective book. The book’s simple sketches are in the same league as those drawn by the character in my novel – perhaps Coupland drew them on the bus on the way to his publishers to deliver the finished book.
6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The story of a pilot who crash lands in the desert, where he befriends a little prince from another planet who tells him about his journeys and of his love for a self-centred rose back on his own planet. The illustrations once again are incorporated within the body of the text. Is this where I nicked the idea from? Technically not a book for adults but I imagine that’s when a lot of people read it, me included. I’d like to tell you that I read the original French version. But I’d be lying, as I can’t speak French.
7. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
In this book, letters and numbers are used to form the pictures. I don’t know how it was done, it looks like it must have taken a long time. There’s a series of shark pictures towards the end of the book that are constructed from words and grow in size with each page so the shark appears to approach the reader. This is novel as flick book.
8. Shorty Loves Wing Wong by Michael Smith & Jim Medway
In Michael Smith’s second book, he writes about his return to Hartlepool and memories of his childhood there. The illustrations of cats in the pub, cats in school uniform, cats eating fish and chips, cat prostitutes etc are wonderful. My favourite is the cat in the Inspiral Carpets t-shirt.
9. The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern with illustrations by
Philip Van Doren Stern wrote this story and had it printed as a Christmas card for his friends in the 1940s. An illustrated version of the book was published in 1996 to mark the 50th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, the film that was based on the story. It’s my favourite film of all time. I don’t know if I would have liked the book so much if that weren’t the case, but it is a very lovely story.
10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is Illustrated Book for Adults Extreme. The story’s about a nine-year-old whose dad is killed in the 9/11 attacks. The book is full of photographs, doodles, colour text, blank pages and a 15-page flick book. OCD-tastic.