When We Were Young
In Richard Roper’s tender and funny novel two former school friends reunite after many years to fulfil a childhood promise to walk the Thames Path together. Their journey along the 184-mile track opens up a space for the two of them to discuss the past and the present, helping them heal a rift that developed between them when they were 16 while confronting some hard truths about their adult lives.
Tell us about the Thames Path and why it’s a focal point of this novel.
I decided a few years ago that I wanted to go on some sort of solo adventure. I’d just read Laurie Lee’s memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and was struck by the glorious simplicity of leaving home on foot, as Lee did, and walking through the English countryside. The only problem is that I have absolutely no sense of direction and get lost incredibly easy, so it couldn’t be anything that complicated. That’s where the Thames Path came in, as it is quite hard to get lost when you’re following a river (although I did, somehow, manage it). Walking along by the river, with history unfolding in front of me as I went through all these villages and crossed bridges that the Romans had, I couldn’t help but get all caught up with my own past and got lost in a lot of nostalgic reveries. At one point a friend came and joined me for a leg of the walk, and we talked an awful lot of entertaining nonsense (as is our wont), and then I knew I had to write something about two old friends walking that path.
When We Were Young is written from two viewpoints – Joel and Theo. Tell us a bit about these two. How hard was it to ensure that their voices were distinct from one another in the book and how did you ensure this happened?
Theo is endearingly useless. He grew up a very shy kid, became obsessed with comedy when he couldn’t make friends, and he was never quite equipped for adult life, which is why we find him living in his parents’ shed at the start of the book. Joel is much more together and successful, but he’s had his own issues and has had some awful news when we meet him. I wanted this to be a real reflection of male friendship, which means that Theo and Joel are incredibly close – or they used to be – but they find it impossible to talk about anything serious with each other, which causes all sorts of problems. When it comes to their voices, I actually wrote the first draft entirely from Theo’s perspective, but when I realised I needed Joel’s voice there too it meant I had Theo’s to compare it to already, so I could make sure it was distinct.
Joel and Theo are working on writing a sitcom. What are some of your favourite sitcoms and have you ever considered writing one yourself?
There are so many to mention: The Office, Black Books, Detectorists (which was a big inspiration for the book), Peep Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge. I am absolutely a frustrated sitcom writer at heart, and I’m actually working on a script now (just for my own amusement at the moment).
Who was your best childhood friend and what influence did they have on your life?
Rather like Theo, I was a horribly shy child, which meant finding friends was hard. My best friend at primary school was a boy called Ben, who I shared a birthday with. We fell out of touch as we got older and went to different schools, but he actually got in touch when my first book came out, which was a very lovely moment.
How did writing this, your second novel, compare with your first?
It was much, much harder, pandemic or no pandemic! My first novel seemed to arrive fully formed, so I arrogantly assumed that this was the case with everything I’d write, as if I’d discovered alchemy or something. My arrogance was punished by what turned out to be several intense edits and redrafts. I am indebted to my brilliant editor Harriet Bourton who made it a million times better. I was lucky that I had a draft written before lockdown(s), which meant I at least had the raw material to work with. I’m not sure I could have started from scratch while going mad looking at the same four walls.
Your first novel was called Something to Live For in the UK but initially called How Not to Die Alone in the US. Why the name change?
It’s been a real rollercoaster, this title business. How Not to Die Alone was my working title. The US publisher loved it, the UK not so much, as they thought it was a little too dark. We decided to go with two titles (not unusual, I gather). But then when the pandemic hit, just as the paperback was coming out, the US publisher decided to change the paperback title to Something to Live For. I’m never having two titles again, let me tell you!
As well as being a fiction writer, you’re also a non-fiction editor. What are some of your favourite non-fiction books?
I love Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He’s such a one-off. One of the most under-rated books I’m always telling people to read is Isy Suttie’s memoir The Actual One. That book makes me howl. I am lucky enough to publish another brilliant comedian, James Acaster, and his book Classic Scrapes is – and I know I am biased – the funniest book ever written.
Are there any other national trails that you’d like to walk?
I’d love to do a good stretch of the South West Coast Path. I’ve never been to Cornwall so that would be a great introduction to the place.