Webchat with Tony Parsons
Novelist and journalist Tony Parsons came on to Mumsnet for a live webchat on Monday 8 October 2008. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.
ahundredtimes: Do you prefer writing novels or journalism?
Tony Parsons: I like doing both journalism and fiction - I wouldn't want to just sit alone in a room for a year. And I think that if you have the nerve to criticise other people, you should have the nerve to do something yourself. People who just sit there and bitch are a little bit pathetic, don't you think? So I like doing it all.
ahundredtimes: Do you enjoy doing the Late Review or does it make your toes curl?
Tony Parsons: This is how I began writing. My parents married when they were teenagers. They both came from huge families - my mum had six brothers, and my dad had eight sisters and two brothers. But my mum and dad discovered that they could not have a baby. They tried for ten years and - nothing. They gave up - they were only 29 but there was no IVF etc - some people were just unlucky. And so they decided that they would always be childless but they still had each other and they would make a happy life. They were bikers - my dad wore all black leather and my mum wore all white leather. And they decided they would take their motorbikes and ride through Italy, where my dad had been in the war (he spoke great Italian). And then... MY MUM GOT PREGNANT. And I came home from hospital in a sidecar of a Norton motorbike. And my mum was so happy to have me that she read and read and read to me. And those stories I heard on my mother's lap made me a writer.
Bran: Do you have a reader in mind when you write, or do you write for yourself? Why do you write? Do you just like putting thoughts down on paper, do you see the beginnings of stories all around you and then let them run to their end in your books? Is it a sort of therapy, or is it mostly to make money?
Tony Parsons: I write for all those reasons. I write to make money, because it is my job, and I write as therapy, because it helps me to make sense of the world and my life in a way that nothing else ever did (not drugs, not drink, not anything) - Man and Boy was written as therapy when my mother was dying of lung cancer. Everyone thinks of it as a book about my father and my son but in fact my old man had died many years before. It was about watching my mum fight terminal illness with bravery and humour and writing it knowing that soon she would be gone. She died about eight weeks before it was published. It just made a hard experience, and one that we all go through, a little bit easier to bear, or at least to understand and get my head around. So I write for every possible reason, but mostly I do it because it was the only thing I ever found that I was halfway good at.
Ottavia: Hi Tony, I really enjoyed Man and Boy - thanks for that. I have a couple of questions. How did the teenage years go with your son? Was it tough and have you any advice? Secondly, have you found over the years that being working class has been an advantage career-wise or otherwise?
Tony Parsons: I am happy you enjoyed Man and Boy. I had a lot of help bringing up my son so that made it all easier. I think there is almost nothing a parent can do about the storm that hits the moment they turn 13. I was a dad in my middle 20s, and we were always very close, but there is a pulling apart that happens in their teens and there is not much you can do about it. You just drive each other crazy and I think the really difficult thing is that you struggle to recognise the teenager in your house as being the same human being as the angelic little kid he was just a few years before. I think you have to resign yourself to losing each other for a while. I am very close to my son again now but he is a man, grown up and I think he is a lovely human being. The world is a better place with him in it. But he was a typical little git as a teenager. Moving out seemed to help - he had his own flat from the age of 17, and that eased pressure all round.
As for being working class, I think it probably helps in the media but I have friends in other professions where being from a modest background counted against them. But I never found it a problem for me. If anything, it helped. The middle-class boys are all softer than me - they burst into tears at the first bad review, or if someone says something snide about them. I just smile.
Bitoffun: Do you think that Kramer vs Kramer was a good movie? I just ask because it seems to have stayed with you while you wrote Man and Boy.
Tony Parsons: Yes, I thought Kramer vs Kramer was a great movie. But you don't realise quite how great until you have lived it. (That's a nice name – so many people reveal their self-loathing in the names they choose, don't you think?)
Ginni: I want to ask Tony where he gets his inspiration from for his books in general. I can't wait to read the new book.
Tony Parsons: My inspiration comes first from experience, and then from imagination, and finally from research. Those three things. In some books you need more of one than the other. Man and Boy I wrote sitting in a room. I did not need to talk to anyone to write that because it came directly from my life. But a few years ago I wrote a book called The Family Way about three sisters and that was almost entirely built around talking to real women about their experience of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth, infertility, abortion etc – I needed real flesh and blood and female experience to make it work. I know what a caesarian birth looks like but I could never know what it feels like. But when the third or fourth woman told me, "It's like having someone do the washing up in your stomach", you pay attention. So – experience, imagination and research. I think that is all anyone has ever got.
Jimjamshaslefttheyert: If I recall correctly, every book of yours I've read features a man having an affair. I read My Favourite Wife last week so I know I'm right about that one. Do any of your books not feature men having affairs?
Slur: Good evening Mr Tony Parsons, I have limited time to read and several books waiting to be read. However, if you were to recommend just one of your books, which would it be?
Tony Parsons: If you just read one of my books then you should probably go for Man and Boy. I worked a lot harder on the latest one, My Favourite Wife, but Man and Boy is the one that sold millions, and the one that people seemed to warm to most. Man and Boy was turned into a rather crappy romcom by the BBC, but it's really about three generations of men – a dying grandfather, a son whose marriage falls about, and the four year boy he brings up. Oh, and the other good one is The Family, that's the one about three sisters, and their struggles with pregnancy, motherhood and infertility – that's the one that Julia Roberts bought the film rights to when she was pregnant with her twins. If you try one of my books then I hope you like it.
Dondons: Tony, quite like your books. I'll read the new one. Cyd Charisse is in one of them, isn't she (well, her name anyway). Any other heroes in the new book?
Tony Parsons: Yes, I think secret heroes are the way to go. There is Cyd Charisse in Man and Boy, who you spotted, and in My Favourite Wife the man is called Bill Holden (after my second favourite actor, William holden) and in the new one, Starting Over, the guy is called George Bailey, after the James Stewart character in It's A Wonderful Life. I think that hero references can be like a sort of Masonic handshake - it is how we shall recognise each other.
Sparklypseudonym: Tony, I love your books but I didn't enjoy Stories We Could Tell so much. Why did you decide to change your style of writing ie set in 1977 and so focused on music? I loved Family Way and was really suprised by how much your writing had changed. You made up with for it with My Favourite Wife though. Keep writing (but faster please).
Tony Parsons: Sorry I disappointed you with Stories We Could Tell. I know (from the sales) that I disappointed a lot of people with that book. But I guess that happens sometimes - and it was a good slap in the face. It made me realise that nothing is guaranteed or carved in stone and success has to be earned every time out. But I believed in the story and wanted to write about that time, and I liked the book - and so did three other people. But listen SparklyPseudonym, thanks for sticking with me and giving the new one a go. I let you down but you still read the new one - I will try my best never to let you down again. Someone asked me if I wrote with a reader in mind - this is that reader. I know she is on my side but I also know that I always, always run the risk of losing her. And I don't want to lose her!Miss Clavel: Who is your favourite crime author? Which authors have influenced your writing?
Tony Parsons: My favourite crime authors are Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard and Arthur Conan Doyle. And lately I have got into Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone (good movie too, directed by Ben Affleck). My all-time favourite author is probably Cormac McCarthy right now.
Tony Parsons: No, I don't mind being confused with Nick Hornby at all. He's a lovely man and a lovely writer. But we are actually very easy to tell apart. He is the one with the looks and the talent. And I am the other one. I think the big difference between our work is that I was married/ a father/ divorced/ a single dad before I was out of my 20s, and Nick had a more conventional young manhood, you know, marrying later, becoming a dad later. But Nick is great. I love him. Right now, I am reading Larry McMurty's Terms of Endearment. Remember that? It's funny and moving - laughter and tears - just like life or coming on Mumsnet.
Beetroot: I thought Man and Boy was written by Nick Hornby.
Tony Parsons: No, that's a common mistake - Nick Hornby wrote About A Boy (the Hugh Grant film) and I wrote Man and Boy (the one without Hugh Grant). The funny thing is, they're very different books. Man and Boy is about a man weighed down with responsibility and family: parents, a child, an ex-wife. And About A Boy is about a man who is very single and who sees single mothers (that is, women who do have families) as fair game and easy pickings. So, very different books. But Nick's book is a really good book, and he is a lovely man. But he is not me and that is not my book and probably Hugh Grant will never play a character based on me. Danny De Vito would be more like it.
Ahundredtimes: What is your new book about?
Tony Parsons: It's the story of a British family suffering from the credit crunch in London who move to Shanghai and find themselves fighting to save their marriage. It's about sex and romance, London and Shanghai, work and home. The usual, really. It took me three years to write because I wanted to write a book that would touch and move people and say something about the world we live in. Read My Favourite Wife. Please. If you don't like it, I will personally give you your money back.
SwedeLantern: George Bernard Shaw had a revolving hangover writing hut. Tell me about your writing space on the top floor of your house in Hampstead.<swot>
Tony Parsons: It's tiny, but has a great view across London, and it's full of stuff that I love - books and records, a lovely broken old desk, a very old Mac, big TV, lots of exercise equipment, lots of pictures of my daughter. It's like a little comfort zone cockpit. But there's room to work and there's room to exercise and room to keep in touch with the world – and there's a great view of the sky. So I am happy up there. How do you know so much about my house? That's not you standing across the street with the meat cleaver is it??
BigWADS: Blimey, you can tell he's a writer, he's a damn fast typist.
Tony Parsons: No, I just drunk five Red Bulls and I feel faaabulous (line courtesy of Knocked Up, although I wish I had made it up).
MissClavel: Serious question: are you thick skinned? Do you care about reviews? And if you genuinely manage not to care, can you tell me how?
Tony Parsons: We all want to be loved, don't we? It's hard not to be hurt if someone is slagging you off in print on something that, as with My Favourite Wife, you spent three years trying to get right. That said, I feel you have to build up certain defence mechanisms – this is what I do to support my family, it's my job. And you know - and I know - that plenty of people are not motivated by The Truth – they are motivated by Spite, Envy and Poison. I think, on the whole, I get pretty fairly reviewed. There are always a few slaggings, but there are always plenty of good ones to stick on the cover of the paperback. So I don't want to whine too loudly. I think you just have to keep it in perspective, and realise that the person tearing you to pieces would actually quite like to swap careers with you. But the big thing for me, and back to your central point, is that if you intend to make your living as a writer, you just can't care too much about what people say. Some people read every review, some people read none. I read the ones that are in the papers I come across, and ignore the rest. That works quite well for me. I just read that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got a critical mauling when it came out. Come on!! I can understand someone disliking me, but how can you not love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?
WendyWeber: Hi Tony. Frank Skinner was on Front Row this evening. Apparently, he never reads his own reviews and sounds delighted to do without them. Had you ever thought of living without them?
Tony Parsons: Well, if that works for Frank Skinner, then good luck to him. I think personally that there's something about pretending you don't care about reviews - WE ALL CARE!! But you have to find a way to not let them paralyse you. You can let them hurt you, but you can't let them break your heart because you have to go on.
TV and other media
cocolaBOO: Do you read Viz?
Tony Parsons: No, I don't read Viz, although I did up until about 15 years ago, like a lot of people. Funny enough, two of my friends have owned Viz - John Brown and James Brown (no relation). Magazines tend to have their day and then fade away. I am shocked that Viz still staggers on. Good luck to it.
Scummymummy: Do you admire Jamie Oliver's attempts to improve the diet of Rotherham? Do you agree that The Wire is the best programme ever made for TV? What is your favourite charitable cause? Did you vote for Ken or Boris?
Tony Parsons: I think what Jamie Oliver is doing - trying to stop people killing themselves with chips - is heroic and brave. I watched the first TV show and I thought it was more shocking than a dozen Panoramas. The scene where the little girl eats her first cooked meal in a lifetime was shocking and moving. Unfortunately, people in this country don't like being told what to do. He will get a lot of hostility as the show seems to measure all the gaps between us: the rich and the poor, the south and the north, the middle class and the working class, the thin and the fat... It would be a lot easier for him just to open a restaurant in Hampstead and do the odd TV show where he goes, "Awright me old darling? Crack on, tiger." Instead he is trying to make the world a slightly better place.
No, I don't think The Wire is as good as The Sopranos, although I have only seen the first series of The Wire and all of The Sopranos.
My favourite charity is Scope, for people with cerebal palsy, although recently I have been involved with a literacy campaign, because there are a shocking number of children in this country who leave school unable to read, and also the anti-knife campaign. I was at the rally in Hyde Park because, as a parent and a Londoner, I am terrified at the way carrying a knife is becoming normal.
And I didn't vote for either Ken or Boris. I like Boris as a person – we were neighbours on the same Holloway Street for ten years – but I think that Boris really wants to be liked – and I don't know if that is a good quality in a Mayor – if it prevents him from making difficult decisions. I think that Livingstone didn't care about being liked. But I didn't vote for him because, ironically enough, I don't like him.
Cies: I see from your Wikipedia page that you write regularly for GQ. Do you think there's a future for magazines such as GQ in this modern world where everything one might want to read about is on the internet (like Mumsnet of course)?
Tony Parsons: I think magazines like GQ have a future. I think people like holding stuff - books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, each other - and you can't put everything on the internet. Certainly, the print medium is stuggling to survive in the modern world, but the one thing it will always have going for it is that men and women want to touch something more than a little beige keyboard.
cocolaBOO: Tony, looking back do you not agree The Sex Pistols were a bit shite?
Tony Parsons: I'm currently listening to Seasick Steve and John Martyn most of all, and The Clash and Led Zeppelin when I want to get my blood pumping. A lot of what I listen to now is determined by my six-year-old daughter. She likes that Rachel Stevens CD, Funky Dory, and she likes Japanese pop music, and she LOVES musicals. So with her, I am listening to the soundtracks to Singin' In The Rain, Cabaret and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
Monkeytrousers: Tony, where do you think feminism is today? What should its goals be?
Tony Parsons: I really don't know where feminism is today. It seems to be hiding. I wrote something recently about the incredible number of breast implants that really young women (in their 20s and even teens) are having in this country. I think there should be armies of women protesting about this stuff. I write about it from the viewpoint of a heterosexual man. I can't stand them, I think they're like plastic fruit – just for looking at. But 40 years ago the likes of Germaine Greer would have been fighting back. I think one of the goals of modern feminism - although this is your battle, not mine - should be to stop young women disfiguring themselves with silicone implants. That would be a good place to start. The real thing is always, always better than the fake thing. We have stopped loving each other in all our fallabilities and imperfections. The world needs another Germaine Greer, another Female Eunuch.
Morningpaper: I have a Stephanie outfit. I'm not sure if that is a Terrible Idea for a 10-stone, short-arsed, middle-aged woman. What you think, Tony? (NB: tits too small to sag.)
Tony Parsons: I think you should be proud of your small breasts. I think you should be happy you have a pair of the real things - did you know there were 445,000 breast implants in America last year? Love yourself. There are young men in their 20s taking Viagra and young women in their 20s getting botox. Less hatred. More love.
(Morningpaper: Can I put "Morningpaper should be proud of her small breasts! - Tony Parsons" on the cover of my next book?)
Monkeytrousers: But why pick on breast implants? That figure will also include women who have had some sort of reconstructive surgery after cancer. Even aside from that, it isn't a black-and-white issue. For what it's worth, I think feminism should not be about dictating to women what they should or should not do. Feminism is there to serve women and not vice versa. Perhaps it is because many have lost sight of this that feminism is losing supporters in drives. Do you think Germaine Greer, a woman I admire greatly, would baulk at the suggestion that feminism needs to look within as well as without, to glean what might be going on today? The world and the women in it have moved on since the 60s. They fought to make the lives of women better today, but it seems sometimes that the freedoms women do have today are rather resented becasue we didn't all renounce our femininity but began to rejoice in it.
Tony Parsons: Of course, you're right - that 445,000 figure will include some women who had reconstructive surgery after breast cancer. My mother-in-law died of breast cancer four years ago so I know something about that. But the overwhelming majority are not for cancer patients. And re feminism, I like Germaine Greer's thesis that it was not about equality but about liberation - not about being free to be men, but free to be yourself. So that is my take on it for what is it worth (three Euros?).
Scummymummy: Hello, Tony. Do you still prefer 'exotic' women as opposed to 'big brood mares with saggy tits'? Will you be proud when your daughter grows up to read your views on her gender as evidenced by the following delightful snippet: 'Why should a woman never get drunk? Because being drunk makes you loud, obnoxious, sentimental and stupid. And women are like that when they are completely sober.'
Tony Parsons: Actually, although I was a single dad, I don't feel I raised my son alone because I had so much help, from my mum and dad, and from the girlfriends I had in the ten years between the end of my first marriage and the start of my second. I had an army of people, many of them women, rooting for me and my boy and that made it easier. What made it tough was that I really wanted some sort of stable home life for my kid and I can't pretend I gave him that. But there was plenty of love around, and also plenty of practical help, which is what the single parent needs more than anything. We survived, and he is a great young man.
As for capital punishment, I know it will never come back in this country but I still believe it should. Whoever kicked that middle-aged guy to death in Norwich deserves to die. So does whoever took Madeleine McCann. Some people are beyond mercy, beyond redemption. But capital punishment will never come back in Britain so there's no need to worry about it.
In response to lots of questions/speculation about his ex-wife Julie Burchill
Tony Parsons: It's OK, you can mention Julie if you like, I promise not to burst into tears and it is actually quite a novelty to be asked about her because we broke up so long ago. I mean, I have been married to my wife for 16 years and before that I was single for ten years, so you see the whole Tony and Julie thing is quite a long way down the road. You would have to be quite long in the tooth to even remember it! But I am not sure I can help you, you probably know more about her than I do. But we had a great time together when we were young, as I recall. It feels like we just laughed our heads off for seven years. And our relationship produced a fantastic son, so no regrets. Good luck to her. I hope she is as happy as I am. What more can I say?
Swedelantern: TonyParsons If I could impose a voice change on my partner, I would gift him Tom Paulin's voice. Who would you like to hear whispering back at you in the dark?
Tony Parsons: I take your point about the loveliness of having Tom Paulin whispering in the dark, although of course you would run the risk of him saying something like, "Oh AWFUl, simply AWFUL." But he is a treasure. I have been happily married for 16 years to my wife Yuriko, so I would choose her voice, and if you push me for a name outside the marriage, well, my ultimate fanstasy woman is the late, great Cyd Charisse, who danced with Gene Kelly in Singin' In The Rain. But, of course, Cyd never really spoke in her greatest moments - she just danced. She said it best when she said nothing at all. Maybe that's what we should dream of, but do let me know if you want me to set you up with Tom.
Noonki: How many children do you have?
Tony Parsons: I have two kids, although one is not a kid. I have a boy from my first marriage to Julie: his name is Bob and he is 28. And I have a little girl called Jasmine, who turned six this summer. The first time I became a dad I was young and poor and stupid. And the second time I became a dad, I was old and doing OK and not quite as stupid. But the BIG difference is between being a father to a boy and a father to a girl. I could read my son - I always knew what he was thinking - but my daughter is a bottomless mystery and completely unpredictable. But they are completely different. He is and always has been, quiet, thoughtful, the strong silent type. And she is a little hurricane. And just the funniest human being I ever encountered. Some grown-ups were talking about fitness yesterday and she said, "I don't do Pilates - I do violin." And I don't even know why I found that so funny. But I know that I will be able to think about it and smile on my dying day.
Swedelantern: Do you own any shares? It's been a bugger recently, hasn't it?
Tony Parsons: I wouldn't touch the things. I don't believe in bailing out bankers because nobody bailed out miners, dockers or printers, which is what my uncles were. As this economic crisis goes on, it becomes easier to understand. Iceland has just gone broke, they have all just gone broke, because they were gamblers who thought they could do nothing but win. I have never known so many people who have just lost their job - and I know not everyone who is suffering is evil. But I think this has been caused by the greed of evil men. That's my economic analysis, anyhow.
Tony Parsons: Dear Morningpaper and everyone who has asked me questions - nasty and nice and nuts - it has been a blast and a pleasure. Thank you for having me and for making this a rewarding and enriching experience. I hope we can meet face to face someday - men and women can't talk properly at the end of telephone wires. But thanks for the questions and thanks for having me.