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Sunday, 5 October 2008

An interview with Anthony Barnett

In March 2007, while in his sixties, Anthony James Barnett, a Staffordshire lad, published his first novel, Without Reproach. He's by no means the oldest first timer – Millard Kaufman published Bowl of Cherries when he was ninety-two – but this still begs the question: how old is too old?

In an article in The Independent in 2006, literary agent Anthony Lownie had this to say:

"If you are an actress from EastEnders or a weathergirl then you are going to draw more attention for your book that if you are a 75-year-old pensioner from Bournemouth. Publishers are keen on young authors who will do lots of promotion themselves, or journalists who will get a lot of media coverage or famous people who know other famous people. It's all about promoting a package." – Happy endings for would-be novelists

The thing is, it's easy to read stuff like that and allow yourself to be put off. Back in 2006 Tony Barnett had retired to Spain where they probably have to order The Independent in especially. From what I've read about him – and he is very active online – I don't really think he would've paid a blind bit of attention to that article. After all in 1985, more than a few years after leaving school, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Of course, things are never quite that simple. If I can get Tony to explain:

1. You began attempting to get your writing published in 1990 at, if I've done my sums right, the ripe old age of forty-three. I'm curious why you left it so late, was it choice or circumstance?
I’ve always had an interest in writing; it was like a worm, eating away at me for years. I started tentative scribbling many years, ago, in my twenties, but it sort of fell by the wayside. I can think of all sorts of reasons why I didn’t carry it through: bringing up kids, working too many long hours, working weekends, but they’re all excuses.

I’d also like to point out to other older writers that I believe age can actually be an advantage when writing. If you have no experience of life, then your writing can only be by second-hand experience. I think it was Phyllis Whitney, who commented that the average age of first time authors was sixty!

Indeed, in her book, Guide to Fiction Writing, Whitney wrote, “Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule…Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.”

2. You began with a novel. That seems like jumping into the deep end. Looking back was it?
Absolutely. It’s too much to chew on. I think writing short stories hones your writing skills, brings the same satisfaction of seeing your work published and isn’t such a huge investment of time. To see a novel gathering dust is quite discouraging.

3. Your first published work appeared – unusually – in My Weekly; in fact you became such a regular contributor that they arranged a meeting with you in Manchester. Can you explain how that came about?
Wow! You’ve really done your homework. I chose, My Weekly, simply because my wife read it, and I thought, “I can do that.” The editors seemed to like my style and eventually suggested a meeting to discuss where my stories might head. They began sending me pictures, to write stories around.

4. I would imagine the work was quite formulaic. Would you agree?
Not exactly writing to formula, although it’s certainly true that each magazine has its own criteria for stories which sometimes takes a while to unravel. The thing that I found more difficult was the restrictive nature of the work; certain subjects were taboo, some words were definitely out, even place settings were dodgy.

I wrote one story set in Spain. The editors of My Weekly thought the readers were not yet ready for such an ‘exotic’ setting! I changed the setting to be Scotland and it was accepted!

However, I understand the magazine has undergone a complete transformation since, so I’ve no idea what criteria they’re setting now. I believe it’s far more relaxed.

For those interested here are the current guideline for submitting to that mag.

5. Was your work published in any other magazines or periodicals during this time?
Oh, certainly! My work was available in Bella, Woman’s Weekly, Chat, anywhere that would take my stories. In fact, these mags used to be the industry best payers. If I were mercenary I’d be concentrating on those outlets, but I no longer want that route.

6. After several years you found you weren't enjoying writing to order. Apart from the commercial work, were you also writing for yourself?
No. I think that may have been the problem. I was becoming a hack. I decided to pull out eventually – but I’m glad of the experience.

7. What do you think you learned from this kind of work?
I think I learned how to sharpen my work, to write in plain language. I learned how to take the simple things of life and raise their importance; found how to make everyday events emotive. One of the nicest compliments I had was from a reader who contacted the editors telling them that my stories made her cry.

8. In the early nineties the time felt right to try another novel, which you worked on for about seven years. Can you explain the genesis of the book?
I think it was because someone received an unexpected inheritance and it got me wondering what the ultimate consequence might be, and I sort of worked around that.

9. Did you have a specific market in mind when you began your book?
No. I had a story to tell, and let it take its course, which is probably what most writers do.

10. You have said you set out to write a mystery and yet because it's been miscategorised on sites like Amazon as romantic fiction – does this worry you?
I don’t think Amazon categorised it that way. I think the publishers slotted it into that category. It doesn’t bother me either way. I have no hang-ups. I know from experience that women buy far more books than men, so it might work out for the best.

11. The book was also misrepresented in the press garnering headlines such as "Grandfather of Eight Pens Steamy Novel" and yet you're getting sales because of this. This sounds like a bit of a two-edged sword: how do you feel about it?
Any publicity is great; let them write as much as what they want – keep churning it out. In fact, I’m wondering about taking it on board and pushing the issue. It does have ‘steam’, but only after the halfway point. Maybe I’ll start the sequel with steam. They say sex sells.

12. This reminds me of the author Peter Benchley. When he was touting Jaws he was persuaded to spice up the book with a sex scene and yet that was the first thing Spielberg dropped when he adapted the book preferring to go for more subtle sexual undertones. Any thoughts?
I hope Spielberg has the same problem with my book!

If sex is put into a work just for effect, then it reads [as] awkward and artificial. The steam in my book happens because it’s appropriate. I hope it reads [as] natural. I can’t ever see me writing it ‘just because’, though. It has to be justified.

13. How hard was it for you, a man in his late fifties when you were writing this, to get inside the head of your twenty year-old heroine?
I grew up with two elder sisters and their friends constantly around, I’ve had two wives, four daughters and three granddaughters. After the split with my first wife, I took custody of my young teenage daughters with their growing problems. I think I probably have a unique insight into how women think and behave.

14. You list your favourite authors as Ian Rankin, Penny Vincenzi, Gerald Seymour, Christina Jones – an odd combination, if you don't mind me saying so. Do you try and mesh a similar variety of styles in your novel?
I enjoy good stories no matter what the style or gender. The Vincenzi and Jones novels were my wife’s, and having nothing else to read, I tried them, and found I appreciated them.

When writing, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by what you’ve read, but I don’t think any author deliberately ‘meshes’ styles. Writing style is what develops due to experience.

15. Would you compare yourself to any author? When I think of mystery writers the likes of Agatha Christie come to mind.
I would hate to compare myself to any really successful writer. It would be arrogant to think I could be judged alongside them. People such as Christie had so much experience, so much energy it would be conceited to even think it. I write in my own style, my own way. If people like my work, I’m happy.

I once read that all artists are craftsmen, but not all craftsmen, artists.

Writing is a craft; when up to publication standard it can be said to be art, but not all art ends up a masterpiece. I tell tales, I don’t produce masterpieces. Some writers rise beyond that level. They’re the ones who’re remembered.

16. You mix with several authors who have now retired to Spain and have had their first books published in the past year or so: Jill Lanchbery (A Bucket of Ashes); Mike Hillier (The Eighth Child); Agnes Hall (The Canvas Bag) and Keith Geddes (Please Sir There's A Snake In The Art Room). Is it something in the water?
Once again, congratulations on your research. We are all members of the same writing group. I suppose we encourage each other. Why we all migrated to the area? I have no idea.

17. The publisher is the same in each case, Libros International, the same as yours – tell me a bit about them.
Libros International is a new publishing house. Jill Lanchbery landed a contract with them and persuaded us to submit our work to them, so I suppose we must all blame Jill. It’s not a bad idea to get in on the ground floor with a new publisher though, there’s a possibility that if they grow, you might grow with them. The downside is they have no publicity budget or distribution network. You make your choice and go with the flow.

However, they’ve placed my novel on loads of online sites worldwide. I’ve seen my book for sale in the USA, UK, Germany, Canada, France, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and China.

18. You say you hate writing but you love having written. Explain.
I think writing can be painful at times. It’s certainly hard work. I like to have the finished piece in my hand, but the process of getting there isn’t always smooth.

19. What do you find hardest and how do you work round or through it?
I sometimes find I’m writing myself into the story and I hate that. I have to re-write the whole damn thing. Sometimes I simply can’t get a scene to work, and I might spend days working around it. Writing can be hard mentally. I tend to write emotively, and it can be draining.

20. Radio presenter, Pauline McGough, has recorded a collection of your short stories for an audio CD, to be released later this year. Tell me about how this came about?
I met Pauline’s husband whilst playing pool. She was interested in the fact that I was a writer, asked to see some of my work, and offered to record a collection. I think it’s probably because she wanted to expand her horizons and saw me as an opportunity. She originally produced the stories on CD, but also set up Read2me. We both believe it to be an easier option than distributing CD’s so won’t be offering the CD recordings.
Some of the stories are already available individually here:

21. So what now? I believe you're working on another novel.
Well, I’m about two thirds through. However, I haven’t written much for a while; I’m so involved with publicity it’s ridiculous. Promotion is very time-consuming.

So what's Without Reproach all about?

Jenny, a young English woman inherits a half-share in a hacienda and riding school from the Spanish artist, Juan García, a man she has never met, never even heard of and to whom she is not related. The other beneficiary is Juan's half- brother, Eduardo, who imagines her to be nothing more than a gold- digger. Jenny’s problems escalate when she arrives at the hacienda only to discover certain parts of the villa are strangely familiar to her even though she is sure she has never been there before. The story hinges on her ordeal of finding what has gone on and why, and of fighting off Eduardo who wants the inheritance for himself.

You can read more about it on his website here and here and you might also be interested in a radio interview here.


Koe Whitton-Williams said...

What a great interview. . . Thank you very much for posting it. It has so many hooks into both the writing and sharing of the work. . .

Dave King said...

Yes, a really great interview. The questions were well-directed and brought interesting responses. I could have stayed wit it for much longer.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your feedback, Koe and Dave. I was quite lucky here because Tony has spent a lot of time promoting himself already and it's amazing what you can learn about a guy when you spend half an hour with Google.

J. C. said...

Many writers are coming to mind now - the ones who have stared at the "ripe old age". Henry Miller at forty something for example. I think it has a lot to do with life experience. My favorite writer Paul Auster is publishing novel after novel in recant years, but all that works of his cannot beat, even remotely, his older novels, partly, in my opinion, because one needs to live sometimes instead of just to write.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is very true, Jasko and there are a lot of reasons for it but the bottom line is that everyone is an individual and the important thing is that we fill whatever years we have the best we can. I was in my mid-thirties before I was ready to write a novel. The bottom line is that you can only work with what you have experienced and I include experience in 'learned' because learning only becomes a part of you through application which is why I've forgotten so mush of what I learned when I was young because I never did anything with it. I could never have written that book at twenty. But I did write a lot of poetry that were the stepping stones that got me there. And in Tony's case it's clearly the work he did writing short stories.

Jordan said...

Inspiring interview with an equally inspiring author.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Jordan, glad you thought so.

Anthony James Barnett said...

I'd just like to thank everyone for their comments, and a big thank you to Jim for chance of the interview.

Jim is a force to be reckomed with. Very astute, very searching.

Charity Childs-Gevero said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Tony, I can live with 'astute'.

Conda V. Douglas said...

It's good work when the review not only generates interest and attention to the book review, but also is interesting in and of itself. Good work.

Jim Murdoch said...

Conda, yes, I was keen to do an interview with the author here rather than simple a book plug since there were enough of those about and he's an interesting guy. I think his story is quite encouraging especially his route to publication.

And, Charity, thanks for that, although I'm not sure what faux pas I've made here. Whatever it was it won't be my last I'm sure.

Susan Sonnen said...

Excellent interview, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

Susan, I thank you.

author 101 said...

Nice to read! My cousin is 89, just got her degree, and is working on finishing books number 8 & 9. It's NEVER too late! Read her letter in a post at (about the 3rd post down)

Jim Murdoch said...

Author 101 - eighty-nine? That is impressive by anyone's standards. I found an article about Elleta here if anyone is interested in reading more about her.

Anthony James Barnett said...

Wow! If I'm lucky enough to reach her age, I think I'll be grateful to be able to read never mind write.

Kudos to her!


tashabud said...

Hello Jim,
Thanks for sharing this. I'm sorry I didn't visit here at the time. I suppose there's no age barrier in becoming a novelist. Reading your post and about Anthony James Barnett is very encouraging, especially in my situation.


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