Many dream of escaping their unhappy lives, yet few ever make the jump. Craig Stone did it three times, and in the process resigned from a bank by emailing the entire company, had awkward sex on a Spanish beach, and became homeless to make his ambition of becoming an author a reality.
These adventures and more make up Life Knocks, Craig’s second book, which was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. We caught up with him to talk misadventure, bravery, and why ‘finding yourself’ is a myth.
Life Knocks, in part, is the story of how you went travelling to escape an unhappy life. Can you tell me a little more about making that decision?
I’ve left an unhappy life three times to change it into a happier one. I think you have to leave the life you aren’t sure about twice before it turns; the first leaving is a test, and if the second one doesn’t break you then whatever life has in store, by then you have the tools needed to laugh at it all.
I left education and worked in a call centre for a bank. I was purely existing, trapped working to meet a rent I could hardly afford, trying to write a book during the phone calls. My life wasn’t that bad, I had food, I had a roof over my head – but the delusion of grandeur had been beaten into me by my education, and so I held the same belief a million other people had: that I was one in a million. To travel, to risk, to become something else you need two attributes; just enough talent to delude yourself into thinking you are special, and just enough stupidity to make decisions other people are unwilling to take.
So I wrote a long, ranty email and sent it to every person on the global emailing system. The rant told everyone what was wrong with the 9-5, what was wrong with banks, the office, people, computers, money, my chair and motivational cat posters, and then I walked out and away from it all.
You ended up travelling to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and living in Hawaii. Were those places you’d always wanted to go, or was it more spur of the moment?
I’m from Bexleyheath in Kent, so I’m not sure I’d dreamt about anything other than being a writer and setting the odd bin on fire outside the Broadway chippy. But in life you meet people, and if you’re open to change a person can make you grow as much as a book. My friend had family in Hawaii, so we flew out for a visit and stayed.
After 3 months I had to leave America for visa reasons. I flew to Thailand for no particular reason, got off the plane, and promptly got lost. I took buses, trains, Tuk Tuks, I drank and laughed and ended up in Cambodia and Vietnam on the wave of life – never isolated, completely alone. It’s difficult to understand the importance of having an adventure while you are young. You can only truly appreciate the power of adventure and travel when you are older, looking back and beautifully folded beneath the weight of responsibility.
You had previous travel experience, when you lived in Spain as a sixteen year old – it sounds like you have some interesting stories from that time?
I quit my A-Levels early. A mate suggested we go to Spain. We lived in Calella, with actual adults twice our age, who came from all over the world. Men with real hair on their testicles and adult lady-goblins with giant breasts who walked around naked because they were that cool.
In six months we saw daylight and the beach once. And on that occasion I ate sand to try and impress a group of girls, who then left us for the types of people who don’t eat sand.
We handed out flyers, and worked for a man called Juan who was 4ft tall and had a missing pinkie finger. He was the local kingpin. I met a girl who said she was highly sexually active and wanted to have sex with me on the beach, like in some film. Nervous, I stated that I was a fantastic lover. We went to the beach, because that’s where experienced sex people go to have sex. It turned out we were both virgins – but we only found that out after an hour of redefining the word awkward.
Travelling to ‘find yourself’ is considered a huge cliché, but do you think it rings true for you?
I don’t think it does, as I’m not sure anybody ever finds him or herself. I think life is more about the struggle to accept that we are, and always have been, despite sometimes wishing otherwise. And what happens if someone travels to find him or herself - but when they arrive they aren’t in? Or they are in, but they don’t like who they are?
There’s a pull to travel in all of us, and it comes in the form of that voice that whispers you are wasting your life, but really, the fear people feel is life waiting for them to answer the door. That’s where the title Life Knocks comes from; it’s about allowing the knocks we take in life to put us on a different path and staying on it long enough to find out what’s around the corner, and the title is also a reminder that even if we decide to sit in our rooms and become a recluse, life knocks.
So listen to the knocking on the door of your mind and travel - especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. You won’t find yourself, but you might just discover that you don’t matter as much as you thought, and that’s the first step to getting over yourself and discovering something far more important than you – everybody else.
Eventually you decided to come back to the UK – what were the challenges of returning to the ‘real world’?
I left with little and came back to less. I had no money, no job and no UK bank account. I’d properly and hilariously fucked myself over. I lived in a garage that belonged to three of my friends and for months all I ate was tuna, pasta and sweetcorn. I ate that combo until I gave myself gluten intolerance, which I still have to this day.
I had a book deal in place at the time in the United States and the UK. These book deals were my inflatable lilo in the tsunami of my own making. And then, I got the call that they were pulling out of the deal because I hadn’t signed the contracts and so my publishing slot had been given to somebody else. Contracts I never received.
A friend needed a receptionist for a Saturday job in a showroom in London, just answering the phones. So I took it. That became a full time job, and just like that, I was back where I started.
Eventually I walked out of that job in similar fashion to how I left the bank, only this time I left to go and live in a park to write my first novel The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness.
What advice would you give to young people who are unsure what to do with their lives and considering taking time out to travel?
Go. Even if you think you’re sure about your life, go – because you might discover that your vision of your future today is in fact nothing more than an illusion forced onto you by the fear and (confusing notion of) ambition of the generation above you. And if you’re unsure what to do with your life, a) don’t worry about it, because your future will be a consequence of what happens to you while you’re trying to make up your mind, and b) most people don’t know what they want to do with their life; it’s just that some resist embracing what we all are – jellyfish washed up on a beach: some people flop about looking strong, convinced they can taste gold, but it’s all sand, and they’re just as doomed.
So just GO. Better to be the annoying person in the pub talking about the time they travelled the world, than the person who listens to the story, goes home and eats all the cheese in the fridge and cries him or herself to sleep because they let fear beat them into a stationary cheese coma.
What do you hope people take away from Life Knocks?
An overwhelming and irresistible urge to buy all my other books and then post me Playstation 4 games and recordings of haunted caves. But, other than that, the message of Life Knocks is a simple one: open the door.
Finally, what can we expect to see from you next?
I’ve teamed up with Alex Patrick, a London-based illustrator I’ve worked with on a few projects. We’re working on a few kids’ books and some funny/random picture books. We have a literary agent interested in our ideas and are fleshing them out now. So fingers crossed.
I’m picking at my fourth novel; it’s about a guy who reads Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 on his balcony when a hair from his beard drops between pages 138 and 139. He closes the book and years later his beard hair is used to recreate him from DNA.