When you ask writers what underpins the greatest books, they may talk about structure, style, character-building. The best of them identify the novelist’s emotional understanding of himself and his ability to translate it to the page. That’s what strikes readers – perhaps without their even knowing it – and gives them an immediate connection to the work. At this, Tony Parsons is the master. An enfant terrible of rock journalism who’s still a high-profile columnist in British magazines and newspapers, his first big success was the wonderful MAN AND BOY, which was a big word-of-mouth hit around the turn of the millennium. Since then, he has written a series of other books, mostly focusing on the tribulations of relationships. What it takes to maintain a relationship or the love born by bringing a child into the world, for example. He’s done all this with a broad appeal, a lack of pretention, and an understanding of the craft of writing that makes him unique in the London literary world. Here he talks about how he lives his Writing Life:
You were a music writer who mixed with the great British punk bands, before you wrote novels. How did the transition to novels change your writing and the way you think about writing?
The transition between journalism and novels is always the same – it is the difference between running 100 metres and running the marathon. If I wrote a review of the Clash or the Sex Pistols, or if I write a column for GQ or a newspaper today, then I can do it in a few hours. With a novel, you live with it for a year or more – you have doubts, you take wrong turnings, you plough on. It is just much more of a slog. And you have to dig deeper – to keep that big picture in your head, to get the book in your brain down on 400 sheets of paper – writing a novel is much more of an act of will. You keep going, even when you lose heart. If you are writing a column – my columns are 2000 words for GQ, and 1229 for the Daily Mirror – you don’t really have the time to get tired, or to let self-doubt creep in.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
There are many great books about writing – I would recommend you read all of them. “Story” by Robert McKee is aimed at screenplay writers, and filmmakers, but the lessons about story structure are just as applicable to novelists. One of my favourite books on writing is Ernest Hemingway on Writing – it is an anthology of thoughts by Hemingway on his craft, rather than a book that he wrote about writing, but it contains some of my favourite advice. For example, Hemingway suggests that if you get stuck then you should write, “One true line.” I have always loved that. Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing” is very good, and will take you about 15 minutes to read. I have just discovered “Becoming A Writer” by Dorothea Brande, which came out 80 years ago and has just been discovered – you never stop learning your craft, and so any writer should devour all the good advice he or she can find.
What’s a typical writing day?
A typical day is that I walk my 8-year-old daughter to school, come home and start. I work non-stop until lunch – aim for 1,000 words but keep going if it is going well. Knock off for lunch and do anything and everything else in the afternoon, including thinking about tomorrow’s work. It is always good to have some idea of where you are starting the next day. Hemingway said you should always, “Leave some water in the well.” So – 1000 words a day, before lunch. But there will be weeks when I am editing a book, and then you move at a different pace. Or obviously you don’t start off with 1000 words – the brooding period, when you are trying to see the book in your head. But when the ocean liner is out at sea, I will try to hit that 1000 word mark day after day.
Novels need perhaps to make a greater emotional connection with a reader than journalism. Before I was two paragraphs into “Man and Boy,” I was in tears, though you hadn’t written anything overtly tear-jerking. The same was true when I heard you speaking to an audience about your father—you were very measured and matter-of-fact, yet it was somehow deeply touching. How do you do it?
I think you just have to be emotionally honest – with yourself and everyone else. If you are writing or talking. Just try to say what is in your head and your heart without worrying too much about how it makes you look. So I just try to be straight with the world and myself, and I find that you can’t go far wrong. I think we spend a lot of our lives trying to look more cool or clever or uncaring than we really are – I think a writer has to get over that, and find the connection from his heart to the rest of the world.