With her second book Susanna Bavin has cemented her place as one of the country’s leading family saga writers. Following the success of her debut, The Deserter’s Daughter, it must have been quite a feat… More
Quite a few of my sentences now seem to start with the words ‘when I was young…’, which prompted Freya to ask what life was like when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It was tempting to make up stories about having a pet tyrannosaurus but I had to admit that while I’m old, I’m not that old.
One of the most recent times I have said it was after Mark suggested getting a few things to entertain Freya on our long car journey west.
“When I was young we played endless games of eye spy or just sat quietly and enjoyed the scenery,” I said, forgetting that I am now the parent and had a three plus hour journey ahead of me sat in the back with her.
I’m pretty sure, as my parents will tell you, that I never actually sat quietly either – and Freya seems to have inherited that…skill. Usually when we go to Ipswich, an hour away, she’s asked ‘are we there yet?’ before we’ve even left Norwich. In the end I figured having something to entertain her with wasn’t a bad idea.
Mark gathered together a few little bits and every hour or so, usually midway between comfort breaks, I got one out of the bag.
The best one (or at least the one she played with the most) was the wipe-clean Travel Doodles pack from Usborne.
She had lots of fun drawing faces on people, completing puzzles and designing outfits.
There are more than 100 doodles on the double-sided cards and then obviously you can wipe off and start again.
She played with the cards for more than an hour and now, even when we pop to the shops, she likes to get one out and doodle.
It says not suitable for children under 36 months and some of the doodle suggestions are more difficult than others. Freya (at four/nearly five) could do the majority of them but there is room to grow too.
When I got home I looked them up and apparently they have other sets, including a general holiday one and 50 Things To Do On A Plane. I’d definitely consider them, if we go anywhere else.
We did play a few games of eye spy, which was interesting as she’s just learning to spell, and counted different colour cars and there was also time to just sit and take in the scenery but I think having a few extra things certainly made the journey more pleasant.
What’s your stance on entertaining children on long journeys?
Note: I’m not being paid to write about the Travel Doodles, I just really liked the cards and thought I’d recommend them in case you have a long car journey coming up.
Within days, maybe even hours, of meeting Richard Balls, I already knew three things he was passionate about – quality journalism, his beloved Norwich City Football Club and music.
When I joined the Eastern Daily Press, he was an established correspondent with a reputation for producing hard-hitting stories, being unafraid to ask the difficult questions and take on the big guns. His first book, Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Life Of Ian Dury, was already out and impressing critics and fans alike.
In short, he really had no need to bother with a wide-eyed reporter, feeling out of her depth after moving from a small weekly paper to what was the biggest regional selling daily in the country but at lunchtime on my first day he came over and offered to give me a quick tour of Norwich.
I’d only visited the city centre once, when I was eight, so it was a lovely and very welcome gesture – especially as he knew by then that I was originally from local derby rivals Ipswich Town.
Over the years we worked together, he was always very generous with his time and I learnt a lot about journalism from him. I always wanted to ask him more about his writing life outside of newspapers but never got the opportunity, until now. I was thrilled when he agreed to be my latest Behind The Book interviewee, following my summer break.
Since his first biography, he has had a second book published, Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, and he is currently working on his third.
Without further ado…
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first think about becoming a journalist?
I was very fortunate in that I always wanted to be a journalist. Even at school, I can remember talking to the careers advisor about wanting to work for the local paper and I spoke to someone there about how to get into journalism.
I know you started on local papers in London before moving to Dublin. Was it a big jump?
Yes, I began my career with a newspaper group covering north London and Hertfordshire, and I covered local council meetings, crime, court hearings – everything newsworthy that was going on in the area really. Initially, I worked on a weekly paper in Dublin, but within a year I was working for national papers, so that was a step up.
Was there ever a time when you thought about combining some of your passions, maybe being a sports reporter or a music journalist?
When I was eight my dad started taking me to watch Norwich City and I was always envious of the writers who covered the games in the paper and on television. I thought, ‘imagine actually getting paid to write about football’. So that’s where my original interest in reporting came. After I joined the Eastern Daily Press I was asked to write an opinion piece about the club and it led to a weekly column, which I did for more than 10 years and loved. Although I was never a music journalist, I did do a music column for the Enfield Gazette, writing about local bands and covering gigs every week. I have fond memories of that and watching bands in pub backrooms.
How did books come into it? Was it always a dream? Was it a choice between football and music?
I always wanted to write a book and ultimately music is a deeper interest for me than football, so that was the most likely direction I would take.
Your first book is about the musician Ian Dury, who strikes me as not being the easiest subject to write about. What fascinated you about him in particular and how did you decide to write about him?
First and foremost, I was a huge fan of Ian Dury & The Blockheads. But it was when I found out about his own extraordinary back-story, particularly around his childhood polio, that I began exploring the idea of writing a biography. I had interviewed Ian over the phone from Dublin when I was researching a feature about Stiff Records in 1996. I think that also helped nudge me in his direction and I also saw him perform live there a couple of times around that time.
I know you never got to interview him for your book – although he was happy for you to talk to his bandmates/colleagues and gave you access to his aunt. Is that a regret? Do you ever think about the questions you would have asked him?
I would have loved to interview him, but he was very ill at the time and you can‘t regret things. Going to his house and meeting him was something I’ll never forget. When he told me to speak to his Aunt Molly, it wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order!
Your second book is about the British independent label, Stiff Records, and the many and varied artists signed to them, which included Dury but also Elvis Costello, Madness, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. How long did it take to research and write?
There were so many potential people to speak to and I had to take some decisions about who to approach. I guess it took about two years to complete.
Writing a book 18 years ago must have been very different to doing the same in 2014 or today. Has the Internet made things easier for things such as contacting people and perhaps promoting what you’re doing?
Everything is so different now – it’s another world. Most people are on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In or have some online profile, so getting in contact is so quick and easy. When I was working on the Dury book in the late 1990s, there was nothing like that and I put in a lot of hours tracking people down. Social media and other online channels can also be very powerful when it comes to promoting your work and I took full advantage of that with my book about Stiff Records. A lot of radio interviews and other promotional opportunities came from marketing it on Twitter.
What about fiction? Any thoughts on going in that direction?
Fiction interests me and I have done a course at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich. It may be something I explore in the future.
Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment and how things are going?
I’m writing an authorised book about Shane MacGowan from The Pogues and it’s a genuinely exciting project. I’m doing it with the full support of Shane and his family and getting to spend time over in Ireland, which is fantastic.
Finally, do you have any tips you can share with would-be authors looking to write non-fiction?
Be determined in your research and keep going when you come up against obstacles, such as people refusing to contribute. And don’t set out with fixed ideas: let your research and the information you dig out inform where the story goes. It’s also important to be organised and self-disciplined: there will be times when you don’t want to do it, but when you have a publisher’s deadline, you can’t afford to get behind.
Most of all, believe in it.
A big thank you to Richard for taking time away from writing his book to answer my questions. I definitely feel like I know him a little better now. I also can’t wait to see if he does go down the fiction route. Maybe he’ll come back on the blog and let me interview him again?
I’ll be back soon with another Behind The Book.
“Who are important people?” Freya asked the other day.
It was ridiculously hot and we were sat on deckchairs on our balcony, trying to cool down. As her question was a bit out of the blue I thought for a few seconds and then said: “The prime minister, doctors and nurses, suffragettes…erm….”
“What about Barry Scott?”
The name was vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. I frowned.
“The man on tv?”
“Wait, the cleaning man. Cillet Bang?”
At that moment we both said: “Bang! And the stain is gone.”
After we had finished chuckling I added: “Well, I guess he’s important to people who like cleaning?”
“I like a clean house,” she said, with what I thought was more than a hint of criticism.
We don’t use any of those products (I’m more a white vinegar type of girl) but I’ve seen the advert on the children’s channel that is sometimes on in the background. I’ve never seen Freya really pay attention to it, she’s not one for tv or sitting still in general, but he’s loud and enthusiastic – a bit like a children’s tv presenter. Maybe that’s what grabbed her attention?
What I’m learning about just turned five years olds is that they take in much more than we (I) give them credit for.
That realisation has come in little sharp shocks.
No more having conversations in front of her, especially ones where you try and spell out the word you don’t want her to know.
“Ooooh park, yes I would really like to go.” She looks up, expectantly.
Then there are the deep questions, it started off with the odd one here and there but now most things she asks require proper thought – especially as I realise what she is asking often seems to be unrelated to what she actually wants to know.
If my brain was a television it would have been on standby mode for most of the last five years but it’s like someone has just accidentally sat on the remote and it has come back to life at full volume, making everyone jump.
She’s not going easy, we’ve had many of the big ones. Death, God, crime, homelessness, racism, how did she get in my tummy?
As difficult as I sometimes find them, it’s these random conversations that I’m going to miss now she’s back at school.
How did that happen?
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was looking down at the calendar I had just made -and still can’t quite bring myself to take down – wondering how I was going to fill the six-week summer holiday.
While it wasn’t without its days that seemed neverending (and not in a good way), on the whole I’d give it a thumbs up.
We were lucky enough to spend some time away from home, which I think helped break things up – for me at least. Freya would probably have been just as happy going to the local park every day (where we made some lovely new friends). I had one of those moments, watching her dance in and out of the water at the splash park, squealing with delight, where I thought: ‘Yes, this could be one of those perfect childhood memories.’
And, of course, at the end of the holidays, she finally, FINALLY had her birthday. I’m not sure why it seems such a landmark, probably because she’s made it so by counting down from January.
As, one by one, all of her school friends started blowing out their candles, Freya grew impatient for her own celebration. She had a long wait. We all did.
I really hope it’s as good as she thinks it’s going to be.