Danny Wallace has had a varied career. He has started a cult, formed his own micro-nation (called Lovely), hosted a morning radio show, written novels for adults and children, been a voiceover artist on computer games, presented for television, and all while maintaining an incredibly popular weekly column in Shortlist Magazine.
But one thing he did had an absolutely profound effect on my life, and millions of others. Just over a decade ago Danny Wallace decided to say 'yes' to everything that life threw his way.
The resulting book, Yes Man (later made into a film with Jim Carrey) was released 10 years ago this year. I wanted to see how Danny's life had changed as a result, and whether it was still influencing him, so I asked if he'd be up for an interview. He said 'yes'. (Well, what else could he say?)
How did the book come about?
The early books had to come from something legitimate, like a feeling, whether it was boredom, or lack of contentment, and you'd sort of harness that feeling.
With Yes Man there remained the sense that, having had this big adventure through Join Me [the book in which Danny explains how he accidentally started a cult] it was like, in this minuscule way, when people talk about how they've been to the moon - how do they then cope with life afterwards, and return to normal life?
I'd had this big adventure, done everything I'd wanted to achieve... what's next? So I wasn't really going out, wasn't really doing much. I wasn't depressed in any way, but I just wasn't really making the best of life.
And when you get out of the habit, it's hard to get back into it...
Yeah! Exactly. When your go-to word is "no", like when mates ring up and you just go "oh no, no I can't make it" and you haven't even heard what they're going to say. We all get into those slight funks. And that's the only time I ever use the word 'funk', to describe that.
And it was just the right time for me. Pure ideas are really hard to come by, and it's the simplest idea in the world. It's every self-help book in the world distilled into those few words, "say yes more". And what's been brilliant is the book is there - people still find it, and I get emails and letters from people just through saying 'yes'. If it hadn't been through the book, or me, they'd have found the idea somehow, but...
It just might have taken a lot longer, and they might have missed so much in that time?
Yeah! There are two ways to get a message across. One is fear, and one is humour. And I'm not very scary, so I tend to go for the humour. It's a great way to get a message into someone's life.
You don't know the person reading the book. It'd be insane if you did. Or you'd have very, very low book sales. But the amount of people, the amount of letters I get from people who've radically changed their life just by saying 'yes' is just brilliant.
I had one recently from a lady who wouldn't mind me saying (I think) she's in her 50s, approaching 60s, and her husband had gone through the classic man-idiot thing of the mid-life crisis. Every cliché had been ticked off, he'd bought the sports car, got a leather jacket, found a younger woman... he'd left this lovely woman. And she was great, but sort of.... stuck. She said she was just going to say 'yes'...
So she quit her job and said 'yes' to the next one that came along. Ended up meeting some guy who revolutionised her life, and she revolutionised his, and they got married. I think they live abroad now and are having the time of their life. She just reset her life completely and is just having a much better time.
And when I get those letters, they're just so inspiring, and they make me want to just say 'yes' more too.
So at what point did it turn from a project into you thinking "there's a book in here somewhere"?
Well you start doing something, and then if you've done a project before it would be disingenuous to say that you don't start thinking "this could be something".
The way I've always approached it is I'd come here to this exact pub with a couple of mates and tell them what I've been up to. And by telling them you hone it into anecdotes, and you find out where the laughs are, find out where they glaze over, or are enjoying it, or have a question. And then you realise you've got something, because you're engaging them.
I like to test my stuff out on actual people. I write in quite a conversational manner, and I always thought of those books as the way I would tell you the story if I was in the pub with you.
How did it feel when the Yes Man film came about?
It's always exciting, but it's slightly out of my hands, because there's very little you can do to make that happen, other than creating the thing in the first place.
I remember when Join Me was first optioned (just before Yes Man) and it was the most exciting night ever. It was just amazing. And I took a couple of the Joinees to the pub and bought champagne. We knew it might never happen, but who'd have even thought it could?
Yes Man kind of did things slightly differently, because they bought it before it was even in the shops. There were lots of people who wanted it. I went with the nicest people, who I thought would maintain the spirit of the book. And I was proved right in that I'm still really good friends with most of them, years later.
The time between them getting the book, and the film coming out was about two and a half years, which is nothing. Jim Carrey wasn't involved at that stage, it was going to be Jack Black. And then Jim Carrey wanted it. And literally who was I to say 'no' (in all ways!).
Then the film did really well, and it was the Number 1 comedy, so you sit there and have really weird thoughts, like "if I'd called the book something else, if that day I'd typed six different letters, then all these billboards would have different letters on them". And you find yourself trying to rationalise it in terms of both the macro decisions and the tiny little things.
Did you feel at all precious about it at the time? Or did you feel like "it was my baby, now do your thing with it, I'll keep my one separate"?
A book is a book, and the book will never change, and that's one of the beauties of something being printed. There it is, it's done, you've got that. And some people were angry that it was going to be reset in America, and that Jim Carrey was going to be in it, and they found all these weird reasons. But I was like, listen, if the book means something to you, and it must do to provoke that kind of reaction, then don't worry about it, because you've got the book, and that's ours - for me and you - we've got that. But a film is a completely different art form, and it's one that, certainly then, I was completely unqualified to write in any way.
So, yeah, it's a different thing. And also there was a moment when I realised that Jim Carrey was on board that people might once have thought "Oh, it's based on a Danny Wallace book" but now they're going to be thinking "Oh, it's a Jim Carrey film". And to be commercially successful, which would you choose?
I'd put my money on Jim Carrey every time. Otherwise it would have been a film all across America about a man living on the Mile End Road who goes to the Happy Shopper, which doesn't spell "box office" to me.
How much of the 'yes' ethos do you still hold onto? Is doing it solidly something you'd ever repeat again?
I certainly say 'yes' a lot more than I used to. And I try and say 'yes' more wherever I can. To a new experience, to a new place. I've found myself taking elements of it and bringing that into daily life as well, even just being open to ... like, walking, and just looking around and observing, and spotting the opportunities, finding interesting things, all comes from that same place, that place of taking a chance, and curiosity, and following up on that curiosity. So I do that a lot more.
If I did a Yes Man thing... I mean never say never, but it would have to be as a family, to include everybody now because my life is just bigger, and involves more people. So I don't know. Maybe.
We did do something actually, my wife and I got a babysitter not that long ago, and it was like one of our first nights of freedom. We hadn't booked anything and didn't know what we were going to do, so we just said "let's just do Yes for a night". And we did. We left our house, and just said 'yes'.
We ended up at some kind of weird poetry slam night which we immediately realised was a mistake, so we stayed for a little bit, then legged it. We saw some weird sign that said "Restaurant, down here" so we went down an alleyway that looked like it was going to be a mugging. A really elaborate mugging, with sort of sign-painting muggers. But we found some restaurant which was next to an old Citroen garage - one of those hipster pop-ups. Sadly we couldn't get a table, so we thought we'd walk down the street and the first person who happened to be outside and wanted us to go in, we would. So we ended up having this brilliantly weird night of just saying 'yes'. I think those can be really exciting, it's just about doing something out of the ordinary.
I expected Danny to have lots of interesting stories about Yes Man, but what I wasn't expecting was all the advice and information on starting out as a writer that he shared.
Part of me wanted to keep this to myself and get a leg up on the competition, but that didn't feel very in the 'Yes' ethos. So instead I thought we'd keep the focus on Yes Man for this article, and follow on with the advice next week. So be sure to come back and see how Danny got started, and what he'd do if he was starting out today.