The Day Before You Came: the story’s backstory

"The Day Before You Came" on display in store at The Bookshop Darlinghurst last year. Photo: supplied.

While 2020 was dark and difficult in many ways, one local bright spot – at least in the cultural milieu – was the publication of the highly entertaining novel The Day Before You Came, set in 1980s Sydney. In this piece for the Sentinel, its author Alistair Sutton shares the backstory of the hit indie book, which has become a must for fans of gay fiction.

When I sat down to write The Day Before You Came, I decided the novel should be set in Sydney during the ’80s. Why? Personally, I love the music and fashion – who doesn’t adore a puffy sleeve? – and ’80s style influences fashion to this day; a reality that even its detractors cannot deny.

I used the songs of the era as an aide-mémoire, transporting me back to that time. ’80s music is often dismissed as naff (much of it unashamedly was) yet it is vibrant and alluring, and still foot-tappingly catchy today, influencing many modern artists. The songs are interweaved into the narrative, and early feedback from readers is that they love these musical references. Even the book’s title is a song – one of Abba’s lesser known singles.

 The ’80s was the final decade before the internet overtook our lives, revolutionising how we connect with each other. Back then, Grindr referred to making coffee, and a tablet was something you took with water, not typed on. There were no mobile phones or digital devices, and video technology was clunky. 

It was also a time of enormous challenge for our community. AIDS heightened people’s desire to live life to the fullest. We all had friends who left ‘too soon’, and while the book references this, I didn’t want the story to dwell on it. Apart from the public health crisis AIDS represented, the LGBTQI community faced a backlash in terms of fear and discrimination. These dark realities were a constant behind the frills and frivolity of the ‘Golden Mile’.

A worrying emergence in gay-bashing occurred in Sydney during this time. Stuart, the protagonist of the book, faces this reality when he has to think twice about parking in a ‘dire alley’ behind Oxford Street. These were thoughts we all nursed at the back of our minds, even if we pretended otherwise.

The cover of The Day Before You Came by Alistair Sutton. Cover art by Scott Parsons.

More than anything, The Day Before You Came is a celebration of the era, and an homage to Sydney as seen through the eyes of Stuart. He is very much a part of this world – the enclave of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs – yet he is disconnected from it. Stuart is unsure what he wants from life and unclear about how to go about finding it. His love interest, Dexter, is a visceral fantasy that few gay men would knock back, given the chance. But like everything in Stuart’s life, there’s no easy path to fulfilment – even sexual gratification is fraught.

The murder mystery plot was deliberately set in the world of amateur theatre – a setting with a high ratio of queer people, but not exclusively a gay space. My grandfather loved Gilbert and Sullivan plays, so Iolanthe is a operetta I’m very familiar with. In the course of his sleuthing, Stuart meets idiosyncratic characters and gets himself into a series of scrapes. There’s a camp element to all of this, but it’s grounded in a sense of reality. Stuart’s story, his journey through the book, is what the reader needs to engage with, so he had to be relatable. 

Many familiar Sydney settings feature throughout. The interior decorating shop Stuart works in is based on Leslie Walford’s business in Double Bay, and a large part of the book is set in the Scottish Hospital – a place my extended family patronised. Many of them eventually died there, through no fault of the hospital! References to personalities of the day are also prominent, testament to the long hours I spent watching daytime television.

The tone of the novel is light-hearted, geared to appeal to the reader’s sense of nostalgia and fun – and a lot of fun was had in creating Stuart’s nostalgic world.

The Day Before You Came is available from good bookshops everywhere, including The Bookshop Darlinghurst, 207 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst and online at www.thebookshop.com.au.

The Day Before You Came can be liked and followed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thedaybeforeyoucamebook.