The 7 Ages of a Storyteller – interview with Bill Keeth (12 January 2008)

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Introduction

I received an email some weeks back from Sharon Bakar. She introduced me to Bill, who had written an email to her. I looked at his website and I was fascinated by his work. So, I asked if he’d be interested in an interview and he was. I also chose this the title for this interview based on the photo Bill chose to send to me – he describes this photo as ‘The 7 Ages of Bill’. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Bill Keeth …


Aneeta: Bill, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Bill: Not at all, Aneeta. It’s very good of you to invite me.

Aneeta:  Let’s start with a little about you. Please tell me where you were born, brought up and a little about your youth.

Bill: I’m a Mancunian, born and bred. I lived in the north Manchester suburb of Blackley (pron. Blake-lih) for the first 24 years of my life and I’ve worked in and around north Manchester for more years than I care to remember. Age 11-18, I bussed it across town to Xaverian College, Victoria Park. Later, I did a stint in the Civil Service, which is where I met my wife. Nowadays, I live in Middleton, Greater Manchester and I write fiction with a north Manchester-based storyline.

Aneeta: What do you do for a living?

Bill: Work-wise, I suppose, I’d better begin at the beginning. I’ve delivered newspapers, worked in a grocer’s shop, been a window cleaner, a topper and tailer of onions in a pickle factory (£0.65 for 4 hundredweight of shallots – a wage to bring tears to already watering eyes), a postman, bar man, waiter, civil servant, salesman in a tailor’s shop, warehouseman, navvy, football pools and insurance collector, play centre supervisor, newspaper haulier, shellfish salesman, cabbie, DJ, art dealer, retailer (of TVs, typewriters, in-car stereo, 7” vinyl singles) – and, for my sins, though I am now “escaped” (laughter verging on the unhinged) a teacher. Nowadays I have the time to write. (You don’t suppose I did all that work without making a few investments, do you?) But for thirty years or more I had to make time to write.

Aneeta: When did you start writing and why?

Bill:  There were always books at home, you know. I think that’s important, because a writer must first be a reader – must always be a reader. And I was lucky enough to have a couple of inspirational English teachers over the years. Even so, I don’t recall reading much apart from comics when I was a kid (The Dandy, Beano, Eagle and American comics, too: Superman, Batman and Robin, Blackhawk, Green Lantern) except for Richmal Crompton’s William series and books about a family called the Brydons that Kathleen Fidler used to write about. Oh, yes, there was Pocomoto, too by Rex Dixon. Then I got into John Steinbeck in my teens – Ian Fleming, too, I’m ashamed to say. But those Cape first editions were really well-presented. And I was very much into classical history for a few years via Robert Graves, Peter Green, Henry Treece, Mika Waltari and Mary Renault. But I’ve wanted to be a writer since reading Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat in VIth form (not that it was on the syllabus) at the same school, coincidentally (Xaverian College), as was author Billy Hopkins twenty years or so before me, and Anthony Burgess, coincidently too, half a dozen years before him.

By the late 1950s/early ’60s I was very much into the great northern writers – Yorkshire men John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow and David Storey; Nottingham’s Alan Sillitoe; and the late, great Bill Naughton from Bolton (Lancashire, as it then was – it’s Greater Manchester now). And it was around this time (1962) that Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was published, reading which was an eye-opening experience for me because, quite apart from the revolutionary quality of the book, it was around this time, too, I first learned that Burgess was an old boy of the school I’d attended and, just as importantly perhaps, that he was also a former resident of the north Manchester suburb of Harpurhey (pron. Harper-hay), which is contiguous to the suburb of Blackley where I lived at the time. Writing a long-binned first novel back in 1977, I subsequently (indeed, consequently) became a founder member of a writers’ workshop at Manchester College of Building.

Aneeta:    I understand you have two books published, Every Street in Manchester and Manchester’s Kiss. Can you please tell us a little more about these books?

Bill:      Every Street in Manchester [ISBN 1859880657], my debut novel, was begun as a short story entitled ‘It Wasn’t Consummation’. This was around 1982 during a particularly dreary time in my professional life when my face didn’t fit: I wrote it in a blazing rage at circumstances beyond my control that were affecting me and my family. (There are circumstances beyond the narrator’s control in the story, you’ll notice, though no way does rage enter into it.) Then, more recently, certainly since the turn of the new Millennium, I got a yen to develop this short story into a full-length novel. It took me seven or eight months to do so.

Here’s how an advertising handout I’ve used describes Every Street in Manchester: ‘A latter day Manchester man relates his life story in a Mancunian vernacular with editorial assistance from a friend. The result of their joint endeavour is a tragicomic novel spanning the second half of the twentieth century in a northern suburb of the city from where the Third World is temporarily accessed via the Pennine Way.’

And here’s how I might personally describe it at a book presentation, say: Every Street in Manchester is a love story from start to finish, though that’s not to say it’s a Mills and Boon, or even a Catherine Cookson type of love story, Because the main character’s no catch. But the storyline running through the book is boy meets girl – boy stays with girl, too. Well, as far as circumstances permit.

It’s a love story about a time and place too: north Manchester in the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s about the kind of music people enjoyed in that time and place. It’s also a story about the world of work – shop work, navvying, office work, taxi driving, delivery work and so on.

There are loads of local landmarks in Every Street in Manchester, with the title itself locating the story immediately to the north of the city. But though the man and wife in the story work at a road transport depot on Every Street, the relevance of the book’s theme is more far-reaching than that, like the old Mancunian joke that alludes to potential access to every street in Manchester via that eponymous address in the district of Ancoats (pron. Ann-cotes.)

So in a manner of speaking, it’s as if Billy Hopkins (best selling author of Our Kid, High Hopes, Kate’s Story, Going Places, Anything Goes and Whatever Next!) decked on a bus at Collyhurst Street, and got off it at Moston Lane corner some twenty-odd years later. But there all similarity ends. Because the hero of Our Kid always had a lot more going for him than Tony Dinch, the main character in Every Street in Manchester ever has. Because Dinchy is a bit of a dumb cluck: he’s thick as a navvy’s butty to the power of two short planks; he’s the urban equivalent of a village idiot. He doesn’t know too much, that’s for sure – he can’t even speak properly, let alone do any of the other subjects on the school curriculum. Dinchy is socially inept in many ways too. He’s so stupid he needs his more articulate friend, Byron Marlfield, to help him make sense of his story. Heck! He needs Byron to help him tell his story. (Byron is responsible for perhaps 25% of the narrative.)

But the fact that Dinchy doesn’t know too much doesn’t mean he knows nothing at all. He knows where he comes from for a start (the storyline looks back through his grandmother’s eyes to the two World Wars); and he knows when he’s well off too – with his wife, Shirlee, that is. Not that Dinchy and Shirlee are well off in any material sense that’s important to the people around them. No, in that sense, and certainly by the end of the book, they’ve got nothing at all. But in a kind of a way they’ve got everything. Because they’ve got each other, and this is one aspect of the relevance of the spoof quotation on the front cover: ‘A voice from the city, a plea for the world’.

Another aspect of the relevance of this same quotation is concerned with the way in which the two narrators (Dinchy and Byron) access the Pennine Way on a sponsored walk in aid of a Third World charity – a charitable effort which is echoed in the real world by the fact that a specific percentage of the cover price of each copy of Every Street in Manchester is donated to famine relief.

Here’s what it says on the inside back cover. ‘As a token of support for UN Resolution 2626 (1970), signatories to which have promised to allocate 0.7% of their GDP to international development, an obligation the UK has yet to honour, 0.7% of the cover price of each copy of Every Street in Manchester will be donated to CAFOD for famine relief’.

Subsequently shortlisted for the Portico Literary Prize, 2006, (www.theportico.org.uk Every Street in Manchester is available from Borders, Waterstone’s, Amazon.co.uk and direct from www.novelnovella.com. The book has been featured in the Manchester Evening News and the Lancashire Magazine as well as on local TV and radio stations. Close on two thousand copies of Every Street in Manchester have been sold in the Greater Manchester area and beyond.

Manchester Kiss [ISBN1859880673] is a continuation of the north Manchester saga that begins with Every Street in Manchester. Here’s how a similar advertising handout describes the book: ‘Patrons of the same public house, a group of north Manchester people now confront the reader (and each other) with personal reminiscences, observations and opinions by means of which they give voice to many of their grievances, aspirations and fears.’

Manchester Kiss was published in November, 2006, in the same week that the Portico Prize Presentation Dinner was held at the Midland Hotel, Manchester.

 

Q.      When did you write Manchester Kiss?

A.      I began to write it immediately Every Street in Manchester was finished. I’d got up a good head of steam, so to speak, and, like a competitor in a race, I had my sights set on some point beyond the finishing post. And things just went on from there.

 

Q.       How long did it take you to write the book, would you say?

A.      I finished it in no time at all really – a few months perhaps, though there was an extensive Pennine Way section in the first draft, which I later removed because it seemed even more of a culture shock than having verse and correspondence alongside the narrative.

 

Q.      What made you turn your hand to writing another novel so soon?

A.      Well, I knew from the start that no commercial publisher was going to look at  Every Street in Manchester. Par for the course really. But you never know, so I still had to go through the motions of submitting it – and I needed Manchester Kiss to keep me going when I might be feeling a bit downcast with the expected rejections – which duly materialised, of course. With regard to the way in which Manchester Kiss is written I had various objectives in mind.

 

Q.       Yes, it’s an unusual format, to say the least, isn’t it?

A.      I wanted this second book to be completely different from Every Street in Manchester – as a personal showcase, for one thing. But I also felt I needed to get away from first person narration so as to stretch myself as a writer. Also, I’ve got this personal bee in my bonnet about the sort of baggage we carry round with us from our past which can sometimes have as much bearing on the things we say and do today as something that happened only yesterday – and it seemed to me that this idea might best be suggested via the non-linear nature of Manchester Kiss.

 

Q.       I hear what you say, but come on, I mean, you’ve got bits of correspondence and verse intermingling with the narrative, haven’t you? And, as I understand it, the reader’s invited to tackle the book in any order, isn’t he? What’s that all about?

A.       The American writer, John Dos Passos used to intersperse his narrative with factual reports from newspapers; and British writer, B S Johnson, famously wrote a novel entitled The Unfortunates which the reader was invited to read in any order. I’m not comparing myself with these two writers in any way, other than in pointing out that the narrative techniques employed in Manchester Kiss together with its non-linear format are by no means unique within the novel form.

 

Q.       Okay, but why did you feel the non-linear format was necessary to the telling of your tale, let’s say?

A.      Well, it’s necessary only inasmuch as I think that to do it this way tends to replicate real life. Ask yourself, for instance – does your own life really run from A to Z in a linear narrative pattern? Does this interview? And does the past break in on your real life from time to time? Does the future you so carefully planned for yourself occasionally hinge on something uncontrollable – some event in the past or even an accident of birth?

 

Q.       But what about the correspondence and the verse?

A.      The idea of verse and correspondence – and, indeed, the photographic illustrations intermeshing with a non-chronological narrative is simply an extension of this same non-linear format.

 

Q.       So is Manchester Kiss linked with Every Street in Manchester in any way?

A.      Well, Manchester Kiss centres on the lives of a group of north Manchester people, some of whom first appeared in Every Street in Manchester. Each of these people has his own career and life story which quite naturally come under discussion when these same people meet up to shared purpose on high days and holidays in the same public house – the North Parade.

 

Q.       Is that a Manchester pub?

A.      It’s a fictional north Manchester pub, supposedly on Victoria Avenue East, which is on the northern perimeter of the city. Mancunians might picture it as being somewhere between the Berkshire and the kiddies’ party venue that I call the Sticky Warehouse. The location of the pub is important in that legend has it that Victoria Avenue East at that point is as high above sea level as is the top of the tower at Manchester Town Hall. So the reader might usefully visualise the North Parade as a kind of conning tower from which the north Manchester social scene may be surveyed during the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Q.      But can this non-linear, interlinked hotch-potch of a novel – if I may call it that – really be part and parcel of literature as we know it?

A.       Most definitely. The characters in Manchester Kiss share an affinity with one another, as do the people on pilgrimage in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who are temporarily on pilgrimage, and with those in The Decameron, who are simply waiting for the plague to run its course in the city of Florence. Their real lives being temporarily put on hold, they pass the time telling stories to one another until their real lives may be resumed.

 

Q.       So how does that work in the North Parade, for instance?

A.      Teachers talk about teaching, policemen talk about police work, the thrifty discuss their investments, jokers tell jokes, people in a relationship discuss that relationship, and the down-at-heart complain ad nauseam.

 

Q.       How do the 37 photographs fit in?

A.       Well, the photographs, courtesy of the Manchester Archive, housed at Central Library www.images.manchester.gov.uk are intended to illustrate two separate bus journeys as if through the window of a bus. There are two buses involved, each of them numbered 72X, and each is travelling along Rochdale Road, the A664. In the first instance a schoolboy is travelling towards Manchester city centre c. 1954, as portrayed in Chapter 2 of Manchester Kiss; and in the second a young woman, who is about to be married, is travelling home from work in Manchester city centre c. 1965, as portrayed in Chapter 8 of Every Street in Manchester).

 

Q.       Are there any other ways the two novels are connected via their storylines?

A.       Oh, yes. They’re not instances of any particular importance except to myself perhaps. But an umbrella bent at a party in Manchester Kiss, turns up in Every Street in Manchester, and a lost cigarette lighter referred to in Every Street in Manchester is found in the street in Manchester Kiss.

 

Q.       Why?

A.       Continuity and contiguity are the only answers to that . . .

Aneeta:     Some of my subscribers to the newsletter I manage have now completed telling their own stories. They would like to approach agents/publishers. As you’re obviously a published author, what advice would you give these aspiring writers who would like to approach publishers with their completed manuscripts?

Bill:     Really, all I can do is sympathise with them (and, of course, empathise). In a sense, you see, I’m the wrong person to ask. Because I have never known a commercial publisher show a flicker of interest in my work. But, in another sense, I’m exactly the person to ask, because that’s exactly how commercial publishers are in my experience: aloof, interbred and nepotistic, resolutely uninterested in new writing being obsessed with royalty-free Austen, Hardy and Dickens. Here’s how the blurb for my new book puts it: ‘When Bill Keeth was looking to place his debut novel with a commercial publisher a couple of years ago, not one of the firms he contacted wanted to know. Which is simply par for the course, as any unpublished author will tell you – certain published authors too. Irvine Welsh, best-selling author of Trainspotting, puts it like this: ‘I would never have been published if I started writing now. Publishing goes through cycles. It’s never been so conservative.’

And it was whilst looking to place Every Street in Manchester with a UK commercial publisher), that I learned writer Billy Hopkins had nine years before been constrained to self-publish his debut novel, Our Kid with Limited Edition Press. (Check this out, if you will, on the back of the title page of any Headline paperback edition of Our Kid where you’ll see Limited Edition Press gets a mention as the original publisher – and please refer also to www.amazon.co.uk and/or www.abebooks.co.uk for Our Kid by Tim Lally [ISBN 1859880134], the previously self-published edition of this book which is nowadays a collector’s item.

So, it was with my forerunner’s advice in the matter (see www.billysbooks.info ), that I, in turn, after wasting a good twelve months submitting the Thing, then dithering for a further twelve months, wondering whether I dare or could even afford to self-publish, that I, in turn, looked to Limited Edition Press to fulfil my own dream of foisting a work of fiction upon an unsuspecting public.

So self-publish, I say to your subscribers – unless Daddy happens to be a commercial publisher – which is precisely why my new book (out Spring, 2008) is entitled Write It, Self-Publish It, Sell It. This doesn’t mean that you or I don’t want, don’t need – don’t deserve to be taken up (or at least considered) by a commercial publisher; it simply means we are not prepared to remain unpublished in the meantime.

So, what are the chances of a commercial publisher’s picking up on our self-published masterpiece? To be honest, it’s anybody’s guess. Look at it this way: I have sold close on 2,000 books: result ZILCH; but immediately Billy Hopkins moved 1,000 books, Headline took him on. And get this (the biggest belly laugh of all), Welshman Brian John had shifted as many as 30,000 copies of his self-published Angel Mountain novels (see Amazon.co.uk) before Corgi pricked up its ears and signed him up to the Kennel Club, so to speak. (You heard me right: 30,000 books, unbelievable though it is.)

[Editor’s Note (9 June 2008): Bill has since published his book, Write It, Self-Publish It, Sell It. Here’s the blurb:
When Bill Keeth was looking to place his debut novel with a commercial publisher or a literary agent, not one of the firms he contacted wanted to know. Which is simply par for the course, as any unpublished author will tell you – certain published authors, too. Irvine Welsh, the best-selling author of Trainspotting, puts it like this: ‘I would never have been published if I started writing now. Publishing goes through cycles. It’s never been so conservative.’

So Bill Keeth, already at work on a second novel, opted to self-publish instead, whereupon his acclaimed debut novel, Every Street in Manchester, sold by the shed load, going on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Portico Literary Prize – which begs the question as to why no commercial publisher or literary agent wanted to know. Perhaps William McIlvanney (Doherty, Walking Wounded) has the answer when he says: ‘If literature is a testament to what it means to be alive, 98% of the witnesses haven’t been called.’

Are you a writer member of the aforementioned 98% by any chance? Do the foregoing observations chime strongly with your own experience of commercial rejection, to say nothing of your abiding determination to be published? If so, then Write It Self-Publish It Sell It is the book you’ve been waiting for. Because it explains in down-to-earth language exactly how Bill Keeth self-published and sold thousands of books – and how you can do so too.

Write It Self-Publish It Sell It supplies the answers to all the questions you ever wanted to ask about self-publishing. Why would anybody want or need to self-publish in the first place? Is your book good enough to self-publish? Isn’t self-publishing just another name for vanity publishing? Are there any famous writers who originally self-published, then went on to be commercially published? Should you self-publish with a print-on-demand company or a local printer? How much will it cost you to self-publish? How many copies of your book should you order for a first print run? How do you go about placing your book with bookshops great and small?

As an added bonus, Write It Self-Publish It Sell It provides specific answers to 3 very tough questions, each one of which is worth the cover price of the book on its own account:

1.  Which mere handful of the hundreds of self-help manuals on sale is essential for writers of fiction?

2.  How may you sell your book title via Amazon at 33% less than the normal commission rate?

3.  What is the simplest way of getting your self-published book into every public library in the UK?

Make no mistake about it, Write It Self-Publish It Sell It is an absolute must for every writer of fiction – unpublished, self-published and otherwise.]

Aneeta: Yes, I know all about self-publishing! As you know, this website caters for storytellers. Do you have any specific advice to give them?

Bill: I’ll serve up the very best advice first, if you don’t mind, a master-class of advice – something your readers may categorically depend upon, and then I’ll throw in my own four pennorth, for them to take or leave as they choose.

First, then: ‘Don’t go with the crowd, don’t do anything for the crowd, don’t be of the crowd . . . Place an enormous stress on individuality, don’t use novelty phrases that bob around in the atmosphere for a few months, like “no-brainer” or something like that, which are ways of signalling to your peer group that you’re just like everyone else. Make it fresh, make it your own, make it individual,’ Martin Amis, on being appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester School of Arts, History and Culture.

And now my personal four pennorth, for what it’s worth:

1)       Lose weight if you’re overweight, go hungry from choice, then you’ll feel more inclined to activity, therefore, more inclined to write.

2)       If your aim is to “play for your country” by being published nationally, follow the advice of English cricketer Ian Botham’s father, who advised him when he was looking to being selected for the team to be a batsman and a bowler, both – in other words, tell whatever story you have to tell (be a novelist) and make sure you season it liberally with the appurtenances of the time in which the narrative is set (be a diarist, too).

3)       Write about what you know, ’tis said. And I agree. But sometimes you cannot really see what you know. So, go away from what you know (James Joyce, Henry James, The Beatles) and, if you cannot go away from what you know, immerse yourself exclusively in the literature of another time and place for a few years.

4)       If someone tells you your work is rubbish, ignore the complaint unless a more detailed critique is forthcoming – and ignore the critique, if it is delivered by a know-nothing – e.g. how dare anyone who never opens a book presume to judge a book?

5)       The last great sports novel was David Storey’s This Sporting Life back in the early 1960s. Now hear this, ye storytellers: the great association football novel has yet to be written – and it will not be written by me. So it’s over to you.

6)       If you cannot please a publisher, please yourself. Write what’s in your heart. You may be surprised to find you’re a nicer person than you think you are. If you were not, you’d be out there creating mayhem, not writing.

7)       Get yourself a narrative voice that suits you, that helps your words to flow. What’s a narrative voice, you say? Beg, buy or borrow ‘Just Like Steven Spielberg’ by Sharon Bakar.

Aneeta: I like the first one – lose weight! You made me laugh! Bill, this is all I have to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Bill: Well, yes, I would if you wouldn’t mind. The thing is I don’t want to risk ending on a negative note, because I really do feel very positive about my writing and I want your subscribers to feel the same about their own work. Besides, they’ll need to take as much care, if not more, if they turn to self-publishing (Hence Write It, Self-Publish It, Sell It, by the way.) So I’d just like to leave you with a more positive thought about commercial publishers, if I may. Because the poor souls need all the help they can get. (Like as if.) Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is from a novelist who’s made his living from writing fiction since the early 1960s – that is to say, Stan Barstow, best-selling author of A Kind of Loving. In his autobiography, In My Own Good Time, Stan has this to say about submitting your work to commercial publishers: ‘A rejection need never be taken as final. There is no such thing as an objective opinion. What one [publisher] likes may leave another one unmoved.”

Aneeta: Thank you, Bill.

Bill: On the contrary, thank you and your subscribers for putting up with my bluster: I feel (harrumph!) I feel as if I’ve vented a spleen – or two.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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