David Whitehouse lounged on a sumptuous, oversized bed outdoors at the Southbank Centre in London on June 5 to launch his first novel, Bed (Scribner) in an all-day stunt that drew hundreds of people curious to meet the 30-year-old former journalist whose book had been published in the U.K. two days earlier.
Whether or not Whitehouse repeats this publicity trick when Bed is released in the U.S., the book, which features a protagonist named Mal who gives up on life and doesn't get out of bed for the next 20 years, seems likely to attract a wide audience among American readers. As the years pass in the story, Mal gains over a thousand pounds and becomes the fattest man in the world. "Mal's fantastic imagination couldn't live up to the reality of an inevitable disappointment," Whitehouse says of his bittersweet tale of disillusionment and family devotion. Bed captures some of Whitehead's own growing up in the Midlands town of Nuneaton in England. "My family was working-class and sometimes nearly destitute," says Whitehouse. "There was an extra feeling of inertia around us because of the debt my parents were in, and Mal's decision to go to bed and not get up is a metaphor for that."
The unnamed narrator of Bed is Mal's worshipful younger brother. "I didn't name him on purpose," Whitehouse says. "I didn't want him to have an identity of his own because he's lived in Mal's shadow all his life." As in the novel, Whitehouse shared a small bedroom with his older brother until they were well into their teens; he calls it both a claustrophobic and affectionate experience. Also, like Bed's narrator, Whitehouse worked in a butcher shop as a teenager. "I was paid one and a half pounds [sterling] an hour," he says, "basically to pull kidneys out of pig carcasses and get splattered in blood for three years."
Whitehouse left home at 18 to study journalism at the London Institute. At 21 he was a staffer at the now defunct men's magazine Jack and was hired as features editor for Maxim three years later. His subjects included former mobster Henry Hill, the FBI informant of Goodfellas fame. "Hill was drunk during the interview, and at one point he lunged at me and put me in a headlock," says Whitehouse, laughing. "His bodyguards actually saved me." Going freelance in 2006, Whitehouse wrote for Esquire, the Independent, and the Observer before assignments began to dry up.
"I wasn't getting much work," recalls Whitehouse, "and it was depressing. Instead, I stayed there writing and realized I'm better at fiction than journalism. I'm happiest making things up." When Bed was finished, Whitehouse sent a query letter and the first 5,000 words to William Morris in London. "Their name sounded familiar, so I started with them." A day later, Whitehouse was signed on with the prestigious agency.
The book was submitted to 16 publishers at the London Book Fair the following year and was rejected by all of them. "At that point, my agent put the manuscript in a drawer, and I decided it was never going to get published," Whitehouse says. But then, in 2010, Bed won the inaugural To Hell with Prizes Award for best unpublished novel, and Francis Brickmore at Canongate and Paul Whitlatch at Scribner bought Bed almost simultaneously; since then the rights have been sold in 11 countries.
Whitehouse ties the issue of obesity in Bed in a clever yet compassionate way with Mal's rejection of the disappointing responsibilities of adulthood; he decides to simply stay in bed and eat whatever he likes. Mal's mother becomes his primary caretaker, indulging, bathing, and feeding him as one would a child. "My own mother is selfless to the point of oppression," Whitehouse says. "She has always exhausted herself by being too kind." His parents still live in the house where he was raised and which Whitehouse used as the prototype of Mal's family home in Bed.
Based on the rave reviews Bed has already received in the U.S. (PW starred it), and its selection by the News of the World as the #1 summer beach read in the U.K., it's likely that Whitehouse, who is at work on his second novel, will be able to indulge in the luxury of fine linens now whenever he likes.