TONY PARSONS INTERVIEWED (2004): About a Man in the Family Way

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TONY PARSONS INTERVIEWED (2004): About a Man in the Family Way

British author Tony Parsons used to take drugs with Johnny Rotten but now prefers taking his two-year old to the park and writing about families in the suburbs. He now lives the life of a best-selling author with blockbusters like Man and Boy behind him, and reflects with some wry amusement on his former life. 

Hello Tony, thanks for your time. How are you? 

I'm alright, how are you?

Well, it's 8pm and I've just come from a wine tasting so I'm pretty good.

(Laughs) Me too, funnily enough.

Are you in the office or at home?

I'm at home, I work from home. I've got a room at the top of my house where I exile myself to. I've worked from home for a long time and I always try to be at the top or the bottom of the a house away from everybody else.

You are very disciplined?

I am, if I'm writing a book I try to do my 1000 words a day. Since the new book came out last month though I've been doing a lot of press and radio and travelling around the UK. I've just come back from the Edinburgh Festival so I haven't really settled into my new book at the moment. It's what I call dreamtime, you sort of brood about it. You do have to make sure you don't confuse dreamtime with doing bugger all though. You do need to think about it a bit. I'm going to try and start it before I come to New Zealand, that being the last port of call before I retire to my room.

Tell me about the discipline, it seems that 1000 words a day is the way many authors have to do things. Do you literally get up in the morning and go to work in the room at the top of the house?

The earlier I start the easier it is, the easier it comes because the day crowds in and there are other things to think about. So you get distracted. You can write 1000 words in an hour, or you can write them in 10 hours. Some people think they've got to do their eight hours but it doesn't really work like that. But you need as clear a head as possible and I personally find you have to start as soon as you can and immerse yourself in it as quickly as you can.

    I don't want to write more than 1000 words because you want them to be 1000 words you can use. So 1000 words works for me, less than that is lazy and more than that is a bit indulgent, the standard dips. It's marathon not a sprint and it takes a long time to write any book, just one foot in front of another.

   When an idea comes is there a story arc? You've got an idea of three women for whatever, do you have the big picture? A white board with lots of lines on it? 

Yeah, it's kind of like that. First you make the decision what the book is going to be about so with The Family Way the decision was it was going to be a book about maternity, pregnancy, about babies. I've got a two-year-old daughter so I had already been through that recently but the idea really came from when my wife had a 12 week scan where they give you the odds of Down Syndrome and we got out of the cab and there was a couple standing outside the obstetrician office, a young couple, a guy in glasses in his mid 20 and a pretty girl, and they were holding each other and crying. And I looked at them and thought, 'That's what you've got to write about. You got to write about that, it's such an epic and momentous thing'.

I have no idea what they were told, it could have been anything. So I thought that's what I had to work on and the question then was, 'How do I tell this story and what do I want to write about?'

Was it that couple or what we are going through or do I want write about unplanned pregnancy, infertility, people who are not sure if they want a baby ... I wanted to try and get as much in as I could and so then it's got to be multiple protagonists, you need three heroes in the book and they've got to be women.

Is that where the working author kicks in. You had the vision outside the cab window but now the story has to be factored around that?

Yeah, very much so. And you are thinking who the characters might be. You have to work hard and do that 1000 words a day. But I do think at that moment of conception a lot of it is predetermined. It's like the moment of conception for a baby, a lot of things like how smart it is, what athletic ability it might have or whatever is preprogrammed. In many ways those early choices determine how good the book is.

You've been around musicians a lot of your life and I remember that thing Bob Dylan used to say that the songs weren't his they were just waiting there in the ether. Do you feel any of that, or is it just carpentry? 

There is a lot on that, but the carpentry comes when you go to the studio like Bob Dylan and do six or seven takes of a song, that's where it comes in. It's a combination of craft and inspiration and they don't really work without each other. I've just read this book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield which is exactly about this, about how you create a book or painting and the forces that stop us doing it. It's a fascinating book. Steven Pressfield's ideas are quite high-falutin like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony existed and an angel whispered it in Beethoven's ear and he wrote it down.
At the same time Pressfield is a great believer in being a pro, he writes books about Sparta and Ancient Athens and that kind of stuff and he talks a lot of about being a warrior. It's an interesting book, I think you'd be fascinated by it. It's very much that Dylan idea of getting inspiration from what's out there. I don't understand why this [The Family Way] book didn't exist before because it seems such an obvious thing to try an encapsulate unplanned pregnancy and infertility, abortion and miscarriage. Any one of those subjects would sustain a novel.

I'm sure there are many women authors have tried it. Do you think it makes a difference that you are not of that gender?


I guess you get that question a lot.

(Laughs) What it means is I know a lot less so I have to approach the subject with a degree of humility and a willingness to talk to women about their experiences of miscarriages or infertility and so on. Maybe a woman writer would be less inclined to do that because I approach it with a real feeling of self-doubt and that I would be lucky to pull it off and would have to work hard to make the book work.

So you are the blank blotter and women tell you stuff.

Yeah, a woman came up to me at a party, a New Zealander in fact, and said she'd heard I was writing a book about pregnancy and she said the one thing I had to understand it is was just like flying, the difficult bits are take-off and landing. When she said it I knew that was true. I know in my heart the start and the end are where there are likely to be problems, but if she hadn't said that to me I could never have imagined it into existence.

So it makes a difference. I talk to women about it, my editor is a young female editor who has never had any children so she could tell me things like if she was dumping this guy she wouldn't feel this way, she can tell me that.

The mechanics of it, like what a Caesarean looks like, what an intensive care ward looks like, what post-natal depression feel like ... I've seen all that.

You've seen a lot more than most men then?

Yeah, maybe I have. But a lot of men turn away from it because it's messy and mysterious and our ancient tribal instinct make us think we'll let the women of the tribe deal with this.

Women also often don't let men into that world.

Yeah, and you do feel in the way. My daughter was born by Caesarean and you feel in the way, like God please don't me faint. You are afraid of showing yourself up, I certainly was. It is not something you can take lightly.

When you are in the process of writing do you run bits past people like your wife?

No, I have people I am close to, my wife, my agent, my editor I'll talk to.

You don't show them the words on the page?

No. Because once you start getting opinions in you'd be endlessly doubling back. I prefer to do that at the end when I'm going to do a second draught and take all the suggestions on board.

Better writers than me have had editors. F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway both worked very closely with Maxwell Perkins.

Some writers are a bit sniffy about getting good advice. Personally I'll take good advice wherever I can get it. But when I'm writing the first draft I don't want the individual words pulled apart and criticised because it would slow me down.

I read The Family Way in just a few sittings because it felt so easy, which tells me that it was probably very difficult. How many drafts did it go through?

In the end probably about five, but of course they get smaller. The big leap is between the first and second.

What happened on this one?

What I do is I write my first draft and drop that off with my publisher on my way to the airport with my family then head for a beach somewhere ...

In the Bahamas ... 

Barbados actually. That's my ritual and a reward for doing it. Then when I get back my editor is waiting for me with her thoughts. I've actually got a new editor on this one, I've worked with the same guy on the first three and it just so happened he left and the book about women had a woman editor, which was lucky.

So she has her ideas, but during the writing of the book I'll meet her for breakfast and talk in general terms and she'll say things like, 'Turn up the volume on the male voices because although its a book about three women it would be interesting to have men's thoughts'.

Of course you can't generalise because men will all be different, but in a very real sense that's affecting the book because I would have concentrated more on the three women.

Were you consciously turning down the male voices because you're a male?

I just wanted it to be a book about three women and I probably over-emphasised that. But if you've got a husband who feels the baby is a rival for affection, or a partner who feels this pregnancy is killing the relationship and we might end up with a baby but we won't have a marriage ... These are powerful emotions and she was right to keep them in there.

But that's what an editor is for, to wring the full potential out the book. So I talk to my editor and agent. My old editor and I had a very simple relationship, we saw each other every two or three months and he'd say, "What's this book about? What's this book about? What's this book about?" It's a good question and it's one I've learned to ask myself. It's good to have an idea of what illuminated a book and breaths life into every line, sometimes it's obvious.

The next book is my rock'n'roll book, my Almost Famous, it's going to be about a night in the 70s with three music writers and a bunch of musicians. It's really a book about time and the way we change time, the way we go from being wild kids to being parents who've got wild kids, life's little tricks and ironies.

One of the ironies is that we of the wild rock'n'roll generations have kids who aren't like that. Many of them are much more conservative.

Yeah, it's true! But it's good to have that degree of self-examination. But you have to get your work done, that element of going to your place of work and cranking it out.

Someone asked Somerset Maugham, "Do you have to be inspired to write?" and he said, "Yes I do, but fortunately inspiration strikes promptly at nine o'clock every morning".

Unless you are working, inspiration will not come. The painful bits are when you are working and you don't feel inspired, you are slogging. It's like the marathon runner whose legs are going, sometimes you just have to keep going. You watch any top athlete or great sports team, sometimes they do the simple things and the moments of magic and inspiration come. I really believe you just have to hang in there.

I have a cartoon above my desk as I'm talking to you, a fellow is slumped in a chair in corduroy trousers and he's saying to a woman, "You know what bugs me most about writing? It's just work." 
Your work is very different, you are a people's author not just in that your books are popular but you write about things that touch people's lives. Is that accident or design?

It started with Man and Boy and I was just wanting to get that book out of my system, then the realisation dawning -- it was conceived as a very small book with a limited audience -- but as you say these are most epic and momentous things we will ever go through: watching our parents get older, watching our kids grow, keeping our lives together, the compromises you make in relationship, falling in love ... There's nothing bigger than this stuff, it's like finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. That's why they've done so well, there are lots of ways in for people in these books.

Here in New Zealand we have this tradition of first time young film makers who seem to make movies about drugs and prostitution because they think that's really interesting. But it's always seemed to me the most interesting things happen in some middle-aged couple's living room at 10pm.

Yeah, I've interviewed an American writer called Glenn Savan once who wrote a book called White Palace which became a movie. This was during the 80s and I was a working magazine journalist and my friend at Elle Louise Chunn, another Kiwi, said go and interview this guy, the book is terrific.

Well, this was 20 years ago so I was more stupid than I am now and he was driving me around the scenes of where the book was set and it's about a young advertising guy who falls in love with an older waitress -- it was filmed with James Spader and Susan Sarandon -- and we were driving around the suburbs of St Louis. I thought it was really interesting because I grew up in the suburbs where I thought nothing happened and he said, "In the suburbs, everything happens".

That really stayed with me, that all human life is behind those picket fences and quiet front lawns.

There was that period when everything was vital and out there, like that period of punk when you were writing about it. I remember reading somewhere you said even then you wanted to be part of the mainstream, to try and reach that larger audience anyway. Do you resent that description I see everywhere, "Tony Parsons, former punk journalist'. It comes with your name.

Yeah. I'm used to it now. I was going to say I get it more abroad but when I think about it I get it just as much at home. There was a piece in the Daily Telegraph two days ago and that was in the headline, so it still happens here.

It gives people something to talk about and it's a good hook, this guy who used to spend time with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and then writing books about family. If I was writing a story about me I'd be happy to see that link because it's an obvious contrast. I don't mind talking about it as long as its kept in perspective, that's the thing.

It was a really interesting time and that's why my next book is going to be about that. But it was a short period of time and it's over. You get get resigned to it, there's nothing you can do about what people say about you in the press. When you've promoted a few books and done your interviews you realise you have absolutely no control over this stuff and sometimes people have decided what they are going to write before they talk to you. I probably did exactly the same thing when I was interviewing people.

In his book Steven Pressfield says you have to separate yourself from that public perception, you can't let it matter too much because it affects the work. And what matters is when you sit down alone with your book or your painting or your musical instrument, not someone misquoting you or gets you wrong or doesn't see any value in what you do. You have to let it roll off. I know people who are affected by it because they can't stand that degree of public scrutiny. So I can't let it get to me for that, there are too many people I have responsibility to and who support me, so I can't let it get to me. I cut myself off and have a barrier.

When I was up in Edinburgh there were a couple of women standing outside my event and they were saying, "Oh look, Tony Parson is on here' and they were looking through me to see it. That was odd, you felt kind of separated from the public image to such a degree that people could actually look through the real you.

Most of my readers are great and I'm grateful for the readership. I really appreciate it when people like my books, and people think they know me and to a degree they do. But the relationship with readers is a much purer transaction than it is with the media because human nature being what it ...

I don't get it so much abroad but here, and especially in London, I am often being written about by people who were my contemporaries five years ago, because I used to work for the Sunday Times and the Telegraph and all those papers, and they are giving their opinions on me and human nature being what it is they're not always the most generous in giving assessments.

There's probably nothing worse than an envious journalist interviewing a successful author. But you just go straight to your audience.

Yeah, I was a single parent for quite a while and when I was doing that I wasn't looking to get my son to Oxford or Cambridge, or for him to find a cure for cancer. My only thing was survival. I wanted us to get through it, to survive the situation we'd been put in, and it was sometimes a struggle. I think that's not a bad attitude to have, a little bit of stoicism and think, 'Let's get through this'.

People close to me get much more upset about things that are written about me than I do because I refuse to let it touch me simply because I just want to get through, just promote this book, send it out in the world, do what I can to bring it to the attention of people and then settle into the new book. So I refuse to be down or find it too painful.

Do people misunderstand that, they think you should always be giving a part of yourself away whereas you just have the next piece of work to do?

Yeah, that's it really. The books really matter to me, they are how I make sense of my world and my life. I'm quite open with people but I will talk to journalists.

In the past I've probably done it too much. When Man and Boy came out a journalist I trusted asked if he could have a word with my son and I gave him my son's home number, he was like a 17-year-old kid but he did an interview. Other papers picked up on it and they turned it into a news story and he talked about his mum and he was dragged on to the front pages. That was my fault.

It was taken away from the journalist of course, as we know the journalist isn't the guy who makes decisions about the editorial content of the paper, it's done by the editor and his editor. You live and learn and I realised that it was a very naive thing for me to do. I need to be more protective than that. It's a by-product of scrutiny that people become more protective of that core, it's inevitable because you just want to survive and get through it.

But having been a journalist you must see the other side of that. You did rock'n'roll stuff and you must have thought, how much of this am I going to give away in this story right now.

Yeah, and I'm still a journalist. I write newspaper columns. 

But sometimes things hold you back?

Well, I don't so much. You see my life, so much of it has been in the public eye.

Is that a problem?

I could never deny I took drugs, and even when I had a nine, 10 or 11-year-old kid at that stage where I would have preferred that not be [known].

As you saw with Paul McCartney when his kids were growing up there was a period where he didn't want to talk about it and people said 'what a hypocrite'. But I could understand that.

But you are stuck with it. But as long as I protect my family and my work I don't really care what's said about me. I'm quite open with everybody, maybe because it's a degree of identification.

What I find difficult to deal with is the level of spite you get. Maybe I'm wrong but I don't think I was ever a spiteful journalist. When Man and Boy came out it was reviewed favourably and people were very generous, but as time has gone on it has become less and less.

The Family Way got a completely different critical reaction to Man and Boy and to me there's no way it's not a better book. It's a much better book than Man and Boy.

But some journalist comes round from a London newspaper and there's just poison dripping when the piece appears and I think, "What have I done to upset this woman?" But as I say it upsets other people more, like my wife

Well, the tone in your voice there said it pissed you off.

I don't think they think of the book as any ... It's about me. Like this week there's this huge feature on me in the Daily Telegraph. They did a huge feature because the number two at the paper really liked the book and so they sent a journalist round. But the piece is just poisonous.

A woman journalist?

Yes, older. A younger one would have been more generous. Yeah, in a way it does piss me off. If I'm like that, why bother talking to me? You asked to talk to me. I don't let it get to me. It would be like driving and envisaging a car wreck every time you are on the highway. You can't think like that because you've got to get my kids to school.

You are writing another book now?

Yeah, I'll really get into when I get back from New Zealand but I'm in the dreamtime and working out how to tell the story and the particular characters. I've written something but I'm not at the 1000 words a day yet. It's one night in the 70s and then the same characters one night 20 years later. A cross between American Graffiti and The Big Chill.

It sounds terrifying. Have you got the big arc?

I'm kind of happy with it. There are technical problems like, "What was 1977 like, what did it taste like, what did it feel like?"

How old were you in 77?

I was 23.

That is old enough to see things and remember.

But it's like, "What was happening in 77 as opposed to 79 or 82?" It was pre-Thatcher for a start. And you just want to capture it. I've got this little table and I pile it high with books, like for The Family Way it was piled high with pregnancy books and IVF and abortion, and now its full of 70s books.

The most important things are the characters, when you've got the character they tell the story for you. Graham Greene said there is a point where the characters tell the story for you and I do believe that. If they live and breathe they'll tell you where to go.

You've got the soundtrack? You have '77 on the turntable?

I wouldn't have it when I'm writing because it sparks too many thoughts -- and it's not something I'd listen to at the end of the day because I'd want to stop thinking about it. But you're right. There are a lot DVDs around and so you can get a lot of the look and the feel of things from those. But I'd treat it more like research than background noise, I'd put on something else that had nothing to do with that.

A bit of Brian Eno ambience or something?

I'm listening to a lot of the guitarists that I'd never really heard the first time, guys like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, all these folkie 60s guitarist in bands like Pentangle.

I've always been a huge fan of the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin. I liked Jimmy Page on acoustic guitar, and this is where a lot of those songs come from, they've got a real folk and blues roots. So I'm listening to a lot of that. That's one of the things I like about getting older. I probably wouldn't have liked it when it came out, well I was only about 10, I was listening to the Monkees.

Don't knock them, I've got a box set right by my stereo.

Oh no, but it's nice to discover that [folk] stuff later. They were not rock'n'roll enough to make, they were folk purists and into the blues like Robert Johnson. I imagine they were a bit sniffy about the Rolling Stones because they were contemporaries. So I'm listening to a lot of that.

As an older man with a clearer head you get perspective.

I'm sure there were guys on the NME who knew them, I was just somewhere else. You know John Renbourn?


Well, this is a great version of Nobody's Fool But Mine (turns up stereo) Brilliant. Okay I'll let you stick the Monkees on and we can swap records over 10,00 miles.

Tony, thank you for your time this morning, What are you going to do for the rest of the day?

I'm going to have a cup of coffee, jump in the shower -- and then I'm going to get to my book.

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