BY DJAMEELA DOLLIE
Iain S Thomas is the co-author of the #1 bestseller, I Wrote This For You, a combination of poetic observations and photography. His second book, Intentional Dissonance, was published in December last year. Thomas is currently based in Cape Town, where he is working on a novel, provisionally titled How To Be Happy.
How did you come up with the idea behind I Wrote This for You?
I tell the whole story on the last entry on www.iwrotethisforyou.me but, essentially, it was after a conversation with my old art teacher. I was struck by how alone people are in the world and how shallow my occupation in advertising was. Advertising is a very “me-centric”, narcissistic industry, driven by the pursuit of fame and awards, and I wanted to do something that went against that — something for people who feel alone; for all the “yous” out there, instead of just me.
How did you and Jon Ellis, the photographer, meet?
We’ve never met in real life, mostly because I live here in South Africa and he lived in Japan and now Germany. We used to hang out on some of the same websites and IRC channels back in the day and when I began work on I Wrote This For You, he’d just started taking up photography and we gave each other a reason to go forward with this together.
What is it like to collaborate with someone on the other side of the world?
It’s quite nice actually, it’s hard to get on each other’s nerves.
Did you ever provide him with any creative direction and vice-versa?
No, I think we respect each other too much, the process is very organic. Jon doesn’t tell me what to write; I don’t tell him what to photograph.
What is your favourite entry?
That’s hard. But, for some reason, the one I’ve always loved is called The Sweet Release, which just reads, “If you blur your eyes, the streetlights become hundreds of ghosts going home.”
Whenever I would drive from a party in Cape Town, back along the highway, the lights above it always looked to me like they were souls leaving the earth to go home. That picture in my head and that thought have always been special for me.
What inspired the transition from blog to book?
We always planned it as a book and intended the blog as a space to plan the book, which then blew up on its own. It was a hard sell to the publishing industry but I think being a #1 bestseller for more than a year validated our efforts.
What does paper give you that the web doesn’t?
I’m very ambivalent about the idea of paper versus pixels, I think the medium isn’t as important as the message but, at the same time, I know that the medium tends to shape the message. It’s very easy for people to get lost in the “Find A Random Entry” button on the blog, but there’s something to be said for the tangibility of being able to flip through a book. I don’t know. I think I’m a bit defensive because there seems to be a bias in the publishing industry towards anything that starts out on the web (which I think will be the death of those who don’t adapt to that). The Internet is the democracy of ideas and that should be celebrated, not feared.
I Wrote This For You is big in the Philippines. Why do you think this is?
It’s big in a bunch of places across the world, but I think the guys from the Philippines are just louder and less afraid of expressing themselves. I’m not quite sure that I know why — I’ll have to visit at some point — but I think I’ve always tried to keep the ideas and the language simple and that allows anyone in any language, even if English isn’t their first, to find meaning in it. It hasn’t been announced yet, but the book is in the process of being translated into several other languages.
Why have you decided to bring the project to an end?
Again, I tell the story in detail in the last entry on www.iwrotethisforyou.me but, in summary, I found that trying to write something new every day, after writing more than 1000 entries since 2007, was starting to become harder and harder and that I was starting to repeat myself. Jon and I also agreed that if it ever became work, we’d stop. We’re friends first, above all else. I think I could repeat myself forever and I know our sales would increase if I was to do so, but money and success isn’t as important as a sense of wellbeing. As someone else said, “You can sell your time but you can never buy it back again.”
Perhaps, most importantly, I found that in order to write something emotionally charged, I had to intentionally put myself into quite a dark space every day and that started to have a serious effect on my mental health. I guess it’s obvious that it would, in retrospect, but I think people can trick themselves into believing that the things they repeatedly do, don’t necessarily affect them. But we are our repetitions. I’m proud of what Jon and I did but I’m not going back there for the foreseeable future.
The manuscript for what will probably be the last I Wrote This For You book, I Wrote This For You: Just The Words, has just gone off to the publishers. It’s a definitive collection of entries from the project and contains a lot of new material that was supposed to go onto the blog before we ended it. I’m busy writing my next novel, How To Be Happy, which I’m quite excited about and, if I ever get around to it, I’ll be recording an audio album of readings from the project. I think whether I have 5 or 5 000 000 readers, I’ll always be writing or creating something.