Despite leaving school at 16 – and after a few years of unskilled, low paid jobs – Tony Parsons got his first job in journalism at the New Musical Express (NME). For a few years he has juggled journalism with fiction achieving phenomenal success. Writing is, quite simply, his life.
Author Tony Parsons talks to Mary Hogarth
about writing his first book while working the night shift at a distillery, those wild years at NME
and his dog, Stan.
Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters[/caption]
How did you get that first job on NME?
By publishing a novel. It was called
The Kids and it was not very good but when the
NME advertised for new writers in the summer of 1976, they asked for a sample of work and I sent my novel. So that looked pretty impressive, I imagine.
Did this shape your work as a journalist?
I don’t think I was really shaped as a journalist by the
NME. There was too much sex, drugs and Rock & Roll – too many nights when I didn’t go to bed.
We were a weekly publication the pace was relentless so there wasn’t much chance to learn more than the basics of journalism. It was only after I left the
NME that I started to grow as a journalist and a writer.
Tell us about your first book, The Kids
I left school at 16 and worked in a series of low paid jobs. In my late teens I got a job on the night shift at Gordon’s Gin Distillery in Islington. They gave us free Gin and left us alone from 8pm to 8am. While my colleagues slept, I wrote my novel.
It took a year to write, another to find an agent, then a year to find a publisher. So that is how my first book evolved – by never giving up.
I think that is how every first book evolves.
Who has had the biggest influence on your writing?
Probably Ian Fleming because he taught me books can be more exciting than anything else in the world.
How did Max Wolfe’s latest investigation, The Hanging Club, evolve?
The idea came from spending a day at the Old Bailey. If you go down to the basement and then keep going, you can see the ruins of Newgate prison, which was London’s jail for 800 years.
Inspiration came from the idea of these two places co-existing. The Old Bailey, where justice is fair, enlightened and modern, then Newgate, where justice was brutal, vengeful and Biblical. That was the starting point for a story.
It’s about a group of vigilantes who decide to bring back capital punishment for evil people they believe haven’t been sufficiently punished by the system.
For you which comes first, the characters or the plot?
First comes the title. From that the plot develops, then come those characters who make that plot work. Although if you are writing a series like Max Wolfe, then a lot of the characters already exist, so you need to decide on the new faces you introduce.
How do you keep pace with advancements in crime detection?
I try to make it as authentic as possible. I listen to police because they can always teach me something. Cops tend to like the Max Wolfe books, which of course is very pleasing. But I am also not afraid to make stuff up it serves the story. A novelist should never underestimate the power of imagination.
Sometimes you write something that comes from your imagination and then it happens in real life. A novelist should not only reflect life, but also anticipate it.
Your typical writing day?
The top floor of my house has an office. There’s a bedroom, a bathroom and a room for writing that contains everything I need – computer, TV, dog basket as my dog Stan joins me for my working day.
I get up early and go – either taking my dog for a walk or driving my daughter to school. And my wife Yuriko does the other thing – daughter or dog. And that’s all before breakfast.
After breakfast I like to start work because I feel that a writer’s energy levels are higher earlier in the day. Also there are fewer distractions before the world starts to intrude.
I give myself a daily task – either planning a chapter of maybe writing 1,000 to 1,500 words, or reworking a scene that just needs improving. Whatever it is, I do it. Then I knock off – walk my dog, go to the gym, read a book and don’t feel remotely guilty.
And then I get up the next day and do it again.
The most important lesson learned?
Write from the heart. It has to be real for you or it will never be real for anyone else.
Name three writers who have inspired you the most
Keith Waterhouse – author of
Billy Liar, newspaper columnist and playwright. He taught me that you should never place limitations on what you do – it is all about telling a story – then you should attempt to master everything.
When I was 16, I wrote to 100 authors, publishers and agents for advice. Only Keith Waterhouse replied, he wrote: ‘Dear Tony, get an agent.’ It was good advice.
Ian Fleming – I have to return to Fleming. He was the first adult writer that I chose to read, that wasn’t given to me by teachers to improve my mind.
John Le Carre – taught me that thrillers can be as intelligent – or even more intelligent – than a Booker Prize winner. He showed me that even those exciting page-turners, can be written in beautiful language with vivid characters that seem very real.
Le Carre taught me to aim for the stars.
The Hanging Club by Tony Parsons is published by Century, £12.99.
Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters