Q. Please tell us what it feels like to see your books in shop windows?
Sadly, I never have seen my books on sale in a shop window, though I have seen them displayed in Waterstone’s on Deansgate, Manchester, and in the late, lamented Borders (UK) – and Ottaker’s, another book shop of blessed memory. And something I am very conscious of (and grateful for, too) is that it was the “Books of Local Interest” display section at Waterstone’s, Deansgate, that prompted an invitation for me to submit my debut novel, Every Street in Manchester, for the Portico Literary Prize back in 2006. This led to its eventual shortlisting.
Meanwhile, somewhere else I have really appreciated seeing that first book of mine was on the shelf in my local branch library, nestling (due to its being temporarily mis-filed), between one of Garrison Keillor’s books and one by Brian Keenan.
(Brian Keenan, you may recall is the bearded journalist of whom his fellow captive John McCarthy is reputed to have proclaimed upon his first being imprisoned alongside him by the self-same insurgents in war-torn Beirut: ‘Blimey! It’s Ben Gunn!’
Q. What inspired you to be a writer?
There were always books at home: I think that’s important. And many of them were far from being of Booker Prize standard: I think that’s important, too. Because young readers in particular need to feel inspired by what they read.
Also, I was lucky enough to have a couple of inspirational English teachers over the years, one at primary school; the other at secondary. Besides which there was a tradition of writing at the secondary school I attended – even if it only amounted to penning overlong history essays. Certainly, I can remember being conscious of the fact that writer Anthony Burgess was an old boy of the school – something I certainly found inspirational, particularly since Burgess had been born and lived during his formative years in northern suburbs contiguous to my own (Crumpsall, Monsall). That is to say, Burgess had lived in the northern part of the city of Manchester that was ever under valued by the Didsbury Village-orientated brethren who ran the secondary school I attended.
Billy Hopkins, author of Our Kid – and also from the northerly reaches of the city (Ancoats, Collyhurst) is another old boy of the same school, though I didn’t know this at the time – or know Billy Hopkins till recent years.
Q. What is your writing routine?
I very much prefer to be sitting at my PC (shaven and showered: hot and cold intermittently) by 6.00 am at the latest. Particularly when writing fiction. I’ll be good for a few hours then. Sometimes I’ll go back to my PC later. But I fight shy of this if I’m tired and, therefore, prone to make mistakes. Please note, though, that my 6.00am start is far from popular with She Who Holds the Casting Vote at My Present Address who considers my writing routine disturbs the house.
I think this is an important point to note: a writer is not necessarily regarded as a personality of consequence within his own household. In fact, when I happened to mention to a cousin of mine that I had published a debut novel she eagerly insisted I must make sure to let her be the first to know when the book would be available to her – via the local lending library!
Indeed, five or six years on from that day, with something in the order of 2,500 book sales under my belt, half of my extended family still haven’t read any one of my four published books, swish cars and Manchester United’s next home game being their raison d’etre.
Q. We can see that you incorporate people you know or things that have happened to you and your family in your text. Is this a legacy you can leave for your future family?
Well, a writer really should write about what he knows. Which fact more or less enjoins upon me that I should write about the people I know and things that have happened to me and my family. Note, though, that the vast majority of the characters I write about are composite characters. That is to say, none of my characters is exactly as they are in real life – nor even the same sex in some cases. The reason for this is twofold.
First of all, I don’t want to have some real life scumbag (of whom there is a superfluity in the profession I have long escaped), no, I don’t want some over-promoted toss-pot crawling out of the woodwork, looking to make my name mud, as certainly happened to Anthony Burgess with The Worm and the Ring, the result of which was that his book ended up being pulped. Instead, I much prefer to mix said scumbag’s personal characteristics up with those innocent of any offence.
And, secondly, if a writer tells absolutely everything he knows about a particular person, then he runs the risk of having nothing to say on his next literary outing.
Similarly, I tend to change the names or locations of real life schools, churches, cinemas and public houses that I have known.
Q. Who is your favourite author?
Whenever I need reminding how much I have yet to learn about writing (say, every couple of years or so) I re-read Room at the Top by John Braine and The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra is another ongoing re-read on this list. In truth, I suppose John O’Hara is my favourite author, particularly when he’s writing about gangsters and other low-lifes, and shopkeepers and working class people, though O’Hara wrote about unmitigated snobs, too, being one himself to all intents and purposes.
Amongst present day novelists, I will never understand why Yorkshireman David Peace is not more lauded for his output – The Red Riding Trilogy, The Damned United. Snobbery amongst the Booker Prize coterie, would be my first guess.
Q. What is your next project?
To make a shed-ful of money in order to enable me to continue writing.
Yes, bags of dosh having already been expended on self-publication and very little having come in, my next project is to raise money by a completely different commercial endeavour.
All my life I have done part-time jobs, never quite trusting my full-time job to keep the wolf from the door. So at present, with regard to my writing, I’m on tick-over, contributing two regular pieces to two separate magazines each month. Hopefully, temporary reinvestment in a quite different commercial project will – as previously it did with my debut novel – finance further full-length literary endeavours.
Q. What is your favourite holiday destination?
Like Billy Hopkins I love Sorrento (the gateway to umpteen antiquities, including Pompeii). I like the Italian lakes, too, and Spain’s Costa del Sol with its various transport options and access to the Rock of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the Halterburn, a shingle-bottomed stream near the northern end of the Pennine Way and just half a mile distant from the blandishments of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, Borders, is my favourite place on earth. Well, do I recall paddling across the Halterburn some 24 years ago, having set off from Edale in Derbyshire with a view to celebrating jacking the cigarette habit I’d got into during my term of imprisonment in a Manchester school.
Q. Have you any pets?
Luckily, I have 5 grandchildren whom I would term such, but no moggy or pooch.
Q. If you were invisible for the day what would you do?
For the day, you say? Let’s get this right . . .
‘I am an invisible man . . . a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because refuse to see me . . .’
So said Ralph Ellison back in 1952. Because he was black.
So say I. Because I am self-published and no one wants to know.
Q. What is your happiest memory?
Receiving a letter to say my debut novel, Every Street in Manchester, had been shortlisted for the Portico Literary Prize. At that moment, it seemed that anything was possible. It’s good to feel that way just once in your life. Sadly, I now know that 2,500 books sold count for nothing. What really counts is 2,500 connections in the literary trade – or even one that cares.
Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.