A Look Behind The Book With Richard Balls.

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Photo by Bill Smith.

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…

Lets 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.

IanduryYour 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!

BestiffYour 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 youre 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 youre 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?

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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.

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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?

You can follow Richard on Twitter,  check out his website and, of course, buy Richard’s books via Amazon here or from all good book shops.

I’ll be back soon with another Behind The Book.

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A Look Behind The Book With Aby Moore.

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An undisputed star of the blogging world, Aby Moore could quite easily sit back and revel in the success her hard work has brought her. Instead, this Mamapreneur wants to inspire others to turn their hobby into a thriving business  – and she’s happy to show them how.

Among many other things, she writes articles offering tips on ways to make money from blogging on her own popular site, You Baby, Me Mummy, runs mentoring courses, workshops and has a busy Facebook community.  As if that wasn’t enough, Aby has just released her first book, Blogs Change Lives, to make it even easier for those wanting to take things to the next level.

Her daughter, Ava, is the same age as Freya and I first started reading Aby’s blog when she was focussed on parenting but, even at the start, she was always willing to offer help and encouragement. To see the way her blogging empire has grown and evolved over the years has been amazing but the best thing is, Aby has remained the same friendly, helpful person she always was.

I was thrilled when she agreed to be my latest Behind The Book interviewee.

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I can’t think of anyone better to write a book about blogging but what made you want to do it? What are you hoping people get from it?

Thanks so much, that’s very kind of you to say that. Growing up I longed to write a book. As a lover of a good project, the idea appealed to me, but I could never think of a suitable topic. I wanted it to be something I felt passionately about. Something that I could pour my heart into.

Years (and years!) passed and still no book. Then in 2013 I had my daughter and later that year was diagnosed with Post Natal Depression. My life totally and utterly changed, as it turned out eventually for the better! I wanted to capture the magic which had led to so many wonderful things happening in my life and so I wrote this book.

My blog fixed me and continues to do so every day. I’ve worked with international brands, had amazing opportunities and have also been able to support my family. Then it struck me! My story could help others. My story could show people who have never considered blogging just how powerful it is. While providing people who already have blogs with a clear roadmap for them to follow and succeed. I started writing mid way through November and just three months later the book was finished!

I’m so incredibly proud of Blogs Change Lives. I wrote it to show all the mamas out there that they do not have to put their dreams on hold. Nor do they have to leave their children to go out to work for someone else (if this is not what they want). They can create their own empires.

BlogschangelivesHow exactly has your blog changed your life?

My blog has always given me somewhere to escape to when I’ve needed it. Which over the years has proved invaluable.

However, the best thing that blogging has given me are some amazing friendships with beautiful, courageous and driven women that I have the pleasure of calling my friends.

My blog turned into a business which has supported my family, but also been a springboard to other things, such as starting a podcast, running an online summit, oh and writing a book!

You’ve carried your chatty and friendly but confident blog style through to your book. It’s almost like you’re our best friend and we’ve asked you for help. Did it just naturally happen that way? 

That’s so lovely to hear. I think it’s so important to show up with authenticity and so I had to write this book as me. It’s my story and I wanted to tell it in my own voice and make a connection with my readers that was genuine and would be cohesive with my voice across my other platforms.

Blogging has changed so much over the years. What’s one good thing and one bad thing you think has happened

I’m seeing more and more bloggers go on to achieve awesome things outside the blogging niche. This is so wonderful and is a testament to their creativity and hard work. More and more people are expanding and diversifying their work and subsequently their income streams. This is all so positive for bloggers.

However, I think there has been an influx of newer bloggers who think monetising a blog is easy (which we all know it isn’t!). They are expecting to work for a couple of hours a week and earn decent money in return.

Your own blog has also evolved. Did you make a conscious decision to write less about parenting Ava? Do you miss a more therapeutic style of blogging?

It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. I absolutely love helping people with their blogs and so as my experience grew my niche changed. I would much rather talk about blogging and business, than potty training and weaning, so it’s a better fit for me. I still write about my family when it’s relevant and I really want to show people that I still walk the walk. I’m a working mum, who has to juggle her child with the demands of a business. I still work with brands and do all the things I’m training them to do, which I feel makes me authentic.

What’s your favourite part of your blogging life now (including things such as giving inspirational talks at blog meet ups etc)?

I love doing Facebook lives and helping my community. I also really enjoy creating videos for YouTube.

What about the actual task of writing the book. How did you fit that it around work and parenting?

I’m quite driven, so when I decided I wanted to start writing it I did. I’d just got on the Eurostar in London andy the time I reached Paris I had 3,000 words written. I repurposed some content too. Writing my book just became a daily priority. Even if you write 2,000 words a day you can create a decent room in around 3 months.

Can we talk self-publishing? Was it natural, as a blogger who has been self- publishing for years, to go down that route?

It is difficult, as I think there tends to be a certain degree of ‘extra’ status. However, I was seeing more and more entrepreneurs who I look up to self-publishing their own books successful. I also create my business so I’m not reliant on other people. I’m not tied to brand work. If that goes quiet, I have other products.

Aby Moore Quote

This is your first book, have you thought about writing any more? Maybe fiction?

I think it was a one time thing! To be honest I’m not the world’s most creative person. If you gave me a topic, I could write a book!

What is your top writing tip?

Break it down into a daily writing word count. My book is 75k words, so if you have a rough word count in mind and then always write your daily allocation your book will be finished before you know it.

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I love Aby’s attitude to self-publishing, it makes complete sense when she says it like that.

I can’t thank her enough for answering my questions and wish her every success with her book, which, at the time of writing, has ALL five star reviews on Amazon.

Want to find out more? You can visit Aby’s site here, follow her on TwitterInstragram and Facebook, watch her YouTube videos and, of couse, you can buy Blogs Change Lives via Amazon here.

Are you a blogger? Have you thought about trying to take your blog to the next level?

A Look Behind The Book With Keiron Pim.

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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.

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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.

JJF paperback coverYour 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.