There is an old Roman legend about a peasant named Scioccolone; a woodcutter with plain features and an uncouth gait. It’s a story which bears more than a passing resemblance to the career of the author, Joss Sheldon.
The tale starts with Scioccolone and his two brothers walking back to their village, to take their siesta. On their way, they passed three fairies who were disguised as beautiful maidens. They were lying, in a deep sleep, beneath the midday sun.
Scioccolone asked his brothers to help him build a shelter for those maidens, who could not be awoken and were in danger of getting burnt. But his brothers mocked him. “Who will protect you from the sun, whilst you build that shelter?” They taunted. “How silly you are!”
Scioccolone was not discouraged. He stayed behind on his own, toiling away in the midday sun, until he had built a shelter for the maidens.
When the maidens awoke they were grateful to Scioccolone, and so they decided to give him one present each.
The first maiden offered to make Scioccolone king. But Scioccolone was just a humble woodcutter. He did not feel he could accept such a haughty position.
Feeling rebuffed, the second maiden was unsure what to offer Scioccolone. So she offered him a wish. Scioccolone thought for a few minutes. Then he wished for the wood to cut and bundle itself, before rolling back to his village, with Scioccolone riding on top of it.
The maiden made this wish come true.
The third maiden also offered Scioccolone a wish. But Scioccolone could not think of anything to wish for. So he asked for the ability to make any wish come true, at any time in the future. The maiden said it would be so.
Scioccolone’s wood started to roll, with Scioccolone riding on top of it. But it did not go back to Scioccolone’s village. Instead, it passed the king’s castle, where everyone stopped to stare at the strange spectacle.
Scioccolone looked up and saw the princess, the king’s only child, who was looking at him from the castle’s tower. Scioccolone had never saw anyone so beautiful in all his life. He wished that she would marry him, and that they would have a son.
The wood rolled on until Scioccolone arrived at a merchant’s shop. By this time, Scioccolone was tired. So he wished that his journey would stop, and that the merchant would buy his timber. His wish was granted. The merchant paid Scioccolone many pieces of gold for his wood, which Scioccolone used to build himself a shack in the forest.
Nine months later, the princess had a son. But no-one knew who the father was. So the king invited every man in his kingdom to the castle. Each man stepped forward in turn. “Is this your father?” the king asked his grandson each time. “No”, the little prince always giggled.
Then Scioccolone stepped forward. “Is this your father?” the king asked the baby boy. “Yes! My daddy!” the little prince giggled. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The king eyed up Scioccolone, that woodcutter with plain features and an uncouth gate. He was furious! “Why would you have a child with such a beast?” he asked his daughter. He forced his daughter to marry Scioccolone, and banished them both to the far reaches of his kingdom.
Scioccolone had gotten exactly what he had wished for when he first passed the king’s castle. But the princess was distraught. She could not understand how she had ended up married to an ugly peasant, with a baby, far away from everyone she loved.
Seeing his bride in such a state moved Scioccolone to tears.
It was at this point that he recalled his ability to wish things into existence. So he wished for everything he thought might make the princess happy. He wished for a beautiful villa, for fields full of livestock and crops, and for clothes which would make him look like a prince.
Many years passed before the king came across Scioccolone’s villa. When he did eventually see it, he could not understand where it had come from. So he approached, and was met by Scioccolone himself. They spoke for many hours.
The king was so impressed by Scioccolone that he told him, “I have no son, and for many years I have been looking for an heir. I am getting old and will soon die. Come to my castle and take my throne!”
Scioccolone did as he was commanded. He approached the king’s castle, with his wife and son by his side.
The king could not believe his eyes when Scioccolone arrived with his own daughter by his side. He had not recognized Scioccolone when they met at his villa, and he was shocked to see his transformation. But he was pleased. The handover of power was peaceful, and Scioccolone went on to rule for many years.
It’s an old story, but a relevant one; one which bears more than a passing resemblance to the career of the author, Joss Sheldon.
When Sheldon wrote his first novel, ‘Involution and Evolution’, he too was met with howls of derision. The story was a rhyming novel. Literary agents said there simply wasn’t a market for such a work. The main character, a conscientious objector, was based on Jesus and Buddha. Publishing houses said it was too bizarre to appeal to mainstream readers.
Mocked, like Scioccolone by his brothers, Sheldon was not deterred. He built a shelter for the three maidens. Or rather, he self-published Involution and Evolution himself, and gave it away for free.
Like Scioccolone, he did not become a king. The majority of self-published authors sell less than a hundred copies of their books, and Sheldon barely did any better.
But he persevered. He passed the king’s castle and retired to a shack in the forest. Or rather, he travelled to the Himalayas, in India, where he wrote his second novel, ‘Occupied’.
This brought Sheldon back to the king’s palace once more. And once again he was rejected. Unlike Scioccolone, he was not deemed too ugly for a princess. But his work, once again, was deemed too radical for mainstream audiences. Literary agents rejected Occupied, and publishing houses ignored it. He was banished to the far reaches of the kingdom.
But Sheldon used his time well. The fledgling author became a man; unrecognizable from his former self.
Just as the king did not recognize the new Scioccolone when he saw him again, the literary world did not recognize the new Sheldon. Occupied, whilst by no means a mainstream success, did receive critical acclaim. Buzzfeed called it “Ethereal”. AXS called it “Radical”.
Sheldon was ready to return to the castle, to take up his throne as a literary king.
His third novel, ‘The Little Voice’, may just be the book that announces his coronation.
The Little Voice, which will be released later this month, is a work of “Psychological Realism”. It’s real; set in a world which any reader will recognise. And it’s psychological; inspired by the conflict we face when society tells us to act one way, and our own “little voice” tell us to act in another.
The book’s protagonist, Yew Shodkin, regales us with his struggles; firstly as a student, moulded by his teachers and parents, and then as an employee; swayed by his bosses and peers. Throughout this process, Yew loses touch with his real self. His mental anguish grows and grows.
Like Sheldon’s previous works, The Little Voice tears up the rule book. It combines two seemingly contradictory styles. In one part, it’s a fairy tale; featuring an imagined creature, ‘The Egot’, who lives inside Yew’s brain and tells him what he really wants to do. It’s fantastical, absurd and brilliant. Yet, at the same time, The Little Voice is grounded in reality. The psychological pressures Yew experiences are analysed in scientific terms. The book introduces a number of psychological studies, such as the Milgram Experiment, which explain what happens to Yew.
The book is both rational and emotional. It inspires hope and fear, optimism and depression. Then it analyses those emotions. It explains the pressures we all experience from time to time.
That’s the magic of The Little Voice. It’s probably the most thought-provoking novel of 2016. Not only does it make the reader question the events which take place in the book, it also encourages the reader to question events they will have experienced in their own lives.
Most people will have had a parent who has told them, “Be good! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Most people will have had a teacher who has told them, “We don’t want to punish you, but we need to do it for your own good.” Most people will have had a boss who has told them, “If you work hard now, you’ll be rewarded with a pay-rise in the future.”
These are the sort of pressures that affect Yew throughout his life; everyday pressures which seem innocuous on their own, but which are strong enough to completely transform a person’s personality over time.
Yew, for example, feels uncomfortable when he first goes to school. He is forced to sit inside a classroom for hour after hour, when he’d rather be outside, playing like a child. Yet, after many years stuck in that sort of environment, he becomes accustomed to it. When he gets his first job, in an office which is eerily reminiscent of his classrooms at school, he actually feels at home.
Yew’s natural inclination is to play; to run around, pass love notes to the girls in his class, and challenge his friends to pretend sword fights. But he is punished whenever he acts in such a manner, and rewarded whenever he behaves; a process which the psychologist B. F. Skinner called Operant Conditioning. In time, Yew’s personality is transformed. He restrains his natural urges, and becomes the person others wish him to be.
Events in The Little Voice range from the mundane to the ridiculous. The book is one part spiritual and one part base. But it remains rooted in the real world, and that’s what makes it stand out.
Whereas Involution and Evolution was set a hundred years ago, and Occupied was set in a fictitious land, The Little Voice is based in the here and now. Sheldon, like Scioccolone, has reinvented himself once again.
Literary agents and mainstream publishers may mock him, but Sheldon has written a novel that could put him in the company of literary royalty. He’s marching up to the king’s castle, clutching his novel to his chest, and he’s ready to take the throne!
The Little Voice will be released on November 23rd 2016.