Author Interview: Daniel Bird

I have just read a book called “Sorry Men” that did make me giggle. The book is by Daniel Bird and it is a hilarious collection of 35 short stories about men, filled with unforgettable characters leading blighted lives and forming questionable solutions. Sorry Men paints a picture of half of the world’s population that is sometimes lovable, occasionally infuriating and very often pathetic.

Stories include: A father has his daughter’s crayon drawings tattooed all over his body so he can never lose sight of them. A commuter pretends to be Russian in an attempt to avoid being robbed. After a first date, a lovesick man plays it cooler than anybody ever has. The ex-husband of a lottery winner finds optimism in the numbers she chose. Two astronauts scour the solar system for a new home for mankind whilst pining for their exes. The world of Sorry Men is one of earnestness and desperation; fate and farce; hilarity and hopelessness. It absolutely will not restore your faith in men!

So after laughing …. I finally got round to interviewing author Daniel Bird himself! A big warm welcome Daniel…

Hello, I’m Daniel Bird. I’m from Dorset in the UK. After studying a degree in drama I moved to Hong Kong to travel a bit and earn some cash as I was riddled with student debt. An initial plan to stay for a year changed almost as soon as I landed. I’ve been here for almost twenty years now. It’s safe to say that I quite like Hong Kong. I’m an English and Drama teacher, examiner, and now a writer. 

Who or what inspired you to write your collection of short stories of “Sorry Men”?

Sorry Men’ came about as a result of a writing exercise I forced myself to do after years of rejections. I got into short story writing in my late twenties. I started sending pieces to publications that were accepting submissions on various themes. Naturally, I got absolutely nowhere. I didn’t get any feedback either. As all budding writers know, you wait many months for a response from a magazine or journal and when you get the rejection you tend to send it somewhere else without even reflecting on why it was rejected in the first place. You think you’re right and that the publication is insane for not printing you. I ended up saddled with a handful of pieces which I was convinced deserved to be published. They weren’t. They probably shouldn’t have been either. I would wait for a response before starting a new one. It was painfully inefficient. 

To become more productive and get better at the craft, I set myself the task of writing 100 short stories in a hundred days. A variation of automatic writing – whatever came into my head during that session would get put down. I gave myself a rule: each story could be no longer than an A4 sheet. That meant I had to get to the ‘meat’ of the story faster and be efficient with my expression. Once the hundred were done, I printed them off and read them all with a piping hot mug of coffee in hand. Despite having written each one with whatever had come into my head at that time, I noticed a distinct theme throughout the work. That theme was this motley crew of rather sorry men. It appeared that I had largely written about men facing some sort of personal crisis or flawed logic in their thinking. That sounds heavy, but it was actually mostly comical. I started to tighten the stories up, cut 65% of them (painful) and created the collection that is now my first book ‘Sorry Men’. 

A huge influence on the nature of the comedy and characters in these stories is ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ written in 1892 by George and Weedon Grossmith. It’s about a somewhat hapless but earnest man called Charles Pooter who tries his best to be accepted in middle class society. I read it every single year and it still makes me laugh. What it so effortlessly portrays is a man’s desire to be validated by others. I don’t think that feature of men has changed a lot since Queen Victoria left the throne. Even in its Victorian setting ‘Diary of a Nobody’ still resonates with its hilarious display of behaviours and interactions I have experienced and observed in the 21st century. I give a nod to ‘Diary of a Nobody’ in the opening pages of ‘Sorry Men’ because its battle between ego and indignity was a huge inspiration in developing the book as a cohesive whole. I have taken that lack-of-self-awareness-comedy in a slightly different direction to the one Charles Pooter went in. My stories are more absurd, surreal, sometimes cruel, and more cringeworthy than ‘Diary of a Nobody’. I believe that’s because I’m reflecting the modern day. Also, I’m not a Victorian. 

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Sorry Men ” is a collection of short stories about men! The characters are quite a varied bunch – my favourite story was the father who got tattoos of his daughter’s drawings.  I did feel sorry for him!!  Did you base a lot of your men characters on you and people you’ve met in life?

I think a lot of male friends worry that I have taken something they’ve specifically said or done and made it into a story. That isn’t the case at all. What I base the characters on is this sort of general ‘essence’ of men I have observed springing from societal expectations, their personal delusions, and the absurd reality of male behaviour. Each story plays out as testimony to the feeling of perplexity many men feel as they grow beyond their teenage years and navigate relationships and life. The gap between the idealised maturity that’s expected and the reality of lived experience is a potent backdrop for comedy. At the core of ‘Sorry Men’ is the ego and its powerful need, when faced with its own shortcomings, to assert itself and stay convinced of its own rectitude. This results in impulsiveness, stark naivety, and farce, among other amusing things. 

Growing up, I used to read a lot of men’s magazines such as FHM or Loaded. These gave a very reassuring one-sided presentation of how men behave or should behave. Men being action heroes, extremely confident, domineering, stoic, that sort of thing, but I think everybody knows this is fabricated nonsense. There are plenty of obvious reasons why those magazines are no longer as popular (or even exist). As an adult it became very obvious to me that men can be sensitive, in touch with their emotions, and completely fallible and daft in a way that contradicted my previous diet of ‘lads mags’. I’ve taken great pleasure in fleshing out my characters with the insecurities and weaknesses that I think all men have at some point in their lives, especially when it comes to relationships.

Which short story did you enjoy writing about the most?  

The story I enjoyed writing the most was ‘Steps’. It’s about a man who bumps into his ex-girlfriend travelling in the opposite direction on an escalator on The Tube. As they get closer she calls out and informs him that the dog they had owned together had to be put down. Before she can finish explaining, she is out of earshot as she continues her ascent on the escalator. What follows is a farcical scene in which they are unable to sustain the conversation because they keep getting on the escalator at the wrong time. It was good fun imagining that situation and the visual mechanics of a comedy like that. I also revel in the awkwardness and indignity of trying to have a very challenging private conversation somewhere as public as an escalator at rush hour.

Which character was the hardest to portray?

The hardest character to portray is, funnily enough, also from a dog-related tale. It’s about a gentleman who owns the cleverest dog in the world, ‘Jimbo’. One day Jimbo saves a boy who was accidentally knocked into a river by his father.  The father is at first grateful, but when the owner berates him for being careless, ego kicks in and the embarrassed father claims the dog injured his son. What follows is a campaign by the father to have the clever dog destroyed. However, I didn’t just want a ‘sad’ story about a dog owner whose favourite pet is put down. I wanted to show that in the final moments in the vet’s surgery that the owner’s understanding of what happened has changed. He is so intimidated by the legal proceedings and the reactions of those around him that he really thinks his dog is now dangerous. To get that idea across in just a few sentences was very difficult. This idea that his ‘sorry’ state is not actually the tragic loss of his dog but that he is not resolute enough with his own convictions. The last few sentences of that story were some of the ones I redrafted most.

This is your first book collection of short stories. Were there any aspects of writing the stories that surprised you, pleasantly or otherwise? 

Despite the brevity of the stories, they have been edited dozens and dozens of times. Since they are ‘flash’ short stories every word matters and I was surprised at how much time I spent tinkering. Part of the process of deciding what I might change came from reading aloud to others. It’s a big part of my practice now. Seeing listeners’ reactions helped me gauge the success of a story, of course in terms of clarity but also how the humour landed. 

Sequencing the stories required a lot more effort than I had anticipated. I wanted to continually surprise the reader, give deliberate variation to the situations being shown or the tone or voice presented. As I have written in the description on the back cover, ‘[Sorry Men] absolutely will not restore your faith in men’. Yes, there is a chance for redemption for many of these characters, but whether they take it or not is another thing. ‘Sorry Men’ is definitely the kind of book you can dip in and out as arbitrarily as you wish. The connection between the stories is the theme, not the narrative. My personal preference is reading it from front to back. I’ve done my best to make that journey a little kaleidoscopic and, for the final couple of stories to really hit best, then they must be allowed to lean on the image of the men I have constructed in the many stories that come before. I wanted to build to the point where that lack of faith in men was of course amusing but ultimately convincing.

If you could visit any country/place in the world, to base a future collection of short stories in, where would you go and why? 

It’s always going to be the UK for me. Living in Hong Kong has given me ample opportunity to reflect on British culture, language and behaviour. Whenever I’m back in the UK I always appreciate the nuance of the humour there. I miss the subtleties of small talk about the weather, chatting with elderly people, and banter in general. I think it’s best to write what you know and I feel, even though I don’t live and work in the UK, that it’s the place that has the most value for me for stories and especially characters. Having said that, I do think that the expatriate community around the globe is another rich area for characters. You certainly do meet some people out here in Asia who have settled and are more than happy to give you unsolicited advice whilst very sunburnt. Maybe ‘Sorry Expatriate Men’ could be the next book. 

Are you a bookworm? What is your favourite genre and/or authors? Kindle or actual book? 

I prefer actual books and I do read a fair bit. I’m a big fan of the crime/thriller genre. I love buying the latest thriller at the airport before travelling. A long time ago my Dad got me into Jeffrey Deaver’s ‘Lincoln Rhyme’ series and I’d happily go back and read them all again if only I could make myself forget the twists. My grandfather and aunt always pass me a bag of books whenever I visit them. There is always a David Baldacci in there somewhere. My favourite crime/thriller novels of the last year or so have been by Simon Mason, Lee Child, Peter May, Owen Matthews, Karin Slaughter, and David McCloskey. 

When I’m not reading crime, I enjoy Mark Haddon (I think his ‘Pier Falls’ is the best short story collection ever written), Dan Rhodes (hilarious), Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Faulks, and Ian McEwan. My go-to book recommendation is ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali. It will make you cry, though. 

Is “Sorry Men” available to purchase worldwide?

It is. Paperback you can order online from all good online stores. There is an eBook too. If you live in Hong Kong, I’ll happily sell you a signed one in the cafe of your choice. 

Growing up had you always wanted to be a writer or teacher or did you have other career aspirations?

I wanted to be an actor or a bodyguard. I realised quite quickly I lacked the self-confidence, physique or eyesight for either of those. Whilst corrective laser surgery has solved one problem, I’ve always struggled with having the courage to explore acting, even though I teach drama. I always admire those students or friends who possess the ability to get on stage or in film. Writing has always been there because I used to love penning letters to my grandparents. That’s where the smidgen of confidence I had as a kid and teenager was: in using written words and in making others laugh. I fell into teaching very happily and I’m delighted to have made a career out of it. It suits me I think because teaching, in a bizarre way, combines a lot of my inner ambitions. Being in the classroom is a kind of performance and role you take on. Also, much like a famous actor, the audience is either captivated or thinks you’re an absolute idiot. I have no idea how being a bodyguard comes into that, though. 

Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?

As a teacher I have to dress fairly smart, so it’s always a shirt and trousers. I get away with trainers as I’m on my feet all day and we do a lot of very active drama games. My outfits are as plain and boring as humanly possible. I don’t like to stick out too much. I think the most adventurous thing I did was get some sort of light green trousers last year and I think that was enough excitement for my wardrobe for a while. If I’m outside of work then I prefer black t-shirts, mainly because it’s so unbearably hot in Hong Kong in the summer that you want to hide the sweat stains. I love a big cardigan. Whilst I like to think it can make me look like Tom Hardy, it doesn’t. 

Do you have any favourite shops or online sites ?

Any shop that doesn’t cover their clothes in writing is a good one for me. I like M&S for that reason and I’m happy to now be the age of the people in their adverts. I also like Maison Kitsuné and a French brand called Peter Polo. My favourite shop for clothing was J Crew but it’s gone now; perhaps it will return for a sequel so I can restock my armoury of plaid shirts again.

What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?

Anything that actually fits me properly. My weight fluctuates a fair bit because I tend to return to the UK for a month in the summer. Seeing friends and family means drinking beer, indulging in fatty food and not exercising. When term starts in Hong Kong September I’m usually 8kg heavier and my shirt buttons are hanging on like Sylvester Stallone in the opening scene of ‘Cliffhanger’. I lose the weight in a couple of months and then it’s back on at Christmas. This is entirely unhealthy but it is a good excuse to buy something new that actually fits (for that month). 

Boots or Shoes?

Shoes look better on me. My dad says that the last time he saw legs like mine they were being chased by a fox around a farm. Boots look daft on me. Imagine a golf club sticking out of a wellington. 

Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc

Instagram: dannotarealbird

X: dannotarealbird

Fantastic to speak to you Daniel about your book and exploits in Hong Kong. Expat Sorry Men book follow up sounds like an epic idea! Thank you for the review copy of Sorry Men; thanks also to Ben Cameron of Cameron Publicity & Marketing.

Linda x

Photo credits: Frankie Adamson; Justin Chui (Justin Chui Productions 2024); Spoon Chan; Linda Hobden

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