In the fifth instalment of our empowerment series, Man Behind The Mirror caught up with Tony Parsons, the iconic English author and journalist, whose literacy career spans over 45 years.
Despite the easing of the lockdown restrictions, we speak with Tony over Zoom. We discuss his successful career, ups-and-downs, memorable moments, latest ventures, and what motivates him to continue to work a relentless writing schedule. But first, a brief introduction as to how the journey started…
Back in the 1970s, when Tony was in his teens, he had two interests. He either wanted to be a professional footballer or a writer. He was lucky enough to get a trial with Chelsea, but from the kick-off, he knew he wouldn’t make it professionally. Thereafter, the focus was on writing.
Tony optimistically believed that if he could get a novel published it would kickstart a 50-year career. He thought it would be his ‘Willy Wonker golden ticket’. After the hefty achievement of getting an agent, in 1976 Tony published his first book called The Kids. He was just 21.
Whilst the book was only ‘moderately successful’ it proved to be a game-changer. Later that Summer, whilst working at a gin factory in Central London, he applied for a position at NME magazine, writing about punk music. With other applicants sending in type-written reviews, Tony sent them a copy of his book. It separated him from the crowd. He got the job.
At NME Tony became immersed in the punk scene in what was an alcohol and drugs fest. It was, “Like walking through the wardrobe door into Narnia.” Highlights included interviewing The Clash [before their first album], as well as legends such The Sex Pistols, Bruce Springstein and Iggy Pop.
Back then, the NME sold 250,000 copies every week, a figure most national newspapers would dream of today. Whilst Tony only worked at the NME for 4 years until aged 25, his time there gave him a national profile and provided a springboard for his rest of his career.
As a journalist, Tony has been a high-profile columnist for several national tabloids including The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror, where he was poached by Piers Morgan. Today, he writes weekly articles for The Sun and is a regular columnist for the men’s lifestyle bible, GQ Magazine.
As a novelist, the breakout moment for Tony was the release of Man and Boy in 1999. It was a runaway success and made it to number one of The Sunday Times Bestseller list, a year after it was first published. A story about a single father, it touched the nerve of millions in the UK.
Tony has followed on with several other novels, including the successful Max Wolfe detective series, for which the 6th and final volume, Taken, was released last year. At the moment, he’s finalising the proofs for a psychological thriller, ‘Your Neighbours Wife’, which is due out next year. It’s already getting interest from Hollywood producers.
As you perhaps can tell, despite all that’s been achieved to date, there’s no slowing Tony down, even at 66. He continues to work daily, circulating between his columns and the new book he’s writing for publication for next year. We’d better get a move on…
MBTM: Firstly, as it continues to consume our lives, how have you managed through lockdown?
TP: The last few months have been an education, I’ve learnt to count my blessings. It’s been a recalibration of everything, and there’s stuff I’ve really missed, like travel, gym and friends. As a writer, you’re trained in self-isolation. As a writer, you’re not doing your job unless you’re alone in a room, thinking, working, writing. So writers had a head-start, because we’re trained in these dark arts.
MBtM: At what point did you know you wanted to become a writer?
TP: I was 16. It was the one thing I could conceivably be good at. It attracted me. I thought the life of a writer was romantic and rewarding and I quite fancied it for myself.
I saw the power in stories. I saw the magic in stories. I could see the way that they could transport you to worlds that you’d never seen. And I wanted to have a crack at it.
MBtM: Being essentially self-employed, how do you maintain focus?
TP: I’m always writing. I’m writing 7-days a week. I tend to start early and work in the mornings. I set myself a task and complete the task and then I’m a free man, I can do what I like.
I’ve been self-employed since 1979, since I was 25 years old, and I’m now 66. If I wasn’t disciplined, they would have buried me. Discipline is the absolute minimum requirement for any level of success.
MBtM: What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt over the years?
TP: The big lesson for me, writing for over 40 years, is that success is not linear. There are ups and downs, there are setbacks. Even if you have a really, really huge success at a certain point.
Ira Levin said, “Nothing recedes like success.” When you have those great triumphs, you need to accommodate the fact that the next few years are not going to be so triumphant.
MBtM: What would you say is the best advice you’ve been given?
TP: I had some good advice, when I was 16 and knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote to 100 people… and only one person wrote back to me, and that was Keith Waterhouse, a brilliant working class Northerner [the author of Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell], who said “Get an Agent.”.
It was the best advise anyone gave me because as a fiction writer, a novelist, the industry will not take you seriously unless you have an agent, and getting an agent is very tough, it’s hard, and a lot of young, or amateur writers don’t understand that.
MBtM: What are the qualities needed to be a good writer, perseverance?
TP: There’s a certain freedom in being a writer, as nobody can be certain that you can’t do it. It is largely a question of sticking at it when the sensible thing would probably be to quit.
I mean JK Rowling is a terrific example. She was turned down by a dozen publishers in London, really the smart thing to do is to stop banging your head against the wall, but she didn’t stop.
You get better, you do improve, you learn your craft. The mistake that a lot of amateur writers make is that they expect it to be perfect at the start, and it’s not like that, it’s not like that for anyone.
MBtM: When you look back, what are the highlights of your career?
TP: I’m not very nostalgic. I look back at different periods, and see a value in all of them really.
The book that is coming out next year [Your Neighbour’s Wife], it’s as good as anything in terms of creative worth.
I wrote a book called Man and Boy 20 years ago and it sold millions of copies. That kind of runaway success is a bit like a lottery ticket. The numbers just fall. By luck more than judgement you come up with something that strikes a chord in a couple of million human hearts.
The NME was a fantastic time, but it was all over by 25. I was too young and dumb to appreciate how special it was. At the same time, I’m not sentimental about it. It was a completely wild, drug-soaked time and there were a few friends that I lost.
On the whole, if it ended this afternoon, I would think it’s been great, but it’s not going to end this afternoon! But if it did, I’ve been writing books for a very long time, I’ve had a national newspaper column for a long time, I’ve got no complaints, and that’s what you want.
MBtM: Finally, you’re now 66, what’s the plan for the future?
TP: I see myself becoming a better guitar player. I see myself finally learning Japanese, and just keeping the brainbox razor sharp, and ticking over.
I’m excited about the next book. The one that comes out next year, I think it’s the best one I’ve done. When you’re speaking with Hollywood producers this early you can’t help but be excited.
Stay fit, stay health in body and mind, and stay excited and keep dreaming. That’s the way I see the future.
Written by Matthew Sweeney, Co-Founder