Keiron Pim’s latest book, Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Underworld, received widespread acclaim – including being named best debut biography in 2016 by The Guardian.
An award-winning journalist, author, editor, proof reader, mentor and, best of all (possibly), my lovely friend, Keiron is “absorbed in a world of words” – making him the ideal person for my next Behind The Book post.
His three books are on diverse subjects (medieval Hebrew poetry, dinosaurs and an “extraordinary man who connected the worlds of art, rock’n’roll and criminality in Fifties and Sixties London”) so he knows a thing or two about writing and publishing – and has some great tips for anyone thinking of heading down the non-fiction route.
Without further ado, here is our Q&A.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
With hindsight, the signs that I’d be a writer were there from the age of six or seven, when I used to write poems and make them into little illustrated books, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that this interest in writing crystallised into a precise ambition, which was to be a journalist. I loved words and had an interest in current affairs and politics, along with some vague ideas about wanting to make the world a better place, and it seemed the perfect way of combining these into a career.
I spent 13 years as a newspaper journalist and now I’m an author and freelance editor, proofreader and mentor to aspiring non-fiction authors. And when I’m not editing or writing, if possible I’ll be reading… I’m absorbed in a world of words, and I like it that way. That said, I don’t spend all my time in a rarefied, introspective reverie. My wife and I have three daughters aged eight, six and four, so I balance my work with helping to look after them. They soon let me know if I’m not keeping up with their various requirements: entertainment, life advice, sustenance, dispute arbitration, you name it. It’s a tricky balance at times but fatherhood is the most wonderful thing, and one of the best things about being self-employed is that I can be around for them far more than when I worked on the newspaper.
You had a very successful career as a feature writer for a regional newspaper, what made you decide to go freelance?
I left the Eastern Daily Press in May 2013 to focus on writing books, after nine years as a feature writer and, before that, a four-year spell as a news reporter. Writing features for the EDP was a wonderful job that took me around the world – to Iraq for a few days as an embedded reporter with the Royal Anglian Regiment, to the southern USA for travel pieces, to Latvia for an article about a local charity working with impoverished children in Riga – as well as introducing me to interesting people all over Norfolk. There’s nothing like local journalism for teaching you about the place you live in – you meet so many people from all walks of life, it’s wonderful. But after a while I wanted to see if I could write something more sustained and substantial than a 2000-word feature, and I began work on a couple of ideas. I was taken on by a great literary agent, Matthew Hamilton at Aitken Alexander Associates, and by early 2013 I had almost finished my dinosaurs book, and had a contract and advance for my David Litvinoff biography. Job cuts had become a regular feature of life in regional journalism by then, so when the EDP announced it was yet again seeking volunteers for redundancy, I thought, to quote Rabbi Hillel: ‘If not now, when?’ There would never be a perfect time to take the leap but this seemed as good a moment as I could imagine.
How much research time do you set aside? How far would you go to follow a lead for a book?
My preference is to start off by getting a good few months’ research under way – plenty of reading around the subject, a few interviews with people – and then trying to write once I feel I know what the story is and I am confident enough to write it with assurance and vigour. But of course the story continues to assume its form as you write the first draft, and you run into questions that you need to research, so the research and writing happen in parallel. They overlap and feed into one another.
The balance of control seesaws as you work your way through the research. You have this constant tension: are you controlling the story, or is it controlling you? It’s fascinating to observe in yourself.
How far would I go to follow a lead? As far as possible, i.e. the other side of the world. When I was in the early stages of researching David Litvinoff, people I interviewed told me that if I was going write about him, I absolutely had to talk to a man named Martin Sharp, an Australian pop artist who was one of his great friends. By that time, early 2012, Martin was seriously ill with emphysema and was pretty much housebound; and his house was in Sydney. Given his illness speaking at length on the telephone wasn’t an option, and in any case if possible I always prefer to interview people in person, at least for the first interview. You establish a rapport that way and the conversation tends to be much more revealing. Martin said I could stay with him for a few days, and another Australian friend of Litvinoff’s named Juno Gemes also kindly allowed me to visit (she also arranged for me to visit several other friends of Litvinoff’s in Australia and was a great help throughout my research). So I took the plunge and bought myself a ticket to Oz, and came back with lots of great material that made it more than worthwhile.
I know you’re writing non-fiction but you must feel some connection to your subjects. Can you put any of yourself into the books (I know Litvinoff, especially, was very personal)?
Oh yes, certainly. That book brought together numerous subjects to which I already felt a connection: Jewish history, the East End of London, fine art, literature, Sixties pop music and the blues, all of which were longstanding interests. But beyond those contextual subjects I did feel a degree of personal connection to him as an individual, which allowed me to empathise in certain ways and get inside his head. Some of this was to do with my Jewish ancestry. Litvinoff had a sharp understanding of, and deep contempt for, antisemitism and this resonated with me, while more generally I could relate to a certain diasporic Jewish sense of being on the outside looking in, which I know he felt acutely. Non-fiction is about writing truths, and these can be emotional truths as well as cold facts, so this allows plenty of scope for putting yourself into your work if doing so reinforces the central story you’re telling.
Have you considered writing fiction?
I’ve tried writing fiction in the past and have a couple of abandoned novels languishing somewhere in the depths of my computer… I don’t think it’s my forte. The more recent attempt, from eight or nine years ago, concerned the experience of central European Jewish refugees during the 1930s and the Second World War, arriving in London and attempting to fit in. I realised that actually I was the historical period that interested me more than the characters I’d created, and that it’s possible to be equally creative while writing factual, historically accurate text. This is generally termed ‘creative non-fiction’, of which my David Litvinoff book would be an example. Non-fiction prose needn’t be dry and matter-of-fact, it can be poetic and evocative and emotional. Likewise with structure, one can be formally inventive just as with fiction, playing with chronology, employing multiple narrative voices.
Do you have set times that you write each day? Do you need to be in a specific place or can you work anywhere?
When I became immersed in writing my first book, The Bumper Book of Dinosaurs, I came to understand my daily working pattern and that I write best in the afternoon, so I stopped berating myself for a lack of productivity in the mornings. By lunchtime the morning’s clouds have just about evaporated from my brain and a few beams of sunlight usually start to pierce through the haze. Is it because my brain is geared to work best then, or is it that the end of the working day is looming and the adrenaline kicks in? I don’t know, but either way, I tend to deal with emails, invoices and other admin in the morning and then start writing after lunch. Then as often as not I’ll get straight back to it in the evening after my daughters have gone to bed, and try to regain my momentum.
As for where I work, I jot down notes wherever I go, and I might scribble down a paragraph or two in a café, but for proper, sustained writing I need to be somewhere quiet with my reference books to hand, which means I need to be at my desk.
Your last book got rave reviews, what was that like and does it help ease the pressure for the next book?
I was thrilled by the response to the Litvinoff book. It came in at the upper limit of what I had permitted myself to imagine in idle moments during the book’s creation. The good reviews and positive feedback from readers kept coming through 2016, which was amazing and hugely heartening; it gave a substantial boost to my confidence as a writer, which has tended to fluctuate wildly over the years.
Regarding the transition between that book and the next one, it seems only honest to mention that, after almost six years on the Litvinoff book and a subsequent year of remaining engaged with the subject owing to all the reviews, literary festival events and readers contacting me, I had a profound slump last winter. I see now that I’d kept it at bay most of last year through the ego-pep-ups of good feedback, which gave me short-term energy rushes, but as the feedback faded away I had to confront the fact that my creativity was exhausted and I’d been running on empty for ages. There was nothing left in the tank. I think it’s good to talk about these things and doing so helps explain why a writer might feel susceptible to pressure while attempting to start a new project: you’re trying to force yourself into action while feeling that you have nothing left to give. When you get so absorbed in a book that it consumes your every spare waking moment, to the point where writing it is not only what you do but defines who you are, and then you send it out into the world… well, you’re left with a void inside you and a strange sense of needing to piece yourself together again, remember who you used to be before the book swallowed you, and muster the wherewithal to move on.
It sounds terribly negative to say there’s a downside to a book doing well and I don’t want to sound at all ungrateful but I’ve found the pressure to follow it very hard, and I mention this in case it’s of any reassurance to other writers. I am making the first forays into a new project that I think could work well, but I am debilitatingly conscious of not wishing to misstep. My agent and publisher have both been very encouraging and sympathetic so I don’t feel any pressure from them… I hope that by the end of this year I’ll be well under way and deep in the writing and researching process again.
Is there any advice you could give to a would-be writer of non-fiction?
I mentor non-fiction writers, as I mentioned, and I sometimes give talks on the subject too. The result is I’ve given a lot of thought to this question over the last few years.
Read around your subject constantly. Don’t have preconceptions about where doing so will take you. For the Litvinoff book my reading ended up spanning a quite bizarre breadth of genres, mixing up tawdry ghost-written cash-in memoirs by elderly criminals through to philosophical works on the nature of memory to Yiddish folk stories from the Eastern Europe where Litvinoff’s ancestors lived in the 19th century. If you’re fully engaged in researching a subject, you’ll probably not feel able to justify reading anything that doesn’t relate to it.
Sources – keep a note of every reference point for your assertions as you go along. It’s a drag, but not as much of a drag as trying to find your half-remembered source somewhere on your bookshelves perhaps three years after you wrote the sentence.
Travel to the places your subject inhabited: the home addresses, their favoured haunts. Walk them alone, unhurried, pick up the streets’ particular energy and atmosphere. Stand and look around, wait until you feel the place has soaked into you, you can picture it with your eyes closed and you know how to convey its character in prose.
Take notes – always keep a pen and paper with you, or use the Notes function on your phone. Write thoughts down all the time. They could be research ideas, insights into your subject’s character if you’re writing a biography, anything that comes to mind. Don’t self-censor, that can come later when you’re converting your notes into a draft manuscript. Some of it you’ll edit at that first stage; some you’ll edit later; and some will be edited for you by your book’s editor. If you end up self-publishing, employ an editor to hone your manuscript. All the best writers are edited, however experienced they are, from the beginning of their careers to the end.
Be ruthless towards your work when you’re editing your manuscript. If you’re not, your readers will be.
My heartfelt thanks to Keiron, who is not only an amazing writer but a brilliant friend to boot. I owe him a coffee (probably a slice of cake, too) for taking part in Behind The Book. I found it really interesting when he talked about the downside to success. I certainly hadn’t considered it and I am sure it will be reassuring to many other writers (fiction and non-fiction).
If you’d like to find out more about Keiron and his work you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Underworld is now out in paperback and on Kindle and can be purchased here.
You can find more Behind The Book interviews here. Next up I have a fabulous writer of children’s books.