Thanks David for committing your time to answering some of my interview questions. I will not even try to deny that you’re one of my favourite writers but I’ve tried to make the interview non-obsequious and only objectively respectful!
1 Perhaps it’s a bit of a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ question but which of your books are you most proud of?
There are bits of each of the books that I like and bits of each of the books that I don’t, but I think Nineteen Seventy-seven is perhaps the published book that is closest to the imaginary one I had in my head. However, the book I’m “proudest of” is still GB84 because I believe the Miners’ Strike of 1984 / 85 is the most important and still most relevant and still most contentious moment in post-war British history.
2 You must be very busy virtually all the time, how do you manage, do you allocate yourself a regimented routine for writing and then try to focus on your ‘domestic’ duties as a family man? Do you set personal timescales or are they determined by publisher deadlines?
Well, I’m very lucky in that Faber & Faber basically let me set my own schedule in terms of the delivery of the books, though obviously it is very much a discussion between us. But then, day to day, yes I do have a very strict routine in terms of the research and then the writing. But it’s not much different, really, from what most people do: work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep.
3 If any, what book(s) are you working on now? Can you reveal any ideas that you haven’t started yet but plan to write?
Well, right now – October 2013 – I’m working on a film treatment of Red or Dead, a short story for Granta’s forthcoming Japan issue, and also preparing and teaching the course in Contemporary Literature which I teach at the University of Tokyo. But in January I’ll go back to finishing the third Tokyo book which I hope will be published in 2015. After that book is done, I then plan to go back to UKDK, which is a novel about Wilson, and forms the last part of a very loose quartet with GB84, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead.
4 Writing fiction I’ve always thought of as similar to being an actor in that you need to ‘get in character’ to create believable protagonists. So on that note, and remembering some of your amazingly diverse characters in your novels, how have you achieved it? Do you go in to ‘Method’? And when it’s someone as extreme as say a sex killer or a police high-up, does it affect you emotionally/mentally?
Yeah, I think you’re right, Rob. And that was why it was such a change and a relief to write about Bill Shankly. I know it sounds very dramatic, but writing about crime in the way I do can be very depressing and draining. But I think that is an inevitable part of the process, if you are going to write about the tragedy and violence of crimes (political ones as well as criminal ones).
5 Tell us how you started your writing career, and are there any moments on this journey which you regard as your Turning Point or Call To Adventure?
Well, I’ve never really viewed it as a career as I’ve just written pretty much every day since I was about eight years old and kept going. But probably moving to Tokyo in 1994, starting what became Nineteen Seventy-four, and then meeting my agent, William Miller, were the major “turning points”. William was both the most important influence and biggest help I’ve ever had in my life, outside of my family, and his death in 2009 was then the lowest point I’ve been through.
6 In the brilliant ‘Red Or Dead’, I’m sure (well, I hope I am) you won’t mind my mentioning the frequent use of repetition within the text… Has it been well-received or heavily criticised? Personally, I ‘get it’ and I also think it works very well, especially when hearing extracts recited, plus I think it’s brave and original… would you though like to explain it here to the reader? Did your editor and/or publisher have any input on this aspect?
Well, the repetition has come in for a fair amount of criticism, but other people – like your good self – have been more tolerant. Thank you. However, and I think this is worth stressing, I see Red or Dead as a portrait of Bill Shankly. It’s not a photograph, in the way some people might consider a biography to be. It is a novel which I hope is a portrait of Bill Shankly; my “painting with words” of the man. And everything in the book is there to try to illuminate that portrait of Bill Shankly. And the repetition came from things Shankly said himself, and from my own research. It wasn’t just a stylistic tic on my part or an affectation, as some people have suggested. In his retirement, Shankly himself said football was like a river; it was relentless, it went on and on, and there was no stepping out of it. And I think, even as supporters, we know the truth in that and can imagine how very, very much more intense that must be for the people on “the inside”, let alone for someone who was so consumed and obsessed by the game as Bill Shankly was, day in, day out, for every day of his life. And so his words, and then the things he did, the way he lived his life, this was where the repetition came from and is then simply my attempt to show both the rituals and routines of the training and the matches, all the games through all the seasons, and also Bill Shankly’s utter commitment and dedication to both the sport and the supporters, and the sacrifices and struggles he made in order to “make the people happy”. But, of course, Lee and Angus, my editors at Faber & Faber, and other people I trust, were involved in the various drafts of the novel and made different suggestions, too.
7 Of all your books so far, I found ‘GB84’ the heaviest read – I don’t mean physically, that biceps-building honour definitely goes to ‘Red Or Dead’! – can you explain here what research you did, in to such aspects as corruption, industrial and political espionage, the hierarchies of government, the police and the National Union Of Mineworkers? In light of subsequent developments in the investigations of the police involved with Hillsborough and Orgreave for instance, do you feel that your observations of so much crookedness at the highest levels will be proven beyond doubt?
Well, if it’s any consolation, Rob, it was the heaviest for me to write, too. I mean, it took a long, long time to research and while that did include interviewing people “from both sides” and usually “off the record”, most of the research was reading through as much as I could find, particularly concentrating on “the Secret State” and its involvement in undermining and bringing down the National Union of Mineworkers. And as I’ve said before, as I was writing, I just became more and more angry at what had gone on and, at the same time, more and more guilty, because a lot of the violence against the miners, the use of agent provocateurs, for example, was known at the time but ignored, but mainly guilty at not having fully comprehended the sacrifices and suffering that so many, many of the families were going through and just paying “lip service” with my Coal not Dole sticker etc.
But the full extent of the role of “the Secret State”, including the Thatcher government and certain parts of the police, has yet to be fully disclosed and, as with Hillsborough, and also Northern Ireland, there still has yet to be a full reckoning. And for anyone interested in helping to bring about that reckoning, please help and support the Orgreave Truth & Justice Campaign (at otjc.org.uk).
8 As the great Roy Castle often used to sing, we all need Dedication to succeed. In the case of literature, what else do you think is needed for a writer to really make it? Have you had the same editor throughout your career, and how important is an editor?
Yes, dedication and patience, determination and practice; you have to write every day, at least something, and if you are stuck, then I still think going back to books and writers you admire, copying out passages, and then re-writing them, is a great exercise and certainly helps me through the less inspired or productive times. But editors are very important, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best there are; John Williams at Serpent’s Tail, Jon Riley, my original editor at Faber & Faber and still a close friend and someone who still always reads early drafts of my work, Shunichiro Nagashima, my editor in Japan, and Lee Brackstone and Angus Cargill at Faber & Faber. William was also always my first reader and made many very useful editorial suggestions, as does Hamish Macaskill, who took over as my agent after the death of William. And also my father. I think it is very, very important to have people around you whose opinions you trust.
9 Favourite films, music, books, television programmes? Apart from writing and creating, do you have any hobbies, pastimes, and likes or dislikes?
Ah, that’s too difficult, Rob; too many books, too many films, and too much music. But, for what it’s worth, my favourite book of this year, so far, is Blue is the Night by Eoin McNamee, my favourite film this year is The Place Beyond the Pines, and the best album is You’re Nothing by Iceage. I also enjoy A Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, but mainly I just watch football on the telly and football would be the nearest thing I have to a hobby, although we both know that word hardly does justice to the commitment and time involved!
10 Japan or England? Please give Pros & Cons comparisons.
Again, very difficult. I like the routine I have in Tokyo, in that it allows me the concentration and discipline I need to write, But I miss my family and friends in Yorkshire. And the beer, the football, and the weather.
11 ‘The Damned United’ novel hit some ‘legal’ obstacles didn’t it? Care to divulge? Personally, I regard the film adaptation as very poor and an embarrassing missed opportunity to make a classic British sports film comparable to ‘This Sporting Life’. What do you think of the film adaptation of your ground-breaking book?
To be honest, I think the so-called controversies and legal issues that surrounded The Damned Utd are probably best left – get me started, Rob, and I don’t stop (as you well know) – but all I will say is, don’t believe everything you read! And yes, in many ways, given the initial discussions about the film, it is disappointing that it wasn’t closer to This Sporting Life (which was the original intention). But that said, the film brought many new readers to the book, and other books I’ve written, and so it would be churlish and ungrateful not to admit that the film helped me a lot.
12 You’re a lifelong Huddersfield Town fan… what are your short and long-term hopes for the club? Do you manage to keep up to date with their fortunes while you’re in Japan, do you get to any footie matches over there? I know there have been a few misconceptions about your football allegiances and whatever the opposite of that word is, are there any teams you do detest? Any individuals in the sport today who you would gladly never see again?
Well, and as you well know, the Championship is a very, very tough division and, so far, Town have already exceeded my expectations for this season; I was pretty sure we would be involved in the proverbial “relegation battle” (though with Town there’s always still time). And, of course, long-term, I would love to see them in the Premier League and with bigger gates. But pragmatically and realistically, I would settle for a couple of solid seasons in the Championship and a play-off place or two in the short term. And yes, I can follow their fortunes from afar but there are no Championship games on Japanese TV and they’ve also cut back on the FA Cup games now, too. But I do see the odd J-League game (as my son follows Urawa here) and also some of the pre-season friendlies when the likes of Arsenal or Manchester Utd come over and also, for example, I was lucky enough to see Barcelona when they were here for the Club World Cup a few years ago. But no, there are no teams I dislike and certainly not Leeds, for example. Of course, there are plenty of folk within the game who I wish were not but mainly men at FIFA, UEFA and the FA.
13 How did you react on hearing of Margaret Thatcher’s demise? What do you think of Arthur Scargill? Do you like the royal family?
I think this obsession with particular individuals and personalities distorts and masks the real political conversations and debates we need to have. And so I didn’t feel anything when I heard that Thatcher had died because, for me, it is not her but the idea of Thatcherism and its legacy that is the issue. Don’t celebrate, as Billy Bragg wisely said, organise! The same with Arthur Scargill, though I would say that all he warned would come to pass if the National Union of Mineworkers were defeated proved to be true. Similarly with the Royal Family; I am not interested in them as individuals, but I do believe the abolition of the monarchy is long-overdue.
14 Are you ‘self taught’ or did you study some form of creative writing lessons and the like? Tell us about your ideas process; is it correct that you write your ideas down on paper and then put them in boxes so as to revisit them at a later date?
Yeah, I am “self-taught” and have never taken any creative writing courses. And so as we discussed earlier, I think it comes down to dedication and practice. But yes, I always have a number of “ideas” for books and, over the years, I chip away at them, doing bits of research and adding notes and so on, and sometimes there are enough pieces of paper that I need a box to put them in and then, when the box is full, that is usually the time I start to write the book.
15 Any personal and professional ambitions? I am hereby admitting/declaring that your ‘Red Or Dead’ novel has inspired me to write about a favourite footballing ‘saint’ of my own… have you had any direct inspirations from writers too?
Thank you, Rob. And yes, I’ve been directly inspired by writers; James Ellroy and his LA Quartet really helped me to form the ideas that became the Red Riding Quartet, for example. But in terms of personal and professional ambitions, it is always the same one: that the new book is better than the last book.
16 I mean no disrespect or disservice to your ‘Tokyo’ series when I say it’s perhaps your riskiest subject matter in commercial terms (here at least), how has it been received in Japan and what are your plans for the series?
Actually, internationally, the Tokyo Trilogy books are by far the most successful in commercial terms. And the first two books have been well-received in Japan. And as I said before, I’m now working on the third one.
17 Do you try to keep check on sales performances of your books? And if so, how are they faring and WHERE are they faring?
No, not really in any detail. But as I’ve just said, I’m aware that the Tokyo books sell better abroad than they do in the UK, and that the opposite is true of books such as The Damned Utd and Red or Dead which so far sell much better in the UK than, say, in the States or France.
18 Did you enjoy being the subject on (then) ITV’s ‘South Bank Show’?
Not much, no. Again, I know it can sound churlish or ungrateful, and also that it is very necessary and very useful, but anything to do with television is always the part of the publication of a book which I am most uncomfortable with.
19 What do you find as most enjoyable about the whole writing/publishing process? Are your achievements paying you well?
The actual writing! And I’ve been lucky enough that, at least for now, I can earn my living doing that (although I also still teach as well, but I enjoy that, too).
20 Finally… my own answer to this question is ‘not a chance while my brain still works well enough’… do you think you have a limit to your fiction output and will you ever retire?
Well, I went through a period around 2009, after William died, when I couldn’t see much further than a twelfth novel. But one of the many things writing Red or Dead taught me is to think very, very carefully before you retire! And so the bad news is, I now plan to keep writing, as you say, “as long as my brain still works well enough.”