Zibby is joined by editor and author Richard Roper to discuss his latest novel, When We Were Young, which was inspired by a real trip he took with his friends. The two talk about his intentional journey to becoming an editor and his accidental journey to becoming an author, as well as which books he currently works on at Headline Publishers in the UK. Richard also shares which author is his greatest inspiration, why he decided to structure the novel from two points of view observing the same moments, and what inspired his next novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Richard. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When We Were Young: A Novel.

Richard Roper: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about? What inspired you to write it? I’m sorry, these are those questions you’ve probably answered a million times, but I do think it’s useful for listeners to hear and get a framework. Then we can dive in.

Richard: No, it has to be done. Yes. The idea for the book came from a few years ago when I decided to go on holiday by myself in England. I wanted to do something vaguely adventurous that involved walking. I love walking, but I’ve got a terrible sense of direction. The one idea that appealed to me was the idea of following something called the Thames Path, which is a walk that you can do from the source of the Thames River in England in Gloucestershire which goes all the way from Gloucestershire right to the heart of London. I thought, well, even I shouldn’t be able to get lost by walking by a river, even though I a couple of times. I did it by myself for the most part, but then I had a couple of friends come and join me halfway along, two male friends of mine. As with many conversations with my male friends, ninety percent of it was complete nonsense, but there was also something about walking and being quite contemplative and out of our natural habitat, which meant we opened up a little bit to each other. Within that came lots of conversations about the fact that we turned this grand old age of thirty, shockingly, which had always seemed like it was a million years away, but there we were. We talked about the fact it’s the first time, really, you reflect on a certain time of your life. We were talking about our youth and how long ago it seemed that we were kids mucking around.

The germ of an idea started there. What came from it is the book where the two main characters, Theo and Joel, who have just turned thirty but are living wildly different lives — when they were kids, when they were about fifteen, they made this promise to each other that when they turned thirty, whatever they were doing in their lives, they would meet up and walk the Thames Path together from the start in Kemble, where they live, all the way to London. Something along the way has made them fall out fairly drastically. When Joel turns up on Theo’s doorstep to get him to join up for this walk, Theo really isn’t having it because of something that happened in their past. The book is about exploring their friendship and this journey that they do eventually go on. It’s about whether they can right past wrongs. It’s really a big journey into nostalgia at its heart.

Zibby: I’m relieved that it was not inspired by your parents kicking you out of the shed on their property.

Richard: No. Although, I’m sure I did live at home for a fair few years . I’m sure that was always at the back of my mind.

Zibby: Were you kicked out at some point? You can be honest.

Richard: No, I wasn’t. I think there was probably an element of, my dad would occasionally drop into the conversation, things like, “We should ask you to start paying rent soon. Ha ha ha.” Then I thought, oh, that can only be funny for so long before then eventually, I am going to get a letter under the bedroom very formally. Dear Richard, . Luckily, I got a job in London, so the decision was made for me.

Zibby: Your job, did you start as an editor? What happened after that?

Richard: I started as an editorial assistant at a publishing house in London and learned how to be an editor. I was working and still do work in nonfiction. These days, I work on a lot of memoirs and narrative nonfiction. I have to say, I always feel quite guilty when I listen to interviews with fiction authors where they talk about always having this dream since they were five to write the great epic novel. I never really did, partly because I just didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think I was the sort of person that could ever do that. Working in publishing, I got to sit alongside fiction editors and hear them pitching books. Obviously, I read more than I’d ever thought possible. I was constantly seeking out new books. I just started, almost behind my own back, doodling, in a way, with new ideas and writing short stories. Then the writing just grew from that until eventually I thought, oh, I’m twenty thousand words into a novel here. Then it took off from there, really.

Zibby: Wow. You could definitely learn a lot from reading a lot of books.

Richard: Oh, yeah, for sure.

Zibby: I was just telling someone — I actually have a memoir coming out soon. I was like, I tried to just use every trick of the trade that I could think of to make the pages turn as fast as possible. There’s not just one thing. Once you’ve read enough books, it’s like, that’s working. That’s not working. That always helps. That doesn’t help. You can’t help but soak it up.

Richard: If I ever get asked about advice for people trying to write books, read is number one at the top of the list. I still do it now if I’m having a bit of a slump in the middle of a book and I just feel a bit lost with it. I take a week off the actual writing and just either go back to my favorite books or see what exciting new one’s come out. The time I would’ve been writing, I just sit down and read and get into those kind of rhythms. It helps you. As you say, it’s all those tricks of the trade which you can then put into practice when you’re writing your own stuff.

Zibby: What are some of the go-to books that you turn to when you’re feeling stuck?

Richard: My favorite author is David Nicholls, who wrote One Day and Us, which is a book I go back to a huge amount. It’s quite rare in your life where you find those books where you just assume that somehow, it’s been written for you, that off into the universe as a recipe and then come back as this fully formed cake. God, that’s a terrible metaphor. It is really like someone has just written this exactly for you. He’s a very good writer about — who knows why it appeals to me? It’s about beta males who listen to a lot of introspective indie music. There’s always a love story at the heart of it. Whenever I’m writing, I’m trying to sort emulate him. He’s really my hero. His books, Us, One Day, The Understudy. His new one, Sweet Sorrow, is fantastic as well. I’m always coming back to his books.

Zibby: Interesting. When you were writing this book, you decided on alternating viewpoint structure so you could go back and forth very quickly. Short chapters, good trick of the trade, alternating viewpoints. You have two very different men, so funny though. There is something about the British sense of humor that no American can capture in a novel. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if you can get it just from living there or you have to be born there. It is this particular dry wit that I find just so awesome. I love it. You totally nailed that from the first page on. You are engrossed in these characters and chuckling along with them as they go. What made you choose that format for telling the story?

Richard: Thank you, first of all, about it. I’m really pleased if anyone ever says it’s funny because I am a frustrated sitcom writer at heart. There are so many jokes in there. It will have come into my head on a walk. I put it down on my phone. Then I’m always searching to try and crowbar it in somehow. Glad that it made you laugh. The alternating viewpoint, actually, in the first draft of the book, it was purely from Theo’s point of view. There just wasn’t something working about it. There are some fairly big revelations in the book. What I worked out from reading the first draft back and that slightly deflated “oh, no, it’s not working at all” moment is that there needed to be lots of dramatic irony of the reader not knowing certain things until it gets a reveal. It also made it far more interesting, I hope. It was easier to raise the stakes when it was from both characters’ point of views.

Both of them, in a very typically male way, are concealing things from each other, partly because they just don’t know how to talk about things that have any kind of sense of emotion about them. It was actually a way of helping from a dramatic point of view, really, to have it from both perspectives. Also, as you say, short chapters, I’m a big fan of short chapters. My attention span is absolutely zero. I love those books where you see a scene from one person’s view, and then immediately, it snaps into another perspective where you work out exactly what’s going on from their perspective. I’m lucky that I worked out that was the thing that needed to fix it. I’m trying to write something new now. It’s just from one person’s perspective. It’s quite tricky because I’m always wanting to go, oh, there’s another character. I wonder what they think. It just can’t work like that. I’m pretty sure the new one will just be from one perspective. It was handy for When We Were Young to have it from both Theo and Joel.

Zibby: The interesting part — I feel like most dual perspectives aren’t always writing on the same scene. You go back and forth right there in the moment, which I think was really neat and different.

Richard: Thanks. It’s partly the fact that they are doing this journey together. It’s this long walk. They’re both in completely different headspaces and almost trying to work out what the other person’s thinking. I’m always slightly obsessed with when you’re with friends and you look back at a certain moment, a party or whatever it is, and you have completely different memories of it. You’re obviously coming at it from a different perspective. It drove me slightly insane when I was writing it because I was trying to keep a certain amount of continuity there and keep the story moving while also having to reflect on what had just happened. It was quite fun where you know that both of them aren’t really telling the truth. As soon as you as the reader know something that one of the characters doesn’t, it’s a helpful device then to be able to — someone can give someone a look, and it means a whole lot more because we know exactly what the other character is expecting from them.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about writing a character who’s in a wheelchair and what it’s like for Alice and her life and even the idea that she was getting so buff from being in the chair that she could squash her brother. Tell me about writing her. I’m seeing that as a movie and casting the person in a wheelchair and using that really unique point of view.

Richard: The character, this is Theo’s sister Alice who plays a very integral part in the book in that she is the person that really spurs Theo on, she’s been through a horrendous accident which has left her in a wheelchair. She is someone who’s been through a lot but has, to a certain extent, come to terms with it and is someone who, at the heart of it, has — it’s obviously a massively cliché to say that when you’ve been through something really bad, you then begin to appreciate life more. I know that’s a very easy way of saying it. I’m lucky that I’ve not been in that situation. I always wanted her to be someone who was incredibly strong and had had a horrible moment in her life but was someone who was really taking life by the scruff of the neck and is keen to do that with Theo, who has lived, to a certain extent, a fairly charmed life but is held back by his own obsession with the past and not being able to move forward from that. I just wanted her to be this character who had suffered something, but it wasn’t holding her back. At the heart of it, she is the one driving everyone forward. It’s tricky to talk about without giving any spoilers, I suppose, but I did want her to have this real verve and zest for life and be a counterpart to Theo, who can get quite stuck and set in his ways. She was always going to be there to try and get him out of his slump.

Zibby: Tell me more about this new book you’re writing from one perspective. What else can you say about it?

Richard: I’ll give you the inspiration for it. It’s very early days. The inspiration for it came where on one of the first trips away I did out of whatever lockdown we were in at the time — it felt very new to be getting on a train and going anywhere. I was in York. In classic writer mode, I was just eavesdropping around everyone. I was in a restaurant at the time. I was just listening to conversations going on at other tables. There was this huge drama that happened where a couple were complaining to the waiters about some trivial thing that happened with their food. I was watching this conversation where I could see the waiters going back to their little back room and talking with each other and then coming out and talking to this couple who then fired some new complaint at them in a very polite British way. I got kind of obsessed by the idea of — I just knew that what was going to happen was this was going to end up on Tripadvisor or one of those websites where someone leaves reviews. I just got obsessed with it. Sure enough, the next day, this incredibly long review appeared mentioning all sorts of things like the Weights and Measures Act of the UK and all this. I just thought, there is an idea here in someone who runs an establishment of some sort who finds themselves getting these reviews. I’ll leave it there, but that was the germ of the idea. He ends up seeing a review from someone who he’s not seen in for a very long time. Much like When We Were Young, a quest ensues where he is trying to go on an adventure of his own to track this person down and work out why they left him this review.

Zibby: Interesting. I’ve literally never left a restaurant review. Have you?

Richard: No. The thing I find fascinating is that the vast majority are either five stars saying, “This is the greatest meal I’ve ever eaten,” or one star saying, “You’ve ruined my life. I will never eat food again.” It’s my favorite thing to do now because I can call it research for the book. If you look at Tripadvisor, say, for the Eifel Tower or something, you’ll get all the one-star reviews going, it’s just rubbish. It’s not as tall as I thought. It was raining that day, so one star. I want to know everything about that person. I want to shadow them for a day, see what their lives are like because it’s just extraordinary.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The only reviews I really pay attention to are on places like Goodreads or something. Somebody left a two-star review recently on something. I was like, I kind of want to write this person and be like, did you hit the wrong thing? Everything you said was really nice, but then you put two. Maybe you got it backwards. Could I reach out?

Richard: For my first book, I had a one-star review. Obviously, my heart sank. Then I looked at it, and it was clearly someone who, as you say, had just got it — it was a brilliant review. I was very lucky. They’d written a very nice thing. They, for some reason in this day and age, hadn’t worked out the very complicated star system. I then thought, am I going to try and get in contact with them? Then it turns into, I become a stalker at that point outside their house going, can I just talk to you about this review you left? I know I live a hundred miles away, but I just had to come and see you. You can drive yourself mad with the reviews.

Zibby: Actually, it would be kind of funny if all authors took a moment to post a video, maybe one review day or something like #FiveStars. Everybody who’s written a book goes on and says, okay, just to explain this a little better, when you go on, it is very important to us that you click five stars. Here’s how you do it. We do a share screen. Everybody shares the video. Maybe it would help with reviews.

Richard: Yes, if we all clump together, then we can do it. We can do it on a billboard, maybe Times Square or something.

Zibby: Yes. Wouldn’t that be so funny? Help authors. Then just five stars in a row. Save publishing. Which authors’ memoirs have you worked on, and nonfiction stuff? Who are some of your authors?

Richard: It’s a very British-focused list. I work with lots of comedians. There’s a comedian called James Acaster, who I feel is possibly starting to get a bit of a profile in the US. He’s been on the Seth Meyers show at least once. I think he’s coming on again soon. Lots of musicians. I’m publishing a book by Dave Davies, who’s the guitarist in the Kinks. Then I tend to do some slightly quirky narrative nonfiction. I’ve just published a book called A Tomb With a View, which is by Peter Ross, a man who has a fascination, as strange as it sounds, with graveyards and different kinds of burial sites. He’s written a genuinely fascinating, very moving book about all the different weird and wonderful places in the UK where people have been buried and humanist funerals and all sorts of things.

Zibby: That’s a great title.

Richard: Yeah, I was sold. It’s an eclectic list of stuff that I do.

Zibby: Interesting. Love it. When you’re not editing and writing, what do you like to do? Do you run? Are you on teams?

Richard: Great question. I’m obsessed with comedy, so I go to loads of — I’ve managed to fork out this career of being an editor of comedian’s books. It’s largely just because I’m such an obsessive that I sometimes — it’s like, is this work? You could pay me to do this because it’s a huge amount of fun. God, running, I’ve never really got to the point with exercise where — people say it’s as addictive as drugs, the rush of endorphins. I never really got past the bit where I want to cry and have a lie-down. I’m such a classic New Year’s resolution — today, I’m going to get up at five and have that Rocky-montage drink, six raw eggs, and then run twenty miles, but I just have a cup of tea and sit-down. It’s much better.

Zibby: I just did an event with Gretchen Rubin, who wrote a book called The Four Tendencies. You should go online — I have four kids. I gave all my kids this quiz this morning because I was convinced that each kid of mine has a different one of the four tendencies, which is why it’s impossible to parent. I was right, by the way. In the quiz, it’s all about New Year’s resolutions. What is your instinct? Do you need accountability? It’s called Go and check out. I have a suspicion I know which category you fall in. Just saying.

Richard: Oh, really? I’ll have to have a look. Then we’ll compare notes.

Zibby: We’ll compare notes. I relate to this category. It also took, somehow, all the guilt off of my lack of follow-through for some things. It put it into context. I feel like I get it now and why it’s much easier to sit here at my desk.

Richard: Interesting. I’ll have a look.

Zibby: Sorry to recommend somebody else’s site.

Richard: That’s all right.

Zibby: It is a really fun quiz. I’m obsessed with stuff like that. Anyway, thank you for coming on. This was really fun. I’ll think of you the next time I’m not working out.

Richard: Great. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Take care.

Richard: Cheers. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Richard: Buh-bye.


WHEN WE WERE YOUNG by Richard Roper

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