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:
In the southern desert of Jordan, the ancient Nabateans carved their city, Petra, out of the red-rose rock. Later the caves were home to tribes of Bedouin. And to a young backpacker from New Zealand who fell in love with a Bedouin man. Marguerite van Geldermalsen met Mohammad in the late-Seventies and for the initial seven years of their marriage they lived inside the rock and had two of their three children. The Jordanian government later moved the tribes to a new village nearby, where Marguerite still lives (She has a souvenir shop inside Petra). Though Mohammad died almost a decade ago, Marguerite’s book “Married to a Bedouin” is a touching testament to the character of the man who changed her life and the profound love found by two people from such different backgrounds. It’s Marguerite’s first book and it’s written with a clarity of thinking and of style that’s striking. She has given us the most insightful description of Bedouin life you’ll read and also a unique love story sparkling with the attraction between Marguerite and Mohammad. For my series of interviews with authors, I’m delighted to chat with a writer who came to publish by such an unusual path.
Martin Walker’s series of crime novels about the chief of police of a small town in the beautiful Perigord region of France is a delight. When we met at a recent “British Crime Fiction Night” in Darmstadt, Germany, he described the books as “French porn – wine, food, women – in a crime fiction frame.” Certainly Martin’s bon vivant personality matches the playfulness of his fiction (Though he’s a Scot by birth, he divides his time between Washington DC and his vineyard in France). But he’s also a former correspondent with The Guardian and his novels have significant undertones of social commentary, as you’ll see from the interview here. By mixing the pleasures of France – the “porn” – with its dark underside, the Bruno novels remind me very much of the terrific Inspector Montalbano series, where the Sicilian setting is the beautiful backdrop to a detective who enjoys a good dinner as much as nabbing the villain. So here’s Martin Walker, the Andrea Camilleri of the Dordogne.
Cairo is a place we all know to some degree, even if only the image of the pyramids and the Sphinx. A short visit there is enough to make you wonder about how much of this teeming metropolis you really don’t know. No writer gets so deep as Sanna Negus under the skin of this ancient city, which remains key to the future of the benighted Middle East. Sanna’s the Middle East correspondent for Finnish radio and television. Her new book “Hold onto Your Veil, Fatima! And Other Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Egypt” is a stunning portrayal of Egypt that’s both homage and expose. Pulitzer winner Lawrence Wright calls her “one of the most informed and well-connected reporters in the region.” She’s also one of the best writers. Here she talks about the decade she spent in Cairo (before moving to Jerusalem) and how she wrote her book.
An NPR foreign correspondent pal of mine used to have a list of seven ways for journalists to grow old gracefully. His premise, which is self-evident to anyone who’s been a reporter, was that daily news was an undignified thing to be doing in your 40s. I can’t remember the whole of the list. It included writing op-eds for your newspaper (which seemed more or less like retirement), teaching journalism at a university (also retirement, but somewhat scorned by other hacks), and maybe the seventh was dieing. Undoubtedly the most prestigious way to proceed, according to that list, was to write nonfiction books. Nina Burleigh has a most graceful career, indeed.
This is where it gets ugly.
Last week I zapped off the manuscript of my new novel to my agent in New York. My wife told me to get working on the next book. It’s not because she’s worried about me slacking off and failing to pay the rent. No, it’s because she knows what happens when I’m not writing.
Ever read “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”? When I’m writing, I’m Dr Jekyll. All my unloveable urges are intellectualized and subsumed to a pleasure in the creative impulse. As soon as I stop writing, I shuffle about the apartment like Mr Hyde, hunched and suspicious, leering, weak-willed and a bit vicious.
It happens every time I finish a book and I’ve dealt with it on each occasion with a different degree of success. This time I’ve gone straight into the documentary research for my next book, which will be a historical novel. Even so, over the weekend I was conscious that the calm I feel when writing was leeching away. My teeth were on edge. I yelled at a motorist (admittedly he’d failed to stop when my son and I were on the crosswalk in front of him, but nonetheless…). I went a couple of days without shaving and, though I didn’t knock over any small girls standing on the street corner, I did start to think I was degenerating into a vulpine Hyde.
I turned to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic and found this:
“Between these two, I now felt I had to choose. … My two natures had memory in common, but all other faculties were most unequally shared between them.…Strange as my circumstances were, the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man; much the same inducements and alarms cast the die for any tempted and trembling sinner; and it fell out with me, as it falls with so vast a majority of my fellows, that I chose the better part and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it.”
What makes Stevenson’s tale great (in its original, non-Hollywood form) is that he nailed so clearly the dilemma at the heart of every civilized man. Freud wrote that man fights wars because we can only bear the restraint and repression of civilization for so long, before we blow. In my case, I write novels for the same reason.
As a writer, I have to be closer to my emotions perhaps than anyone except a shrink. The emotions need to be close enough to the surface that I can put them into sentence form and into the mouths of characters on the page.
If I was an accountant I wouldn’t need to do that every day. So I’d probably let it go.
I’ve realized that the annual post-completion jitters and self-doubt is merely what happens when I feel the strain of repressing those emotions. When I’m writing I don’t have to tamp them down – in fact, the opposite, I tease them out and give them form. Between books, I have to fight them because there’s nowhere for them to go. (It’s a little bit like Manhattan in August when all the analysts take their holiday. Everyone breaks down and blames the heat, but it’s really that they have nowhere to unload their neuroses.)
So long as I know what’s going on, I know that I won’t really turn into Mr Hyde. Not often, anyway.
(I posted this first on International Crime Authors Reality Check, a group blog with other crime authors Christopher G. Moore, Barbara Nadel and Colin Cotterill. Take a look.)
By now it’s no secret that the Iraq War has been a disillusioning experience for many of the U.S. servicemen sent there. The literature on the war has, so far, been mostly written by journalists. There’s plenty of it, and like most journalism it runs pretty mainstream and inoffensive, no matter how bloody the scenes depicted. But Michael Anthony, a veteran of the war, has a different perspective. His new book Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq is the best account yet of a war that continues to cost lives and to sully the image of the democracy in whose name it was supposedly fought. It’s a subject I’ve thought about a great deal as I travel my corner of the Middle East and as I continue to encounter fighters – Israeli and Palestinian – who endure personal hardship and tormenting nightmares when they face the realities of war. So read the book. Meantime, here’s Michael’s Writing Life.
How long did it take you to get published?
I started writing the book as soon as I returned home from Iraq. I wrote the first hundred pages in six months and then the last hundred pages in two days (for the first draft). I then spent several months editing and doing rewrites. In total, from starting to write until getting a book deal, it took one year (almost exactly).
Would you recommend any books on writing?
I’m sure there are some out there, but I’ve never read any books on writing. I can give you a few of my favorite books though; the ones that I place as the top tier of writing, and for me, I think reading books, with a great style and prose, can help your writing as well. My top books (not in any order): Atlas Shrugged, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
What’s a typical writing day?
I usually spend my typical writing day, finding other things to do than write. I think part of the aspect of being a writer is having the discipline to actually sit down and write. I don’t write every day as most writers do, but when I do write, that’s all I do. For me, it’s not about quantity of time, but quality of time. I could write while doing laundry or watching television, but it wouldn’t be the same. When I do write, it’s all about the writing and nothing else, I throw myself into and sometimes I won’t shower or leave the house for days.
My latest and first book is: Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq. It is the true story of what goes on during war, and what went on over there. It’s not a pro war or anti war book, it’s simply a true war story. I think a lot of stories/movies/shows out there; paint this picture of the American Soldier as this romanticized heroic idea. What I wanted to do with my book was simply paint a picture of the American Soldier as a human. It goes back to the old saying: “I’d rather be hated for what I am, than loved for what I’m not.” If people really want to appreciate and support the troops, the least they can do is learn the real stories, and not just the ones they’re told by reporters or the military officials.
If you look at a majority of war books or movies out there, they all paint this perfect picture of war and its effects. For example, look at one of the long running war movie franchises: Rambo, starring Sylvester Stallone. Rambo goes off to war and comes home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Even with this PTSD, he still manages to be a hero, save a town or city from some disaster and at the end, still get the girl. But in reality, if a soldier comes home with severe PTSD, they kill themselves. End of movie, roll the credits.
The problem with romanticizing these soldiers and situations is that when they come home, no one understands what they went through and what it was really like. And because of this, today’s military has the highest suicide rates in thirty years. Since the Afghanistan war started, more active duty soldiers have killed themselves than have been injured or killed in Afghanistan—combined. This is why I think we need to give people the full picture of war, and not just the good stuff they want to know about.
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
My current, favorite, contemporary writer is: Stephen Chbosky, author of: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For me, I just loved everything about that book, from the idea of it, to the way it was written.
How much research was involved in your book?
The vast majority of my book was based on my journals in Iraq, and because of this, the research involved was minimal. All I had to do was convert my illegible sometimes chaotic journal entries, into readable prose.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Tell everyone you know, or have ever known, and then tell them to tell everyone they know. I now think everyone in my high-school class knows I have a book in bookstores. Social Media is a great thing, and don’t be afraid to go out there and use it. Also, I think getting other authors to review and/or comment on your work. I was able to get over thirty well accomplished people to review, comment on, and endorse my work; from famous politicians, to famous historians, psychologists, veterans and authors.
How many books did you write before you were published?
When I was sixteen I had written three books and two movies; it then took me five years to realize I wanted to be a writer.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
When I was younger, I once wrote a book from the perspective of a T-shirt. The book had a T-shirt as a main character and I followed him around and wrote about what he was thinking as the wearer of the shirt went around and did his daily duties.