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.