01. How did you get started in the world of words?
I didn’t know I could write until I went to university, as a mature student. I had an awful schooling where I spent most of the time trying to avoid getting beaten up. We weren’t encouraged to be academic but to find a trade. But I’d always loved reading. My granddad was an antiquarian book dealer in the East End. I read mostly popular fiction when I was growing up. However, when I was 13 years old I worked in a kebab shop in Ilford washing-up. There I met this amazing guy called John who knew everything about everything. He decided I would like George Orwell. I did and I read every book in a year. After that I swallowed up literature. I even read Dostoevsky at that age, although I didn’t understand it! By the time I applied for university I think I’d absorbed so much good writing that when it came to essays the tutors were struck by how well I wrote. I had no idea. I was just thinking, ‘How would Orwell say this, in his plain English’. So I guess from feedback at college I knew I could write, that gave me the confidence to try fiction.
02. Has it been a struggle getting your first book published?
‘Weekend Dancer’ was always going to be a niche book. The themes of Jewish identity and youth sub-culture were not going to have a mainstream appeal. However, it is also a fairly standard ‘rites of passage’ tale so I did have some hopes that a literary agent might like it. First I sent drafts to the Writers Association. This was a paid for consultancy service that offered advice. It sounds like a potential rip off but it wasn’t. They were full of integrity and fantastic help for a first time writer. Nick Russell-Pavier looked at my work and was incredibly detailed and most importantly, honest. You have to be able to take criticism and be prepared to, ‘murder your darlings’ (cut what is unnecessary), as he put it. The book would never have been written without his help and I owe him an enormous thanks for making me understand what it takes to be a writer of fiction. I then sent a sample and synopsis out to a random set of agents listed in the Writers Handbook. I did get one very positive response. The agent really liked my writing and the whole premise of the book. However, he wanted me to change it in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. I understand why, it would have potentially given it a more mainstream appeal. Perhaps stupidly I decided against re-writing and just sat on the book for a couple of years. Then I stumbled upon Old Dog Books and its owner Paul Hallam, who thankfully liked it and was willing to publish it as it was. In that sense I have been very lucky. Without Old Dog Books I am not sure there are too many other pop-pulp fiction publishers out there!
03. Where did you see the first piece you had written in print, how did that feel?
At the time of writing my novel hasn’t been published. However, I have written or co-written five academic books. There’s always a real thrill when you get the proofs. It was the same with ‘Weekend Dancer’. When you see your writing set out like an actual real book, it’s a great buzz. It sort of seems very personal and private until that moment. Then you realise that something you have written is going to become public and read by all these strangers. It may sound daft but when you are writing you might show bits to friends and family and so it feels as if you are just playing at being a writer. But when it’s set down professionally and you have to do the final edit it becomes an object that you realise is now out of your control. It will have multiple lives of its own. It’s an amazing thought, really.
04. What was the main reasons that you started to write seriously?
I’d written academic books and I wanted a new challenge. I took Woody Allen’s famous advice to authors and chose something that I knew about. I am lucky enough to have a job that gives me time to write and one where you are constantly writing and expressing yourself. Lectures, seminars, essay feedback, it’s all about articulating yourself in words – oral and written. In a sense, ever since I was an undergraduate I have been engaged in writing of one kind or another, non-stop. So it wasn’t about suddenly taking writing seriously. It was always part of what I did. The difference was to fit the extra writing into my routine. Again I always have writing deadlines and marking deadlines so it wasn’t hard to set up a schedule. I think writing is a discipline. You have to be organised. You have to stick to a plan. That worked for me anyhow.
05. What’s a typical working day like when you are writing?
I like to write in public. I spent a lot of time in the mornings in cafes around North London: sipping cappuccino, eating croissants and writing. I loved it. I liked having people around and a bit of chatter. For lunch I used to wander into central London, to Soho and Bar Italia. I have been going there since I was a teenager. I knew I could stay there working on my laptop as long as I wanted. It helped with the novel too as some of it is set around that area. I often went to those parts of London that I was writing about. While I was writing about the Elephant and Castle I went over the river to sit in a caff nearby. I sat in the parks when I was setting events there. I went all over, even to Leytonstone and Gants Hill. It’s a London novel and I wanted to capture the feel of the city so it helped being situated where I was writing about. I also didn’t try and write too much in a day. But at the same time I always wrote something. Little and often was my motto! It’s amazing how much you find you have written if you just do a few hours every day.
06. What were your teenage experiences that helped to shape your later mindset?
Obviously the Mod years were seminal. It is where I and my friends did our growing-up. Those years were very intense. Friendships were at the centre of our lives. They meant so much. It was in the context of the Mod scene that we learnt how to negotiate relationships. It was where we learnt that even if you like the same music and clothes people are different. It may sound obvious but as a self-centred 17 year old you just think about yourself and that if people don’t agree with you they must be wrong. It takes some time to be sensitive to other peoples’ feelings and situations. Going to clubs, starting to get exposed to girls and politics and different types of people with diverse backgrounds; Mod was a great place to learn all the stuff of negotiating difference. It wasn’t smooth or easy and I for one acted like a right Muppet a great deal of the time. But all the wrong things I did to people – letting them down, not taking their feelings seriously, talking stupid dogmatic rubbish – it was all done in a safe environment. There was the safety valve of dancing and posing about town together! We had something that bonded us so all our stupidities never lasted too long. I’ve realised that some people never go through that. But you need a testing time and a stimulating environment to find out who you are and appreciate other people’s points of view.
07. What was it like to be young and involved in Street Cultures, what were your pointers and outlook?
It was exciting. It made you feel different and a part of something special. It was also myopic and suffocating. Sometimes it was a bit dull. It was many things at different times. It all seemed so important. We were so thirsty for Mod knowledge; to learn more about the styles, the music the lifestyle – to be pure Mod. It absorbed us, it was a total passion. But it made anyone who wasn’t part of our world simply ‘squares’ and they were dismissed. It probably wasn’t great for our parents either. We set ourselves apart. We judged people on their clothes and musical tastes. We were total snobs!
08. What was that period like for you as a young man outside of the Music world?
I guess no different to anyone else. Trying to find out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I hated work. I drifted in and out of dead-end jobs. Luckily there was lots of work around in London in the early to mid-80’s. I basically dossed around at work until I got found out and then sacked. Then I’d walk into the jobcentre and get another job and do the same again. There were, of course, recessions and lots of unemployment in the country. But London was actually going through a boom period for most of the time. It was the North and the old heavy industry areas that really suffered. I did eventually find my feet working for a children’s’ publishers, Walker Books. They had recently been started by a very enlightened guy, Sebastian Walker. He ran the place in a very humane way. Everyone worked flexi hours, there was a cook that came in to make fresh meals for the staff, there was no real management structure other than Sebastian the owner and an equally nice general manager. It was the first time I had worked with really middle-class people and it was an eye-opener. They all talked about the theatre and art and books. There was a real commitment to the work but they were mainly creative types who didn’t think in straight lines. When their kids came to help out in the summer I really liked them too. They seemed so bright and happy and they were all planning to travel. When I found out that they were at university I had no idea what that really meant. When they told me about the things you could study I decided that was what I wanted to do, go to university. I didn’t have any ‘A’ levels (or ‘O’ levels!) but I managed to enrol in an evening course that led me to college.
09. How did the Media distort what was going on with youth culture at that time?
I don’t think it did. At least, not in the way that Stanley Cohen set out when he wrote about the moral panic over ‘mods ‘n’ rockers’ in the 60s. We were largely under-the-radar for the mainstream press. Most of the articles were written by NME, Melody Maker and other music magazines. They were mostly interested in the music and the journalists were young enough and knowing enough to get it right. When there was reporting of mods as a sub-culture it did tend to focus on the stereotype ‘mod’, all mirrored scooters and parkas. But even then it was quite sympathetic. There certainly wasn’t any outrage about mods. Britain was so full of tribal youth that by the 80s youth subculture was not really demonised. I think this changed with the 1990s club scene and when new drugs like Ecstasy appeared. Then it was the same sort of headlines and social construction that Cohen writes about. But we existed in a sort of tacit truce period between the media and youth culture. I am guessing that if you were involved in a predominantly black youth sub-culture it was probably different.
10. What music, films and books helped you to the pathway of all things alternative?
There is no doubt that Paul Weller and ‘The Jam’ was our biggest influence. Weller looked fantastic as a mod and we followed his lead. When he formed ‘The Style Council’ French and Italian looks became important. So too did hanging-out drinking cappuccino which was a constant theme in The Style Council lifestyle they portrayed. We used to go to watch French movies like, ‘A bout de souffle’ at the old Renoir cinema in Brunswick square. The French Lycee in Kensington and the ICA on The Mall also used to show foreign films which we watched but wouldn’t always understand. Europe represented modernism to us, forward thinking and youth. Britain seemed grey and Victorian by comparison, at least in our imaginations. We were very pretentious, without any substance! I tried to learn to speak French using Berlitz cassette tapes but didn’t get anywhere. Despite the superficiality of it all on our part it showed we were searching for something different, eager for an alternative culture and lifestyle.
11. What other books do you wish you had written?
I based ‘Weekend Dancer’ on The Jam’s lyrics for their song ‘Absolute Beginners’, which was itself taken from Colin MacInnes’ novel of that name. I love his London trilogy. I wish I could write a similar one. ‘Weekend Dancer’ is an attempt to take that story but put in a 1980s context. The main character remains nameless like MacInnes’ early modernist. His best friend, ‘The Wizard’, is ‘Smiler’ in my book. ‘Crepe Suzzette’ is Tina. They aren’t exact fits but there are lots of references to them and other characters and incidents in, ‘Absolute Beginners’. It’s also a character driven rather than plot driven novel. This isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea. I know there are critics and avid readers who can’t stand the London Trilogy because they are weak on plot and heavy on style. But I like what MacInnes does and wish I could think of similar themes. I may have an idea for one!
12. How has the internet changed what you do?
Well it brought about the contact with the Word Association and Old Dog Books so that was important. It makes professional connections for authors much easier. It also makes research much less time consuming. Everything is out there. For example, when I wanted to set the book over the weekend of PW Botha’s visit to London, I found a wealth of photos’ from the protest march that day in the London Transport Museum’s photo archives which are on-line. You Tube is great as every Northern Soul record ever made seems to have been uploaded. There’s old adverts, pop shows, gigs. You can do everything from your armchair! But it is also important to engage more directly. Which is why I went to the places I wrote about, to get the visceral feel too.
13. Do you have any advice for wannabe authors?
When I was writing ‘Weekend Dancer’, and a few times since, a lot of people who have said they too are writing a book have told me that they, ‘just write’. That somehow they hate to be shackled by a plan or a routine. That it will all just intuitively come together from their creative endeavours. This is the biggest mistake anyone can make. Writing is all about planning, as detailed as possible. It needs discipline and a schedule. And you have to be prepared to edit, edit, edit. As Nick at the Word Association taught me, even if what you have written is the best prose ever, if it doesn’t fit the story, if it doesn’t contribute to the direction of the plot, it has to go. Being a ferocious critic of your own work is very important. Trying to take the readers point of view is also crucial. With ‘Weekend Dancer’, I broke this rule here and there, which is why it’s more a niche book, but I know I am doing that. I wouldn’t do it in the future if I was aiming for a more mainstream market. I would advise that anyone writing a novel first writes a general synopsis. Then a detailed chapter plan. And finally in one sentence write down exactly what their book is about. If you can’t do this after the synopsis and the plan then you have to review them until you can.
14. What projects are you planning for the future and please feel free to plug your latest book?
‘Weekend Dancer’ by Talcott Levy comes out just before Christmas on Old Dog Books website (see the buy now link below) & Amazon. Old Dog Books hope to have a distribution deal in place in the New Year that will take it into book shops. My next idea for a book is a second London novel but this time with a bit more of a mainstream appeal. It is called, ‘Art and the Ottoman’. It is a ‘rites of passage’ story with a difference, the main character is 118 years old and has decided to kill himself (a one sentence explanation!). There has not been a novel set around the London Turkish immigrant experience and I am going to have a go at writing one. I have studied quite a bit about the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. I want to use this for the background of the story which involves deep political rivalries and Turkish criminal gangs. I hope I can pull it off as I am not Turkish!
15. What has been the re-action so far to your first book?
It has only just gone on sale, so I will have to wait and see. Anyone reading this who wants to ask me anything about what I have said here can contact me via Old Dog Books. Or if you do read the book and want to let me know what you think please do get in touch too.