In September, my debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, will be published in 25 countries. This was a complete accident. In February 2015, I was sitting at my desk in the London office of the Guardian newspaper, cursing the fact that the train back to my home in Frome, Somerset, was running an hour late. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, mostly writing about video games (yes, that is an actual job), and as the Guardian’s video game editor, I tend to write every day for the paper’s website. That particular afternoon, having read a slightly snide article about Marcus “Notch” Persson, the creator of the wildly successful computer game Minecraft, I decided to write a personal piece of admiration for this guy and his game.
Minecraft lets players create vast buildings, explore mines, and fight zombies; and has been downloaded over 100 million times, one of the most successful games of all time. For me, it’s the game that helped my young autistic son learn, communicate, and discover his creativity.
As a six-year-old with a limited vocabulary and working memory, he was really struggling to talk to us, and it was difficult to engage him with normal books and games. But when he first saw Minecraft, it just made sense to him, and we spent many joyful hours playing the game together as a family. I channeled all of this into an article, posted it on the Guardian site, and caught my train.
Once in a while as a journalist, you write something that genuinely resonates, and this quick, emotional eulogy to a video game and its role in my family did just that. We had hundreds of comments from Minecraft fans and their parents, about the game and how it had helped them.
Then I got an email from Ed Wood, a senior editor at Little, Brown in the U.K., asking if I’d thought about writing a novel with similar themes: a father and autistic son bonding over Minecraft. I hadn’t, but I met with Ed, whose own son is on the autism spectrum, submitted a synopsis and a few sample chapters, and a couple of weeks later I had a two-book deal.
This, I have been led to believe, is not a typical publishing scenario. The cliché for debut novelists is a decade spent drafting and redrafting a book before trudging around dozens of publishing houses, building an impressive collection of rejection slips. After 20 years in paid writing, the idea of sinking years of my life into a project that had little chance of financial recompense was just not going to happen—I had kids, I had a mortgage, I had a lot of video games to play.
In the end, novel writing found me, and I think that says a lot about the sorts of stories people are interested in these days, and the way publishers have to discover them. The nature of mainstream entertainment has radically changed in the past five years. Reality TV has transformed our notion of narrative drama; YouTube and Twitch, the social video platform for gamers, have made celebrities out of average kids, completely bypassing the traditional routes to celebrity; Netflix and Amazon Prime have changed the way television works; and, of course, social media has radically altered the notion of mass communication. Stories come to us now in strange viral waves, carried by memes, links, GIFs, and Vines—these days, you could film yourself falling off a skateboard one morning and be signing a movie deal the next. Stories are now made and shared from raw, lived experiences, and publishers have to be able to move in quickly and embrace these cathartic snapshots. YouTubers are being signed to big book deals; they’re communicating with massive audiences on vast digital networks. But both they, and their millions of fans, appreciate the validating, intimate experience of opening and reading a book.
I became a novelist by mistake. That shouldn’t be possible, but it is now, simply because the world has changed how it shares stories and experiences. After all, traditional media is becoming more and more varied: bookshops are turning into meeting places and venues; online newspapers are aggregating and explaining viral trends. Ed Wood at Little, Brown thought I could be an author; I thought he was crazy, but he proved me wrong. I don’t think it’s the last time something like that will happen. I think it may be the future.
Keith Stuart is the games editor for the Guardian. His debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks (St. Martin’s), publishes in September.