A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.
What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
The International Sales Handbook
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.
Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.
Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.
Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.
How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:
There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’
It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.
What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.
Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.
What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.
Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.
Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.
What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”
Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.
Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.
Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.
It’s 6.30 and I’m relaxing in my Heliopolis hotel room after a day showing Egypt’s largest road contractor how to make better, longer lasting bridge joints for less money. Relaxing in this case means reading the second book in the Beatrice Stubbs Boxed Set, which is turning out to be every bit as good as the first, while wondering which of the Fairmont restaurants I should grace for dinner. I am so glad to have discovered JJ Marsh; she’s taken her place at my writers’ top table. But I just came across this:
Beatrice allowed herself a small celebration. Exotic fruit, miso soup or a salmon bagel may well do wonders for the mind but on certain occasions nothing in the world can beat a bacon sandwich.
Yes. YES! No question about it. A bacon sandwich – yum, yum, pig’s bum. But wait – what’s this?
Large streaky rashers curling and spitting away in the pan. Two thick white slices warming in the toaster, a bottle of HP and the papers waiting on the table.
Thick white slices? No. No, woman, no. What are you thinking of? Two slices of Poilâne rye – the only thing. (If you really must, you can substitute Poilâne sourdough, in which case yes you will need to toast it, but ordinary white bread? Never!) (You don’t need to go to Paris for the bread; if you’re in Britain, Frenchclick.co.uk will deliver it right to your door). No butter. Spread one slice with mustard if that’s all you have (English – none of your foreign muck) but Bim’s Kitchen African Baobab Pepper Jam is better and then slather both slices with home made mayo. Sprinkle a small amount of celery salt on one side, lay the fried bacon (if you grill bacon you can bugger off right now) on one side, lay on top of it slices of ripe tomato you have already scattered with salt and black pepper, press the other slice on top, cut in half and eat.
That is a bacon sandwich. A bacon sandwich fit for the incomparable Beatrice Stubbs.
I pah on your white bread.
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