Sofa Surfer. How my story of the hidden homeless came to life.

Guest Post by Malcolm Duffy

Having written my debut novel Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. I was confronted by the difficult question faced by all writers- now what? In the music industry it’s commonly called the tricky second album. Having thrown the kitchen sink and a few other appliances at your work, is there anything left in the tank to create something equally, if not more compelling?

Books don’t write themselves. I needed to get moving. I’m sure, like most writers, I keep a bulging file of half-written, sometimes half-baked, ideas. I had a good look through them, but nothing jumped off the screen screaming ‘me, me, me.’ I was going to have to start afresh.

My debut looked at a serious matter affecting many people in the UK – domestic violence. I decided to explore another concern which also affects thousands of people and one which unfortunately is never out of the news – homelessness. In my previous job as an advertising Creative Director, I’d worked on the Shelter account, so I knew a bit about the subject, but nowhere near enough to write my story. Like everyone else I’d seen the terrible headlines about the rise of homelessness. I’d seen the sleeping bags scrunched up in doorways, people begging with their cardboard signs. I’d occasionally given money, and sometimes food, but I knew they needed a lot more than that. But who are these people, on the fringes of society, with no permanent home?  My mam used to say – ‘they were once somebody’s baby.’ But what happens to them so that they end up huddled in doorways, sleeping on trains, bus shelters? I needed to speak to the people who live these lives.

Thanks to Crisis and a charity local to me, Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness, I was given access to a large number of homeless people. The meetings were real eye-openers. I learned that no two homeless stories are the same. Their reasons for being without a home are many and varied, but there is a common denominator – lack of family support. If my wife grew tired of my endless writing and threw me out of the house, I’d stay with my brother or sister. I imagine most people would have a family network they could rely on. But what if that network is broken? What if the relatives you need are no longer around, or have problems of their own as a result of drink, or drugs, crime, job loss or illness? This was a key learning in writing Sofa Surfer.

The other thing I learned is how homeless people are the same as everyone else, and just happen to be labelled ‘homeless’. The people I met are bright, ambitious, inquisitive, and, despite their circumstances, surprisingly optimistic. I held a writer’s workshop at Crisis and was blown away by how smart and insightful they all were. Charities do an amazing job fighting the corner of those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a home. But unfortunately, the problem is huge, complex and not about to go away any time soon. 

Having done my research, I turned my attention to the story. I could have written the book from the viewpoint of a teenage boy or girl, who finds themselves homeless. But it’s not the tack I decided to take. I wanted to look at homelessness from a more oblique angle. In Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. the topic of domestic violence is explored through the eyes of a boy who doesn’t understand what’s happening. I decided to adopt a similar approach in Sofa Surfer; a boy with a nice home and loving parents, trying to get to grips with the world of someone with no home, no money, no family support.

I also decided to turn the spotlight on a different area of homelessness – those you don’t see sleeping rough, but who move from house to house, sofa to sofa. Although they may have a temporary roof over their head, they’re still in a very precarious situation, only one argument away from losing the sofa they sleep on and finding themselves on the streets. 

As with all novels I was treading a tightrope. I didn’t want to be relentlessly grim, nor look at the subject through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s about finding the right balance. Even in the most desperate of situations there can be humour and hope. I hope I crossed this tightrope successfully. 

There are reportedly 10,000 young people currently sofa surfing in the UK. Through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, my second novel tells the story of one of them, a young woman with big dreams, and big problems. The sofa surfer.

Sofa Surfer is written by Malcolm Duffy and published by Zephyr on 6th February 2020 (HB).

The opinions expressed may not reflect those of the FCBG.

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