I’m pleased to be joined by author John Simmons today who is sharing #TenThings he’d like his readers to know about him and his writing. I have to say I just adore the cover of his book, Leaves!
The expectation is that writers become readers at an early age. Not me. My mum and dad must have worried when I was approaching the age of nine and reading was not on my list of things-to-do – football, yes, but not reading. Then a teacher at my primary school started reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to the class. I was captivated by tales of Mole, Rat and Toad, so I told my mum. She bought me the book for my ninth birthday and wrote inside the front cover for me – it’s my most precious book.
This liberated whatever was previously blocking me from reading. After that it was Biggles, Just William, Jennings, everything by Rosemary Sutcliff and reading became an essential element of my life. It’s been a pleasure and an inspiration to write ever since.
Reading continued through secondary school and university, and English became my favourite subject. I studied it at Oxford, the first in my family to go to university let alone Oxford. My time there was blighted by the deaths of my mum and dad at too young an age, but I met my wife Linda. Part of my attempt to recover a sense of stability, and wanting to do my best for mum and dad, was that I began writing a novel. I called this ‘Leaves’. It was a good first attempt and was almost published. But not quite…
Forty years passed. I met Matthew Smith from Urbane about a non-fiction book I was ghostwriting. He asked me if I’d written any fiction? As it happened I had recently revisited ‘Leaves’ updating it, adding a new character as the narrator, changing individual sentences but retaining the original outline of a novel in four parts, following the structure of the seasons, one year in the life of a north London street. Matthew read it and loved it – and to my great joy offered to publish it. I almost wept. ‘Leaves’ is a book I’m proud of.
Most of my writing career was spent in the business world. After university I got a job in publishing as I thought that would take me closer to my ambition to be a writer – it didn’t. Children came along, mouths to be fed, and I got a job in an economic quango (NEDO) editing reports on different sectors of British industry – and writing shorter versions of them for wider distribution and action. This brought me into contact with designers too and I loved working with them.
I got a job at a design company called Newell and Sorrell, and I ran one of the teams. One of my main clients was Waterstones and we used to do all their marketing and promotional materials – bags, banners, booklets. I met some great people who were clients then and remain friends now. Inevitably it all centred around books.
When Newell and Sorrell was taken over by Interbrand, I set up a group focused on the language of brands. I started writing books about language – We, Me, Them and It was the first. Years later I’m credited with creating the brand discipline of ‘tone of voice’
The reading I did at University is still the reading that remains most vividly in my memory. For example, when I wrote a book about business writing that I called ‘Dark Angels’ the theme was inspired by my reading decades earlier of Milton’s Paradise Lost. A bit of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy came into it too. The books I was now writing advocated a creative approach to writing in the business world. So much of business writing is deadly dull and it really shouldn’t be – not if you want your writing to be persuasive.
So I set up writing workshops to liberate people creatively through writing at work. It succeeded and started to grow through what became Dark Angels workshops that I ran with two Scottish writers Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey. Fifteen years on from there Dark Angels has a dozen associate partners, including in the USA and Ireland – so the word is spreading internationally about the joy of writing, even at work.
I now have two granddaughters who are absolutely precious to me. They are both avid readers, which gives me great pleasure. Aimee’s favourite is Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass and Ada’s is Chris Riddell’s Ottoline stories. What really gives me great comfort is that in a few years time they will be able to read my novels. I just hope they like them.
Dark Angels workshops take place in beautiful locations because we believe that helps free people as writers. It’s vital to put the day job behind you, at least for a while. So we have venues in the highlands of Scotland (at Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Writers’ centre), in Andalusia and even this year on a boat going around Seattle bay on the west coast of America. From the point of view of a fiction writer, it reinforces for me constantly the importance of location in storytelling. In all my novels I think of the place as a character in the story.
Family matters too. Although I lost my mum and dad when I was just a late teenager, I still have strong memories of them. And through my daughter Jessie (named after my mum) I’ve recently reconnected with some of the family stories that might otherwise have been lost. So Jessie was going through family photos and discovered three pictures of a Spanish boy from the 1930s. Who was he? she asked. I knew his name was Jesus (say it Hayzus) and that my parents had ‘adopted’ him at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Jessie gave me a book about the 4000 Spanish children who had been evacuated from Bilbao in 1937 to be sheltered in the UK.
So I began finding out more about this strange, neglected story – nowhere near as well-known as Kindertransport evacuees from Germany, but a big, important story from history. My researches didn’t track down Jesus or his family but it inspired me to write ‘Spanish Crossings’ that draws on that period of history.
I went to primary school in central London – St Clement Dane’s in Drury Lane. All my family had come from Covent Garden and my grandad had been a porter in the fruit and veg market. My family was not rich but it still feels to me like a privileged upbringing – to be there in the centre of so much. When I came to write ‘The Good Messenger’ I located much of the story in Covent Garden but from a period forty years before I started walking those same streets. That’s one of the great joys of being a writer – that frisson of walking in places, being in scenes that your own characters have been in.
I’ve always enjoyed poetry – it was inescapable when reading for an English degree. I’ve been on the board of the Poetry Society and I continue to read poetry. I’m currently reading ‘The Equilibrium Line’ by David Wilson who’s a work colleague too. David is an experienced climber and his poems come out of that experience. As a complete non-climber I find it thrilling to be dangling on David’s words like a rope that I have to hang on to.
My fourth novel is nearing completion. I call it ‘Painting Paris’. It’s set in the artists’ community in Montmartre in 1908 and the idea for it was triggered by going to the Modigliani exhibition at the Tate last year – a wonderful exhibition of paintings where they also had a virtual reality recreation of Modigliani’s studio in Paris in 1908. The characters started to develop and the research has been an absolute joy. Visiting Paris and going to exhibitions of art – what could be better?
But as I near the end of that novel, I always remember my own first novel ‘Leaves’. If this had not been published, thanks to Urbane, the following three novels would never have been written. I don’t know if that would have been a devastating loss to the world – but it would have meant that my own life would not have been as fulfilled as it now is. I can now say ‘I am a novelist’. It’s what I always wanted to be.
Thanks John for taking the time to share your #TenThings. Thanks too to Kelly at Love Books Tours for inviting me to taker part in the tour. Leaves is published by Urbane Books in paperback and ebook formats. You can order a copy online here: Leaves
From the back of the book
Ophelia Street, 1970. A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognise, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged. But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbours over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory. As the leaves turn from vibrant green to vivid gold, so lives turn and change too, laying bare the truth of the community. Perhaps, ultimately, we all exist on Ophelia Street.