Giving Voice to (more than) the Introverts
"I have been engaging with the indie author community for a year now, and I continue to be blown away by the variety and quality of the books I discover." — Bruce Spydar
Many know the U.K.’s Bruce Spydar as the author of the Diary of a Shy Backpacker series. Blending fact with fiction, Spydar’s main character (“BJ”) sets out from the U.K. to explore Australia. While guiding readers through cities and wilderness, BJ’s evolving romantic encounters give us a candid look into the private thoughts of a self-described shy and introverted young man.
Many book reviewers hold up BJ as a voice for all the introverted men out there, but men and women alike have expressed their affection for Spydar’s humor, insight and sincerity; or, as one reviewer summarized it: “Freedom, females and various other things beginning with F …”
Those new to the Bruce Spydar experience may not know that Bruce previously wrote 3 non-fiction books on topics related to happiness and well-being, and the ways they may be rooted in the animal kingdom.
One would be hard-pressed to find a bigger supporter of indie writers than Bruce. On Instagram, week after week, Bruce works tirelessly to promote other writers and their work to his 4,200 followers.
And because this interview series that I’ve begun is my small way of showcasing and supporting other writers, who else would I start off with other than Bruce Spydar?! (I’ll be grateful for any effort on your part to help spread the word.)
In this interview, Bruce shares a bit about his professional background in nature conservancy, and how it relates it to the mental and emotional well-being of us humans. From there we discuss his life as a writer, his books, and his social media influence. And we’ll hear from a few friends along the way.
So it’s time to unbutton that shirt collar! Let your top fall from your shoulder! Take off your pants if you need to! And without further ado, Bruce Spydar …
Shy Backpacker, Bruce Spydar. All images courtesy of Bruce Spydar.
Please share a bit about your career in nature conservancy.
After studying biological sciences at university, I was keen to pursue a career in nature conservation. However, I graduated when environmental jobs and research opportunities were scarce, so instead, I “sold out” and lined up a financial training contract, before taking off to Australia. [The inspiration for the Shy Backpacker]
I returned to train as an accountant and business adviser with a big international firm in London. A few years later, after gaining my professional qualifications, I secured a job in an international nature conservation charity, where I later became director in charge of finance and operations. It was a great role, supporting conservation efforts around the world, and it gave me the chance to travel and meet people from different cultures. I enjoyed the challenges there for nearly twenty years, before, on my third change of CEO, a new one came along who decided to force me out.
How did losing your job affect you?
I felt betrayed, bitter, unsupported, depressed, and deprived of my livelihood and career in conservation. I tried for a year or more using my professional skills in a narrower financial management role, but couldn’t find any motivation for it, so I went freelance and began writing.
You published your first book, Crossing the Wilderness, in 2018. It has zebras on the cover, but the rest of the title is Stepping through the Midlife Crisis. Tell readers a bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?
After losing my job in conservation, I was miserable, rudderless, and wanted to try something new. I was going through my own mid-life crisis. So, I experimented with the challenge of writing and publishing a book. The book was a fairly raw exploration of my thoughts as I was trying to sort my life out. I chose a pen name (which fitted with my next book), so as to keep distinct from the name and reputation I had in my other working life.
If you give anyone 3 wishes, the chances are pretty high that one of them would relate to personal happiness. But humans didn’t evolve to be happy. Like other creatures we evolved to survive, and our instinctive behaviours are focused towards survival.
Happiness is not about instinctive behaviour, it’s about how we occupy our minds beyond that; it’s about how we think and our personal mindsets. Feelings of happiness are also transient, fluctuating around some sort of normal level. I’m of the opinion that you don’t find happiness, but it finds you, if your mind is receptive. Different thinking methods can allow you to become more receptive … which is where the SPIDER model fits in.
Spiders, in themselves, originally didn’t have a particular significance, but as I was contemplating life, I tried to examine the essence of what made me happy. I read many self-help books, and one that particularly inspired me was The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters, which propelled me into the world of mind models.
While considering both how to bring my ideas together and what name to write under, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in nature. One day, I happened to be looking at anagrams of my real name and Bruce Spydar appeared. The story of Robert the Bruce and the spider (the ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ origin) was already in my mind, and the SPIDER model for happiness and the Spydar name were born.
How to Capture Happiness was the book that described the SPIDER self-help model … and much of it is focused towards realizing, accepting and making the most of what you have, rather than worrying about what is missing. (Simply Happy came a bit later, as I was experimenting with trying to produce a cut-down version of the model, as a “quotes and reminders” type of book.)
How do you see the relationship between happiness and being at peace with oneself? Are happiness and peace interdependent?
Yes, they are interdependent, and I think there are two helpful concepts to illustrate it:
1: The multiple factors that contribute to, or detract from, our happiness continually fluctuate around a normal state. These are in relation to the reality of what changes, and in relation to our perceptions (or expectations).
2: Qualitatively, happiness can be defined by the expression: Happiness equals Reality minus Expectation. From this we can define three states: Unhappy = Negative. Content = Neutral. Happy = Positive.
Although this is qualitative, I think it is very useful. It helps us to understand that if we think something in life should be better than it actually is, then we are unhappy about it. The neutral point is the point of acceptance. If we are at peace with ourselves and our surroundings, it suggests that we don’t expect more than what is real … therefore a neutral or contented state.
Positive happiness will come from factors where the reality is better than just being at peace. It’s about a positive mindset, and having a deeper appreciation, and savouring what is real.
The most comprehensive research to date on happiness, which has studied thousands of individuals for decades, has resulted in the “Happiness Curve.” Put simply, it’s a U-shaped curve that shows how humans (and chimps!) overwhelmingly become increasingly less happy from their teenage years to their mid-40s, and then increasingly happy during the years ahead. What are your thoughts about that? Is this inevitable for most of us?
These are essay questions! I’ll try a very concise answer. I don’t think it is inevitable, but probably likely for most people.
Using the conceptual expression—”Happiness = Reality minus Expectation”—when we are young, we are learning all the time, and our reality is expanding. In a lot of areas, parents, teachers, culture and religion set boundaries for us, and with it, our expectations. As we move through our teens, we look forward to our adult life. The old parental and teacher restrictions are releasing and we form our own expectations of what our lives should become, and of where we want some of our new boundaries to be. For most people, we aspire to far more than we are able to achieve … so frequently our expectations fall short, making us unhappy.
As we reach our 40s and 50s, we find ourselves having had some sort of career, established relationships, perhaps have a family, etc., … but we have probably reached our potential. When we become more accepting that the reality won’t improve, then the gap between reality and our expectations reduces again.
Next came your Shy Backpacker series. It’s a story about a 20-something (who goes by “BJ,” but later reveals his name to be Bruce Spydar) who’s backpacking across Australia, often with characters named Suzanne and Megan. Why did you choose that storyline as the basis for your leap from non-fiction to fiction?
I wanted to see if I could write humourous fiction. People tell you to start by writing about what you know. I know myself and I also know that I’ve had some amazing life experiences, so that’s how it started. Naturally, I’ve embellished the facts with fiction to try to make it entertaining.
One of the unique qualities of the series is the introspective and observant narration of BJ. Throughout, readers experience BJ’s thoughts about romance and his observations about the natural world. And while it’s fiction, it has a semi-autobiographical feel. Was it liberating to write this story in this way?
In a way, once I had chosen Bruce Spydar as my pen name, I now had a fictional identity. I didn’t think too deeply about it, but it has been interesting, as some readers are intrigued to know which bits are fact and which fiction.
It was quite liberating, because when I was re-living some real memories, I was also fantasizing about what might have happened differently. By thinking about the different possibilities, it also made me more grateful about how my real life has turned out.
BJ’s innermost thoughts are increasingly candid and erotic as readers move from the first Shy Backpacker book (Awakening Down Under) to the second (Eye on the Prize). Was this intentional, or more a matter of finding your voice and becoming bolder as you moved through the story?
I don’t think it was intentional, it just naturally evolved that way from the encounters along the journey. No Looking Back (the third) again has a slightly different mix.
What is its status?
The target is late spring/early summer.
Now that you’ve written six books, have you found the happiness you sought when you decided years ago that it was time for a major change in your life?
It’s wasn’t so many years ago, but I am currently quite enjoying life. It goes a lot with the freedoms afforded by no longer having to pay off a mortgage or worry about putting food on the table. I don’t have extravagant tastes, and don’t really have to make my writing pay … if I did, I might have already given up.
Writing is one of the most solitary pursuits, and many writers know the fine line between solitude and loneliness. What has been your experience in this regard as a working writer?
I’m an introvert, and until recently, my life was dominated first by education and then office environments which are highly social and can be quite draining. People can be lonely in a crowd … it all depends on having the right balance for you. I have a small family, and a handful of friends, and that’s enough for me.
You make great efforts to support indie authors by writing book reviews, issuing “Golden Bench” awards, and mentions of all kinds. This is time consuming! What’s your motivation?
I came into writing without any contacts or support. In my first year or two I achieved next to nothing in book sales. I recognized the need for some kind of social media presence to improve visibility, so set up on Instagram.
As a new writer, and someone who didn’t spend much time reading throughout my childhood and career, I also know that I have a lot to learn about writing. A great way to learn is to read the work of others.
For those in my position, being altruistic seemed a natural way forward. I think there are lots of people out there in the same boat, and a potential to help each other to gain a little extra visibility … particularly in the early days when trying to get on the first few rungs of the ladder.
Kitty Wilder read a chapter of Shy Backpacker on her YouTube channel. What was it like to hear your story read aloud?
It was both great and also weird. It was wonderful to hear someone else reading it, but also quite different to how I’d have done it for an audiobook.
You’ve amassed more than 4,000 IG followers in just one year. What are your thoughts looking back?
I still think I’m a novice on Instagram. While I’ve built over 4000 followers, the active engagement is still very small, and the results of trying to market to readers out there have been disappointing.
Your DIY-style to your books and IG posts have become an identifiable “brand” that features several recurring images. One is a silhouette of a man sitting on a bench. You shared the original photo of you on that bench. What was the context for that photo?
To deviate a bit first, I have two brands that I have been trying to build. Firstly, the red spider as the centre-piece of the mind model, and secondly the silhouette of the Shy Backpacker (often accompanied by two female silhouettes, and an eye). I thought about two separate IG accounts, but chose to go through one as it is less draining on time.
When I was designing the cover for the first Shy Backpacker book, I was playing around a lot with different silhouettes, but then stumbled across this photo of me sitting on a bench overlooking the Menai Strait in North Wales. I then whimsically decided to use this, as it represents the real character behind the book.
What’s next for Bruce Spydar?
When I started writing, I viewed it as a hobby, and as something I might enjoy into my retirement, while hopefully generating a few royalties to supplement a pension. It’s possible I’ve already entered semi-retirement … who knows?
I’m still connected to nature conservation through a charity that works with invertebrates (including spiders!), and it’s possible I might become more deeply involved in some shape or form. I also have several more ideas for books and, at this point in my life, I don’t intend to return to the rat race. While my earnings have declined, writing has given me greater flexibility over time, which has been helpful while I’ve had to support both a younger and older family.
I’m not entirely sure where my future directions lie. I’m past 50 nowadays, and I want to focus on things I enjoy. In the immediate future, I intend to relax and just see where the journey takes me.