Can it really be 36 years since Tony Parsons first burst on to the UK music scene as a writer with the NME, answering an advert calling for ‘hip, young gunslingers’? By that stage he already had his first novel under his belt (The Kids, 1976), and was publishing underground paper the Scandal Sheet while moving from job to job in London.
Pretty soon he was championing the emerging punk and new wave scene, chronicling such notables as The Clash, Sex Pistols, Blondie, Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop, The Jam, New York Dolls, Ramones, The Stranglers, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin. Those days were later touched on – in fictional form – with 2005’s Stories We Could Tell.
This son of Romford, Essex, also collaborated on The Boy Looked at Johnny in 1979 with fellow NME reporter Julie Burchill, the pair going on to marry. And it was the collapse of that marriage – left as a single parent caring for a four-year-old son in 1984 – that proved a major influence on breakthrough 1999 novel Man and Boy, the first of many successes for a truly impressive writer.
For several years, Parsons struggled to make a living as a freelance writer, but by the 1990s he was a regular on live BBC panel show, Late Review, making Channel 4 documentaries, and writing newspaper columns for the Daily Telegraph then the Daily Mirror. He also published Bare, an authorised biography of George Michael.
Man and Boy, a superb example of Parsons’ trademark ‘fiction as therapy’ approach, touched on his lone-parent experiences and relationships with his folks, proving a word-of-mouth hit and taking a year to top the book charts. It remains his biggest seller, published in 39 languages, and won the British Book Awards’ Book of the Year Prize in 2001.
Since then he’s gone on to write two further Harry Silver books, Man and Wife (2002) and Men From The Boys (2010), alongside many more fine novels touching on similar themes, not least One For My Baby (2001), The Family Way (2004), My Favourite Wife (2008) and Starting Over (2009).
And this year alone Parsons has published the critically-acclaimed Catching the Sun and short-story collection Departures: Seven Stories From Heathrow.
Parsons married his Japanese wife, Yuriko, in 1992 and lives with his wife and a daughter in the capital. He also writes a monthly column for GQ magazine and a weekly column for the Daily Mirror. Yet for all his success, as Malcolm Wyatt found out, he remains extremely approachable and a good bloke all round, proud of his working class family roots and always happy to pass on advice.
MW: It’s proved a difficult time to bring out a new book, with the publishing world caught napping in the wake of 50 Shades of Grey. But Catching the Sun has sold well considering the current financial climate, hasn’t it?
TP: The summer of 2012 probably wasn’t the greatest time to publish a book! 50 SHADES OF GREY is by far the most successful book ever – nothing else comes even close. Not Harry Potter, Stieg Larsson, nothing. So it is distorting the market and sales are down all over – but I figure that you do the best work you can and hope it finds an audience. I don’t know what else you can do. Publishers are shell-shocked by 50 SHADES – truly shell-shocked, and I think it does change things – although nobody knows quite what. I think people like the boxed DVD experience – you can buy all three at once, and you don’t have to wait for a year. Personally, I think it is great that a book can sell 700,000 copies in one week. As a writer, I am happy that people can still get that excited about the written word.
MW: There have been lots of positive reviews for Catching the Sun. Do you still get the same sense of pride you did when Man and Boy became a success? Can you still get excited by a positive review after all those best-sellers? Or hurt by bad feedback?
TP: You are always cheered up by good reviews and positive feedback, and you are always brought down and hurt by snide remarks and sniping. I think what changes is that you build up defence mechanisms – there is no rule that says you have to seek out everything that is written about you. Most of the things that are written about you are best ignored. I am not one of those people who gets into fights on Twitter. I have lots of time for the people who like me, and those that don’t should just keep moving.
MW: Catching the Sun paints a vivid picture of life in South-East Asia. Have you spent a lot of time in Thailand?
TP: I spent a lot of time in the northern part of Phuket researching CATCHING THE SUN. I first went to Thailand 20 years ago, for a wedding, but I have never considered myself any kind of expert of Thailand. I know Japan and China much better than I know Thailand. But I spent a lot of time in Nai Yang, in the north of Phuket, and after a few years of spending time there, I do feel that I know that part of Thailandvery well.
MW: Were you in that part of the world when the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami – an integral part of the story in Catching the Sun – struck?
TP: I have a friend who lives on Phuket, and another friend – a lawyer in Hong Kong– who has a home there. They were both there when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck, although the first they knew about it was when people began running across the highway they were driving on. I spoke to them, and I spoke to foreigners who were on holiday there, and I spoke to the locals about what it was like and what it meant. It is very easy to meet people who were on Phuket that day, because they came from all over the world. Plenty of people who live in my neighbourhood in north Londonwere there, and I used the experience of one of them pretty much as it happened. That is what is in the book.
The other thing I used was my experience of being in a bad earthquake in Japan a few years ago. That gave me a sense of the power of nature – something I never really felt in the country where I was born. I used that in CATCHING THE SUN – that naked sense of helpless panic you feel in an earthquake.
MW: You clearly have a fascination for the Far East, one that shows in some guise or other in so many of your books. With your wife’s cultural background, do you spend much time in Japan?
TP: Over the last few years we have been going to Japan in the summer – I usually stay for two or three weeks, and celebrate my daughter’s birthday at the end of July, and my wife and daughter stay all summer. It has been a bit different over the last 12 months or so because my father-in-law is dying of lung cancer, so we have been going more frequently for shorter periods of time. But I love Japan – everything about it. The culture, the food, the cities, the countryside – and the way that everybody tries to treat everybody else with a bit of human decency. I think that life is mostly made of those small human transactions. Somebody asked Lawrence of Arabia why he loved the desert, and he said, “Because it’s clean.” And I feel like that about Japan. I love it because it’s clean.
MW: I was discussing with my better half who’d play who in Catching the Sun. I went for Ray Winstone as Tom Finn but she pointed out he might be deemed too old now! We agreed instead on Winstone as Farren and Shaun Dooley as Tom. I had Rosamund Pike down as Tess. Do you ever ‘cast’ when you’re developing characters?
TP: I think that I don’t cast the films anymore because I have had projects fall through at the last moment too many times. Harvey Weinstein bought MAN AND BOY for Miramax; Julia Roberts bought THE FAMILY WAY and got me to write a screenplay. They were both great experiences but in the end they didn’t happen. So I think in future I will just try to make the books stand alone. I did have a meeting with Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame recently, who likes a script I have written for STORIES WE COULD TELL. But I don’t get carried away with the film stuff. It is hard to make any kind of film, even a bad one. I would love them to all be great films – or no films at all. If it is written in the stars, then it will happen. Often it happens – films of books, I mean – after the writer’s dead, so that would be fine too.
MW: How did the airport ‘writer in residency’ project and Departures: Seven Stories From Heathrow come about? Did you enjoy that alternative short story discipline?
TP: DEPARTURES: SEVEN STORIES FROM HEATHROW came about because they asked me if I would be their second writer in residence. I was a fan of Alain de Botton’s book – he was their first writer in residence – and I thought it would be a bit of an adventure while my wife and daughter were in Japan. A bit of a summer job. Like being a lifeguard. And it was really fascinating because Heathrow was full of surprises – the air traffic controllers were all about 30 years younger than I was expecting them to be, the BA pilot I hung with was from a very working class background – I loved it all, and I thought the collection of short stories I got out of it was pretty good. Raymond Carver, the great short story writer, is one of my heroes and it is quite rare to be asked to write a collection of short stories because there is not much money in it for anyone. But I think good work is never wasted, and I learned something – in fact I learned a lot – by doing DEPARTURES. It is hard to write good short stories. You can’t afford to waste one word.
MW: You said you might have become a ‘£10 Pom’, but your mum ruled it out at the last moment as she would have missed the rest of the family too much. That seems to sum up a lot of your work – wrangles between disillusion, ambition, staying put in the UK or trying to become a success elsewhere. Do you still see yourself as a patriot?
TP: I am a big patriot. I am a British patriot rather than an English patriot, because I have Irish blood on my mum’s side and Scottish blood on my dad’s, and I am proud of all of it. The Union Jack is my flag. I think it is a thing of great beauty. This is my home and the more I travel, the more I realize it is my home. But my dad nearly took us to Australia, and my wife might get me to move to Japanone day – and that would be fine too. I know a lot of ex-pats all over the world – Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, America – and they are the most fanatical patriots I know. Hardly a day goes by when they don’t crack open the marmalade and a Blackadder DVD boxed-set. I think my dad felt bitter disappointment with this country. He was a Royal Naval Commando and most of his outfit were killed on their last raid – Operation Brassard, on Elba. So he sacrificed a lot more for this country than I ever could. This country has been good to me and I don’t have too many complaints about it, although I do think it is run by pygmies who have no experience of the real world.
MW: Are you already making in-roads into the next novel? Can you tell us anything about what’s in the pipeline?
TP: I want to write a straight thriller next. Something that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I am re-reading all the Ian Fleming 007 books, and I think it is incredible that we are still making James Bond films more than half a century after Fleming’s death. I would like to try inventing a character that strikes that kind of chord. A series – that is what I am thinking about.
MW: How old are your children, and what do they make of your success? Are they likely to follow you into writing or journalism?
TP: My son is 31, and my daughter will be 10 next week. My son works in the gambling industry, and my little girl wants to be an illustrator. She writes really well – especially poetry. Her old man has tried to tell her there’s no money in poetry but she doesn’t listen to me.
MW: How many days a year, on average, will you spend at your desk in London these days?
TP: I am spending more and more time at my desk in London. I have cut right back on foreign promotion. I used to fly all over promoting my books and I do that a lot less these days. I did 5 book tours of America and it would take an awful lot to get me to do another. I think, on the whole, a writer is better off staying at home with his family and his work. It can be nice seeing places that you would not otherwise have seen – like Nashville, or Krakow, or Malmo – but it takes you away from your work and your family.
MW: You’re a big advocate of Twitter and have been for a while. Don’t you find yourself easily distracted by all this 21st Century media gubbins?
TP: I try not to get too involved with the digital life because it just burns the time. I will Tweet if I have something to say, and I will look at the DMs I have been sent once a day. That’s enough. You are better off reading a book.
MW: I was astounded to see you have a big birthday at the end of next year (60)! How does that sit with you? Clearly, you’ve achieved so much to be proud of, on a personal and public front. I guess you’ll never hang up the pen. Do you remain highly motivated?
TP: Writers never retire. We just keep going – even if nobody is interested, we keep going. So that simplifies things in many ways. Retirement doesn’t come up. You just keep writing until it’s your turn to go. What keeps me motivated is that I have a daughter who still has a lot of growing up to do – so I want to stay healthy, to stay successful, to make my golden prime last as long as I can.
MW: Does that motivation and work ethos go back to your working class roots and upbringing?
TP: I think coming from a working class background does influence – I think I am lucky to have the life and career that I have, I know how to count my blessings, and I appreciate that nobody out there is obliged to read my books. If I died today then I would have had a great life, and I know it – and part of that knowledge comes from seeing my father work at 3 jobs so he could get us out of a rented flat into a modest little semi in Essex. I grew up in the shadow of a hero, and I am aware of it every day of my life.
MW: Lots of writers could pass us on the street and we wouldn’t recognise them, but after all those late night and breakfast TV appearances, you’ve become a well-known face. Does that ever get to you? And do people thrust dog-eared scripts at you or half-baked creative writing essays?
TP: I get recognized but it is always on a very pleasant level – people are friendly, they like something you have done, at some point you have made some kind of connection. It’s a good thing. I don’t get a lot of work offered to me to read – I think most people understand that you need an agent to do that for you – writers have enough on their plate with their own stuff.
MW: I’ve just re-read Man and Boy, and was reminded what a powerful but overtly personal book it is. Is Harry Silver the closest we’ve got in fiction to the real Tony Parsons?
TP: Yes – Harry Silver is probably closer to me than any other character in my books. Certainly Tom Finn, in CATCHING THE SUN, is much more like my dad. Harry is nicer than me, though – I think I have a harder heart than Harry Silver. Although he is me, a lot of the bad stuff is left out – by the time I was Harry’s age, 29 at the start of MAN AND BOY, I had done years in the music business, seen some of my best friends kill themselves with heroin, taken lots of drugs myself, had periods of promiscuity that Harry never had – he is like me in his love for his father and his son, but in some ways he is not like me at all.
MW: Have you ever found yourself analysing why that book hit such a nerve? Nick Hornby did something similar a year before with About A Boy and more followed. Was it just a breath of fresh air to read about real blokes and their turn-of-the century ‘new man’ priorities? We’ve all known people go through messy divorces, parents growing old and the inevitable happy/sad rollercoaster. Yet you write about it so well.
TP: There’s an element of dumb luck involved in any runaway bestseller. The paperback of MAN AND BOY came out in 1999 and people were ready to read that kind of emotional intensity from a man. And the book was quite raw because my mum was dying while I was writing it. That’s where a lot of the emotion comes from – my dad had been dead for a long time when I was writing MAN AND BOY. You can’t stop your life happening to you, and it influences every line, even if you are not aware of it. It took an entire year to get to number one in the paperback chart, and got there on word of mouth and the same day that the next book, ONE FOR MY BABY, got to number one on the hardback chart. You are very, very lucky if that happens to you once in a lifetime. I will write better books than MAN AND BOY but I don’t honestly think I will write anything that commercially successful again. Because when you sell millions you have to write a book that appeals to everyone – even if they only buy it because they are curious to see what all the fuss is about.
MW: For 2009’s Starting Over, a Guardian reviewer said your ‘specialist subject is contemporary emotional issues which almost every other male writer has ignored’ Is that the secret?
TP: I think that review of STARTING OVER was spot-on – I wrote about these things – fathers and sons, husbands and wives, marriages and jobs, everything falling apart and then trying to put it back together – because I didn’t know what else I would write about. Writers complain about critics but sometimes they see a truth about our work that we haven’t.
MW: What were you reading as a child? How did that reading progress over the years? Was fiction always a big influence?
TP: My mum read me the Rupert the Bear books. That gave me the bug. My dad bought classics – Dickens, Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, My Family And Other Animals – and some of them I liked, and some of them I didn’t. My mum had six brothers, most of them in the print, all of them great readers, and they introduced me to Ian Fleming when I was 11. And the Bond books were probably the first books I truly loved.
MW: Do you still read widely, and prolifically? Is that essential for a successful writer? What recent publications stand out most? Who are your favourite authors?
TP: You can’t write if you don’t read. You have to make time for reading. You have to feed your head. I am rereading a lot of things I have read before at the moment – THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris, ROGUE MALE by Geoffrey Household, and I am working my way through the James Bond books. I am near the end of GOLDFINGER.
MW: Did you write from an early age? Was there a specific book that made you think ‘I can do that’ or ‘I want to learn how to do that’?
TP: I always felt that writing was the one thing in the world that I could be halfway good at. But you struggle with it for a lifetime. Getting the story in your head to be the story on the page is still the great magic trick that you never quite master.
MW: Harry Silver made his living in TV. Does any other medium appeal to you other than your TV critic and newspaper column work? Screenwriting for example?
TP: It is all writing to me. Newspapers, magazines, books – it’s all the same, it’s all communication. I would like to write a TV series – and tried it a few years ago with my friend Andy Harries, who produced The Queen and Wallander. But the trouble with film and TV is that you need someone to front a lot of money. I quite like the empty white page you get with books and journalism. No bean counter can tell you that you are not allowed to do it.
MW: Do you meet other writers socially, at least for a coffee on a slow Tuesday? Or is it a solitary business at the writing stage and you save all that for the promo work?
TP: The one novelist I used to see socially was Nick Hornby when I was living in Highbury. We used to meet at a Korean restaurant halfway between our homes. Lovely man, beautiful writer, and we lost touch after I moved away. Novelists tend to be lone wolves. I have mates who are journalists, but my closest mates live in Hong Kong, and they are all lawyers. I don’t hang out with mates that much, to be honest. I like being with my family, and I like being alone. I think a writer has to be very happy with his own company.
MW: From the description of Harry Silver’s dad’s appreciation of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin onwards, music’s clearly always been important to you. Then there were those halcyon late ’70s days when you found your teeth at the NME. That must seem a lifetime away. Do you keep in touch with any journalists or band members from those days? Did you make a lot of lasting friendships?
TP: I still love music but it is a completely different experience from when I was working for the NME and seeing 6 great bands every night of the week. If I see members of The Clash, or Paul Weller, or the Stranglers, or any of that vintage, then we are friendly to each other, but it is not more than that. I don’t keep in touch with any NME journalists, and the musicians that I was fondest of – Joe Strummer, Johnny Thunders, and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy – are all dead. So all that is a long time gone for me.
MW: Are you still excited by music today? What was the last great band you saw?
TP: I can’t remember the last gig I saw – I think it was probably a Prefab Sprout gig that my wife took me to a few years back. Or maybe it was Cream at the Albert Hall, which a friend took me too. I was a bit too young to be a fan of Cream in their pomp, so I was happy to see them – it was great. But I would never go to see the comeback tour of a band I loved – Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, the Stone Roses. I prefer to keep my memories intact.
MW: Finally, would you have any advice for a 19-year-old Tony Parsons? Or is everything life throws at us all just part of some big plan and makes us what we are today?
TP: If I had some advice for the 19 year old me it would be – you can’t believe how quickly a lifetime flashes by. Enjoy every sandwich, kid.